Historic event with a new twist

The Springfield Mile returns over Labor Day weekend

click to enlarge Historic event with a new twist
Swede Savage, a 26-year-old superstar in the making, waves to the crowd after breaking the track record in the Indy 500 qualifying race on May 12, 1973.

This year's Springfield Mile will include all the thrill, drama and edge-of-the-seat dirt track racing that's been a tradition since its early years as part of the American Motorcyclist Association national racing series that began in 1937. Integral to Springfield's horse racing and motorsports community heritage, the oval track at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, known for its short straightaways and wide, sweeping corners, is a mecca for racing enthusiasts.  

Beginning after the Great Depression, flat track motorcycle races often came down to a handlebar-to-handlebar photo finish, as the coveted National No. 1 plate was awarded to the rider who won the checkered flag in Springfield, Illinois. Beginning with rules changes in 1954, the official Grand National Championship has been awarded to the rider with the most points over an 18-race series held at tracks from coast to coast. But the Springfield Mile is known as the world's fastest mile, with its record-setting, smooth, Midwestern "gumbo" dirt surface.

As the home track of the FBI (Fast Boys from Illinois), Springfield remains one of 16 venues throughout the country where practiced hands twist throttles, and stars are made at 140 miles per hour in the sport of dirt track motorcycle racing. With the stage set for the final two races of the 2023 American Flat Track premiere series, the Labor Day weekend Springfield Mile double-header is riveting fans, while the Yamaha versus Indian brand motorcycle rivalry is often launching competitors to victory margins within hundredths of a second.

To be sure, diehard fans are focused on National No.1 Jared Mees of Florida, eight-time reigning Grand National Champion, currently holding a one-point lead over 19-year-old racer Dallas Daniels, a Mattoon, Illinois, native vying to take the series crown. If Meese wins the total point standings, he will tie Scotty Parker's 1998 historic career record of nine Grand National Championship titles. And crowds will likely cheer just as loudly if young Daniels wins, breaking the Harley-Davidson/Indian winning streak, riding a Yamaha to Grand National championship victory for the first time since Kenny Roberts did it in 1974.   

But beyond the superstar power of athletes in a display of fitness, tenacity and determination, this year's grand finale program will be expanding its reach into a more diverse motorsports racing fan base, with another historic first.

click to enlarge Historic event with a new twist
Angela Savage was born just three months after her famous father died from injuries suffered in the 1973 Indianapolis 500.

Angela Savage, daughter of David "Swede" Savage, a promising Indy car driver who was larger-than-life, on the track and off, is one of only a few women ever to be named Grand Marshal of the Springfield Mile.  Her father, a favorite to win the 1973 Indianapolis 500, which was twice rescheduled due to rain-soaked track conditions, lost control on lap 59, resulting in one of the most violent, single-car crashes in Indy racing history. Angela's mother, then six months pregnant, kept vigil at his bedside. But 33 days later, Swede Savage, 26, died from his injuries. Condolences poured in from racing's big names, such as Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Roger Penske as well as fellow Californians, film stars Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Robert Redford.

For decades, Swede's daughter suffered through life, carrying the unacknowledged burden of a survivor. It was like she lived in a shadow. But a chance encounter with Ted Woerner, an author and impassioned Indy fan who had heard about his hero Swede Savage's crash on the transistor radio he smuggled into his sixth-grade classroom in 1973, enabled Angela Savage to find the courage to finally visit the track which took her father's life. Together they collaborated to write Savage Angel: Death and Rebirth at the Indianapolis 500, a book that skillfully and candidly interweaves details of her life trauma and eventual healing, with revelations of a unique motorsports legacy.  

Now Angela Savage is ready to share how she has healed and what she has learned about her dad's fascinating life, ended too soon. She has unpacked the heavy leather racing suits, the gloves that once held her father's hands, his letters and numerous photos and discovered Swede's hand-typed resume personalizing the hopes and dreams of a young 20-something. In his own words he took stock of where he was going in life, gradually making the transition from two wheels to four, up the ladder to a promising career that would help support his growing family.

Angela Savage currently lives in Indianapolis with her husband and family, the same city where Angela's father died. She and Woerner, a University of Illinois industrial design graduate, have recently turned their attention to take a deeper dive into Swede's motorcycle racing career.

Before he graduated to elite Ford and Trans Am stock car and open-wheel racing, Swede Savage is listed as a young amateur from San Bernardino, California, in area news coverage of the 1964-66 Springfield Mile, now archived in the Sangamon Valley Collection. With a total of 35 professional motorcycle race wins, he even performed in Evel Knievel's Stunt Show of Stars at Ascot Park. While revered as an Indy car celebrity whose career ended tragically, Swede Savage is also credited with forwarding the late 1960s innovation to full face helmets, now standard safety gear in both the auto and motorcycle racing industry.

In yet one more unique twist to the 2023 Springfield Mile story, top contender Jared Mees and his wife, Nichole, a former premiere class racer herself, who were married on the racetrack at the 2013 Springfield Mile, will be celebrating their 10-year anniversary on Labor Day weekend. Now parents of two young daughters, the couple are the owners of Mees Promotions. This is their second year as race directors and managers of the Springfield Mile, following the retirement of former promoters Tomra and Dave Kiesow. 

Angela Savage and Ted Woerner, an Indianapolis-based motorsports entrepreneur who has spent the past several years researching and writing about the Savage legacy, will be on hand at the Springfield Mile to meet fans. An eye-popping restoration of Swede's #40 day-glow red 1973 Eagle Offenhauser Indy car will be on display, along with vintage photographs and racing memorabilia.

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