Bob Tattersall lived fast — it was just his way. However, he also died young — but not before compiling a Hall of Fame career as a race car driver.
In a lot of ways, Tattersall, a Seneca native, embodied the bravado of James Dean back in his heyday in the 1950s and 60s — especially on the race track — and because of it the United Midgets Racing Association will be honoring him this Saturday by running a race in his name. The idea for the memorial race came from current Grundy County Fairgrounds Secretary Burdette Carter.
"I've been talking to them about it for years and I finally sold them on the idea," Carter said. "I hope it's a great success."
If it's anywhere near as competitive as the man himself, success will certainly follow. Bob Richards was recently asked to help UMARA promote Saturday's race because he knew Tattersall so well.
"I knew Bob Tattersall and raced against him, and they (UMARA) asked if I'd help out because it's the first time the race has been run," Richards said. "I said yes because I loved the guy. I said I'd be glad to help out."
Richards said he first saw Tattersall racing as a kid before growing up and joining his ranks, including running against the legend himself.
"When I was a kid, probably about 10-years old, my mom and dad took me to Joliet Memorial Stadium, and he was my hero," he said. "When I was older, I started racing and got good enough to race USAC and drove against him."
USAC is the United States Auto Club, which governed the Indianapolis 500 at the time.
"He was also running in the USAC sprint car division," Richards said. "He was running with the big boys there."
Tattersall recorded 33 feature wins in his career UARA (United Auto Racing Association), and Richards is second on that list with 23.
"Finishing second to him is great," Richards said.
"He was a total joy on the race track. He was a racer's racer," Carter said. "The young people around here these days don't realize that Bob Tattersall is originally from Seneca and that he raced stock cars in Mazon and Fairbury. He was a joy to watch."
Many followers of racing admired his Dale Earnhardt Sr.-like tenacity on the track.
"When he was running stock cars, you had to get out of the way when he was behind you," Carter said. "He'd try to go around you on the left, or he would try to go around you on the right and sometimes he'd go right over you if he had to. That's the way he was on the track, but off the track he'd be the first one to give you a hand if you needed it."
Which made him a fan favorite.
"The fans loved him," Carter said. "He always got along with the fans."
With USAC, Tattersall raced all over the United States, racing all different venues and types of tracks.
"He ran all over," Richards said. "He was a professional racer."
What some people out there today may not realize is that Tattersall raced on both dirt and paved surfaces — in the same car.
"He raced on a mix of dirt tracks and pavement. I'd say at the time it was probably about 50/50, and basically he ran the same car on asphalt that he raced on dirt," Richards said. "Now it's all specialized, but back then they might change the tires and raise the chassis (for dirt), but that was about it."
"I know he ran close to 100 races a year. One day he'd be on the dirt and then he'd clean up the car and head to a different state to run on pavement — all in the same car."
Richards says that Tattersall was able to make a good living off of racing because of two main keys — maintenance and ownership.
"They made more money back then than they do now. But the cost to maintain these cars now a days is expensive, and back then he had one car and he worked on it himself," Richards said. "He was a good mechanic and that helped him a lot."
"With the reputation he had, he didn't have a lot of sponsors, but he had good car owners. He ran for Frank Pavese and then Tony Saylor," he added. "There were others whose cars were just as good, but Tattersall made the difference."
Both in the states, as well as abroad.
"He's probably one of the first U.S. drivers who went and spent his winters over in Australia," Carter said.
"Even up to the end he raced before he gave it up about two years before he died. He was a racing hero, even overseas in Australia," Richards said. "He was such a showman in the way he ran both on dirt and on pavement."
On Saturday night, the Inaugural Bob Tattersall Classic Midget Race will be on the pavement at the Grundy County Speedway. Expected to attend the ceremonies of the night is Tattersall's wife, Dee.
"Dee is going to be there on Saturday night. They're going to take her around the track in the pace car and do some laps," Richards said. "She spent so much time with him and was a large part of his life."
"I loved him dearly and I am so proud of his accomplishments," Dee said in a press release.
Which is essentially what UMARA is stating by honoring him with the race on Saturday.
"He was a really great driver — probably the best one ever to come out of the area," Richards said. "In my opinion, anyway, he was THE best driver ever to come out of our area."
"He's probably the most prolific driver from around here," Carter said. "Without a doubt he was the best race driver ever to come out of this area."