Bruce Yentes

Bruce Yentes

At age 70, Gridley's Bill Hendren continues to "farm a little bit" and is still selling Polaris ATVs and snowmobiles.

For the 42nd straight year, he's also still trying to win the stock car races held annually at the Illinois State Fair at both Springfield and DuQuoin.

"I like the idea that a bunch of farm boys, all volunteer, can put something together in our little shop in Gridley, Illinois and go and compete," Hendren said of his marathon quest.

They were competing when the likes of A.J. Foyt and Ken Schrader visited victory lane at Springfield. They were in the running when NASCAR champions Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart won at DuQuoin.

In last Sunday's ARCA series race at Springfield, the farm boys from McLean County nearly pulled it off.

With El Paso's Ryan Unzicker behind the wheel and at the front of the field in Hendren's entry, a thrilling finish had the crowd on its feet and the 90-year old fairgrounds grandstands rockin' and rollin' well before ZZ Top took the stage later that evening.

When the dust settled on the Allen Crowe 100, Hendren and Unzicker had to settle for third. They'll try once more for a fair win on Sept. 4 at DuQuoin.

While a victory has been elusive for Hendren, running up front is not uncharted territory. A Hendren car finished second twice at Springfield — once with Normal native Ken Rowley driving, the other with Mokena's Bob Strait behind the wheel.

"But, it would be nice to win one, to get that done and off my 'bucket list,'" Hendren said.

Hendren fully recognizes that the odds are against him. On the auto racing food chain, the ARCA series' business model and competitive dynamic is comparable to NASCAR's third-tier truck series.

Racing against a number of full-time, professional teams, the Hendren guys entered Sunday's race with one car, a volunteer crew and a leased motor. He counts on Unzicker, a former UMP weekly series late model national champion, to be a good steward of their limited resources. 

"I feel comfortable that Ryan's going to do his best to take care of the equipment," Hendren said. "Being a (late model) car owner, he knows the expenses involved and he knows how to protect the equipment. Not that he's overly conservative, he's just not going to do anything stupid."

The focus suddenly changed when Unzicker found himself among the leaders in the closing laps on Sunday. Merely staying out of trouble and finishing the race became secondary.

"We finally said, 'the hell with that; we're going for it,'" Hendren said.

Unzicker was involved in a controversial accident that knocked race leader Josh Williams out of contention during a multi-car scrum for the lead on a lap 93 restart. After Williams and Unzicker had raced door-to-door onto the backstretch, Williams attempted a pass and Unzicker appeared to get into his right rear quarter panel sending the leader into the wall.

Unzicker says Williams had failed to clear him on the pass. Williams saw it otherwise. Hendren saw it as a racing accident.

"Four different people will give you three different opinions on what happened," Hendren said. "When you get down to the end like that, everybody wants to win. We feel bad for what happened to Josh, but there definitely wasn't any intent of any kind. It was strictly an accident."

On the ensuing green-white-checkered restart, eventual winner Justin Haley battled side-by-side with Unzicker before pulling ahead off the second corner. That also opened a space for A.J. Fike, the defending race champion, to power past Unzicker to finish in the runner-up spot.

The Hendren team garnered its third-place finish in a car that was a bit down on straightaway speed.

"Obviously the car was good, but we weren't pleased with the way the motor performed," Hendren said. "With the gear we had in it, it should have been hitting the (7500 RPM rev limiter) chip all the time and it didn't. They took the computer and downloaded the stuff and they're supposed to get back to us. If we can get that fixed, we're really looking forward to DuQuoin."

Hendren's not sure how many more Springfields and DuQuoins are in his future. He says that without the input of Heyworth's Brian Smith, who became a partner a few years ago, the Springfield-DuQuoin double may have already been a thing of the past.

"If it wasn't for Brian stepping in, I'd probably have had to quit by now," Hendren said, adding that he still derives enjoyment from the sport.

"The older I get, the more I try to sit back and enjoy it," he said. "I'm just so grateful to everybody that's been a part of this for all of these years."

Bruce Yentes covers motor sports for The Pantagraph. He can be reached at byentes@pantagraph.com.

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