Racing thrills won hearts at downstate track
Looking to add a little excitement to your life in the new year? How about owning your own drag strip?
The Central Illinois Dragway is in need of a new owner and up for sale for $650,000. And, fitting with the holiday season, it's a truly magical place, having brought decades of delight and many happy memories for the scores of speed enthusiasts who have called it home.
The 64-acre facility, originally called Mid-State Dragway, is located in Havana in central Illinois, around 3½ hours southwest of the suburbs. The track, surrounded by rolling farmland, held its grand opening on Aug. 17, 1969, and hasn't slowed since, continuing to operate and hold races ever since.
This July, it celebrated its 50th anniversary. One of the special guests in attendance was the Gale family, three generations of local racers who can truly speak to the place's five-decade history.
Wilmer and his son, Robert, who both live in nearby Astoria, were trackside in the fall of 1969. "We went with some neighbors to watch," recalls Robert, who as a small boy watched the thundering cars with wide eyes. "It was the biggest thrill."
He wasn't the only one revved. Just a few weeks later, Wilmer went and bought a red 1966 Chevelle SS to use in competition. "Having seen the races, I was hooked," laughs Wilmer, who still owns the car today.
The family, and the Chevelle, became a regular sight around the track but it wasn't just dad and his muscle machine on the starting line.
"In between runs, they'd put pop bottles at the 60-foot line," recalls Robert. "All the kids would gather at the starting line, watch the staging lights run down and then run out to get a pop. Other nights they'd have bicycle races for us. It was all a lot of family-friendly fun."
In the winter of 1970, Wilmer upgraded his racing ride, traveling to Joliet to purchase a 1967 Camaro. He bought it from Ted Borowski, an engine builder whose speed shop is still in business today. The vehicle had been run in competition and was brought back to the Gale family home with no engine but with all the right pieces.
Wilmer rolled up his sleeves and assembled the 700-horsepower, 482-cubic-inch V-8. Once it was dialed in, the enthusiast wasted no time in getting it regularly to the dragway.
While the car's nose has been replaced, swapped for a lighter fiberglass piece, the back half still retains its original Imron and metal flake paint, applied in 1968. After many years, Wilmer turned over driving duty to Robert, who continued to compete in the Camaro throughout the 1990s.
The high-octane apple didn't fall far from the tree and Robert's son, Dylan, has also grown to love speed. "After turning 16, he spent the next two weekends at the drag strip (in his car) and on the third, he was in the winner's circle," laughs Robert.
All three Gale boys continue to love cars, camaraderie and weekends at the track. They hope to continue to carry on those traditions for years to come after the track finds a new owner.
"It's brought us closer together," gushes Robert. "Even after 50 years, my dad still loves going to the track."