EIGHINGER: 'Wildman' Kelly was one of the region's true pioneers

Posted: Jan. 5, 2013 9:18 pm Updated: Feb. 2, 2013 11:15 pm

Not many knew Francis Kelly by his Christian name. He was "Wildman" Kelly to most.

The Wildman, who died a few days ago at age 87, was one of the region's true pioneers. Not in a covered-wagon sense, but still an historical figure involving four wheels. He was one of, and arguably the first of the great dirt-track racing heroes from West-Central Illinois.

Before there was a Mark Burgtorf or a Hank DeLonjay, there was The Wildman. He raced in a day before newspaper and other media realized there were legions of fans who cared about auto racing. He raced in a time when there were no statistics kept, so it's impossible to measure his impact in terms of checkered flags and trophies.

Those who saw The Wildman race, or were able to get to know him, will never forget him.

"I remember watching him at Pittsfield, driving Dick Vance`s old yellow Ford Falcon," recalls longtime area driver, car owner and fan Chuck Ancell. "He would show up wearing all black with a big black duffle bag with his helmet and driving suit inside -- and he won everything!"

The Wildman, who was living in Macomb at the time of his death, was inducted into the Quincy Raceways Hall of Fame in September 2012, but was unable to attend the ceremonies because of health problems.

That was truly a shame, because I know many in attendance that night were hoping to get their first glimpse of this legend. Kelly's grandson, Matt Pepmeyer, a modified driver, accepted The Wildman's plaque that night.

One fan of The Wildman's who was on hand for his induction was Lon Tournear, one of those who championed Kelly's cause for the Hall of Fame.

"My knowing Wildman goes back over 50 years, back when my dad and uncle took me to a race at the old Pittsfield Speedway," Tournear said. "The only thing I remember about that night was Kelly winning and I had a new hero. Whenever we went to a track it seemed he always got the biggest cheers -- as he well he should have.

"After I was old enough to drive to the races myself, I spent a lot of nights in the pits with him and Dick Vance. The knowledge I got from those two no amount of money could buy. When Quincy Raceways opened (in 1975) and he started running there, his fan base grew as he quickly became a favorite.

"I had the honor of inducting him into The Hall of Fame (last) year and it is something I will always cherish," Tournear said.

We often tend to forget those who paved the way for others. We live in a time that seems to reward only the here and now. I have wondered in recent years as I have come to learn and hear more about The Wildman, what would his impact have been if he had raced in the era of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle? That's one of those questions that can never be answered.

The Wildman loved racing until the very end. We were told how honored he was to have become a Hall of Famer. In fact, the last picture I saw of the Wildman showed him sitting in a chair, wearing a huge smile -- and holding his Hall of Fame plaque.

"I sure am happy that we got to honor him before his passing," said Charlie Bryson, executive director of the Hall of Fame.

Judging by the responses I have seen and heard, so were many others.

"God now has a new star on the great dirt track up above," Tournear said. "But we still have many memories of one the greatest drivers from this area."

Rest in peace, Wildman.




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