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Chicagoland tradition helps Joliet races run smoothly

If you were one of the thousands who came to Chicagoland Speedway over the weekend to watch the NASCAR series, you may not have noticed those working behind the scenes who helped make the huge operation run smoothly.

It just so happens a small army of workers all dressed in blue polo shirts and armed with a squadron of golf carts almost all happen to be from the same Joliet neighborhood. That army has been working the big weekend pretty much every year since Chicagoland Speedway opened.

The tradition started because one of the original volunteers, Lee Rakoski, lived next door to Joie Chitwood, who oversaw the construction of the speedway in 2001.

“I knew who he was and befriended him because I get excited about this,” Rakoski said.

Rakoski asked if he needed any volunteers to help out, and it so happened that the operation was in need of people to serve food at the NASCAR and IndyCar races. Rakoski and his friend Ed Kreis, who, like Rakoski, is a retired teacher, jumped at the opportunity.

As the years went on, more neighbors joined, and their responsibilities expanded.

Diane Parker, Fran Parker, Brian Dames, Robert Gerdel, and Tom Zettergren all live in the same Glenwood Manor neighborhood as Rakoski, some on the same street, and decided to pitch in and help. Diane and Fran Parker, husband and wife, were really the only big NASCAR fans of the group. Others were just excited to be a part of it.

Eventually they would be tasked with giving tours of the racetrack to special guests, running errands, helping people find their cars or delivering nourishment to security guards in addition to preparing and serving food. The list of important people they’ve given rides to also is impressive.

The list includes former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, the several musical acts who have performed and, of course, former racers. The group members said giving the tours and driving people around were just as cool of an experience for their special guests as it was for the workers.

“They may not remember what we say,” Dames said. “They may not remember my name, but I think they’re going to remember how they felt the day that they were out at the track going places that they normally don’t go.”

But it’s not all fun stuff. The group put in a lot of hours over the four days at Chicagoland Speedway — needing to be at the track as early as 7 a.m. and working until whenever the last races, or the fireworks, end.

There have also been some emergencies for which they have had to help, including fetching insulin for a guest who needed it.

“We just kind of pick up things and help put out fires if they come up,” Diane Parker said.

But for the longtime friends and coworkers, it’s just really cool for them to be a small, yet vital part of such a big operation.

“I just like being on the other side of the ropes,” Dames said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

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