John McKarns was a race fan and loved all kinds of automobile racing, but he had a special place in his heart for stock-car racing. McKarns, 65, former head of the Illinois-based ARTGO Challenge Series late-model tour, died Feb. 9 at a Florida hospital from complications of bladder cancer.
Born Nov. 29, 1944, and growing up on a farm in Ohio, McKarns saw stock-car racing become part of his life as he and his dad visited local dirt tracks, dating back to 1952. Some of McKarns’s earliest racing adventures took place at Ohio speed plants like the Wauseon Fairgrounds, Defiance Speedway and Bryan Raceway.
McKarns attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and became exposed to Chicago-area short-track racing. He visited tracks like Soldier Field, Raceway Park, O’Hare Stadium and Waukegan Speedway. In 1965, McKarns became an official at the Waukegan dirt oval, eventually becoming the track’s PR person and track announcer.
Working for International Harvester, McKarns married the former Susan Banks in 1968. Soon, Sue joined her husband working at the Waukegan oval and, later at Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Ill. He became a writer for the old Midwest Racing News and I can still see him “peddling” papers in the stands at Grundy. In 1974, McKarns and I started the Chicagoland Driving Championship.
McKarns’s life changed when he met Chicago area businessman Art Frigo in 1975.
Before he knew it, Frigo and McKarns founded ARTGO Racing. The name was a play on Art Frigo’s first (ART) and last (GO) names. With drivers from both Wisconsin and the Chicago area signed up, ARTGO Racing was set to hold its first race — the Wayne Carter Classic on Sept. 7, 1975, at the Grundy third-mile paved oval. Wisconsin’s Tom Reffner captured the inaugural 59-lap event.
Frigo and McKarns stepped lightly into the racing promotion game with only one “special” event held in 1975 and three held the following year. ARTGO hosted a Mother’s Day special in 1976 with NASCAR star Bobby Allison on hand. Chicago-area legend Ray Young took home the honors.
Frigo and McKarns held their first middle-of-the-week late-model special at Rockford (Ill.) Speedway July 11, 1978. The midweek specials became ARTGO “signature events” for years to come. Allison and fellow “Alabama Gang” member Neil Bonnett were the special guests that night. Dick Trickle won the 100 lapper, defeating Rusty Wallace and Bonnett.
Prior to the 1979 season, McKarns purchased ARTGO from Frigo, who sold the growing series because of numerous other business endeavors. An ambitious 10-race schedule was announced and I began my seven-year career as media coordinator/yearbook editor and photographer for the series.
Leaving his job at International Harvester in 1980, McKarns began to establish ARTGO as one of the top stock-car racing series in the country. ARTGO Racing became known as the ARTGO Challenge Series and for one brief season (1984), it was known as the ASA-ARTGO Challenge Series as McKarns joined forces with American Speed Ass’n founder Rex Robbins.
McKarns led ARTGO for its last year in 1997 with Chicagoland’s Eddie Hoffman being crowned the final ARTGO champion.
After working out a number of details, NASCAR took over ARTGO in 1998, renaming it the NASCAR RE/MAX Challenge Series.
John and Sue McKarns relocated to Tavares, Fla., while their sons, Geoff and Gregg, remained in Illinois, raising the McKarns’s three grandchildren. Gregg McKarns is the manager of the Rockford Speedway.
A few years ago, McKarns was diagnosed with cancer. Continually battling the disease, McKarns visited tracks in and around his Florida home and returned to the Midwest for events, including the Oktoberfest racing program at Wisconsin’s LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway, which he and Jody Deery of Rockford Speedway lease.
A race fan till the end, McKarns recently visited Daytona for the annual 24 Hours of Daytona. Returning home, he became ill, eventually needing hospital care.
McKarns just liked to go to the races. It didn’t matter if he was at Daytona, the indoor midget races at Fort Wayne, Ind., or at a stock-car race at some small raceway somewhere in the country, he enjoyed racing.
John McKarns was a true racer.