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South Bend Motor Speedway dropping last checkered flag after 77 years

The South Bend Motor Speedway has been thrilling race fans since 1947 but that’s coming to an end Saturday. The speedway is closing.

During practice or "Hot Laps" Thursday, 22-year-old Hailey Boal was the first on the track, squealing around the historic quarter-mile's banked turns.

She was one of many drivers trying to get the feel of the track, for what’s expected to be the last races ever Friday and Saturday nights at the speedway.

After her first practice laps, Hailey said the car felt good and she’s excited. But it’s bittersweet.

"It's pretty heartbreaking for me because I grew up here," she said. "I'm a third generation driver so my dad, and then my grandpa over there, he raced too, so I've always been here. This is what I consider my home track. It's heartbreaking but I'm hoping I can at least go home with a win this weekend."

She said that with a chuckle but her father, Rich Boal, got a bit of a lump in his throat when he spoke. Rich has been coming here for 52 years, first as a boy to watch his father Rick race in the 70s and 80s, then racing himself for 38 years. Now Rich and his dad help Hailey.

"It's sad but the way the economy is, I get it," he said. "It'd be nice if we can save the place but it is what it is. We're just going to run this weekend, we're going to have a lot of laughs, share a lot of memories, and hopefully when the final checkered flag drops, we're on top."

Owners Kevin and Brandy Sauer also own Plymouth Motor Speedway. Kevin says South Bend no longer draws enough racers or fans to pay for its needed upgrades, when their time is already spread thin maintaining both tracks. They’ve tried for two years to sell the speedway to someone who would continue operating it as a racetrack.

The couple recently gave that up and they’ve found a buyer for the 54-acre site on State Road 2. Sauer says the buyer isn’t interested in racing.

Emotions expressed by fans on Facebook has made the past year difficult at times for Sauer. He’s responded rather firmly at times on the platform.

"Yeah it's ridiculous," he said. "Everybody thinks they've got it figured out. Everybody thinks they know how to run a track, and so forth. It takes a lot out of you. I've got seven grandkids and I want to start spending more time with them."

In 2015 he and his brother Vern had just started racing when they decided to invest some of the profits from Kevin’s roofing business into buying the speedway. Scott and Jennifer Brown had owned it since 2011 and were looking to sell. The Browns restarted racing at the historic track and brought the fans back after it had sat idle for four years.

When they bought the speedway, Sauer told the South Bend Tribune that he wanted to install restrooms and resurface the track. Neither have happened. Sauer says the speedway never generated enough revenue to pay for a new track, and St. Joseph County officials were requiring him to build restrooms based on the grandstand seating capacity. That would have meant spending more than $250,000, Sauer says.

The track’s condition didn’t seem to bother longtime fans Chris Chrapek and Freddy Boggess as they sat on a bench in Turn 1 watching what they call “hot laps.”

Chrapek said the pair met at the speedway in 2010, at the only race held that year. The track was closed from 2007 to 2011 but it needed to host at least one race a year during that time to maintain its status as a racetrack if it ever wanted to re-open. Boggess said fans helped pull weeds and paint, and 171 cars registered to race.

They will try to attend a few major races at other regional tracks but say they'll miss their race night ritual of pre-race beers in the South Bend parking lot, before joining like-minded fans who sat together and called themselves the “Turn 3 Hillbillies.”

"I've met a lot of good people out here," Chrapek said. "Like a crowd that comes to a racetrack normally don't go to a baseball game. Some with football but mainly it's a lot of nice people that came out here."

Russell Fisher and his 3-year-old grandson Cameron had the Turn 4 grandstand all to themselves to watch the practice. Fisher said it was a test run to see if the boy would like coming to the actual races this weekend.

Racing starts at 7 o’clock tonight and 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

"I grew up behind the speedway and I used to be out here every Wednesday," Fisher said. "Came out here a lot on Friday nights as a kid, up 'til about nine, 10 years ago, things with life and work. But last race, I wanted to bring the grandson out and see where I hang out at."

Jeanette Albert also brought her grandchildren to the practice. Before it’s gone for good, she wanted the teenagers to see the place that meant so much to her father, Paul Sisti.

During the 1940s Sisti was part of a group of men who built the speedway, largely by hand. Albert said they had to pause during the war because materials were so scarce. Her voice cracked a bit as she spoke.

"I'm sad to see it go because it meant so much to our dads," she said. "They spent so much time out here."

Albert said her father, who worked as a printer, died in 1995. He was one of the last four men from that original ownership group and he never lost his love for the speedway.

"So he was always in the back in the pits with all the drivers and everything because a lot of those guys were still racing," she said. "And then he would stand at the back pit gate and he was one of the guys who would just open the gate and close the gate every night. So he never missed a night out here. He loved it."

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).