By Stan Kalwasinski
A former Chicago area stock car champion, Bobby Wawak made 141 NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup starts during his racing days.
Calling Villa Park, Ill. home during his Chicagoland career, Wawak captured the 1974 late model stock car championship at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind. Over a two-year period (1973-74), Wawak was a dominant force at the half-mile paved Hoosier speed plant, winning a total of 14 features during those years. Driving a 1971 Ford Torino owned by Vern Ladendorf, Wawak scored a total of 21 victories, including preliminary events, during his ’74 championship season.
Getting into drag racing during his teenage years, Wawak began racing stock cars at Mance Park Speedway in Hodgkins, Ill. around 1958. He was pretty much a regular competitor for a number of years at another old Chicagoland race track, the O’Hare Stadium in Schiller Park, competing in both the cadet (sportsman) and late model divisions there. 1965 saw Wawak compete on the old United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car circuit, making six races and chalking up a sixth place finish in one event during his rookie season. He finished 18th in the final USAC standings that year. Wawak would not return to USAC racing until 1969 and would compete on a limited basis into the early 1970’s.
Darlington, S.C. was the scene of Wawak’s first venture into NASCAR racing in 1965. Competing in the Southern 500, Wawak would start 27th and finish in 36th after engine woes sidelined him. Wawak would make 14 NASCAR starts in 1967, turning in three “top 10” performances in his 1966 Plymouth. He would make only one start in 1969 and two starts in 1971 before returning to NASCAR competition in 1976.
Driving for Jack Gwinn, Wawak made 19 starts in Gwinn’s Chevrolets in ’76 and finished in the “top 10” on 9 occasions with his best finish being a sixth place performance during the last race of the year at the Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway. Wawak would be credited with 22nd place in the final points after the 30-race season.
Wawak started and finished 18th in the ’77 season opener at the road course at Riverside, Calif. and then it was on to Daytona. Starting 17th in the 42-car field for the Daytona 500, Wawak suffered serious burns to his hands when a fuel line came apart on his Encyclopedia Britannica-sponsored Chevrolet with a fire resulting inside the cockpit on lap 3. Jumping out of the car before it came to a halt, Wawak, holding up his burnt hands, ran to the infield care center. “It was like sitting in front of a blow torch,” Wawak said later. Recovering from his burns, Wawak would make only six more starts that year.
From 1978 through 1987, Wawak, who relocated to Midland, N.C., competed in 96 NASCAR events, grabbing only two more “top 10” finishes. A wreck in the first 125-mile qualifying race for the Daytona 500 in 1988 would end Wawak’s driving career. Wawak’s Chevrolet slammed the turn-four wall at Daytona with Wawak suffering a fractured vertebrae and detached retinas.
With his driving days over, Wawak, as a car owner, would have Randy LaJoie run one race later in 1988 and then Mike Potter would drive for Wawak in three races in 1990, which was the last time Wawak would enter a car in NASCAR competition. In later years, Wawak handled show car duties for Hendrick Motorsports.
At age 64, Wawak passed away on April 17, 2004. He was survived by his wife Stevi, daughters, Jaclin Wawak and Robin Wawak Pemberton and grandchildren, Lauri Trotter and River Pemberton, in addition to two brothers, Allen Wawak and Richard Wawak; three sisters, Carole Tarvash, Joyce Annanie, and Marilyn Zmich.