MACON – Whether it’s golf, auto racing or mixed martial arts, the dynamic of any sport works best when there’s a competitor recognized as a “good guy” going against an opponent everyone sees as the “bad guy.”
It just seems more fun when the delineation is easy – the hero vs. the villain.
There was a time in the 1970s through the 1990s when Macon Speedway was impacted by that very storyline, a time when promoter Wayne Webb would threaten to run a villainous driver away from the track one week, then welcome him back as a reason the stands were packed the next week.
It was a love-hate thing, to be sure.
I covered Macon Speedway a lot in those days and the track never had a more fierce competitor than Jim Leka of Illiopolis. I’ll always believe Leka was one of the most misunderstood drivers to come through the gates.
He was really a good guy and if another driver needed a tire or a tool, Leka was always quick to lend a hand.
But he also had a temper hotter than boiling tar and he was known to occasionally lose his composure during a race. Even more so, his loyal allegiance of fans would get plenty rowdy in Leka’s defense when they felt he’d been wronged on the race track.
Fights in the stands, out on the track or in the pits were not that uncommon. That’s when Wayne Webb would get angry and when Wayne got angry, he had a tendency to blame Leka.
But Wayne knew what he had. In Jim Leka he had filled the lead role in his stock car soap opera, and when paired against perceived good guys like Butch Garner, Dick Taylor, Jim Harter or Jim Ater, Leka could instantly create a hornet’s nest of emotions that would bring the fans back for more.
No one questioned whether Leka was a talented driver. He was one of the best. And it was a great honor when Leka would win four features in a row and Webb would put a cash bounty on him for week No. 5.
Webb would announce that the winner of the feature would get an extra $200 if they could keep Jim Leka from taking the checkered flag.
By the time the cars lined up, the fans were standing, wagers had been placed and standing in the background, Webb was smiling. He’d filled the place again, drawing on the good vs. evil storyline to pack the grandstands.
Finally, after Bob Sargent took over the track, he could see the heat from the good vs. evil storyline was beginning to get a little too hot. Too many fights in the stands. Too many tussles in the pits. And too many sponsors and families who wanted less chaos and more clean competition.
In 1990, Sargent asked Leka to sign a document saying he’d stay out of trouble on the track. Leka protested, which only added to his legend.
Eventually, Leka returned and the mayhem began to die down.
Looking back on it, Sargent admits that he misses the hero vs. villain role that used to drive the interest, especially in the late model division.
But on the other hand, he enjoys the fact that he now has a family-friendly environment that suits the sponsors just fine.
Part of it is a shifting of the times.
Late models are not as prevalent and the number of drivers are down. With car costs climbing, drivers are more concerned with protecting their equipment. They’re not looking for needless wrecks and spinouts, which became a common form of payback in the good old days.
“NASCAR went through the same thing,” Sargent said. “We’ve all made an effort to clean up the sport and meet in the middle. We want it to be clean but competitive.”
Of course, a promoter could still invent the tension, much the way professional wrestling does. Get one driver to take on the role of Darth Vader and cause trouble for the popular local driver. Create a spinout, maybe a brief fight, then milk it for the next month or so.
Sargent said he’s got enough on his plate without trying to become a wrestling promoter.
That said, he does remember the excitement that was in the air on those nights when Jim Leka and Dickie Taylor and their fans would get after it in the middle of the summer.
“It’s still a very competitive sport where the adrenalin is flowing,” Sargent said. “But even the rules have changed now. Drivers can’t get out of their cars, so we’ve pretty much eliminated the fighting.”
You mean auto racing has evolved?
“We’re past that,” Sargent said with the wink of an eye.
Macon Speedway will have racing tonight and Monday in honor of the Memorial Day weekend.
Tonight, the Bob Brady Auto Mall Raminator monster truck will be on hand to crush cars. There will also be 30 bicycles given away. Each kid can get a ticket which will serve as a chance to win the bike of their choice.
Racing tonight will be the Pro Late Models, Billingsley Towing Modifieds, Street Stocks, Sportsman and Hornets.
Pits open at 4 p.m. Grandstands open at 5. Hot laps begin at 6 and racing starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults. Children age 11 and under are admitted free.
NASCAR drivers Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace will be on hand Monday to drive in the Billingsley Towing Modified division. Also competing will be the Big 10 Pro Late Models, Modifieds, Street Stocks, Hornets, B-Mods, Beach House Micros and D-II Midgets.
Pits open at 2:30 p.m. Grandstands open at 4 with hot laps at 5 and racing at 6 p.m.
Admission is $15 for adults. Children age 11 and under are admitted free.