Remembering John McKarns

First and foremost, 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 stock car tour, passed away at a Florida hospital on February 9 from complications of bladder cancer.

Born on November 29, 1944 and growing up on a farm in Ohio, John saw stock car racing become part of his life as his dad and he visited local dirt tracks, dating back to around 1952. Some of McKarns’ earliest racing adventures took place at Ohio speed plants like the Wauseon Fairgrounds, Defiance Speedway and Bryan Raceway.

McKarns would attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. During this time, he would be exposed to Chicago area short track racing. He would visit tracks like Soldier Field, Raceway Park, O’Hare Stadium and Waukegan Speedway, getting his first taste of racing at these once-popular speedways. In 1965, McKarns would become an official at the Waukegan dirt oval, eventually becoming the track’s PR person and track announcer.

Working for International Harvester, John married the former Susan Banks in 1968. Soon, Sue joined John working at the Waukegan oval and, later, at the new Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Ill. Eventually, John would be doing PR and announcing work at both raceways. 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 would start the Chicagoland Driving Championship (CDC). CDC was a culmination of a season’s points earned at Waukegan and Grundy, in addition to Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind.

John’s whole life would change when he met Chicago area businessman Art Frigo in 1975. Front running stock car racer Bob Roper worked for Frigo and Frigo expressed an interest of promoting a special late model stock car event in the Chicago area.

Before you knew it, Frigo, with a lot of help from McKarns, had 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 September 7, 1975 at the Grundy third of a mile paved oval. Wisconsin’s Tom Reffner captured the inaugural 59-lap main event that Sunday afternoon, which honored Wayne Carter, the longtime Grundy County racing promoter.

Having learned from others’ mistakes, Frigo and McKarns stepped lightly into the racing promotion game with only one “special” event held in 1975 with 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 in the 100-lap battle that day.

Frigo and McKarns held their first middle-of-the-week late model special at the Rockford Speedway on July 11, 1978. The mid week specials would become ARTGO “signature events” for years to come. Allison and fellow “Alabama Gang” member Neil Bonnett were the special guests that night. Dick Trickle of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Won the 100 lapper, defeating Rusty Wallace and Bonnett.

Prior to the start of the 1979 season, John purchased ARTGO from Frigo, who sold the increasing-in-popularity late model series because of numerous other business endeavors. An ambitious 10-race schedule was announced by McKarns for the new season 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 Challenges Series and for one brief season (1984), it was known as the ASA-ARTGO Challenge Series as McKarns joined forces with American Speed Association founder Rex Robbins.

Over the years in ARTGO competition, Trickle pretty much established himself “head and shoulders” above the rest. Part of Central Wisconsin racing’s cast of speedsters and, eventually, becoming recognized as the “leader of the pack,” Trickle would win a record seven ARTGO titles over the years, capturing 68 main events.

McKarns would lead 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 would take over ARTGO in 1998 with the series becoming known as the NASCAR Re/Max Challenge Series. McKarns would stay close to the operation, serving as an advisor to NASCAR for a number of years

Moving from their Illinois home, McKarns and his wife, Sue, relocated to Tavares, Florida, with John still keeping busy in racing as an expert racing adviser and counselor in addition to other racing-related business interests. John and Sue’s sons, Geoff and Gregg would continue to live in Illinois, raising the McKarns’ three grandchildren. Following his dad’s footsteps, Greg is currently the manager of the Rockford Speedway.

A few years ago, McKarns was diagnosed with cancer. Continually battling the disease, McKarns still would visit tracks in and around his Florida home and come back to the Midwest for different events, including the annual 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.

Thinking about it, John 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, John enjoyed racing. John McKarns was a true racer. R.I.P., John.

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