Over 100 cars and drivers assembled on the front and back straightaways for opening ceremonies at South Bend Motor Speedway Saturday evening. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

South Bend Motor Speedway’s “The Last Lap”

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Around 11 o’clock or so local time this past Saturday night and with the grandstands pretty much empty, Buddy Holt wheeled his four-cylinder-powered stock car to victory in the Hornets division 15-lap “D” main at the South Bend Motor Speedway, bringing down the curtain on some 70-plus years of oval track racing at the historic Northern Indiana oval.

The speedway hosted its two-day “The Last Lap” of racing this past weekend with 120 entries jamming the pit area for Saturday’s competition which had a huge crowd in attendance. Cars and drivers assembled on speedway’s front and back straightaways and paraded around the oval prior to the night’s racing.

The quarter-mile, banked, paved oval has been sold with the new owner not interested in keeping it a raceway. Kevin Sauer and his family had been the owner of the track for the past eight years.

“The friendship that we’ve made with all our friends and everything, that tops anything, it’s just like we’ve known some of these people for 50 years, that’s the best memory I have,” said Sauer in a recent interview.

Sauer, a racer himself at the South Bend track, was the winner of the 40-lap outlaw late model feature race Saturday, defeating Austin Woodcox and Corey Ryman. 

Fans arrive and climb the stairs to get a good seat for Saturday’s racing at South Bend Motor Speedway. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

“I’ve battled Rich (Boal) for eight years and he has always been a good guy,” said Sauer about nine-time South Bend champion Rich Boal.  “He stepped up and let me use one of his cars for this last couple of weeks.  I can’t say thanks enough. 

“Thank you to everybody that have been coming for the past eight years. I don’t have the words right now but thank you. This race was for my mom and my dad.”

A native of South Bend, Boal, who finished fifth in the final South Bend outlaw feature after getting tangled up in a minor crash, reminisced about his racing days at South Bend earlier in the evening.

“I started here in 1986. I was a freshman in high school,” remembered Boal. “This is my 38th year of racing. I’ve won nine championships (here at South Bend). I’ve talked to other guys and the most championships (besides mine) were seven. 

“I’m sad but I have a lot of memories here. We’ll remember the memories and just move on to other race tracks. My dad (Rick) use to race here and actually owns all the cars that we have. My daughter, Hailey, is a third-generation driver. She’s getting better and better each time she straps in.” 

South Bend Motor Speedway was a “hot bed” for weekly midget auto racing after World War II. Located some three miles or so west of South Bend on Highway 2 (Western Ave.), the new speedway opened on Friday night, August 23, 1946. The South Bend Auto Racing Association, headed by Joe Kovatch and 13 others including local race drivers Charlie Van Acker and Charlie Szekendy, built the track over a two-year period. 

“Oh, I lived and breathed that South Bend Motor Speedway back then,” said Kovatch in a 1999 interview.  “We wanted to build a high-bank quarter-mile track that would separate the men from the boys.”  

Chicago’s Ted Duncan, the evening’s fastest qualifier, won the “Class A” 25-lap feature race that opening night with Bob Muhlke, Frank Burany and Gus Klingbiel chasing Duncan to the checkered flag.  

Some 8,000 fans attended the inaugural race program with many standing in the infield to spectate as a field of 25 cars saw action. At season’s end, Klingbiel, a Wisconsin native, was named the speedway’s first champion.

Over the years, the South Bend oval has seen midgets, hot rods, stock cars and various types of modified stock cars in competition. Drivers like Dick Good, Ebe Yoder and Bob Newton were early favorites. 

A pack of midgets race into turn one at the new South Bend Motor Speedway in 1946. (Stan Kalwasinski Collection)

“It was originally built for midget racing,” commented track photographer and long-time SBMS fan, Jay Freet. “It’s banked, fast and has a lot of great history. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock and other “500” winners have raced here along with Daytona 500 winner (in 2008 and South Bend native) Ryan Newman.

“It’s place where you can race no matter what your budget. You can race a Hornet (four-cylinder car) all the way up to an outlaw late model. This is my happy place. It always will be. (Tonight) is a fitting end for the old gal.

“Dick Good was the “man” out here for many years. He was my dad’s favorite. This was Denny Nyari’s home track. He pretty much had things figured out here.”

The list of racers at South Bend is lengthy including the greats and near-greats of the sport. Tony Bettenhausen and 1950 Indy 500 winner Johnnie Parsons were midget frontrunners. Add the likes of the Byler brother, Eldon and Dave, father and son Jim and Bobby Blount, Dave Roahrig, Kenny Fry and the Stremme family including former NASCAR driver David Stremme to the list.

The track has had a number of owners and promoters including Louis Freeburn and Mike Bird, who was in attendance Saturday evening.

“I can’t afford to pay my drivers more than $200 for winning a feature race,” said Bird in a 1988 interview. “You know that they are not driving for the money. They just love the glory and competition. That’s auto racing.”

Bird was the owner of the track in 1987 when he shut down the speedway because of a number of reasons including attendance and car counts.  In October of the following year (1988), one race program was held to keep the speedway “grandfathered” in. Over the years, the “grandfather” rule would be used again to keep the South Bend speed plant open.  

In addition to Kevin Sauer, other feature winners Saturday night included Cody Blume (Factory Fords), Drew Davis (Four Wheel Drive-FWD), Andrew Coates, (street stocks), Matt Kemp (dwarf cars) and Roy Cowgill (Hornets).  Friday night winners were Jason Cogswell (street stocks), Mike Mast (mini stocks) and Andrew Hartman (Hornets).