Fast Friendships

Phyllis Francis (below left) and her husband Dick (upper right) pose with Belleville Midget Nationals driver Jerry Coons Jr. (center) and his wife and children, along with a group of fans that follow him to Belleville every year. The group became friends when they stayed at the Plaza Motel in Belleville, which the Francises owned from 1991 to 2001, and continue their tradition of meeting for lunch on Friday during the NCK Free Fair. Now the reunion takes place at the Francises house. The fans hale from California to Indiana and points in between.

Fast friendships

Motel guests, race fans celebrate 25 year friendships in Belleville

They thought they were just booking a motel room for race weekend.

But somewhere along the way people from Iowa and Nebraska and Arizona and Indiana and California and points in between became friends, mostly centered around their support of Midget driver Jerry Coons Jr.

For 25 years they’ve met in Belleville on Friday afternoon for lunch and renewed friendships.

Lunch used to be at the Plaza Motel on US36 in Belleville, then owned by Dick and Phyllis Francis. Today the lunch crowd has moved to the Francis’s home on 19th ST.

“Everybody came out to the motel on Friday,” said Mrs. Francis. She and motel maintenance man Al Uphoff would cook hamburgers and hot dogs and his wife Judy would bring cake.

“Not just the guests– people driving by would stop in to visit and eat.” The Francises owned the motel from 1991 to 2001. Every year before the race fans left they would ask Phyllis “Now, my room is already booked for next year, right?”

The motel is now closed. The same group of fans have mostly moved over to the Bel Villa Motel, but they, along with Jerry Coons and his wife and children, still seek out the Francises for lunch on Friday.

This year, a few of the “regulars” missed because of illness. A few have died. But many still stay in touch with the Francises not only Fair Week but during the rest of the year as well.

“We always had such a good time,” Phyllis says. “I would stay up late until everyone was back from the races. Then Dick would get up early and start getting out the coffee and doughnuts for them for breakfast.”

Coons, from Tucson AZ, started racing in 1987. He and Bryan Clauson are the only drivers to win the Belleville Midget Nationals three times. Phyllis points out that her connection to the Belleville High Banks goes back a few decades beyond the Midgets.

“My dad (Mike Ferguson) banked the track for the first time when I was just a child,” she says. Ferguson ran a grader for the county, she says.“Of course, it’s not the bank that it is now.”