UNION GROVE, Wis. - Despite what Leo Durocher said, maybe nice guys do finish first. In this case, they certainly are fondly remembered.
After a clear weather season into mid- August and then dodged a bullet at Route 66 Joliet, the probabilities caught up with Nostalgia Super Stock Inc. as the company encountered two rainouts at events scheduled for US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Missouri and Central Illinois Dragway in Havana, Illinois.
So after the Time Machine Nationals, to relieve the obvious boredom and fill idle hours with nothing else to do until the Havana October 1 reschedule, five members volunteered to accept three sessions on the run sheet for the James L. ‘Big’ Walker Memorial Race at Great Lakes Dragaway on Sunday, September 18.
It was the fourth appearance of the season for NSS Inc. at ‘Da Grove’ and should have been a routine performance.
“Bob Lehor of the Midwest Gassers called and asked if we could add a little something to the show,” said NSS Inc. president Rich Berlisk. “We like to help out other nostalgia groups when we can, so I called around and came up with five nearby guys.”
The five were Berlisk and his ‘Asphalt Angel’ 1963 Plymouth; Milt Schreindl and his ‘Full Tilt’ 1965 Dodge; Dennis Sherer and his ‘Repeat Offender’ 1963 Ford Galaxie; Dan Hradrisky and his ‘Homewrecker’ 1963 Chevrolet Impala and Mike Singleton and his ‘Resurrected’ 1964 Dodge.
But instead of being a three-session stewardship outing, this might turn out to be the biggest story of the season.
The event started as a basic grudge match between two racers to honor the memory of ‘Big’ Walker, a long-time (58 years) street and track racer (the streets of the north side of Chicago and the track at GLD) who has passed away.
Lehor and the Midwest Gassers obtained a committed date from track management, which at the time included GLD co-owner and MWG president Dominic Blasco, who since sold his track interest and ceded MWG management to Lehor. Over the past three years, the gathering has grown into a multi-group event.
“This is what we wanted,” said Lehor. “We’re lucky to have ‘Big’s’ friends and the people he raced with come together and provide support. We started with immediate friends and now have added to the show.”
Here is James L. Walker also known as “Big Walker” early car a 1962 Ford. He ran this car from 1962 - 1967.
Notice the writing in the rear window “Car in Tow” as was common back in the 50’s and 60’s.
Walker, who always picked Fords as his vehicles of preference, had an amiable and pleasant personality which attracted many admirers. His on-track career started sometime around 1958 and by the early 1960‘s he was running a 1962 Ford in Super Stock Eliminator.
“That was one thing, he never changed brands,” said Lehor. “With him, it was always the Blue Oval.”
But perhaps more significantly and similar to Jackie Robinson, also in baseball, Walker was the first racer to break the color line in the Chicago to Milwaukee racing region.
“There was of course a lot of street action and at that time it was unheard of back then for a black man to come into a white neighborhood,” Lehor said. “But it was all good. If a racer knew the other guy was a racer, then he could go anywhere.”
And Walker went many places. He started a shop in (the Chicago suburb of) Waukegan and went on to make a lot of customers and friends.
“He was the only black racer around here (GLD),” said Lehor. “I was here in 1961 but didn’t know him then.”
“Big Walker’s next car in 1967 a Ford Falcon wearing his signature name “Lively Ford."
Walker was a tough competitor but he was always welcome because of his friendly manner. “He came to run but if he lost he would just smile and joke, then go home, build a bigger motor and come back to get you,” said Lehor. “His nickname came as the years went by and he put on some weight.”
Another racer in the mix was Joe Santiago, who was the original owner of the ‘Homewrecker.’
“Joe had a catering truck he would run down the Edens Expressway,” said Lehor. “During the day he would sell food to the construction workers and at night he would come back and race.”
A short history of the road:
According to Wikipedia, The William G. Edens Expressway (also known as the Edens Parkway and the Edens Superhighway) is the main expressway north from the city of Chicago to Northbrook, Illinois. Only the short portion from the spur ramp to the expressway's end in Highland Park does not carry I-94. It was the first expressway in Chicago and was opened on December 20, 1951. It has three lanes in each direction. The original name of the expressway was the Edens Parkway, named after William G. Edens, a banker and early advocate for paved roads. He was a sponsor of Illinois' first highway bond issue in 1918.
According to Tom Skilling, the meteorologist for WGN-TV and Radio, the official opening of the Edens Expressway took place Dec. 20, 1951, during a major snowstorm that brought Chicago a three-day snow total of 7.3 inches. At 11 a.m. that day, the ribbon was cut near the overpass at Peterson and Caldwell Avenues, which marked the south end of the new six-lane expressway.
The land for Great Lakes Dragaway (four miles west of now I-94 and I-41 in Kenosha County, Wisconsin) was acquired in 1953 and the constructed facility opened for business in 1955. Reliable sources have said GLD, which is open six days a week, is the third oldest continuously operating dragstrip in the United States.
Subsequent extensions of the ‘Edens Parkway’ currently link it to I-90 and the John F. Kennedy Expressway to the south and with U.S. 41 through Lake County, Illinois and back to I-94 at Russell Road on the Wisconsin/Illinois state line to the north.
The I-94 corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee has some of the highest vehicle traffic counts in the United States.
The street racing was verified by Bob Hradrisky, Dan Hradrisky’s father and a long time Chicago North Sider.