Jon Reynolds Jr #x Rockford Lm Champ
"Driver X" Jon Reynolds Jr. (No. X) will go down into the history books as the last late model stock car champion at Rockford Speedway. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

Kalwasinski: Chicagoland’s 2023 Champions

CHICAGO — Before getting too far into the new year, let’s recognize the Chicago-area track and association champions for the 2023 racing season.

Rockford Speedway held its Last Lap Season, bringing down the curtain on motorsports action at the banked, quarter-mile, paved oval that opened in 1948. “Driver X” Jon Reynolds Jr. captured the NASCAR late model championship last season, becoming a five-time Rockford late model titlist, repeating his winning ways of 2021, 2020, 2018 and 2014.  

Reynolds defeated Austin Nason, two-time Rockford late model champ Jake Gille, three-time champion Michael Bilderback and Dennis Smith Jr. in Rockford’s final late model standings. In addition to his Rockford crown, Reynolds also won the Big 8 Late Models series title — his third series championship.

Other Rockford champions in 2023 included Patrick Featherston II (sportsman), Nick Schneider (American Short Tracker), Kevin Memoli (roadrunner), Cori Fairburn (powder puff), Shawn Bowar (bandits), Wally Thiering (roadrunner figure-8), Bryan Ellis (original sixers), Hailey Frye (high school racing) and Mark Conning (super stox). 

Kankakee County Speedway was DIRTcar’s Track of the Year for 2023 and saw Matt Hammond win his second straight DIRTcar Pro Late Model track championship. Hammond won three feature races at the quarter-mile dirt oval and bested Austin McCarty and Ben Kirchner in the standings. Jamie Lomax won five feature races in DIRTcar modified action and claimed his fourth Kankakee title. Lomax finished ahead of Mike McKinney, Braiden Bohlmann, Jason Hastings and 2022 division titlist Steven Brooks in the final points.

Other Kankakee champions were Jerrad Krick (DIRTcar stock cars), Lee Joseph Hall (DIRTcar factory stocks), Deece Schwartz (DIRTcar pro modifieds) and Jimmy Dutlinger (DIRTcar sport compacts).  Krick, Schwartz and Dutlinger were also crowned DIRTcar’s national champions in their respective divisions. 

Eddie Hoffman racked up his eighth late model track championship at the Grundy County Speedway. Hoffman, who leads all drivers with 153 career Grundy feature wins, finished ahead of James Gregait, rookie James Lynch, Jim Weber and last year’s champion D.J. Weltmeyer.

Matt Hammond #818 Kankakee Pro Late Model
For the second straight year, Matt Hammond (818) was the DIRTcar Pro Late Model division champion at Kankakee County Speedway. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

Other Grundy champions include Kenny Benson (sportsman), Matt Chester (street stocks), Zach Legner (4-cylinder pure stocks), Jerry Legner (hobby stocks) and Alex Treptow (enduro). 

Greg Cantrell Jr. rang the championship bell again this past year, winning his fourth limited late model title at Sycamore Speedway. Cantrell, who also won the titles in 2021, 2020 and 2019, finished ahead of Corey Trump and Josh Breese. Hats off to 73-year-old Mike Nelms for winning another pure stock championship on the dirt at Sycamore — his fourth career title.

Other champions at Sycamore were David Dulceak (street stock), Ryan Decker (spectator), Jaime Ricker (powder puff) and Steve Kraft (compact). 

Indiana’s Shadyhill Speedway saw Hoosier State resident Jamie Lomax win the DIRTcar modified track title, making Lomax a four-time Shadyhill champion. Others winning Shadyhill championships on the dirt were Lynn Johns (late model), Trevor Bitterling (bombers), Lee Hobbs (stock cars) and Skylar Antonelli (4-bangers). 

In its second year back as an Indiana paved track, Plymouth Speedway saw Steve Stacy again win the outlaw late model track championship. Other Plymouth titlists were Andrew Coates (street stocks), Ben Hensley (Factory Ford) and Carl Prince (FWD).

Indiana’s South Bend Motor Speedway, in its last full season of racing, saw veteran Rich Boal claim top honors in the track’s outlaw late model division, scoring his fourth outlaw crown and his ninth overall South Bend title. 

Mike “Opie” Spatola added another Fairbury American Legion Speedway late model title to his résumé, giving Spatola three titles in a row at the popular dirt track and four championships.

The Interstate Racing Ass’n winged sprint car series saw rookie Texas racer Brenham Crouch win the championship. Clayton Rossman claimed the Wisconsin WINGless sprint car crown. Eight feature wins propelled Indiana resident Adam Taylor to his first career championship with the Wisconsin-based Badger Midget Auto Racing Ass’n, which competed locally at Kankakee, Sycamore and Shadyhill.

Wisconsin’s Gabe Sommers captured the ASA Midwest Tour late model championship, winning three main events on his way to another title. Chicago-area driver Clay Curts captured the Mid-Am Racing Series stock car title. Gio Ruggiero was the ASA CRA Super Series titlist with Chase Burda winning the ASA CRA Jegs All-Stars championship. 

Illinois’ Jason Feger was the DIRTcar national late model champion, scoring 16 feature wins during the season. Kentucky racer Tyler Nicely won the DIRTcar national modified championship. Another Illinois speedster Bobby Pierce was the World of Outlaws late model champion, posting 14 wins in 53 starts.

The year was not without sorrow as a number of members of the racing community passed away including stock car drivers Larry Middleton, Wayne Para, Bay Darnell, Bruce Odell, Jeff McNeill, Jack Wheatman, Kory Conner, Rich Craven, Ron Hornbeck, Jerry Robertson, Glen Thompson, Richie Hedrick, Curt Tillman, Jerry Wald, Tom Homan, Tom Cellini, Rich Cary, Dave Kramer, Billy Kamizeles (“Billy K”), Tom Reffner, Tim Sehr and Dante Autullo, along with open-wheel racers, Dick Akins, Tom Hayworth and Lou Szekendy.

Others who passed away included car owner Joe Stepnoski along with others in the pits including Fran Dandurand, Richard “Bones” Kindle, Ray Vinicky and Charlie Scott.  Add to the list race official Jim Vicino, racing historian Allan Brown, speed shop owner Fred Van Senus, race car sign painter/artist Pat Finley, Indy 500 enthusiast Carl Lundin, engine builder Ray Romito and Jean Young, widow of legendary driver Ray Young.