By Fred Arnold Telescope publisher
Midget racing in Belleville is likely dead–at least for 2018.
A somber fair amusements committee broke the news to the Belleville Chamber & Main Street board of directors Thursday that the United States Auto Club is no longer going to be running races on the Belleville High Banks. Members also visited with Republic County Commissioners on Monday.
The Belleville Midget Nationals celebrated it’s 40th anniversary in August.
Committee members Raymond Raney and Brad Couture told commissioners Monday there’s a good chance that sprint cars will race on the track during the NCK Free Fair and in July.
“It’s a good car count, good racing,” said Couture. “There are a couple sanction bodies in Nebraska and Kansas that seem willing to make this work, but we still have to get some commitments.”
Local officials were told by USAC this summer that it would be “business as usual” for the Midget Nationals for 2018.
“The fair board met with USAC official Levi Jones after this year and we were told that they would be back for the 41st running in 2018,” said Amusements Committee member Jimmie Melton. “In fact, the High Banks race board, instead of cutting the purse, was looking for ways to add another $10,000 to the total purse for 2018 to entire race teams and drivers.”
Then Sunday, December 3, Raymond Raney said committee members “found out through a text from a party from a party from a party that USAC wasn’t coming” to Belleville.
The 2018 USAC schedule released Monday has a race scheduled in Pennsylvania for the August dates usually reserved for the Belleville Nationals. USAC will, however, be running a two-day card at the Jefferson County Speedway in Fairbury on July 13-14, and also have a July race set in Beloit. Raney said the Fairbury grandstand only seats a few hundred people, compared to several thousand at the Belleville High Banks.
Fair board members said USAC offered no official reason that the body ended the Midget Nationals card in Belleville, but Melton said unofficially USAC officials became increasingly nervous about the safety of running on such a “fast” track following the 2016 death of driver Brian Clausson.
“They said the track was too fast, too dangerous and drivers did not want to come,” he said.
Raney and Couture said there are six to eight “big” drivers and owners who would still support a Midget Nationals in Belleville, “but you can’t have a race with 10 cars,” Raney said.
Many of the best drivers are in a race for points, and will likely go where USAC sanctions a race, he said.
Couture said the Midget Nationals were held for two years without a sanctioning body, but the second year “only 15 or 16 cars showed up.”
USAC wanted track changes
Fair board members said they had been in contact with USAC since September and USAC wanted the Belleville High Banks changed to a quartermile track.
“People don’t want to come to Belleville to watch races on a little track,” said Raney. “If it’s not the Belleville High Banks, it’s just another dirt track.”
The race board met with a promoter out of Oklahoma in late September about changing to a quarter mile track.
Raney said that individual suggested destroying the straightaway in front of the grandstand and incorporating that section of the track into the inner small track at the High Banks.
“There’s a whole bunch of logistical stuff- -wiring, drainage–that could get costly,” he told commissioners.
“And we don’t have the means to move a shovel of dirt,” he added. “That would be your decision, because it’s the county’s track.”
When the first midget race was held in Belleville in 1978, the cars were known as “doodlebugs” or “thunderbugs”- -little race cars with castoff motorcycle engines. Midgets are often considered a training ground for drivers who aspire to reach bigger racing circuits. Former Amusements Committee member Jerry Melton once said that no one considered a national midget car race, “because the cars were cheap, the purses were tiny and the crowds were small.”
Through the years, however, the sport developed into its own right, and some owners built cars with $50,000+engines designed especially for the Belleville High Banks. Coors Brewing Company, Miller Brewing Company and Kansas Touchstone Energy all sponsored the Midget Nationals through its history.
“We haven’t made the track faster, technology has made things go faster,” Raney said. “We’re still the same track.
“The High Banks have always been fast and dangerous, it just escalated because of the race car technology.”
Commentary: USAC decision really isn’t all that surprising
By Fred Arnold Telescope publisher
Last week’s news that the United States Auto Club (USAC) has pulled the plug on the Midget Nationals, effectively ending a long and storied event came as a huge surprise to some, such as the race board. But the news really didn’t come as a surprise to others, ourselves included.
In fact, it has been expected for sometime now.
Don’t get me wrong, the Nationals was a great event. It was well ran, well respected and Belleville became a destination point because of it. We have only the highest regard for the people who built it from nothing and ran a premier event for 40 years. But nothing lasts forever.
The only thing constant is change. And certainly racing has changed. There was a time when just about every community had either a half mile or quarter mile track. Local, regional and heck, even national guys would show up on Fridays and Saturdays to run.
Those days are all but gone. When the Midget Nationals started, it was an event that nearly anyone could afford to get in to and run. It was a lower cost alternative for folks who wanted to race. As time went on the hobby got more and more expensive. The weekend mechanics were replaced by the big guys with deep pockets. Car counts dropped. And interest waned.
Unfortunately that is the way of things.
The Belleville High Banks and the Midget Nationals have been so revered over the years that it has become almost blasphemous to suggest that it was only a matter of time until, well, time marches on and the race event would end. Such discussions were held usually only in small groups or hushed conversations. Too much negative talk can bring about bad joo-joo you know.
But now the hammer has dropped. So rather than focus on what happened, we as a community need to focus on what’s next. Efforts need to be doubled and then re-doubled again to keep the facility viable. The facility is historically significant and must be used, preserved and kept in proper repair.
It cannot, emphatically must not suffer the same fate as say the WPA bath house. Races hopefully will go on. More sprint races, more stock car races, maybe more modified races. We can mourn the loss of the Midget Nationals, but only for a while. The end of the Nationals was bound to come at some point in time. That time has now come. It’s now time to focus on the future.