SCHERERVILLE | Bob Riese of Griffith still remembers the first time he attended a race at Illiana Speedway. He was 15 years old and his older brothers wanted to take him out on a Saturday night.
“They told me, ‘We’re taking you somewhere', and I thought I’d ruin their night,” Riese said.
Instead, he got hooked on racing and has been coming to the track almost every weekend since that day 52 years ago, even with having a wife the last 42 years with three kids.
“She lets me come out here,” the 67-year-old Riese joked.
Riese is one of the loyal patrons of Illiana Speedway, which opens its 67th season Saturday night. It’s been an up-and-down six-plus decades with plenty of memories.
“I was here when Harry Molenaar was riding motorcycles on dirt,” Riese recalled. “When the track got sold (in 1998), I was hoping it was bought by someone who would keep the racing going.”
He and many other fans got their wish as Molenaar, who owned the track years after he was running motorcycles there – Illiana changed to asphalt in 1961 and was called “Harry’s Half Mile” for a while – sold it to Mike Mikuly in 1998.
Mikuly has matriculated through several potholes and roadblocks over the years, including a fight between the speedway and Schererville in 2007, in which eminent domain was nearly implemented to seize control of the track to build a housing subdivision.
“When I bought this in 1998, I looked in a journal that had all the tracks in the U.S., and Indiana had the most. Now Indiana has the least,” Mikuly said.
Illiana has survived the closure of U.S. 30 Dragstrip in 1985 and Crown Point Speedway in 2005. In fact, Mikuly’s racing background includes competing in the Pro Stock division at U.S. 30 Dragstrip back in the early 1980s.
He keeps coming to Illiana, trying to make it better in the midst of tough conditions.
His biggest pet peeve over the years is NASCAR running too many Saturday night races that make race fans choose between watching the best on televsion or coming to his track.
“We just have to survive this economy. It’s picked up a tick, but not enough,” Mikuly said. “Most guys who come here are working stiffs who don’t want to be stuck inside at home on Saturday nights. They want to come here.”
The economy and NASCAR turning its back on the grassroots tracks hasn’t stopped Mikuly from adding new events for those blue collar fans. On Memorial Day, Illiana will host the ARCA/CRA Super Series and ARCA Midwest Tour Border Wars. On Aug. 8, the USAC series will come to town just six days after the 14th annual Race Fest with HOSS Outlaw Winged Sprints.
There’s also the 53rd annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial Classic 100 on Sept. 13, and the annual bus races in late September. In fact, Mikuly is thinking about adding a second bus race, because that’s what the fans want.
“I was told a long time ago, if you wreck ’em they will come,” Mikuly said. “A lot of our drivers absolutely love the bus races. The Sunday bus races draw a different clientele.”
Mikuly also has a surprise in store, bringing a non-racing to Illiana. He’s keeping it close to the vest, though.
“It’s a concert – it’s huge, I just can’t say what it is right now,” he said with a mischievous smile.
A few years ago it would have been rare to see the 16-year owner of Illiana Speedway smile at all. He still has to deal with issue every year with an aging track – among the problems headed into the season opener were plumbing and a scoreboard that’s nearly impossible to get parts for – but Mikuly says he’s in for the long haul and wants to keep racing alive in Northwest Indiana.
Fans like Riese love hearing that.