The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

The Chicago Jon Ghost Tour

"The Magical Mystery Tour is hoping to take you away,

                 Hoping to take you away..."

- The BEATLES, 1967


Greetings and salutations, one and all, come and climb on board for the maiden voyage of the Chicago Jon Ghost Tours Bus! We hope you'll have a great time as we explore some of the former sights here in Illinois of things that were awesome in their time. (Actually, I think most of you are here because you couldn't afford the fifty-one bucks for the TMZ bus tour, but anyway...) Be sure to at all times keep your hands, feet and other appendages within the confines of the bus. (Tommy LEE, I'm talking to YOU!) So, as they famously said in Animal House...ROAD TRIP!

As we arrive at our first stop, the corner of Tara and Wonderland Avenue in Alton, Illinois, may just seem like any other trailer park, but look closer. Those two lanes that run the length of the place were, from 1958 to 1972, ALTON DRAGWAY, a mere stone’s throw from the Drag Racing Online Mothership. Granted, you'd need Willie Mays’ ARM to hit the venerable Phlegm Building from here, but yeah, real close. History was made here as Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines broke the 200-mph barrier on April 4, 1960, with a clocking of 8.82 at 204.54 mph on this hallowed ground. Alton hosted countless races throughout the years, but the actual reasons for its closing has never been properly answered. If only that asphalt could talk – and, trust me, it looks like the ACTUAL original track.

As we head south on Hwy 31, if you look to your right you'll see 348 N. State, which to this day is some entrepreneur’s automotive shop. But in the early '70s, it was BUD RICHTER AUTOMOTIVE, home base for the legendary “Gold Digger” Mustang Funny Car. Even though they were a low budget match race type of operation, they still kicked ass and took names. When you have the trophy on your shelf from the 1971 Popular Hot Rodding Championships, yeah, "you're GOOD." That deal was looked upon as a national event at the time. OK, gang, POP-QUIZ time, stick your hand in the air if you know who driver Gary Bolger beat in the semi-finals? Yes, you are right, Tommy Lee, it WAS Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and I distinctly said to stick your HAND in the air, so put the mouse back in the house, OK?


The Chicago Jon Ghost Tour Bus is now headed northbound on Illinois Route 31, but before we reach our final destination, we're pulling into what is now Raceway Woods. But in 1968, drag racing RULED at what was then Meadowdale International Raceway.  Purpose-built as a Grand Prix track, it never gathered sufficient steam and was in constant flux. But in the spring of 1968, with a new management team on board, a new tower was built and for the first time the grandstands were packed for NHRA-sanctioned drag racing. (Yes, I have seen the official document, signed by Pappy Hart himself.) Noted racing historian Dennis Doubleday has recently "found the gold on Oak Island" and unearthed some photos from a large funny car race at the track, with the sprawling Fox Valley in the background. Sadly, there was a "wolf in the henhouse" and someone cooked the books and fleeced the new team of their operating capital, closing for good the track, dream, and pet project of original builder Leonard Besinger.


Our last stop is on the outskirts of Crystal Lake, Illinois, in a cornfield. Much like the one movie that is in EVERY Hot Rodders collection, 1973’s AMERICAN GRAFITTI, we have sought out the little rock station on the edge of town. Rock radio and drag racing have a long history; I mean people that never even WENT to a race will hear the word “dragster” and promptly sing out "Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!!” If you grew up in the '60s or '70s, you knew those radio spots, and they were played a LOT.


My July 2016 column dealt with racing songs, of which there are too many to count. Hmm … hey bus riders, how many rock songs are there about TENNIS? Yeah, I thought so. But sadly, this little anomaly was taken from us this month, blasting its last song (Neil Young’s ROCKING IN THE FREE WORLD) just past 1 p.m. on Monday, April 8. The station, 103.9 The FOX, started out in one direction, but over time, grew, morphed, threw the script out the window, and evolved into a one of a kind DREAM station. I became friends with everyone there, and they have all gone on record as saying they never in their lives had an experience ANYTHING like being a part of The Fox. (And everyone has robust resumes of careers in radio, so it speaks volumes.)

And what a cast of characters handling the DJ end of the station. Your day started with Eddie V., the son of a Chicago television legend. Eddie could have taken the easy path, cashed in on his last name and stood in front of a green-screen: "Hey, two high pressure systems walk into a bar" -- but that's not Eddie. His career started in KLCO in Poteau, Oklahoma. The sign at the edge of town says "Welcome to Poteau, clearly you're lost". Mid-days was handled by a walking-talking computer of sports knowledge known as “Quigs.” He might not remember what he had for breakfast yesterday, but ask him what the number three pick in the 2008 NFL draft ran the 40 in at the combine, HE'LL KNOW!


But the real throw-back, for this little rock station in the cornfield, was "Your Ride Home with Pat Capone". Now, picture if you will, that wizard guy Gandalf from those Ring movies. THEN, put him on a Harley, with some Jameson in the saddlebags and an old Fender Strat slung behind his back, as he pulls into the lot with a satchel of VINYL. Yes, vinyl records, being played over the airwaves, as it was intended in the first place! Scratches, pops, the occasional skip, so WHAT? You do not get the quality of sound from a download that you will from a record. And, the RECORDS!! Starting at 5, from his own personal collection, you were not hearing the same old crappy “McRock burger" that the corporate bastards serve up every hour! Who needs Boston’s SMOKIN three times a day when you can get a rare track from Alvin Lee or Ian Gillan? Patrick Capone’s 'Vinyl Vault' was a monster success from day one, and the highlight of many, MANY people’s day.


Sadly, the chess pieces were moved around in a corporate-bastard conference room somewhere, and The Borg swallowed up our little rock and roll chunk of happiness. Christian rock radio has taken control, and all my friends are unemployed. Now there is no longer anything worth listening to in the Chicagoland radio marketplace. Nothing, nowhere, just stale leftover corporate rock. Tasteless, worthless, left-overs getting clubbed like a government mule. "Hey, want to hear Tom Petty’s FREE FALLING again? No? Too bad, that's what's up next!"


So, that's the end of the tour, gang. Come around the back of the station, we have drinks, snacks, and discount coupons to BONGWORLD.COM. There is also a faulty old fridge full of Popsicles that Robert Weston Smith left behind; better hurry they're melting fast. I guess the moral of the story is that whether you are a racetrack that struggled for ten years until it went bankrupt, or a successful business that just gets screwed for no good reason, it can all end in an instant. Live, love, and laugh like every day was your last and take nothing for granted. Be it a stroke of a pen or a bolt of lightning, you can lose it all in a blink. Enjoy the living BLEEP out of everything, it might not be there tomorrow.


Til next time, and hopefully we'll have THAT, time for me to say...C-YAAAaaaa!!  



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