Photographic History Of Drag Racing In The Midwest
by Mike Sopko Jr.
For those of you that don’t know this is my Dad, Mike Sopko. It’s very possible that you have never met him or seen him before, but it is equally as likely that you have seen some of his pictures. First of all, if you have been reading this magazine’s previous issues you have surely seen some of his work. Likewise if you have ever checked out his website, www.quartermileclassics.com you have probably witnessed some of the best photographic history of drag racing in the Midwest since the late 60’s. Dad’s life (and assumably mine for that matter) was forever altered (pun intended) by US 30 dragstrip which was within walking distance of his house. As one of his former neighborhood friends shared with me, “That track ruined us.” I can suppose that means it ruined them in a good way and therefore me as well. The track from which Dad spent many of his Wednesday nights and weekends bit him with the drag racing bug that even these 45 years later still leads us on all day or late night excursions to and from the dragstrip. I was asked to do a profile of my Dad, something of which my Dad was flattered of and at the same time poses a difficult task for someone who is very humble and is just as quick about celebrating any of my photo accomplishments as he is his own. In fact, trying to get Dad to brag on himself is not something that he is comfortable doing though it is very deserving. Therefore, when I finally sat down to put this piece together I decided to make it a compilation of various pictures and stories that fit the images.
Arnie “The Farmer” Beswick and “The Tameless Tiger”-April 7, 1968
This image from April 7, 1968 was the first time my Dad ever witnessed a drag race. My grandparents had bought a home near the track, but my Dad had never been to the track. He could hear the cars and even kind of see them off in the distance, but really had no clue to what it was all about. The only motorsport he knew of was circle track racing because that was what was shown on Wide World of Sports at that time. He even said that people would drive by the house and ask for directions to the track, but he had no idea how to get there.
In April of ‘68 Dad and his friend Larry Rzepczynski, who had been to the track and showed Dad some of his pictures from there, went to the track together. It ultimately changed the course of Dad’s life. On that first time to the dragstrip Dad witnessed a match race between Arnie “the Farmer” Beswick’s “Tameless Tiger” and the equally infamous “Mr. Norm’s Supercharger” with Gary Dyer at the wheel. Though it is not the greatest picture it is a shot Dad took at just 12 years old of the famous “Tameless Tiger.” Years later our family got together and purchased Dad one main Christmas gift. The gift was the James Ibuski painting of US 30 dragstrip, with none other than the “Tameless Tiger” and “Mr. Norm” launching with noses in the air. It was one of those rare moments where I witnessed Dad’s eyes well up. A reaction that none of us at home were expecting. I assumed it was just because for us that picture was pretty expensive and Dad was so appreciative that we had gotten it for him. And though that still may be a part of the reason, the other was probably the fact that the painting just happened to portray the first two cars that Dad ever saw race. Something at the time I did not know or learn till later.
Gene Snow vs. Leroy Goldstein- July 12, 1970
When asking Dad if he remembered any big shows coming to 30, he told me of this match race between Gene Snow who had come up from his home in Texas to take on Leroy Goldstein in the Ramchargers. It had just been a few weeks (June 20, 1970) prior that Goldstein had run the first 6 second pass and the fans in attendance were eagerly anticipating another during the match race. As you can tell by the attached flyer with Dad’s handwritten notes on it the fans were not disappointed as on the third pass both cars dipped into the sub 7 second zone.
Also of note written vertically up the side were the results of the Animal Eliminator class. Later in another picture I’ll share what this unique class consisted of. Anyway you’ll note that the winner was the Creasy Brothers. Yes, that is the same Dale Creasy Sr. who has campaigned a car on the NHRA tour and whose son still runs with some regularity. That victory was not in a Funny, but rather their Top Fuel dragster.
Jeb Allen-June 29th, 1975
June 29th, 1975 Dad had just turned 20 years old (that day) and spent the first part of the day working at his job at the Holiday Inn. However, he was chomping at the bit to get to the dragstrip (just a couple miles down the road) as they had an event taking place that day and he couldn’t get there soon enough. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Jeb Allen was in town, one of Dad’s favorite racers at the time, mainly because they were about the same age. Up until this point there had not been a 5 second elapsed time recorded at US 30. That would not last as Jeb, laid down Northwest Indiana’s first sub six second pass albeit while Dad was still at work and missed it. Dad did get to see him make another pass later in the day, but did not get to see another 5 second pass.
Here’s a shot of Jeb lining up against Dick LaHaie (gotta dig the wheel pants) who was a fairly regular contender at the track from his home in Michigan. Also impressive to note on this day Frank Bradley (at Orange County) became the 16th and final member of the Cragar 5 second club. Years later on Dad’s birthday Shirley Muldowney suffered her infamous crash at Sanair. I don’t know what that says about Dad’s birthday and drag racing, but it’s interesting none the less.
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