Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 5, 2013

Kokomo Speedway: It feels like home

Racing bonds create a special family

By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune lifestyle editor

— 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

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

Lipkey was 3 when his father bought the track. He hesitated when asked about his favorite childhood memories.

“Oh, I don’t know how much of that I want to go into,” he said. But he eventually relented and opened up.  

“Racetracks 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. “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 Fort 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 as he said “Dad” and it was illustrative of a young son’s love, years after his father’s passing.

Lipkey said he learned from his father to “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. “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.”

But, Lipkey said, he didn’t think much of it. Racing already had been ingrained in him.

“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. “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 there’ll ever be someone who’s 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. “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. I think that was my favorite thing: grading it and preparing it.”

And his first racing memory of the track he loved?

“I hit the wall real hard, and that wall was just as hard as everyone said it was,” Lipkey said.

But, Lipkey said, it’s not the start or the finish that’s most important, it’s the feel of the in-between on the nights when the track feels like it was built for your car.

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

It’s been a while since Lipkey visited Kokomo Speedway.

“It was before they changed the configuration [2005], but I really don’t know,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

Lipkey said he misses the track, a connection he built with the speedway as a child.

“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?

“Just growing up and being a good, close family out there,” he said.

THE UP-AND-COMING FAMILY

“Our racing family is our second family,” said Amy Coons, wife of USAC driver Jerry Coons. He 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.

“I don’t ever remember going to Kokomo Speedway without seeing the 10e car there,” Amy said of its 30-year Kokomo Speedway presence, which has seen two owners, four tail-tank 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.”

Amy 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 racetracks and different states and New Zealand three times. Our daughter is quickly approaching the same number,” Amy 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 Amy 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,” said Amy, who grew up watching races in Putnamville. “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.”

Amy said racing may be competitive, but it’s the core values of 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,” Amy 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.”

Amy said there’s a moment when you know your kids will find their way into 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 part of the excitement through qualifying, heat races and the last lap, and they know when to turn the volume on max. Brett Bowman and Rob Goodman are the voices of Kokomo Speedway, and they’ve witnessed some of the most exciting moments at the track from its tower.

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,” said Bowman, 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 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 racetrack in the country.”

Goodman could be heard echoing over the loudspeaker beginning in 2005, and he said watching the generations change on the track is fascinating, 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-vs.-old battle. We don’t play that up, but it’s there.”

Goodman said the track’s greatest achievement is that people want to call Kokomo Speedway home on 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 racetrack. They’re going to be there on Sunday night,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Bowman both agree their favorite moment at Kokomo Speedway was 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,” Bowman said. “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.”

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

Family time

Jamie Martin, 30, recalls her father toiling away in the pits when she was a little girl with the last name Chalk. Now, as she settles into her favorite grandstand spot with her husband, her dad is still in the pits, preparing for a night of racing.

Her father now is a parts supplier instead of a racer, but much of the experience remains the same. It’s the same views, the same people, the same tradition that Jamie Martin said defined life as she knew it as a child. It’s a life she knew she’d never give up as an adult.

“Once you are into it, you are into it,” Martin said. “I grew up at the racetrack, 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.”

The people of Kokomo Speedway influenced Martin, inspiring her to want to do for others in her adult life.

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

Although the family may change — names, new generations and lives lost — Martin said the memories will always remain.

“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 it and spending those times, and having those memories with my dad were priceless,” Martin said. “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 from 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.  

“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, as she thought of her first opening day without her counterpart. “Kokomo Speedway meant a lot to us.”

Her husband, David Crow, tirelessly 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,” said Debbie, who lent her hand at the concession stand while David tended to repairs.

But the Crow family won’t let go of Kokomo Speedway, nor the memories of David and his racing that were born there.

“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.

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 and 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.”

It’s a lasting story of doing for one another that echoes through the foundation of Kokomo Speedway, a history of hospitality 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,” Gamblin said. “It’ll have its moments. It’s really hard to put in words, but I’ll tell you: He’ll be missed a lot.”

6 KIDS OF KOKOMO SPEEDWAY

“As a kid I never thought I’d grow up and run a racetrack,” Jill Demonbreun confessed. She’s one of six siblings who owns Kokomo Speedway with their father and his wife.

A wide-eyed child with a heart for racing is fascinated by everything from 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 siblings can relate.

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

Although some kids may watch their parent drive and dream of the day they get to plow a grader or serve snacks at the concessions, the O’Connor family is living every racing family child’s dream. The family is entering their 10th season as Kokomo Speedway’s operators.

“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. “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 and history, while gradually introducing 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 feelings of family are 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 family knows a thing or two about the power of working together, as they owned three racetracks 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 has been accomplished 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 racetrack 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. “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.”