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Chicago remains a respected racing proving ground

Matt Kenseth (20) drives during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. | AP Photo/Warren Wimmer

As a child growing up in suburban Itasca, Camden Murphy wanted to become a race car driver. It was a typical little-kid dream, like wanting to become an astronaut, or a dolphin trainer, or maybe even the president.

Except Murphy never talked himself out of his crazy ambition. Not at Peacock Middle School. Not at Lake Park High School.

Now, he’s 22 years old. And he’s a professional race car driver.

Photo courtesy of Camden Murphy.

“Truthfully, I get chills every single time,” said Murphy, who competes as part of the NASCAR Xfinity Series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Monster Jam Tour and elsewhere. “I love what I do. I get to wake up in the morning and know that I’m doing what I enjoy, what I love to do, and I get to travel the world doing what I love at just 22 years old. I’m incredibly fortunate for having these opportunities.

“When I got involved in motorsports, honestly, I was a laughingstock a little bit at school. It just wasn’t something that kids did.”

Murphy represents the future of professional racing in and around Chicago, where it has a rich past. The first professional race took place right here in 1895, with a contest that stretched from Evanston to Chicago and back again. The event drew national attention, a symbol of the changing times as the general public transitioned from horse-driven buggies to automobiles.

“There were races all the way back in the 1800s, but what surprises people the most is that the very first stock-car race was on the South Side of Chicago in 1949 at the 87th Street Speedway,” said Art Fehrman, president of the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame in Roscoe. “We have a lot of history here.”

Much has changed since then, but the core of racing is the same: You compete to be the best. The difference between winning and losing can come down to a fraction of a second. And the Chicago region remains a respected proving ground for professional racing.

Picking up speed

After that opening race from Evanston to Chicago, things really started heating up.

By the middle of the 20th century, workers laid a 1/3-mile asphalt race track inside Soldier Field to host nationally renowned races: first hot rods, then stock cars.

“It was huge,” Fehrman, 70, a LaGrange native who followed his father into race-car driving in the 1960s. “They used to put over 50,000 people there. They raced there from 1949 all the way until the last race was held in 1968. . . . Soldier Field became so well-known, and drew so many people, that NASCAR came in and ran three or four races. All the big names were there.”

Names like Glen Wood, of the famed Wood Brothers Racing team, who won the 200-lap event while driving for Ford Motor Company, and Curtis Turner, who, like Wood, is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Chicago native Tim Pistone also won at Soldier Field before settling down in Charlotte, N.C., where he later opened a race-car parts business and still lives today at age 89.

Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst earned his first championship in 1956 at Soldier Field. Nine years later, he won the Daytona 500.

Fred Lorenzen in a flame-red STP-Plymouth Oil Treatment car. | Sun-Times file photo.

“They called him the ‘Golden Boy’ because he went right to the top,” Fehrman said. “You name it, he won it: He won the Charlotte 600. He won the Atlanta 500 three times. He won the Daytona 500. He was really famous.”

The Chicago gateway

Lorenzen “opened the gate for everybody,” Fehrman said. And not just drivers: a steady stream of mechanics, engine builders and crew chiefs enjoyed successful careers in racing after testing their mettle at tracks across the Chicago region as well as the Rockford Speedway.

A panoramic shot of the Rockford Speedway. | Photo by Flickr/Royal Broil via Creative Common

One of those behind-the-scenes workers was Chad Knaus, a Rockford native whose father, John, was a seven-time champion at his hometown track. Chad Knaus got his start at home before moving to Charlotte, where he eventually became the heralded crew chief for champion driver Jimmie Johnson.

“You had to pay your dues,” Fehrman said. “First question out of their mouth [would be]: ‘Well, what did you do in racing?’ That was the whole thing with the Chicago connection. Chad Knaus went there and made it, and I can name off others” who did the same.

That includes Jim Pohlman, a fabricator who went on to work for NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi. Another local mechanic, Jimmy Sutton, earned a job working for Bobby Allison and became a shop foreman. Keith Simmons started at Freeport Speedway before moving south.

“When Ward Burton won the Daytona 500 [in 2002], that was Keith Simmons’ engine that was in that car,” Fehrman said.

Going the distance

Fast forward to 2019.

Stock cars no longer race at Soldier Field. The 87th Street Speedway is a memory, as is the old O’Hare Stadium off Mannheim Road.

And if you want to race from Evanston to Chicago, there is a decent chance you’ll get a speeding ticket.

Yet the future is bright for area racing. Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001 in Joliet as NASCAR looked to increase its national footprint, and the track hosts the top talent in the world at speeds surpassing 200 mph — with big crowds on the sidelines to get a taste of the action.

Matt Kenseth (20) drives during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. | AP Photo/Warren Wimmer

“You need to see it to believe it,” said Scott Paddock, president of Chicagoland Speedway. “The at-home viewing experience has become very compelling for all of sports, but particularly with NASCAR and the NHRA, these sports interact with all five of the human senses — the sights, the sounds, the smells, all of that — and bring it to life in a very powerful, compelling way. You just can’t replicate that on your living room couch.”

The Chicagoland Speedway. | Photo by Flickr/tequilamike via Creative Commons

Chicago’s tracks also draw drivers like Murphy, who savors racing near his hometown. He has competed at Chicagoland Speedway, Route 66 Raceway and Allstate Arena, where the Monster Jam tour takes place. He is the only active driver who is racing for both NASCAR and Monster Jam.

Could he become a household name like Danica Patrick, who grew up about 90 miles northwest of Chicago in Roscoe? It’s possible. Murphy is grinding, building his career, at smaller venues across the country. It’s difficult to secure funding, but he persists.

Wherever he goes, he looks for the closest Ronald McDonald House. He likes to bring smiles to sick kids — often by talking about race-car driving.

Camden Murphy on the track. | Photo courtesy of Camden Murphy.

“I cherish that,” said Murphy, who started volunteering with Ronald McDonald House on Christmas Day 2012 in Chicago and since has become an ambassador for the charity. “If I can take someone that is going through the toughest time in their entire life and get them to not think about it – even if it’s for 15 minutes – to take their mind off whatever they’re thinking about at that time, and make them smile, that’s worth it for me.”

A similar philosophy helps to explain racing’s overall appeal, Paddock said. Chicagoans come to the track today for the same reasons they did long ago.

“Sports is the great escape,” Paddock said. “Coming to an event like this one is just a great way to escape the pressures of day-to-day life and create some incredible family memories that you can cherish forever.”