When Jody Deery suddenly lost her husband in 1984, she had a decision to make: Would she continue to run Rockford Speedway? With the help of her eight children, Deery has triumphed as a legendary racing promoter.
Jody Deery is surrounded by an endless supply of good memories, thanks to a career that almost didn’t happen. Her spacious office, perched high above the Rockford Speedway, is filled with racing flags, newspaper articles, replica race cars, photos, awards. Deery is CEO of Deery Co., which includes the Rockford Speedway and Forest Hills Lodge, the latter added to the speedway property in 1978.
“I don’t like things messy,” she says. “I probably need to throw a lot of this stuff out, but I can’t. What would I throw out? Look at all these fond memories. The best part is all the people that I’ve met.”
The Deery family has one of the best names in American short track racing. The family’s core business has been the tough .25-mile banked oval of Rockford Speedway, itself a slice of racing Americana, since 1948.
Back in 1959, when she was working as a registered nurse, Jody and husband Hugh Deery, an insurance salesman, purchased a stake in the track. In the mid-1960s, they became sole owners. They entered the track ownership business with little knowledge of racing and built it into a nationally known, award-winning, star-making facility. All eight of their children worked on their “family farm,” and several made their own motorsports careers, away from Rockford. There are 18 grandchildren.
“We had no experience in promoting races whatsoever,” Jody says. “We had a partner in the track that knew racecars and Hugh knew business. I had never been to a race.”
The Deerys weren’t the only people to find success at the Speedway. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby got his first job in race officiating at Rockford Speedway. And despite the nature of a tight, unforgiving track and some of the toughest short track racers in the country, John Knaus won seven NASCAR Late Model division track championships at Rockford Speedway, as well as a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series regional championship in 1994. His young crew chief son, Chad, went on to work for Hendrick Motorsports, becoming a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion crew chief, with driver Jimmie Johnson.
“Many of our drivers and staff members have gone on to do big things,” says Jody. “We’re glad to help them get to the next step in their journey. We’re a stepping stone. Many kids worked here in high school and learned a good work ethic.”
Tragically, Hugh died very suddenly from a heart attack in 1984. “Hugh was a good man,” says Jody. “Everyone loved him. He was a good father. He gave out the discipline and I carried it out. We made a good team.”
Forced to make a decision about the family business, Jody decided to forge on without her husband, a female in a male-dominated profession. She and her eight children triumphed over adversity, and she’s still going strong. She’ll turn 90 in November, but Deery has no plans for slowing down.
“In a word, she’s inspirational,” says son Chuck Deery, general manager of LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in Wisconsin. “She’s non-stop, always dedicated to the work. She’s amazing. I could only hope when I’m almost 90 that I still have the same ambition that she does.”
In the Beginning
Deery is a native of Darlington, Wis. She grew up on a farm next door from Hugh, who was four years older than her. “I was good friends with his sister,” Jody says. “We just lived over the hill.” Hugh and Jody grew up during the Great Depression. They understood hard work, but never went hungry.
“When you lived on a farm, everyone had to work, even when you were little,” she recalls. “As soon as you could do a job, you would do it. To get something to eat, you might have to kill a chicken, so you did it. I grew up on the farm with very loving parents, and that’s where I really learned the value of working together.”
In 1942, Hugh enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After eye exams revealed a depth perception problem, he trained as a wartime aircraft controller and served in Newfoundland. Jody wrote to Hugh and the other military members she knew. During leaves, Hugh visited her. After the war, Hugh moved to Chicago to start an insurance career.
In 1946, Jody graduated from the Saint Anthony School of Nursing in Rockford. Afterward, she lived in a house with other nurses, where she and her friends hosted Sunday dinners for their gentlemen friends. The guys were asked to bring something to contribute to the meal. Jody invited Hugh.
“The deal was you had to bring groceries to our dinners,” Jody says. “Hugh always brought the biggest bag, so he always got invited.” When they weren’t dining, the group went dancing at the Rockford Country Club. One night, Jody and Hugh sat up talking all night long. After that, they were a couple, and married a year later, in 1948.
Hugh’s work took him to Springfield, Ill., so Jody joined him there. “I worked in a hospital during the polio epidemic, for $195 a month,” she recalls. The couple also lived in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Dixon, Ill., before settling in Rockford in 1954. Hugh opened an insurance business in their basement; Jody worked private duty at all three Rockford hospitals.
Hugh watched the kids at night, as Jody slept for an hour or two, after she got home from night floor duty at Rockford Memorial Hospital. She watched the kids all day, then napped again when Hugh returned from work, before she had to report for work again. Deery did polio nursing at a time when most nurses were terrified of catching the disease. Eventually, she left nursing to become Hugh’s office assistant, taking phone calls and filing claims.
Not surprisingly, it was during their time in Indianapolis that the Deerys caught the racing bug. Hugh was working as a claims examiner. He was invited by friends to volunteer on a wrecker at the Indy 500.
“Hugh didn’t know anything about cars,” Jody says. “He invited me to tag along. I sat in the stands. I thought it was different.”
In Rockford, Hugh’s younger brother, John, bought some shares in the Rockford Speedway. He didn’t like the racing business and sold them to Hugh, who worked concessions and ushered at the speedway. Eventually, Hugh and Jody took out a second mortgage, bought out the other partners and became sole owners of Rockford Speedway in 1964, selling their insurance agency.
Growing Up Deery
“But what really inspires me to do what I do is that, when I was raising my children, I had so much help from everyone,” recalls Jody. “I promised myself back then that if someone ever asked me for help or needed my help, I would always say ‘yes.’”
The eight Deery kids – Gunner, Ted, Jack, Susan, Tom, Brad, Chuck and David – all had Rockford Speedway duties by age 5. Dr. Gunner Deery (born in 1949) is an infectious disease specialist in Michigan; Ted (1950) builds EPA-mandated geodesic domes for highway salt storage; Jack (1952) is a salesman for Brad Deery Motors in Iowa; Tom (1954) is CEO and president of DIRT MotorSports; Susan (1957) is the concession manager, among other roles, at Rockford Speedway; Brad (1959) owns three automobile dealerships in Iowa; Charles (“Chuck,” 1961) operates LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in Wisconsin; and David (1963) is Director of Operations at Rockford Speedway.
“They’re good kids,” Jody says. “When we had the chance to buy the Speedway, we first made a ‘pros and cons’ list and decided the Speedway was the best place to raise eight kids. It kept them off the street. All the kids ran notes back and forth from the scorer at the top and the flagman on the track. We lined up the kids and their friends and they swept the track together. The only thing the kids missed out on was being in the Boy Scouts.”
Chuck says: “It was a family effort every week to put on a show. Working as a family had a lot of upside to it that we as kids didn’t realize until later. Mom and Dad showed us what hard work can do. It’s rewarding to know that hard work is not a burden. It’s a blessing. The fact that my mom is still going to work every day proves that.”
Hugh believed life experience was a good teacher to his children. Pre-Interstate road trips were the perfect classroom, and the family went to Florida every winter. “Hugh wanted them to know where they were and what they were seeing, and made them aware of what was around them,” Jody says. “Sometimes it took us a week to get to Florida. We’d stop to see anything he thought the kids would learn from.”
The family knew how to have fun while traveling, too.
“Hugh was a jokester,” Jody recalls. “There’d be a barricade, and he’d pretend to drive into it to scare the kids. Our vacation started when the camper pulled out of the driveway. We had a list. Who’d be the first kid to see green grass, or the first kid to see an oil well? Whoever had the most marks, when we got to Florida, would pick out the meal when we went out for dinner. That was the prize. Along the way, he stopped to read historical signs or look at unique bridges.”
Hugh Deery had one simple philosophy about his business: that short track racing should be promoted as entertainment, and that his customers should be entertained.
“Hugh loved the circus because that was entertainment,” Jody says. “‘We’re not in the racing business, we’re in the entertainment business,’ he’d say. ‘In order to put on a show, we have to entertain.’ A lot of times, after he was gone, I asked myself, ‘What would Hugh do?’ He was the idea guy. I wasn’t. That’s what I miss the most. He had all the crazy ideas. Some of them worked. I always came out with the broom and swept up the mess. I’d say, ‘If this is what you want to do, let’s do it.’”
Among Hugh’s ideas were bank deposit races, grocery cart races, outhouse races, school bus races and trailer races. The latter is an idea son Chuck brought home from England, where he was a foreign exchange student. “It was silly stuff,” says Jody. “One time we owned an old ambulance and they staged a wreck and put a dummy in the ambulance. When the door opened, the gurney came flying out. Cars were coming at the dummy, and I was in the stands watching people freak out. I was laughing.”
For Hugh, it was all about taking care of the kids and giving families an enjoyable experience. “He’d try any gimmick,” Jody says. “The racing purists tolerated it, and lots of new fans came to see it and then became race fans.”
For their efforts, the Deery family has won the Racing Promotion Monthly Auto Racing Promoter of the Year award, and four RPM ARPYs at two tracks. Hugh Deery won the Promoter award in 1976 and then posthumously in 1984, for his promotion of Rockford. Ten years after her husband’s passing, Jody Deery won the same award in 1994. In 2000, LaCrosse, Wis., Fairgrounds Speedway promoter Chuck Deery won the same award his parents had received earlier in his life.
“The root of Jody’s impact on this industry is her passion for the sport and her understanding of the business,” says Stewart Doty, publisher of Racing Promotion Monthly. “Her willingness to help other people is incredible. There are hundreds of promoters who contact her with questions and she takes all those phone calls. But Jody would never tell you that. She’s not flamboyant. She’s a quiet leader.”
For real race fans, the Deerys established the postseason National Short Track Championships, still a huge Midwestern motorsports happening. Dick Trickle was the first NSTC winner in 1966. Winners over the years include a Who’s Who of all-time greats: Joe Shear, Mark Martin, Jim Sauter, Junior Hanley, Mike Alexander, Tim Fedewa, Rich Bickle, Butch Miller, Steve Carlson and Ramo Stott are among them.
Filling a Huge Void
Life was very good until the Deery family was shaken to the core by Hugh’s sudden death in 1984.
“We weren’t ready,” Jody says. “We said, ‘This can’t be happening.’ He was here today and gone tomorrow. It was tough. I had some pity moments. We had all these plans. We’d never talked about death. Every fall, we went on a vacation. We went to Europe, South America. But you have to go on, and that’s what I had to do.”
Despite a few naysayers, Deery decided to forge on with the family business. Her husband was no longer around, but she had her children to help her. “I didn’t think we should quit,” she says. “I had all these boys. Let’s go for it. I had people say I wouldn’t make it because I’m a woman. I was entering a ‘man’s world.’ Back then, women weren’t even allowed into the pits. There were hardly any restrooms for women, at racing facilities, and there were few women spectators. Now, there are women in every aspect of racing, and lots of women spectators.”
It took a few years for Deery to earn the respect of the racing community. “I knew everything about the business because I did the books,” she recalls. “I knew what had to be done, and so did all the kids. People said I couldn’t do it and the kids couldn’t do it. We all had to do our part, and it worked.”
Staying busy helped the family get through the grieving process. Deery and the kids made no big changes to the Speedway operation.
Shortly before his sudden death, Hugh had signed Rockford Speedway into the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series family of tracks.
“That was a big blessing for us,” Jody says. “We looked to them for rules and could ask them questions. They were good.”
Five years ago, the NASCAR Hall of Fame asked Deery to become a voting member. Deery travels to Charlotte, N.C., each spring to help decide who will be inducted into the annual class. She and 50 other NASCAR VIPs gather in a room to look over the list of nominees, debate their merits and vote.
“It’s funny,” Jody says. “There are 50 people and only two of us are women. I like to sit next to Richard Petty. Last spring, he doodled pictures of some birds with his pencil. When he got done, I said, ‘That’s wonderful, what are you going to do with it?’ He autographed it and gave it to me.”
Many NASCAR Hall-of-Famers have appeared at the Rockford Speedway, at one time or another, and Deery says they never forgot Rockford. “They say, ‘Oh yeah, Rockford. I remember that little track,’ and that makes you feel good,” says Deery.
“My mom is a pillar in the industry,” says Chuck. Not just because she’s a woman in her 80s. It’s the operation that she runs that has her looked upon as a leader in the industry. I still learn valuable lessons from her, whether it’s a success or something that didn’t work out, like a promotion. To try something different takes courage. My mom continues to leave a mark in racing.”
Deery offers her support to a number of non-racing related local organizations, too. She serves as a board member for Catholic Charities; has worked on behalf of the sight and hearing impaired; supports St. Elizabeth’s Social Center and Reach Out; hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for family “and anyone who’s lonely” every year – nearly 100 attended last year; and hosts an open house nativity walk at her residence every Christmas season.
Just to make sure she stays busy, Deery also works on behalf of the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society and St. James Catholic Church and School, which all eight of her children attended. She also raises money for at-risk foster children, low-income families and nursing scholarships for St. Anthony’s College of Nursing in Rockford, to help combat the current shortage of practitioners. “If you can help, why not,” she says. “I’m happy to do it.”
As for hobbies, Deery collects nativity scenes. She has more than 200, stored in an attic, that she pulls out every Thanksgiving.
These days, the Rockford Speedway draws crowds of 2,000 on weekends and 500 on Wednesday evenings. It still hosts many popular races, some just silly fun, like the figure eight races and the “Faster Pastor” races that draw large church crowds. Kids Days also are a big hit.
But the changing Rockford economy has taken a toll on Rockford Speedway’s customer base.
“You see a lot of empty buildings that used to be factories,” says Deery.
“They were once filled with blue-collar workers and they were our customers. We don’t have them anymore. We don’t get doctors and lawyers to come here. It’s tough on our drivers. Having a race car costs a lot of money. Sponsorships used to be much easier for drivers to get from local companies.”
But Jody Deery has been through tough times before. It takes a lot to get her flustered. She’s not giving up.
“How do I stop doing this?” she asks. “As long as I have my health and half my brain, I would like to continue.”
Someday, she’ll turn the business over to children Susan and David. But not quite yet.
“I still enjoy coming to work. I didn’t think I’d be living this long, but I feel good,” she says. “Besides, what else do I have to do?”