Crash and burn
Crowds expect a wild ride at Illiana Motor Speedway
Gearheads, jalopy junkies and speed freaks, take note: Your utopia lies a mere 35 miles away.
Automotive mayhem is the name of the game at the Illiana track in Schererville, Indiana, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Chicago. Wrecked cars with names like "Slapnuts" careen madly around turns on an oval track; brightly painted school buses speed around figure-eight tracks; and on Crashfest nights, you might be lucky enough to see a race in which trailer-toting jalopies try to outrun one another (the last to hang on to its trailer wins).
Margaret Byrne and her friends regularly make the trek from Chicago to Illiana, especially when a frenzied bus demolition is on the schedule. "My brother Kevin heard about it from a guy he worked with about three years ago, and when we went, I was completely flabbergasted," she says.
When Byrne tells her friends about her new hangout, she usually begins the hype with the "nag races," where males drive blindfolded while the female passengers tell them what to do. "But this year, I've been following up with the trailer races," she says. "After all, seeing a fiberglass boat shatter hooks people."
"I think it's man's nature that, when they have two of anything, they have to see what's faster," adds Chicagoan Matt Vandenbroek, who brought his wife, Tracy, to the festivities. "We race dogs, for God's sake, so it makes total sense. It's a spectacle, and better than anything I've ever seen in a museum."
The Saturday-night air is dirty and smells of diesel, the bleachers are old and rickety, and the roar of the motors makes it really, really loud. But that doesn't deter the swarms of crazed fans, who show up each week to enjoy a chaotic, hyperactive form of racing that you'd be hard-pressed to find at the tidy, well-maintained tracks of Chicagoland's raceways.
The announcer rattles off the night's events, making sure everyone understands the racer's credo, "Winners against winners; losers go home!" The crowd then turns its attention to the pit, out of which nine beater Buick Regals spring forth—none with back windshields and all covered with spray paint and sponsors' stickers.
Two older women who sit front and center on the bleachers are there to watch their teenage grandchildren race. Virginia Sigler of Crown Point, Indiana, and her friend Jean say they don't know much about the inner workings of car racing, but they do know that they enjoy some events more than others.
"They sometimes do the 'Hound and the Hare,' when one car will lead and the others follow and do whatever the first car does. So if the first car decides to go in the opposite direction, the other cars have to follow, and that's pretty funny," Sigler says.
For drivers, the races have a slightly different appeal. The cars' interiors are outfitted with a cage, and the drivers, wearing fireproof suits, are strapped in to the point of near-immobility. Pair that with helmets that all but cut off any peripheral vision, and it doesn't sound like an ideal time.
Oh, but it is, says Dwayne Sigler, Virginia's son and the patriarch of a family of drivers. "Racing is driving fast and making left turns, and it's fun," he says as a car veers wildly off the track, forcing the other cars to start the heat over again. "See how that guy spun out? It's fun."
And while it's true that Illiana, which is celebrating its 58th year, may not be the prettiest, most state-of-the-art track in the area, that hasn't stopped big names like Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace from sending team members to get some experience. In fact, NASCAR driver Tim Fedewa recently brought his car to Illiana after driving in the Busch series earlier that day.
Since the local drivers don't have the bank of a pro like Fedewa, you'd think Fedewa would win handily. Not according to Sigler: "He won't win, because this is their track," he says of the local drivers.
Sure enough, Fedewa came in third.
Feel the need for speed at Illiana Motor Speedway through the end of October.