Celebrating 100 Years, Belleville At Crossroad

HISTORIC VENUE: A Buick, a Model T and a White steamer participated in the first race at Belleville High Banks on July 4, 1910, 68 years before Eddie Jackson won the first Belleville Midget Nationals Aug. 19, 1978. (Bob Gates Photo Collection)

HISTORIC VENUE: A Buick, a Model T and a White steamer participated in the first race at Belleville High Banks on July 4, 1910, 68 years before Eddie Jackson won the first Belleville Midget Nationals Aug. 19, 1978. (Bob Gates Photo Collection)

The Belleville High Banks is renowned as the world’s fastest half-mile dirt track.

The nearly circular, ultra-high bank speedway has thrilled fans and competitors alike with the kind of racing that catches your breath and makes you turn to your neighbor and say, “Did you see that?”

What’s not as well known is that Belleville has been a thrill-maker for 100 years now, for on July 4, 1910, a Buick, a Model T and a White steamer initiated a century of motorized competition.

The first racers battled on what was a typical, flat, country fair, dirt oval. In 1933 that layout was transformed when, as part of a WPA project, load after load of Kansas gumbo clay was dumped on the corners, raising them to mountainous heights. That banking makes Belleville unique among short tracks and creates racing that is, literally, wide open, non-stop, pedal to the floor.

Jeff Gordon once described his win in the 1990 Belleville Midget Nationals by saying, “…I was on a tear, running wide open, jumping the cushion and never lifting. I never stopped racing like that until the checkered flag flew.”

Gordon is not the only renowned driver who has challenged those intimidating banks. In a hundred years, it’d be easier to name an American driver with dirt track racin’ coursing through his veins who hasn’t flat-footed it around the place.

The main attraction for top drivers to the track in the middle of America’s heartland is the storied event — the Belleville Midget Nationals. Winning the Nationals is a career achievement.

“To win at Belleville is unbelievable,” says 2009 Nationals champion Bryan Clauson. “You look at the names on the winner’s list and only the best are there. It’s definitely a race that every driver wants on their resume before they end their short-track career. Only a few have done that. That I have is incredible.”

The 33rd edition of the Nationals is this weekend. On the eve of that historic event, the question is, could this be the last one?

“Ask me after the race,” remarks Belleville Fair Board member and spokesman Raymond Raney. “A lot of circumstances are making it very difficult for the Nationals to continue.”

The economy is the biggest of those. Belleville is managed by the Amusement Committee of the Fair Board, and receives no taxpayer funding. Therefore, Belleville’s events have to break even, or at least experience minimal losses if the track is to keep functioning.

Because of the passion and love they have for the track, its history and tradition, the committee members work as volunteers. They spare no effort in keeping the track running and tenaciously protecting the prestige Belleville has earned in the hundred years of its existence.

Some members have gone as far as taking out personal loans to meet unexpected expenses or event shortfalls. When the promoter for the July 4 weekend Belleville 100 modified race pulled out at the last minute, the committee picked up the purse and expenses so the race would go on as promised. They weren’t required to. They had only leased the track to the promoter.

“I don’t care if the guy wants to disgrace his own name and show people the sleazebag he is,” remarks Raney, the bitterness over the recent events still evident. “But not Belleville’s. He was dragging Belleville’s name through the mud. When we said the race would go on after he’d tried to cancel it, the racers thanked us profusely. He left us holding the bag, but, it’s something we felt we had to do for them, the fans and Belleville’s reputation.”

If all it took was desire and passion on the part of the committee to keep the Belleville Nationals a vital part of the American racing scene, it would be a lock-in for the next 100 years. But those attributes alone aren’t enough.

Cars are needed.

The bad economy has made it tough for racers across the nation to run their cars. Low car counts affect fan turnout, and that affects a track’s cash flow. Belleville is no different.

“We’ll be using USAC type rules (officiated by the National Championship Racing Ass’n), and a point system like Knoxville’s to move cars into main,” explains Raney. “But we need a good car count, at least 30, for that to work well, and to give the fans the kind of show they expect when they make the trip here. Car count has steadily dropped the last couple of years, and if that trend continues…well, it has us very concerned about the future.”

Raney acknowledges that Belleville is a long, expensive haul for racers and that the big, fast track uses up equipment. To help offset that, Belleville will pay its traditional, guaranteed starting money of $900 much deeper into the field than last year.

Hopefully, the added prize money, as well as the continued recognition heaped on drivers, owners and sponsors that win one of America’s premier short-track races will allow the Belleville Midget Nationals to continue for generations to come.