By Jordan Kuehne
LOVES PARK, IL (Saturday, May 2, 2009) – Many people consider the number seven to be lucky but for Ricky Bilderback, the lucky number is eight, as in eight NASCAR Late Model championships at the historic Rockford Speedway. The 43-year-old Rockton native is sitting on seven championships entering the 2009 season and an eighth would give Bilderback the most titles in the history of the premiere division at the Rockford Speedway, a history that spans 62 years and counting.
However, standing directly in Bilderback’s path to history is the 2008 NASCAR Late Model champion at the Rockford Speedway and a man who knows a few things about the track’s history, Jerry Gille, and his #99 Custom Gear and Machine 2008 Chevy Monte Carlo. Gille was a crew member on seven-time Rockford Speedway track champion John Knaus’ late model in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and carries a deep respect for the Speedway’s record book that includes famous champions such as Knaus, Bobby Wilberg and the late Joe Shear in its feature division.
With all of those factors considered, the 2009 Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Model season is shaping up to be another fight to the finish as the battle between two drivers eyeing their place in the Rockford Speedway record books takes place over the next several months on the high banked quarter-mile. If the title does come down to Bilderback and Gille, it will not be the first time the two drivers go head-to-head for the chance to etch their names into the championship trophy.
Gille lost the 2007 title in devastating fashion when Bilderback wrested the points lead away on the final night, winning the crown by just one point and leaving Gille wondering where it went wrong. Last year, Gille sought and earned a measure of revenge on Bilderback, winning the championship in convincing form building up a 73 point margin that Ricky “the Rocket” could never manage to cut into. This year the two elder statesmen at the Rockford Speedway should battle for the top honors again.
Their respective quests for a championship will begin tonight at the Rockford Speedway, with the season kicking off for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Bilderback comes into the season literally revved up and ready to go as he looks to overtake Gille with a brand new car, a 2008 Dodge 360 that cost him over $60,000 to build. Gille, meanwhile, brings the experience he gained from winning his first championship and the knowledge that he has to step up his entire racing program to beat Bilderback and everyone else for a second straight year.
Last year’s triumph wasn’t Jerry Gille’s first in a late model. In 1999, he brought home Madison International Speedway’s Super Late Model championship. Gille began his racing career at Rockford in 1985 driving a RoadRunner and winning Rookie of the Year honors. He stepped up a class to the All-American Sportsmen two years later before making the final jump to a late model a short while later. In 1997, Gille migrated two hours north and raced at Madison, winning his first championship in 1999. He remained at Madison until he made his way back to Rockford in 2004.
Gille’s consistently been a contender since he made his return to Rockford, and when he finally broke through last year, it was a special moment for him. “It was big (finally winning) at Rockford,” he admitted. “It was a big deal to me, and I’ve been going to the speedway since I was three months old so it was always kind of a lifelong dream of mine.”
Ricky “the Rocket” Bilderback also made his debut at the Rockford Speedway racing a RoadRunner at the age of 15 before moving up to a late model just six months later. His career rising as fast as his race car was driving, Ricky “the Rocket” won four NASCAR Northern Series events in the 1990’s and was making a name for himself in the American Speed Association National Series when he was forced to quit racing touring series due to a lack of funding. Bilderback decided to return to Rockford to compete for his first championship. He broke through at Rockford in 2001, winning his first title in a late model, and he would never look back reeling off seven straight championships before finally being dethroned last year by Gille.
Bilderback also won the 2006 Big 8 Series title and will be looking to add to his trophy collection in 2009. “We’re going to race the full Big 8 Series schedule again this year,” he declared, “as well as going for another championship at Rockford. We’re going to also run a super late for the National Short Track Championships and probably do the Stateline Challenge (at Jefferson).”
Gille will be looking to defend his title at Rockford and try his hand on some dirt as well. “Things are looking up at Rockford because (Rockford Speedway General Manager) Gregg (McKarns) does a great job there,” he said. “I will try to make it up to Madison a few times and we’re looking for a dirt car and we’re definitely going to try and do that as well.”
Entering the season, both drivers are confident that they can take home the title but admitted that they had to step up their teams in order to have a chance. “We’ve had to really step up our program from last year,” Bilderback said. “Our goal is to win every race but that’s not really possible so the goal would be to win the Big 8 and Rockford championships.”
“If I just set fast time every night and finish races, I can put pressure on them and take an advantage, especially in such a short season,” he continued. “And to win the Big 8 championship you have to run in the top five every week. That might sound easy but trust me, it’s far from it. You just go there and try to run in the top five and qualify well and see what happens.”
Gille knows that the only way he’s going to successfully defend his title is by stepping up his entire program a couple notches. “We are going to have to step up our team a little bit,” he admitted. “We weren’t even as good (in 2008) as we were in 2007 but if we want to win again, we are going to have to get a lot faster.”
While Gille’s looking forward to the opportunity to get his second straight championship, he stated his only goal each week is to “try to be as fast as I can”. Gille also said that he wants to collect as many feature wins as possible in 2009. “We don’t really have many set goals, such as a championship, although that is always the goal at the end of the day,” he said. “We are just going to try to win as many features and fast times as we can and hopefully, we’re fast every week right off the hauler, but if not, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
While both drivers know they are the main competition to each other, neither would call the other a true “rival”, and both Bilderback and Gille went so far as to call the other a friend. “Jerry, he’s a friend of mine and I’m glad he won a championship,” Bilderback stated. “It’s good for his team and I was proud of him.”
Gille had much of the same to say about Bilderback, although he admitted that they did race each other harder than anybody else. “Rick and I get along very well,” Gille said. “I’ve always been on the lower end of the budget and we actually get along very well. He’s always helped me whenever I need it too. We run each other harder than we do anybody else though, because we have to. As 2007 showed, every point counts.”
However, when race day rolls around every weekend, both drivers go about their own business and follow their own strategies. Bilderback likes to have his car prepared and ready to go by Monday so if a problem arises, his team will have plenty of time to fix it. Bilderback calls himself “old-school” in regards to his setups at Rockford and admitted that he has a preferred qualifying and race setup that he always turns to, unless special circumstances force him to make adjustments.
Gille, on the other hand, focuses on racing his own race and puts special emphasis on being the fastest qualifier each week. After losing in 2007 by a single point, Gille altered his entire strategy. His goal now is to try and get every point he can and if something happens at the race track, maximize the situation and get the most points possible. In 2008, Gille’s final championship margin of 73 points featured 44 points that came solely from qualifying faster than Bilderback.
Bilderback admitted that after winning seven straight titles, he didn’t have the same championship drive last year and his team suffered for it. He has increased his effort this offseason however and is expecting it to pay off with better results. “The problem was it got so easy for me (winning seven titles in a row) and you just don’t work as hard when it’s easy so about midseason I knew that I was really in trouble,” he recalled. “I tried to step it up but it was too late. We don’t want that to happen again so we’ve stepped it up and we’re going to come out strong.”
The veteran driver is also going to be making the switch from Ford to Dodge in 2009 and he’s eager to see how his new custom-built Lefthander Chassis racing machine drives at night in cooler conditions. Bilderback already broke in his #2 Bilderback Auto Parts Dodge 360 on the high banks of Rockford last month at a near track record pace during an afternoon testing session. “We have a really, really fast new car,” Bilderback stated. “I lost a lot of points in qualifying and I didn’t want to give that up so I went to a straight-wheel car and it’s really strong. As long as we don’t crash I think we’re sitting pretty well.”
For Bilderback, winning an eighth title is on his mind as he focuses on 2009 and beyond. Bilderback admitted that he hopes to go down as the greatest driver in Rockford Speedway history when everything is said and done. “We have 150 feature wins, seven championships in a row, and if we can get an eighth championship, that’s still more than everyone else,” he said. “When Rockford closes someday, I want to be able to say I’ve accomplished more than any other driver in the track’s history. We got the seven in a row and now we’ve just got to go get the eighth. I think we can win ten features this year.”
“We’re gonna go there to win it,” he added, “and we’re not going to do anything different. It’s just my old-school driving, my old setups, and let’s go race. I win, I win and if I don’t, I don’t. The problem when I was younger was everything had to be perfect, and the problem with that is you’re never going to be perfect. We know our setups for the feature and now we just race.”
Bilderback and Gille both prefer Rockford to any other track in the Midwest and their battle will be going on for a while as both intend to keep racing there for the foreseeable future. “I’ve always raced there (at Rockford) and I’ve got good experience,” Gille stated. “I’ve also got a great crew that makes it happen week in and week out, and they are the ones who make it fun and worthwhile for me to do this. Add the crew and the experience together and we just click at Rockford. We know what we need to do and we do it. We’ll probably be doing it for a few more years.”
Bilderback prefers Rockford because it’s a NASCAR Home Track and he likes both Rockford’s tire rule and how professionally the track is ran. “It’s less chassis wear, only one tire a week, plus it’s a NASCAR Home Track,” Bilderback stated. “The management does a great job of running things on a week-by-week basis as well. I’ll probably be racing at Rockford Speedway until there is no more Rockford Speedway.”
Seven-time NASCAR Late Model champion Ricky Bilderback and defending NASCAR Late Model champion Jerry Gille will both kick off their respective bids for a title in 2009 tonight at the Rockford Speedway. The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series takes center stage with the Stanley Steemer NASCAR Late Models, Budweiser American Short Trackers and Mtn Dew RoadRunners all ready to get the 2009 season underway. Also on tap is the highly-anticipated return of the Darkhorse Demolition Derbies featuring both the Fair and Super Modified Demo classes in action following Saturday night’s feature events. The Sam’s Drive-In RoadRunner Challenge also returns with the fan favorite Pinata Race.
It’s USG Family Night at Rockford Speedway as $20 will net you two adult tickets and up to four children’s tickets. Adult single tickets remain $10, while ages 6-11 are just $5 and children ages five and under are admitted free. The green flag flies on the 2009 season at 7:07 p.m. with qualifying at 5:45 p.m. and spectator gates opening at 5 p.m.
For more information, including a full 2009 racing schedule and more, please visit the track’s website at www.rockfordspeedway.com or call the Speedway Box Office at (815) 633-1500.
This article was posted to the website on May 2nd, 2009
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