KOKOMO SPEEDWAY: ‘It gets to feel like home’

By Lindsay Eckert
Kokomo Tribune

As the sun sets on its four curves, its stories glow in the luster of its 66-year history. Some stories are buried under the clay, some stories linger like the mud that flies into the dusk before resting amongst the crowd. There have been souls who’ve written the last page of their lives on the track, there have been lives lived differently because of the grip they felt on a metal steering wheel. There have been childhoods defined by the moments they witnessed from the grandest stands in racing.

At first glance, it’s an oval carved from the earth. At first understanding, it’s the living room where friends become family. The rumbling of engines is woven into an orchestra of something meaning more than a running race car: it’s the bonds built, the family portraits captured and the people driven with passion for the sport; whether as a spectator, racer or a next-generation dreamer. The spirit found within the bones of Kokomo Speedway’s history is brought to life by the stories lived at the Speedway on Sunday night.

THE LIPKEY ERA, AS TOLD BY JIM LIPKEY

There are many who have forever retitled Sunday night as “racing night.” There are plenty who feel as at ease driving off of Davis Road and into the grass parking lot as they do driving into their own driveway. But, there are few who have experienced Kokomo Speedway like Jim Lipkey. He’s lived life one-quarter mile at a time as a kid, tagging along with his father, Bill, who bought the facility in 1952; as a racer, in a 15-year career and ultimately, as an owner and promoter, beginning in the early 1990s after the elder Lipkey passed away.

How old were you when your dad bought the track?” I asked Jim. 

Three,” he replied simply.

What were some of your favorite moments at Kokomo Speedway as a kid?” I inquired, gripping the phone more tightly as I began to sense hesitation on his end.

Oh, I don’t know how much of that I want to go into,” he stated regrettably, but you could hear the wheels of his memories had already been set in motion, despite the words his mouth uttered.

Eventually though, as it often does, the heart trumps the mind and memories are mentioned, elaborated on, and reminiscence quickly picked up where restriction left off.

Lipkey opened up.

Race tracks are a lot of work. It was a family thing; we all worked at the track as a family about every day through the spring and summer,” he said as he eased into the retelling of stories like he hadn’t told them in years, but they’d been resting in his back pocket for the right time. “I had a lot of experience being around big-name race drivers big names in the 50s. Dad promoted the very first USAC race that ever ran. It was indoors in Ft. Wayne in 1956. It’s too bad you can’t interview him; he’s the one you need to talk to.”

Lipkey’s pride glowed in the way he said the word ‘dad’ and it was instantly illustrative of a young son’s love, which never wavered, even years after his father’s Earthly erasure.

What’d you learn from your dad?” I asked.

Oh, you don’t enough space to put that down,” Lipkey said before a short pause. “Treat people and everyone alike and treat them all fair, and that’s a pretty good thing to go by.”

Then, the stories followed.

I used to sell popcorn and peanuts in the grandstand. One time — I was maybe 7 or 8 years old — down in the fourth turn of the track a car hit the wall and a wheel came over the fence and hit me. My dad said, ‘At least it didn’t hit one of the spectators,’” Lipkey said through a laugh, hinting at the family’s bond for one another. “This is in the 50s and cars didn’t go over the fence those days. I was actually in the stands and it came and hit me, it was just one of those things.”

Were you a little hesitant to go back?” I asked, already knowing the answer — nothing uproots the racing seed, once it’s been planted.

Oh no, didn’t think too much of it,” he said as he relaxed into the rhythm of his stories.

I’m guessing it’s going to be a long time before anyone else has as many laps around Kokomo Speedway as I had,” Lipkey said in a tone that foreshadowed a provoked nostalgia. “My brother, Vic, would sit me in a ‘47 Jeep with two wooden Coke cases under me and two behind me — far enough for me to see and reach the steering wheel. Vic would put it in the granny gear and get it rolling and I’d sit there and laugh and laugh until that thing ran out of gas. It takes a long time to run a four cylinder out of gas. Unless there’s another kid and he spends his life out there, I don’t think they’ll ever be someone who has been around the track more than I have. Non-racing laps, at least.”

Racing or non-racing laps, Lipkey has lapped Kokomo Speedway in trucks, the Jeep, a sprint car and some of his best memories are lapping inside a grader.

I raced from 71 to 86. It was pretty good probably as good as anybody else had,” he said modestly. “I kind of knew most of the ins and outs of it — a lot of people argue about how I graded it and how I prepared it,” Lipkey said as he got sidetracked by the endearment towards his old track chore. “I think that was my favorite thing: grading it and preparing it.”

And his first racing memory of the track he loved to lap as the son of the track owner?

I hit the wall real hard and that wall was just as hard as everyone said it was,” Lipkey said of his racing start.

But, Lipkey said it’s not the start or the finish, it’s the feel of the in-between on the nights the track feels like it was built to suit the car you’re in.

Just like every other driver will tell ya: When you have a night when the car is working really well and it’s just effortless to drive. That’s pretty special.”

When was the last time you were at the track?” I asked.

I honestly don’t know, that’s how long it’s been. It was before they changed the configuration [2005], but I really don’t know. It’s been a long time.”

Does he miss it?

Oh sure I miss it; when you grow up there,” he said, his voice lowering an octave as the realization his stories are memories that can’t be relived kicked in. “You spend so much time out there it gets like [a home]. It wasn’t uncommon to put 80 or 90 hours of work in out there a week.”

What does he remember most about his life at Kokomo Speedway?

I don’t know what it’d be; there’s so many of them,” Lipkey said before quickly following his words with: “Just growing up and being a good close family out there.”

THE UP-AND-COMING FAMILY

Our racing family is our second family,” Amy Coons, wife to USAC driver Jerry Coons, said. Jerry Coons has made a living of racing, but hasn’t been a regular at Kokomo Speedway until now, where he’ll be settling into a car that has carved its own history into the clay of Kokomo Speedway: The 10e car.

I don’t ever remember going to Kokomo Speedway without seeing the 10e car there,” Coons said of the car’s 30-year Kokomo Speedway presence, which has seen two owners, four tailtank numbers, a dozen or more paint schemes and roughly the same number of drivers. “It’s a staple there, it’s popular and [Jerry has] gained fans there just from changing rides. People expect it to do well and hopefully Jerry can follow through on that.”

Coons claims to be a stay-at-home mom, but is more of an on-the-road mom as she and Jerry travel with their two children: 4-year-old Cale and 18-month-old Kynlie.

Our son has been to over 50 different race tracks and different states and New Zealand three times. Our daughter is quickly approaching the same number,” Coons said. “It’s nice to be able to raise our family around different locations; he knows all the different places.”

But, there’s one place Coons said Cale is ready to get to on a weekly basis.

He used to say, ‘I want to go to Oke-oh-moko!’ That’s how he used to pronounce it. He’s ate up with racing and loves Kokomo. We all do,” Coons, who grew up watching races in Putnamville, said. “I hope Cale will always remember [racing] as his family memories like some kids remember family vacations and remember spending every Sunday night together at Kokomo Speedway.”

Coons said racing may be competitive, but it’s the core values stemming from racing families that she’s proud to raise her children with.

Our racing family cares for our kids like we do. Not only am I watching my kids and keeping them safe, our friends are all doing the same,” Coons said. “Cale has had four birthdays and he invites race car drivers like Jon Stanbrough to his parties; those are his friends, that’s all he knows and they all come.”

Coons said there’s a moment when you know your kids will find their way to a race seat too, and she’s seen it: twice.

I can remember that moment when [Cale] was really small and Jerry put on his helmet to get in the car and you could see it clicked with him, you could see him thinking: That’s my dad out there in that race car. Kynlie had it last year. So my chances aren’t looking very good.”

THE VOICES

They’re at Victory Lane with a microphone, they’re in the heat of excitement through qualifying, heat races and the last lap and they know when to turn the volume on max. To race fans, they’re the voices of Kokomo Speedway. Their sound is only second to the hum of the engines. They’re Brett Bowman and Rob Goodman, and they’re telling the tales they’ve witnessed from the tower where some of the most exciting moments at Kokomo Speedway have been seen.

Brett Bowman has been calling the races at Kokomo Speedway since 1999 and even though he said he shies from the spotlight, the energy of the engines eases his nerves.

To tell the truth I am really a pretty shy person. So the thought of announcing each week makes me pretty uptight until the first car pulls on the track,” Bowman said, who started announcing as a favor for Dick Bronson and Mark Owsley when they co-owned the track.

Bowman said the company he keeps in the tower has added to the excitement of his experiences.

I’ve been lucky to work alongside guys like Jay Davis, Alan James and now Rob Goodman. It seems like with all of them we all had little niches that we would input to try to make things as interesting for the spectators as possible,” Bowman said. “It’s really a blast and I’ve been blessed to do what I do at what I consider the best race track in the country.”

Rob Goodman could be heard echoing over the loudspeaker beginning in 2005 and he said watching the generations change hands on the track is something that’s fascinating to watch unfold, aside from the core of competition showcased weekly on the dirt oval.

I think right now it’s just the level of competition that just sets Kokomo Speedway apart from the other tracks,” Goodman said. “Fans know when they come they’re going to get Dave Darland, Shane Cottle and there’s a young versus old battle. We don’t play that up, but it’s there.”

Goodman said the track’s greatest achievement in history is that people want to call Kokomo Speedway home — come Sunday nights.

When I walk up in the tower, I see the same faces in the same seats every week; whether they’re 95 or 35 they’re going to come and support the race track. They’re going to be there on Sunday night,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Bowman both agree on their favorite moment at Kokomo Speedway: When hometown racer Dave Darland won the race in honor of his father during the Bob Darland Memorial.

In all the years I’ve been going to the track, that was the loudest I have ever heard the fans be when Dave took the checkered flag. You could hear the fans going wild over the loudspeaker and even the cars. That was something I’ll remember until the day I die. Then when Dave got out of the car in Victory Lane when he looked up to the sky, it was pretty special,” Bowman said.

I think he would’ve traded all his trophies for that one,” Goodman added.

THE FAMILY WHO SPEEDWAYS TOGETHER, STAYS TOGETHER

A little girl reclines high into the evening air as her dad toils in the pits, preparing for a night of racing. Fast forward to 2013, and little Jamie Chalk is 30 and settled into her favorite grandstand spot with a man she now shares a new last name with. Her dad is still in the pits, still preparing for a night of racing, but now as a parts supplier instead of a racer, as well. It’s the same views, the same people, the same tradition that Jamie Martin said defined the life she knew as a child and the life she knew she’d never give up as an adult.

Once you are into it, you are into it,” Martin said about the lifelong love for racing. “I grew up at the race track and we lived just down Ind. 35. Every Sunday I would hear the race cars, even if I wasn’t there I could hear them racing, it was always around me.”

More than the sound of racing always around, it’s the souls always around who influenced Martin to understand what people can do for each other and inspired her to want to do for others in her adult life – like she witnessed generations before her do.

It just doesn’t get much better than the racing family,” Martin stated with pride. “No matter what is going on the track, at the end of the day the racing family is there for you no matter what. If one of our own race track family members is sick everyone comes together to support them. It just makes me proud of this big family.”

Although the family may change last names, give birth to new generations and memorialize the lives lost and racers to be remembered through the halls of Kokomo Speedway, Martin said the memories will always look the same.

I’d come every week with my dad and sit on a lawn chair on top of his trailer while he sold parts for Chalk Racing. I don’t even remember how old I was, I just loved doing and spending those times and having those memories with my dad were priceless,” Martin said before her mind was submerged in the stories of her childhood. “Gosh, there are so many memories there.”

For her dad, who lived both sides of the pits as racer and supplier, it wasn’t a trophy or a trailer that was worthy of mention. It was the simpler side of his view in the pits.

I’d see Jamie’s and Jake’s faces light up with excitement while they watched the race and seeing that joy on their faces is everything I enjoyed,” Tom Chalk said about the memories that built momentum in his mind. 

“I’m glad we all still go, I’m glad Jamie and Jake still love it,” Chalk said.

THE LEGACY THAT LIVES ON

This is going to be hard for me,” Debbie Crow said solemnly as she thought of her first opening day without her counterpart. “Kokomo Speedway meant a lot to us.”

Her husband, David Crow, tirelessly worked his two hands that repaired, tweaked and polished Kokomo Speedway to shine Sunday nights for longer than a decade.

Today will be Debbie’s first Kokomo Speedway Sunday without David, who passed away at age 50 in December.

He went out there every night to check on it. When he got sick he went out there and tried to do things; he just couldn’t give it up, he wanted to be out there no matter how sick he was,” Debbie, who lent her hand at the concession stand while David tended to repairs, said.

But, the taste of Kokomo Speedway’s dusk-lit air was one the Crow family won’t let go of, along with the memories of David and his racing. 

Racing is just in our blood and we can’t get it out. We have a son who raced and now we have a grandbaby who races quarter midgets. Sunday is going to be really weird, but we’re going to get out there and keep going like David would want,” Crow said. “Our grandbaby has a hard time. He told us, ‘They’re not going to race since Papaw isn’t here.’”

But, the race will go on and in David Crow’s honor.

They’re having a race in his honor June 2. The O’Connor family has honored him so much; they’re our family and have been through all this,” Crow said.

As the spirit of Kokomo Speedway is known to forge friendships into a feeling of family, Crow said her late husband’s best friend, 10-time street stock champion Glen Gamblin, is keeping David’s legacy for the love of racing alive.

[David] and I worked on cars together, we lived not too far apart and we’d support each other by helping each other out; that’s what you do,” Gamblin said about his 20-year friendship with Crow. “When his grandson started racing we worked on the engines then too. The kid has the heart for it — I’d come in and he’d want to check the tire pressure, see what he could tighten up – and I’d like to see him keep going in it.”

But, it’s the lasting story of doing for one another that echoes through the foundation of Kokomo Speedway, a history of hospitality towards others that’s reflected in friends brought together as families through racing.

Dave was a hell of a guy and more than glad to help anyone out there, it’ll definitely be a different scene without him,” an image that even challenges the emotions of a racing champion. “It’ll have its moments, it’s really hard to put in words, but I’ll tell ya: He’ll be missed a lot,” Gamblin said.

THE SIX KIDS OF KOKOMO SPEEDWAY

As a kid I never thought I’d grow up and run a racetrack,” Jill Demonbreun confessed about the life she may not have dreamt as a kid but is now driving full throttle as an adult. She’s one of six siblings who owns Kokomo Speedway with their father and his wife.

A wide-eyed child with the heart for racing is fascinated from everything to the grandstands and the concessions to the mud and the movement of the cars in the clay at the oval track. Demonbreun said she and her five siblings can relate.

My dad raced late models and we grew up at race tracks— he raced 35 or 40 years – and watching him race; we’ve just always loved it,” Demonbreun said of their racing roots. “We’ve been in the racing business our whole lives, one way or another.” 

Although some kids may watch their dad drive as they dream of the day they get to plow a grader through the soil of Kokomo Speedway or serve snacks at the concessions, while the humming of engines echoes in the background. The O’Connor family is living every child’s dream, right now, as the family enters their 10th season as Kokomo Speedway’s six kids.

We’re all involved. My sister and I run the books and ticket booth, Reece does track prep, Jarrod is the race organizer, Mark runs back gate and back concessions, Jim runs the concessions and does maintenance,” Demonbreun said about their roles. “We’re all definitely there and doing whatever is needed.”

For 18 weekends a year, the O’Connor family travels from their different residences in Illinois to run Kokomo Speedway and stay true to the track’s spirit of history, while gradually introducing track improvements – the most monumental being the addition of 30-foot banks in 2005.

Demonbreun said racing runs through her family’s genes and she said the deep-rooted reminiscence of family is reflected most at Kokomo Speedway.

 “I don’t know what it is about racing and families at Kokomo –  they seem to go together. You have the Jarrets, the Darlands, it’s all about family,” Demonbreun said. “You grow up watching your dad race as a little kid and you get that love for it, then it’s in your blood; whether you want it or not.”

However, it’s obvious the O’Connor family wants it, and they want it in Kokomo.
“There’s just so much history at Kokomo Speedway, we have all those pictures hanging up of drivers, owners and all those families and generations coming up,” Demonbreun said. “It’s such a cool support system that families give to each other in this sport, and it’s really strong at Kokomo Speedway.”

The six kids know a thing or two about the power of family support, as they owned three race tracks in 2004, before making Kokomo Speedway their sole track.

Jarrod O’Connor, who runs the drivers’ meetings and serves as the race director, said looking back on what his family has been able to accomplish together as their 10th season begins today, proves anything is possible with family.

It’s a family business; the money we make we put it right back into the track for improvements, we’re all committed to the facility and the racers and we all do it together,” O’Connor said. “We try to provide good racing and it takes all of us to do it because it’s not our full-time gig. But, that’s why we’re relatively successful because everyone is involved and they have a component they work on.”

O’Connor said the view from a race track that’s all theirs, is a view he’s glad he shares with his family – despite all the challenges involved.

We definitely get to see the other side of the fence now,” O’Connor said about how their involvement in racing evolved. “It’s good to be out there as a family and it all works out. It’s tough sometimes to work with your family and it’s hard work, but it’s something we like to do together and we get to do it together.”

OPENING DAY

Despite Jim Lipkey’s reticence to revisit his old haunt, Lipkey clearly maintains an interest in the O’Connor era of Kokomo Speedway.

When’s this gonna run?” He asked.

May fifth,” I replied.

Oh, opening day,” he said.

It’s an oval that means something special to everyone on opening day. For some, it’s their first opening day without someone. While some, will grip the wheel and slide on the clay for the first time. For others it’s the tradition that’s kept their hearts warm through the winter with excitement. Kokomo Speedway’s opening day means something different for everyone. The thought made me wonder. What will it mean to Jim Lipkey?

Do you think you’ll ever go back?” I ask.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe sometime,” he said.