KALWASINSKI: Chicago Racing In 1961
CHICAGO — John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President of the United States, the Cold War was worsening, Russia and the United States sent men into space, a gallon of gas cost 27 cents and A.J. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. The year was 1961. Let’s take a look at Chicago area racing 50 years ago.
Bob Pronger, a 39-year-old Blue Island speedster, was the late-model stock-car champion at Raceway Park near Blue Island, which had undergone a remodeling effort with new grandstands and a judges stand gracing the short quarter-mile paved oval.
Pronger, who lived a short drive from his hometown track, captured 23 feature wins during the season, wheeling Bob Roeber’s B&B Auto Service ’56 Chevy in dominating fashion. Pronger battled all season with Bill Van Allen, defending track champion Harry Simonsen and long-time rival Bud Koehler.
The Blue Island ace topped off the season by winning the track’s annual 300-lap Classic in early October in record time for his 23rd victory of the campaign. It was the first Raceway Park track championship of his career. Wayne Bowdish was the track’s rookie division champion.
Winning for the second straight year, Roy Czach took home top honors in NASCAR-sanctioned late-model action at O’Hare Stadium in Schiller Park, which was located just south of Chicago’s O’Hare Int’l Airport.
The 37-year-old Czach, a Chicago resident, bested Erik Johnson, Leroy Roberts, Roy Martinelli, Butch Linden and Bob Weyrauch in the standings. Johnson, in his year-old 1957 Chevy, was the winner on opening day in April. Chicago’s Bob Chapman won the O’Hare 200 on Sept. 9, defeating Czach and Roberts.
On his way to NASCAR fame, Fred Lorenzen posted a number of feature wins at the banked, quarter-mile paved oval, including the track’s 100-lap Summer Championship race Aug. 26. Dieter Holz was crowned the track’s cadet division champion, while Bob Karry was the open-wheel modified champ.
Another Chicago speedster, Dick Nelson, was the late-model titlist at Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs. Nelson won eight races on his way to his second-consecutive dirt-track title.
Former champions Ken Boyer and Don Waldvogel, each with five victories, were among other late-model feature winners during the season. Indiana’s Gene Crowe drove Bill Van Allen’s ’60 Lark to victory in the track’s 100-lap Clay Track Championship as speedway officials would not allow Van Allen, who spent most of the summer at Raceway Park, to compete.
Len Steinhaus won the track’s sportsman division crown. The speedway hosted its first American Motorcycle Ass’n (AMA) national event Aug. 25 with Wisconsin rider Carroll Resweber claiming the victory.