The History Of The Freeport Raceway
By Al Zipsie
As October and fall roll around, this is the time of year that racing in Freeport would be winding up for another season.
The Raceway is now gone with grass going in next to the Stephenson County Fairgrounds. The track had so many different names throughout the years. The track in the 1950s was known as the Walnut Street or Walnut Road Speedway. Other names were the Freeport Raceway, Freeport Super Raceway, Freeport Speedway, and the last ownership it was the Freeport Raceway Park. Major flooding caused financial problems in 2010 and 11 with the track underwater and forcing many nights of closures. September 24th, 2011 marks the last time a race was held. Foreclosure of the owners Randy and Ginny Gill ended up closing the track. The Gill's gave everything in effort and tried their best and had a passion for racing in Freeport.
Leading the way in the record books as five-time track champions are the trio of Stockton's Joe Finn, including winning the first track championship in 1951. Freeport's Jeff "Bone" Larson, the latest and John Connolly from Dehli, IA. Freeport's own Craig Jacobs was a four-time champion. And Bob Grenoble of Nora with three track championships.
Finn in 1951, after returning from the war in Korea he won back to back in 1954 and 55 again in 57 and the last of five in 1961. Connolly won the championship in a run of four of five years from 1975 to 80. He won it in 75 and then clicked off a track best four straight from 77 through 80. Only a year after his last Freeport title, he died of a heart attack during a race in North Dakota in 1981, he was 46. Larson in his B1, (B for Bone and No 1 car) won first in 2002, then 05 and then three straight from 2007 to 09. There was no Late Model division in 2010. He is still winning races today on Midwest tracks. Jacobs's four came in 1984, back to back in 86 and 87. Then the track closed for two seasons when he was on a roll. He returned for his fourth and final championship 17 years later in 2004. Grenoble who was always a fan favorite won his three, first in 1991 and then two straight in 95 and 96. Grenoble passed away in 2008.
Eugene "Joe" Finn". He took his older brother's Joe's name because he wasn't old enough to race at the track yet. He kept the name Joe. Finn had six athletic kids at Stockton high school. Including Tim Finn, who played for the legendary John O'Boyle and went on to play at Dubuque College. Finn is now head football coach in the football crazed state of Texas at Baytown Lee high school.
The Freeport track was in operation with stock car racing from 1937 until 2011. The half-mile dirt oval and racing on Sundays were the staple. In the end it was racing on the dirt inner 1/4 oval and racing was moved to Saturday nights. Nick Downs of Freeport was the last track champion in 2011.
My memories of the Freeport track came as a kid in the mid-1970's when I would go to the races with my brother in law Eddie Weber in his Dodge Charger. He introduced me to Arnie and Jake Schmool with their antics was well-known drivers at the track. I remember my favorite was the No 8 of Darrel Dake, to see his car from the street and past the curve and into the pits in it's No 8 hauler was a good sight. In 1987 I was the track announcer for the owner that year in Ron Thompson when it was known as the Freeport Super Raceway. The signature call when racing was about to begin was "Let's go dirt tracking". I also covered racing at the track for the Freeport Journal-Standard. I must have been a curse, the year I announced was the last year of racing in Freeport as the track closed for two seasons before it reopened in 1990. People associated with the track stepped up to have an awards night that year even though the ownership was done. The white number 54 of Jacobs in 87 won his third track championship.
The days of drivers smoking in the cars and throwing beer cans out the window of a bomber race. Not as politically correct. But, those days were old school.
Iowa fabled drivers, the Iowa invasion from 1973 to 82 ten straight years of track champions from Iowa. The streak began with Darrel Dake from Cedar Rapids winning back to back in 1973 and 74. John Connolly of Dehli and in 1975 and Kenny Walton from Viola. Connolly then won four straight from 1977 to 80. Tom Hearst of Wilton won in 81 and 82. Ryan Dolan of Lisbon won in the modern era of 2000 and 01. His father Roger Dolan was another Iowa driver in its heyday. Along with some others Al Cooper of Dubuque track champion in 1963 and 64 and Bob Hill in recent times.
Other big names Joe Shear of Clinton, WI. in 1967 and 68. Shear went on to big a big name in racing in Nascar. Today is honored with the race the Joe Shear Classic in his home state of Wisconsin. Don Bohlander in 1971 and 72. Gary Webb, Ray Guss Sr and Arnie Gardner. Mel Kenyon of Dekalb started his racing at Freeport and is known as the all-time King of Midget Car Racing.
Wrecks have been part of the history at the Freeport track like a car who left the track and got stuck in a tree after turn one. Maybe the wildest, luckily no one died, was on a hot July 25th night in 2009. A catch fence installed many years before kept the cars from going into the pit area. Racing out of respect for those injured and the damage to the wall canceled racing that night. Three people were injured including drivers Mark Verbeck and Todd Lower and pit steward Jacey Ensor a track volunteer. The paramedics on the scene responded quickly and helped with those injured. The pack was chasing the leader Bob Sillagi in the A Modified feature race. Verbeck may have come in contact with a tire from another car and sent his car, in turn, two up into the retainer wall and catch fence. As the car came down the fence it ripped away from the fence and the poles ripped and snapped. People said the orange No 90 car of Verbeck was twenty feet in the air at that point. Ginny Gill co-owner with husband Randy Gill, said he looked up and saw the car even with the flag man's stand.
Verbeck's car had rolled and flipped down the front straightaway in front of the stands when it collided with Lower's and both came to a rest. Somehow, Verbeck climbed out of his car while Lower needed to be extricated from his mangled ride. Verbeck was treated while Ower was transported to FHN and then a Rockford Hospital before being released. Ensor didn't have a car to protect him. He was in his position at the exit of pit road. Ensor saw the Verbeck car goes into the wall and into the catch fence. He then turned and tried to get out of the way when a piece of angle iron hit him in the shoulder and knocked him down and into the gate.He was treated at the hospital and released. Verbeck's car had "Angel Powered" written on it.
Freeport Mayor Jodi Miller said the stumbling block so far to the project is finding investors. A group called "Shifting Gears" had been formed to look into bringing a race track to the Stephenson County area again someday. A study had been done on Mill Race Crossing. However, the proposal they are looking into now would cost more, millions of dollars. It would require near 130 acres of land. It would be a multi-use raceway, with other things mentioned like a boat racing pond, a concrete go-kart track, a campground, and truck stop. While racing, likely a dirt track like in the past, will be the main feature, it would have other things as well to keep it open all year. Racing is typically in the MIdwest from the spring to early fall only.
Silver Creek Township outside of Freeport had been looked at. They even passed a vote for no more prohibition. Yes, beer drinking is a must at a Raceway.
Hopefully, the roar of racing will once again return to the Freeport area soon.
One driving legend Richard "Dick" Trickle after racing at the Rockford Speedway made a visit to the Freeport track one Sunday night in a rare dirt track appearance. Trickle, from Wisconsin, had a bigger than life personality and the catchy name. Only his wife called him Richard, for everybody else he was Dick Trickle. The legendary photo of him lighting up a cigarette in his car during a Nascar race. He drilled a hole in his helmet so he could smoke. He was the Nascar Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1989 at the age of 48.
When NBC let it's announcers pick a t-shirt to wear during a broadcast of any racer. Going with a points champion and a big name was the norm. But for Dale Earnhardt Jr the sports' 15-time most popular driver, he choose Dick Trickle with a shirt that read "Trickle Racing". Dale Jr said "II went through all the shirts I had and I wanted one that people would be like, Dang! All right. That's what's up. And I think everyone misses Dick Trickle, wished he was still around. The stories he could tell. He was so nice. He had this old square box briefcase and he'd open it up and it'd have cheap sunglasses, a couple hats, cigarettes and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup's in it. Nothing else. He was poking fun at another driver who had a fancy briefcase and inside intricate racing charts."
When you heard the name Dick Trickle, you knew a story was coming. From his Midwest short track days, he said he once blew a water pump in a race, got on the PA and asked if anyone in the crowd had a Ford. The guy drove his car down to the pits, Trickle pulled the water pump off and put it in his car and won the race and gave it back. Another time he blew an engine, pulled one out of a tow truck, dropped it in his car and won that race also. He entered a bobsled race once and crashed for the second time in the same spot. A reporter asked him what happened. "He says I don't know I did the same thing as the first time."
There was that TV commercial from 1997 where Dick Trickle talked about a contest for guessing the winner of the Napa 500. "A little tip," he said with a smirk. "it's gonna be me." Then flashing on the screen it read "Dick is 0 for 243 in Cup races. And remember November 16th could be a real big day. The screen then reminded you "that's 0 for 243".
The ESPN announcers loved to say his name even to mention the middle of the pack finishes. Some may have gotten the idea that Trickle who always had a coffee, a beer, a cigarette in his hand, wore cowboy boots instead of racing shoes was not a good racer. He won over 1,200 short track races in the Midwest. He did win a Winston Cup race in 1990 the Winston Open a 201-mile precursor to the Winston Nascar's all-star race. But it wasn't a point race and didn't show up as official. It did qualify him for the last and final 20th spot in the Winston Race which would start just twenty minutes later. He went out and starting last came up with a solid sixth-place finish.
His friends and family are sad that it was suicide that ended Dick Trickle's life. But he did it away from home, so no one would have to live in the same house where that happened and away from his family who would find him. He did it in a cemetery where he was later buried. The same cemetery where his granddaughter is buried. She died in a car accident in 2001.
His wife said she was not aware of his plans that day of his suicide. His brother said the only reason was he just could not take a severe pain under his left breast. He had been at a Duke Hospital just the day before and again they could not find the problem. Dick killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot at the age of 71 on May 16, 2013. He called in his own suicide to a 911 operator in the town of Boger City, NC. Sometime after 10:30 on a Thursday morning after his morning cup of coffee, he snuck out of the house and didn't tell his wife he was leaving. In his 20-year-old Ford pickup he drove ten minutes away. At Just afternoon he called 911 and she asked his address and in a calm voice he said "Uh, the Forest Lawn, uh cemetery on 150,. The dispatcher asked for his name, he did not give it.
"On the backside of it, on the back by a 93 ford pickup, there's gonna be a dead body. The woman said OK. Suicide he said. Suicide. She then says are you there and he responds with "I'm the one." Yes, it will be 150, Forest Lawn Cemetery, in the back by a Ford pickup.
The dispatcher said OK, sir, sir, let me get some help to you she begged. He then hung up and was no answer when she tried to call him back. His body was found moments later. It was eerie that the 911 call was released to the media and played a few days later.
The cemetery has a nice oval around it so Dick Trickle would feel right at home.