I-57 Drag strip kicks up dirt every Saturday at more than 100 miles an hour

By Gus Bode

They back up slowly.

More than one ton of steel and a rumbling motor idle with the rear tires in a shallow stream of water. The wet tires pull forward slowly. With one foot planted on the break, drivers push the accelerator to the floor and beyond until the tires scream and the body pitches against its own girth. The cars wants to go, but the drivers refuse to let up.

The tires spin until pendulous gray clouds bellow out from beneath the cars, removing any residual dirt and oil, heating the tires so the rubber will stick to the track when the time comes.

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The rancid smell of burnt rubber fills the noses of spectators in the stands, and eardrums rattle as up to 1,705 horse power revs up behind the yellow line – this is why they come to Benton every Saturday.

“This will shoot your ears out,” said Rene Sr., father to “Ludicrous Speed” driver, Rene DeGroof.

And he was right. The sun burnt faces lit up with awe as “Tiny Mite,” the track record holder, took off. The rumble wasn’t heard – it was felt.

Todd Suhling, owner and driver of “Tiny Mite,” was attempting to break his own record with the Outlaw Pro-Modified 2000 Chevy S10 that looks more like a rocket from outer space than a car.

The record at the I-57 1/8-mile Drag strip stands at 4.5 seconds with the maximum speed at 165 miles per hour.

“As hot as it is, I don’t think we’ll break the record,” Suhling said.

Suhling also holds the record at a 3/4-mile track with 6.84 seconds at 204 miles per hour. He started racing with a 1985 S10 and decided to stick with that model.

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“I always drag raced on the street, and finally I got serious about it,” Suhling said. “We like to drag race. Car shows, you just sit around and get bored.”

Families litter the drag strip grounds, sucking on root beer floats and hotdogs. The Holland family sits in the bed of their white pick-up truck, pulled into the parking spot backward for a close view of the starting line.

“We’ve come every Saturday for eight years,” said Elaina Holland. “I never came until we started dating,” she said, glancing over at Paul with a smile.

The Hollands only miss a Saturday if one of them is sick. Their 3-year-old son, Dalton, was tightly hugging an over-sized pair of black earmuffs to his tiny, blond head while the cars took off at intervals of around two minutes.

“The first weekend he came home from the hospital, he came up here,” Elaina said. “Yeah, he’s ready for Jr. Dragsters already.”

For the Hollands, it’s worth the drive from Herrin to go to the Drag Strip every Saturday to have fun.

“All our friends race up here,” Paul said.

“It beats sitting in a theater,” Elaina added. “At least you get your money’s worth here.”

Dan Mullens, the owner and manager of the track, has been running the track for one year now. The track has been a fixture near Benton and West Frankfort for 30 years.

Saturdays are broken into multiple categories. There is the Super-Pro category in which the fastest, most sophisticated cars race for $1,000. The Pro category is made up of cars that use a foot break. The E.T., or estimated time, class is for armature drivers with souped-up cars. There is also a Trophy I and Trophy II class for streetcars.

The Jr. Dragsters is a category for 8- to 16-year-olds. Mullen’s daughter, Amy, races a dragster. The dragsters are long and narrow cars that are low to the ground and pack a wallop on the track.

“She could beat a Corvette,” Mullens said. “Her top speed is 87 miles per hour. It’s so exciting to see your kid race.”

Rene DeGroof, 32, has been racing since he was 16 in the family pick-up truck. DeGroof, an SIUC graduate, was sitting outside his car trailer next to the Camaro he bought when he was 18. He delivered pizzas in the Camaro until he decided to turn it into a racing machine. The car has changed immensely since his high school days.

“If I delivered pizzas in it now, it’d be really fast,” DeGroof said while walking into his trailer.

Ernie, a black mutt, sat in the air-conditioned trailer on a large green pillow. His tail was wagging, and his tongue was flapping against his lower lip.

“If this trailer leaves without him in it, he’ll be pissed,” DeGroof said. “He loves to go to the races.”

DeGroof races anywhere there is money to be won.

“Last year we went to Cancun with the money,” DeGroof said. “It keeps my wife happy.”

Motorcycles also race on the strip running alongside I-57. The lights blink yellow three times and then pulsate in a luscious green. The cycles erupt with a noise resembling what killer bees might sound like if their attitudes were plugged into a Peavey amplifier with distortion.

With all of the speed and only one-eighth a mile of track, it’s not farfetched for somebody to get hurt. But it’s rare for someone to get hurt, according to Kirk Magsig, one of the track workers.

“We’re as careful as can be,” Magsig said.

The most recent accident was an off-track complication of heart trouble. Just in case, the track pays for an ambulance to be on grounds at all events.

Erin Robertson, 11, and Heather Eastwood, 15, come to the drag strip every Saturday from Goreville.

“We have friends that we come to see,” Robertson said. “Our friend, Cody Arbin, races the Jr. Dragsters,” Eastwood added.

Everybody shows up around 4 p.m. and stays until the last cars have torn down the black track, which can sometimes be as late as midnight.

“We’ve been out here ’til 4 a.m. before,” Mullens said.

Whatever time the racing actually ends, the crowd and the drivers are always ready for the next run down the strip.

Reporter Arin Thompson can be reached at [email protected]

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