By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — NASCAR driver Josh Bilicki is using a break from the national circuit this weekend to make his debut on the banked oval short track of the Rockford Speedway.
Bilicki, who was born in a Wisconsin town about 100 miles from Rockford, said he’s long known about the Speedway’s reputation for short-track racing. But with his background in sports-car racing, the closest Bilicki came to racing here was at Blackhawk Farms’ seven-turn racetrack outside of South Beloit.
That changes this weekend as the 27-year-old NASCAR pro runs in the Big 8 Series 188. A field of 24 are scheduled to compete on Sunday.
“It’s a very historic track,” Bilicki told the Rock River Current on Tuesday in between practice laps at the Speedway. “This is a track where, after my career switch from sports-car racing to NASCAR, I’ve wanted to come here, but it needed to be on the right terms.”
Those terms fell into place thanks to a trio of local sponsors, the biggest being Rockford-based Insurance King. His car this weekend will also be tagged with sponsorships from Rock’n Vodka and Arachnid 360 Bulletshooter dartboards.
“One of the Insurance King team members is also a crew member for this race team. Everything kind of aligned perfectly to bring me here to Rockford,” Bilicki said. “I happy that the first time I’m seeing the track I’m driving it.”
Bilicki, who completed his first full season in the NASCAR Cup Series last year, faces a tough adjustment to the 22-degree banks at the Rockford Speedway.
“We’ll see how he does. That’s the next test,” said David Deery, the Speedway’s general manager. “It’s not that easy just to jump around, especially now a unique short track like Rockford with the high banks.”
A solid car and a learning curve
Bilicki will be driving a Chevy owned by past short-track champion Jon Reynolds Jr. Deery said its a solid car that should serve Bilicki well.
“I’m sure he’s having a big learning curve today,” Deery said Tuesday as Bilicki practiced. “This is a whole different animal.”
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Bilicki has familiarity with similar tracks, growing up near the Slinger Speedway in Wisconsin, another well-known short track. But Rockford’s track has a different feel.
“It’s a different type of race track, something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Bilicki said.
“When you look at NASCAR, a lot of the drivers that are racing in NASCAR grew up racing tracks like this, short tracks, whether it’s asphalt or dirt,” he said. “My background is so different than most other NASCAR drivers, so for me it’s very different.”
Deery said Bilicki’s appearance here adds a little extra excitement to an already competitive event in which the top three racers are just points apart, “so every position, every lap is important.”
The Big 8 race has an extra angle to it this weekend because the winner gets $4,000 and eighth place pays $3,000.
“I’m trying something new in racing where it will have almost two races within itself, because it will be a battle for the lead and now we’ll have this battle for eighth,” Deery said. “It’s kind of unique. We’ll see how it works.”
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Deery said it was more common for NASCAR pros to race at short tracks and meet their fans years ago. He’s happy they were able to make it happen again with Bilicki.
“We were lucky this all kind of gelled together,” he said. “He’s got a big following. It’s only unfortunate that it took this long for him to come here.”
Racing in Chicago streets
Bilicki also plans to compete next summer in the first-ever NASCAR street course, which will take over Chicago streets on July 1 and 2.
It’s a first-of-its-kind race for the NASCAR Cup Series. While open-wheel racing such as Formula 1 often competes on street courses, stock cars typically run on oval tracks.
“Lots of question marks going into that weekend. Lots of unknowns,” Bilicki said. “There’s going to be a lot of teams that maybe show up with a completely wrong setup than what they thought.”
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But, with his background in sports-car racing, Bilicki thinks this event will be a good fit for him.
“I’m excited about it, with my background being road-course racing. I think it’s going to bring a lot of eyeballs,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a road course so it’s going to be a completely different experience for NASCAR fans.”