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In Their Words - Volume 7 - "Courtesy of Chateau Speedway History" Facebook Group Page

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June 16, 2019

"In Their Words” – Volume 7

In Our Latest “In Their Words” we visit with 3 time Track Champion John “Sonny” Van Willigen. He took his Track Championships in 1988, 1990 and 1992 and is still top 25 in all time Feature wins at The Track. Sonny had just celebrated his 80th Birthday this past spring and when we visited with him and he was just coming off a trip to the hospital where he had his Gall Bladder removed. Being just a few days removed from his Hospital Stay it was a short visit. Since our visit it was announced that he will be among the Inaugural Class Inducted into the New “Chateau Speedway Hall of Fame.” While we were visiting we were also joined by his wife and grand-daughter who added some interesting thoughts to the conversation.

Webpage: How did you get interested in racing?

JVW: I don’t know. I just went to’ em one time than I was hooked. I don’t know, I’ve been racing for 50 years I think (Wife) you started racing 2 years I think before we got married I think. Him and his brother James had a car before we were married, we were married in 61. JVW: Ya we were pitting in the infield years ago

Webpage: You ran Stock than?

JVW: Ya, the first car I had was a Studebaker. Didn’t take much to put it together, back than they didn’t have very much. Had an old DeSoto too once, I had a 66 Chevelle, had about 10 cars over the years.

Webpage: Were these cars other people ran and you bought?

JVW: No I built em. I bought them and stripped em out and gutted them. Welded the roll bars in there. Well I think I bought the Super Stock, it wasn’t a very good car at all. I still got an old car down in the garage. You know they use to have the Old Timers out there once and awhile and I thought I’d go back out there. The trouble is there all up North, it takes a lot of running. (Grand Daughter) Ya but he went to a Vintage Race one time and the motor blew up and he came all the way home and grabbed his other car and went all the way back so he could race both races, he might say it’s far but, that was just a few years ago.

Webpage: This car you’ve run in the Northern Vintage is it one of your old ones?

JVW: No I got it out of a woods over North of here. I kind of stole it, it was Bud Varner’s woods, he s my Uncle. I got a good deal.

Webpage: A lot of people see racing as a second family.

JVW Ya, my family came out too when I ran some. The Old-timers I’ve gotten in pretty good with some of them now. Most of them live up there North of the Cities. They run about 20 shows a year. There’s a Northern vintage and an IMCA Old Timers. I just go to the Northern Vintage shows. The IMCA guys don’t race as much. (Wife) he got in trouble one time, the Vintage cars were at Chateau one night and one of the rules is you can only win one race a night but he won the Heat and then he won the Feature too, and then you had to pay a fine if you win more than one race. I don’t think they made him pay the fine because it was his home track but they still give him a hard time about it.

Webpage: You ran the Super Stock for a few Years

JVW: Ya a couple years of doing that, I know you went a lot faster. I ran off the track at Deer Creek one time and ended up in the hospital in Rochester, stayed overnight. I got knocked out, concussion. About the only time I got hurt. I rolled over once in a Buick I had. Think I ended up in the river once at Lansing

Webpage: You had a few Track Championships at Chateau.

JVW: Don’t remember a lot of details about them but it was fun I know that. That 66 Chevelle is what I won most of my races with

Webpage: Much of a Pit Crew?

JVW: No, pretty much did it all myself.

Webpage: How much did you enjoy working on the cars

JVW: I don’t enjoy that much. I got a car in the garage, its ready to race I guess. Still got my trailer and everything. Don’t think I ran at all last year though. Sometimes it took more time to get it ready, sometimes it took nothing. Used the salvage yards for parts sometimes.

Webpage: Spend much time in the winter working on them.

JVW: Ya I’d either build a new one or work on the old one.

Webpage: You did help a few drivers like Bryan Hernandez.

JVW: Well Bryan had his car here one time, there was actually about 3 guys had their cars in my shop, there wasn’t much room in there. Just kind of went from there. Bryan doesn’t have a car anymore either does he?

Webpage: What about working with your sons Jason and Jon on their cars during those years?

JVW: They didn’t need much help, Jason’s working on a car right now, don’t know when it it’ll get done

Webpage: How did you come up with your number?

JVW: I think I was about that age (laughter) (Wife) he told me he was going to race until he was 49 and then he was going to quit. (More laughter) kept saying he was going to quit but he never did. (Grand Daughter) quit for one year and then started Vintage. (more laughter)

Webpage: Run many other tracks?

JVW: I use to run up to Morristown but then they quit racing up there, I went to Fairmont a few times, Deer Creek. Mason City, I use to go down there, Lansing was pretty much my main track. Had a Track Championship at Mason City too. I use to race three tracks in a week sometimes, go up to Morristown, and down to Lansing and Mason City. I remember racing at Albert Lea once.

Webpage: Do many of the Fair races?

JVW: Not much, raced in Austin one time I think

Webpage: You miss the racing?

JVW: Ya I kind of do.

Webpage: You still have many of your racing Trophies?

JVW: Ya I still have them, there all downstairs.

Webpage: You attend many races anymore?

JVW: I go out to Lansing every week. Don’t really cheer for anybody, whoever wins wins I guess

Webpage: See much difference in the racing now?

JVW: I think the cars go a lot faster (Laughs)

Webpage: Any advice to anyone thinking about getting into the sport

JVW: Don’t do it (laughs) I don’t know. I was up to Kevin Stoa’s the other day where he builds the motors, builds a lot of em. But I built my own, sometimes they last sometimes they don’t.

Webpage: You didn’t just race at Lansing; you did some work at the Track as well.

JVW: Ya worked on the track irrigation; they asked me to help back then. I still remember where everything runs parallel with the track. There’s a line that goes under the track, it’s always been a problem there sitting on the river.

Webpage: Still doing the Farm Drainage Work?

JVW: I got some jobs lined up. Been doing this on my own about 20-25 years. I worked for someone else tiling before I went on my own.

Webpage: Any hobby’s?

JVW: I got a ‘47 Studebaker Pickup I bought about ten years ago. It was all in pieces. I’ve done all the work on it, did all the painting, made the rails myself. I took the motor out and put a in a Chevy motor, one of my racing motors with an automatic in it. Had to make the Motor Mounts fit on it. (And Hoosier Racing Tires) I gotta put a new carburetor on it, it don’t run very good right now. It has a Ford rear end in it.

Webpage: Thanks for the Visit Sonny, take it easy for awhile, we'll see you at The Track !