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Sports

The next generation

Minooka resident Patrick Wilda Jr. (bottom) battles with 2006 United States Auto Club Regional Series champion Scott Thoman during the 2006 season finale. (UMARA.com photo)
Minooka resident Patrick Wilda Jr. (bottom) battles with 2006 United States Auto Club Regional Series champion Scott Thoman during the 2006 season finale. (UMARA.com photo)

Second-generation midget race car driver and Minooka resident Patrick Wilda Jr. may have been destined to develop the love for open-wheel racing he has today. Wilda is in his fifth consecutive season as a United Midget Auto Racing Association National Midget driver, making his family's presence in the sport approach its seventh decade. His grandfather, Ray Wilda, began working as a midget crew chief in the 1950s and continued to do so for the better part of 30 years. Patrick Wilda Sr. began racing midgets in 1974 and continued to do so until Wilda Jr. started his career behind the wheel in 2004. “Being around it so much when I was younger definitely helped me fall in love with it,” said Wilda Jr. “I guess it's the same as, if your grandpa was a big baseball fan and took you to games, you would strive to be a baseball player. Being around (midget racing) and seeing all of what goes into it really changed my outlook. You learn that there is a lot more than driving. There's a lot of math involved and some engineering. I learned to love the intensity and the speed and all that goes into the sport.” The youngest Wilda started racing at the age of 9, when he began competing in go-carts. He moved up to the full-sized model at 16, when he came to the Grundy County Speedway in Morris and captured National Rookie of the Year honors. “I started (in UMARA) at 16, which was the first chance I got,” said Wilda. “We did start in the Nationals, even though we didn't have a car at the time that was capable of competing. So we spent some time basically running in the back and gaining laps and experience. Then we jumped into the Sportsman class for a couple of years and jumped back up to the Nationals once we'd gotten a better motor.” In 2005, Wilda finished second in the points race and was named Championship Car Owner, Most Improved Driver and Fan's Favorite Driver. He finished third in the National points in 2006 and fourth in 2007 and added a United States Auto Club Regional 10th-place points finish in 2006. He entered 2008 with four A main wins and 32 top-10 finishes in 50 starts for his career. “It (his career highlight) was probably 2005,” said Wilda. “That was the year I won the car owner championship. My family had never really won any kind of championship in racing. Another highlight was that I hadn't won any feature races up to that point, but we went out and reeled off three that year. We could have had a few more, too, barring some accidents and things like that.” Entering Saturday's UMARA event at the Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Wilda was seventh in the National standings with 506 points. Division leader Jim Anderson entered the event with 1,067 points. The chances of Wilda gaining ground were crippled by the fact that he missed the day's racing. “I haven't actually been racing because we broke a camshaft in our motor,” said Wilda. “We won (the fifth annual Carter Anderson Classic on June 21), and the following weekend after the win, we went out and had the camshaft in our motor break on us. “We've missed a few weeks, but we're getting a part in and should be back to run at the Illinois State Championship (at Grundy). It's a co-sanctioned event (with the United States Auto Club Regional class and Kenyon Cars), and hopefully we can come back and do well.” Relatively speaking, Wilda is satisfied with what he has been able to accomplish during his UMARA driving career. “Considering the equipment we've had has always been inferior to what our competition uses, I think we've gone very, very well,” said Wilda. “We've always been going up against bigger dollar teams. As a whole, we've run pretty consistently in the National division the last four or five years.” In the short term, Wilda is focused on returning to the track next week and being as competitive as possible during the rest of the 2008 season. Once it is over, he is not exactly sure that his future in racing holds. “It's kind of a money-driven sport, and with the economy the way it is, we're kind of limited,” said Wilda. “We haven't got as much help as we'd like in terms of sponsors. I plan to race with USAC Regional (series) and also over in Indiana. If UMARA stays in this area, I plan to run with it and also run in Michigan.” Wilda's current sponsors are Kankakee-based Advanced Lubrication and Yorkville-based Fox Valley Sandblasting. He was raised in Joliet before moving out to Minooka during his childhood. He sells oil for a living. He said that he enjoys “pretty much anything automotive” and has time for no consistent hobbies apart from racing.

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