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Flaten: Taking a look at the drivers that made Macon Speedway's 2020 memorable

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Macon Speedway Flaten column

Columnist Matthew Flaten discusses the memorable moments of Macon Speedway's 75th season. 

If 2019 was the year that I dipped my toe into dirt track racing, 2020 was the year I did a full on cannonball from the high dive.

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended spring high school, college and professional sports and also slammed the breaks on the Illinois dirt track racing season. The opening night of the 75th season at Macon Speedway would have normally gotten the green flag in mid-April and I can only imagine what that historic night would have looked like at the ⅕-mile dirt oval. Instead, racing began in mid-June to temperature tests at the ticket booth for fans and hand sanitizer by the concession stands.

It was a season like none other in the long history of Macon Speedway. But as the season progressed, it became reminiscent of earlier season as the top-notch driving took center stage.

Looking back on the more than 25 stories on Central Illinois drivers I wrote, common themes emerge and one was certainly the arrival and continued success of young drivers. Maroa’s Jaret Duff picked up his first pro late model feature win at Macon this season and Decatur’s Brady Reed, in his second year driving, was nearly unstoppable in the hornets division and took the track championship. Molly Day, at 18 years old, continued to make a name for herself in the micro class, finishing sixth in points, and Blake Damery continued his father’s racing legacy by running and completing his first Herald & Review 100 this season.

Just like Macon Speedway itself, the year came around in a full circle. My first racing feature of the year was on younger drivers eager to hit the tracks and gain some much-needed experience behind the wheel and it came to a close with a story on 13-year-old John Barnard III, who won the micros track championship on a tiebreaker after finishing the point race in a tie with Decatur’s Jacob Tipton.

Modified driver Tommy Sheppard Jr. spoiled Billy Knebel’s bid to capture both the pro mod and modified titles by winning the division’s final four features to win his third consecutive track championships by just two points.

Although the young bucks grabbed some of the spotlights, the old guard of experienced drivers continued to show the newbies how it was done. Cerro Gordo’s Terry Reed was the DIRTcar street stock national leader going into the Fall Nationals at Lincoln Speedway and finished the season on top of the point standings.

Argenta’s Kevin Crowder was near the top of many pro mods features and Monticello’s Darrell Dick continued his long and storied career with a sixth-place finish in the DIRTcar national points standings. Macon Speedway legend and the first winner of the Herald & Review 100 Butch Garner was honored at the track for his induction into the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Another theme that came up in just about every interview I conducted was the connection between racing and family. Most drivers come into the sport through their father or grandfather, and the connection to those they hold dear was unmistakable this season.

Guy Taylor ran in the street stock car of driver Larry "Bub" Russell, who died in March, and Taylor picked up a feature win in the car late in the season. Sportsman driver Dennis Vandermeersch lost his close friend and fellow driver Tim Bedinger before the season and Vandermeersch dedicated his first feature victory of the season to him. On his way to win the division's track championship, Vandermeersch won five of the six division features.

Taylor spoke about the unique short season of 2020.

"What I have noticed is after this lockdown and keeping everyone inside is that I have seen more fans now at the track than I ever had seen," Taylor said. "I think it has been a great short season and I hope it's been good for the tracks because if you don't have the tracks us racers have nowhere to run."

Getting to interview these drivers, both young and old, was an honor and it made it clear to me that they are the stars and I was just a passenger along for the ride. 


Sports reporter Matthew Flaten's Macon Speedway coverage

Sports reporter Matthew Flaten's Macon Speedway coverage

Articles and columns from sports reporter Matthew Flaten about the drivers and races that run on the 1/5-mile dirt oval known as Macon Speedway.

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Although Thursday's running of the 40th Herald & Review 100 had 22 drivers competing, two took center stage: Sheppard and Shirley. 

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MACON — Good things come to those who wait. 

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Check the Macon Speedway record books and you'll see Clinton driver Erik Vanapeldoorn's name next to the fastest lap time recorded in the Hornets division. 

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A lifelong racing fan, hornets driver Bill Basso didn't get on the race track until he was 44. 

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The victories came following near-catastrophic incidents for Knebel’s car in each of the feature victories and the driver attributes a little divine intervention on being able to navigate the challenges.

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Sprint driver Zach Daum heads to New Zealand to drive during the dirt track off season. 

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Butch Garner will be back at Macon Speedway this weekend to be honored for his induction to the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame as a member of the 2020 class and he will have a meet and greet with fans and sign autographs when the gates open at 5 p.m. on Saturday. 

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Given how Macon Speedway's 75th season opener was going for street stock driver Bobby Beiler, he would not have been the favorite to take the checkered flag. But that's exactly what he did.

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Molly Day isn't sure is she's a trailblazer, but she hopes she can be an inspiration for future female drivers.

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As the green flag was about to drop on his sportsman division race at Macon Speedway last Saturday, Dennis Vandermeersch felt conflicted. 

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Darrell Dick has racing in his blood and he will race wherever he can get the chance. 

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In Macon Speedway's 75 seasons of operation, there hasn't been a year quite like 2020.

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"I'm sure it will be like the old days. It won't be 'elbow-to-elbow' but 'six-foot-to-six-foot.' I think everybody is going to have a great time." -- driver Brady Reed on Saturday's Macon Speedway opener.

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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Carter Dart will never forget his first heat race.

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Dirt track racing is inching closer to a green flag at Macon Speedway as the 1/5-mile dirt oval will host its second set of test and tune events on Saturday and Sunday. 

Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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