Thank you Paul for this article, I have always wondered why Belleville hosted the Midget Nationals and this answered a lot of questions I had. – Luke Mahin
Ya’ Lift – Ya’ Lose. – The Belleville Telescope
By Paul Haase – Belleville Telescope photos
The new Belleville High Banks t-shirts say that motto. That’s not only a motto, but a statement made by numerous drivers on the high-banked lady. You race all out, on the top against the guardrail to get the top spot.
That’s been both a blessing and curse.
Fans have been coming to the Belleville Midget Nationals for 37 years because it brings the best cars and top drivers in the country together in one place to decide who is truly the best in the country. Car owners and drivers have been coming to Belleville to prove they are the best in the country.
When the Midget Nationals started, there were two main groups of midgets in the country; midgets that raced on the west coast and midgets that raced around the Indianapolis area. The United States Auto Club (USAC) was the major power sanctioning body. They had the Western States and National Midgets division. Drivers from more local sanctions would join them in races that were close to their tracks. But rarely did drivers from both divisions race against each other.
The idea of getting all the main drivers from USAC and all the best drivers from the local sanctions together for a national midget event was what got legendary midget promoter Mitch Miller talking to the Fair Amusements board about holding such an event.
When the Midget Nationals started, the VW and Cosworth engines were the main “powerhouse” engines. They were not only durable enough for the long hard laps but also inexpensive enough for owners to afford. Cars and crews would come to the track in pickups pulling open trailers with their cars on them. Some of the “big time” cars would come in covered trailers. It was a racing sport that was up and coming and showed lots of promise.
The allure of the Midget Nationals from the beginning was the race was known as an “event.” The fair added more going on than just the race. Families soon started planning their vacation at Belleville. The kids got to go hang around at the fair during the day while the crew worked on the car. The city park became a “midget city” with camper trailers and tents. Parties would be going on for virtually 24-hours the whole week. Past midget champion and long time Nationals driver Steve Knepper put it this way in an interview about Belleville; “It’s a week long party and oh yeah, there’s also a big race.” From the beginning, you had to keep your foot to the floor and not let up to win. Numerous stories can be told from the very first race to the most recent of a driver letting up just for a second and ending up losing the race they were in or losing enough positions to not being able to recover to enough to make a run to the front.
In the 90s, “professional” midgets started coming into the sport. Now instead of drivers working their day job and racing on the weekends, some were actually being paid to just race. Jeff Gordon is a popular example. Midget racing had become popular enough that it started getting television coverage. In one of the televised midget races, Gordon was ask about Belleville and his response was “Everything we are doing through the season is to get us ready for Belleville.”
That’s what the Midget Nationals were about.
Engine builders started building for the main purpose of withstanding the full out, long race of the Nationals. An engine builder was quoted as saying; “If it holds up at Belleville it will hold up anywhere.” And more so, if it won at Belleville, it would sell everywhere.
Now the VW and Cosworth engines were replaced with more durable but also more expensive Pontiac, Gaerte engines. Midget “teams” came to Belleville in large semi trailers.It started to become more of a business than a hobby.
That was a blessing and a curse for the Midget Nationals.
USAC tried to scheduling races against the Nationals but with the prestige, the Nationals got the cream off the top of their groups. USAC and the Fair Amusements board came to an agreement that let all midgets in, no matter the sanction and changed some rules to make it easier for all midget drivers to compete.
From the start of the Nationals, local families became good friends with drivers and owners, even hosting them at their homes for the week.
Now truly the best of the best were at the Nationals.
Big name up and coming drivers like Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and others came as part of big name teams. With the big teams coming, the small independent owner/driver cars just couldn’t see themselves competing.
With everything else, midget racing has become an expensive hobby that a lot of people who used to own them now don’t.
And some owners simply can’t afford to travel very far from their local tracks. The High Banks is hard on engines and tires, and the price to run simply has taken some midgets out of the picture.
The midget racing world has changed a lot over the years, not just at Belleville. Car numbers are down everywhere. There’s not the big racing press coverage there used to be about midgets. Television coverage for a midget event is gone. One time owners are now sitting in the stands as fans.
There are three things that haven’t changed for the Belleville Midget Nationals; The best of the best get together at Belleville to race to see who’s the cream of the crop; It’s still an “event” that families come to not only enjoy the races but to take their kids and family to the fair and partake in the parties at night and finally, as with the first race and every race since:
Ya lift, ya lose.