The drive between St. Anthony College of Nursing and Rockford Speedway is approximately five miles — about 10 minutes by car. For Jody Deery, the trip has taken more than 70 years, one quarter mile at a time.
Deery, 95, is the CEO of Deery Co., the parent of Rockford Speedway, one of America’s most iconic race tracks. It’s a role Deery has relished since she and her husband, Hugh, took over the quarter-mile paved Illinois oval in 1966.
“I never thought about running the speedway this long,” said Deery, a 1946 graduate of St. Anthony’s. “It’s still here, so am I and I have a job to do. I never think about my age, but I have a lot of people who tell me about my age. Why should I do this, why am I running a race track at age 95? Seriously, what else should I do? I’ve never thought about quitting or how long I was going to do this. I’ve loved every bit of doing it and as long as my health is OK, I am going to continue to do it. If I ever get tired of it, I guess I could always go back to my nursing career.”
Deery’s tongue-in-cheek humor belies the style in which she has become a legend in the racing community. Then again, when you have eight children — seven boys and one girl — you probably need to have a lighter side just to survive.
“Hugh and I did everything for our kids, including buying the speedway,” Deery stated. “We knew we had to do something to keep them off the streets. Hugh and I grew up on dairy farms that were just a few miles apart. We always thought we would buy a house out in the country in Wisconsin where kids from Chicago could come up and have fun learning about cows, goats, other animals and how to take care of them.
“We always called that dream our farm and it was always about the kids,” she continued. “Of course, that never happened, but we were able to still do a lot of these kind of things. We just did them at the speedway instead. Ultimately, the speedway became our farm. It was a great place to teach our kids how to manage.”
Married in 1948, Hugh and Jody Deery bounced around the Midwest as Hugh tried to develop a career in insurance sales. Meanwhile, Jody put her nursing education to good use serving in hospitals in each town they landed in along the way.
Eventually, the couple moved back to Rockford in 1954 and later, purchased a partial ownership of the local speedway in 1959 after they had attended the Indianapolis 500 where Hugh had accepted a friend’s invitation to serve as a volunteer on a wrecker crew.
The couple took the leap into racing full time when they acquired sole ownership of the speedway in 1966.
“There were a lot of people who were skeptical when Hugh and I took over the speedway,” said Deery. “They didn’t think we would be successful because we had never done anything like this. Hugh was not a racer, but he was smart and could imagine things nobody else was doing. He proved them wrong by focusing on our primary goal for our family, to provide a great place to learn.
“It was always about our kids and through that, we were able to make the speedway something for all families and their kids,” she noted. “We wanted a place where families were welcome, a place that was clean and safe. And, of course, we always wanted to make sure that we were entertaining people.”
One of the first, and longest-lasting entertainment projects the Deerys introduced was the National Short Track Championships. The event, which debuted on Oct. 2, 1966, is considered to be the first multi-day season-ending race for full-bodied stock cars and has been held annually without interruption ever since.
It was also a showcase for new, non-racing ideas to entertain young and adult fans alike.
“I’m happy that event is still important today,” said Deery. “Hugh had a lot of ideas and the Short Track Championships were a place to try them. Ideas like the Lumberjack Pancake Breakfast, Roadkill Chili, the Bowling Ball Toss and Grocery Cart races all came out of that event. We never spent any real time thinking about what we weren’t going to do, but rather what we were going to do.”
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