Katona’s legacy not forgotten as his records fall

Legendary ARCA driver Iggy Katona considered Toledo Speedway his home track despite living 45 miles away in Willis, Michigan.
Legendary ARCA driver Iggy Katona considered Toledo Speedway his home track despite living 45 miles away in Willis, Michigan.

YPSILANTI, Mich. — Tucked in a corner of the Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town is a six-foot tall trophy case that contains a handful of auto racing relics. Inside are three trophies, a scuffed racing helmet, a white racing suit emblazoned with a Goodyear logo, and photos of a local driver at the wheel of a Dodge muscle car.

Next to the case is a photo of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who has long been deemed “The King” of stock car racing, but the small memorial honors Iggy Katona. In 25 years as an ARCA driver, the Toledo-born Katona established himself as one of the country’s most decorated stock-car drivers.

Yet the records Katona have held in the ARCA Racing Series are falling. Six months before his 58th birthday, Katona won the 1974 ARCA 200 at Daytona International Speedway and became the oldest driver to win an ARCA race.

In May of this year, 57-year-old Ken Schrader supplanted Katona as the oldest driver to win an ARCA race title. Schrader won the Menards 200 10 days before his 58th birthday at Toledo Speedway — a track Katona once considered his home venue even though he lived 45 miles north, in Willis, Mich.

Frank Kimmel tied Katona’s ARCA record on June 30 when he won his 79th race, the Herr’s Taste the Chase 200 at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway. If Kimmel wins the Ansell ActivArmr 150 on July 21 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., he will supplant Katona as ARCA’s winningest driver — a record that has stood since 1974, when Kimmel was 11 years old.

In the 2002 book ARCA 50 Years of Racing, Katona reflected on what helped his consistency.

“I’ve been lucky,” said the six-time ARCA champion, who retired from racing in 1977. “Sometimes I haven’t been able to run as hard and fast as I wanted to because I was afraid my car wouldn’t stay together, but most of the time, we’ve been able to stick in there with them.”

Yet Katona never took the opportunity to join the NASCAR ranks, despite finishing 10th in a 1965 NASCAR Grand National event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“In the north, my dad was a champion,” said Ron Katona, who worked as a mechanic for his father and who now lives in Port Orange, Fla. “In the south, driving there is like being one of the fill-in drivers. He was never one to get in a car that ran second. He always wanted to have the top-of-the-line. We finished 10th [at Charlotte] but it took a lot of money, and that’s one of the things we had to have. We were average people who loved to race.”

Aside from serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, the elder Katona didn’t have a career. Stock car racing, Ron Katona said, was his father’s life.

“You have to love it,” he said. “You have to love to race. You race for that trophy and that checkered flag. We didn’t make a whole lot of money back in those days.”

Katona’s son remembers barnstorming with his family from Texas to Michigan as his father pursued his racing career. With his brother, Jim, the younger Katona began working as a mechanic on his father’s racing toys when he was eight years old, first on motorcycles and then in several different models of cars, including a 1953 Hudson Hornet and a 1965 Plymouth Wedge.

As the Midwest Association for Race Cars became rebranded as the Automobile Racing Club of America in 1964 and later the ARCA Racing Series, Iggy Katona continued to drive — and continued to win, finishing in the top 10 in driver points standings from 1953 to 1973 and in the top three 15 of those years.

Katona earned his 79th — and final — win in ARCA’s 200-mile race in 1974 at Daytona International Raceway. He drove in his last race three years later, then retired to northern Michigan before he died in 2003.

“He never did anything else besides race,” his son said. “It became a job. Most drivers will feel that way. When it’s fun, you don’t mind working all night and going to the race track. And when it’s not fun, it’s time to get out and quit.”

Ron Katona sent artifacts from his father’s racing career to the auto museum in Ypsilanti, at Cross and River streets. Those items are housed in a small memorial adjacent to a 1933 Hudson Terraplane K Series Coach — the precursor to the Hornet, one of the first cars Iggy Katona drove in ARCA competition.

“We were there when it started,” Ron Katona said. “It means a lot to see how ARCA has grown because you were a part of it, and they still recognize you. When I go to Daytona every year, Ron Drager [ARCA’s president] has a pass for me, and one of the things my dad always said was, ‘I hope they never forget us.’

“They haven’t, by far. They’ve always remembered. That’s one of the good things.”

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