Illinois Travel: 59th running of the American Motorcyclist Association Grand National

Jane Miller

When Henry Wiles won his first three Tourist Trophy races at the Peoria Motorcycle Club, he was clearly in control.

That was not the case when he won at the track in June. Wiles and Joe Kopp battled elbow to elbow the last two laps before Wiles took the victory, his first in the Hot Shoe race at PMC.

“That was a really good race with Joe there,” said Wiles earlier this week. “I would expect to see more of the same on Sunday.”

Wiles will be shooting for his fourth consecutive Peoria TT Grand National win at the storied track and fifth victory in Peoria overall Sunday afternoon. Kopp will be trying to win his second.

“I'm really looking forward to it,” Kopp said. “It has been 10 years since I won my first race there.”

Both riders are bringing the bikes they rode in June, though both say they have made improvements.

“This weekend we're going to have a good bike,” Wiles said. “We've learned a lot the last couple of weeks and we're looking forward to it. It's going to be exciting to be back.”

Kopp said he's been saving his bike for this weekend.

“That was a fun battle (with Wiles),” he said. “I think we can do it again. I'm feeling pretty confident.”

Despite Wiles' recent stranglehold on the August TT, he knows he'll not only have to battle Kopp on Sunday but a host of other hungry riders who crave a trophy from one of the sport's most prestigious events.

“I think a lot of people are going to be good this year,” Wiles said. “(Thirteen-time champ) Chris Carr, Joe, JR (Schnabel, the 2003 winner) and Jake Johnson, he's been on the podium with me before. There's just a lot of guys that could do well there and it's definitely going to be a battle all the way to the back of the pack.”

One perennial contender who will not be racing is Johnny Murphree. He broke his leg July 21 in practice at Greenville, Ohio.

Kopp said he feels his dirt-track background has given him the confidence to run well at PMC. He'll need every bit of it to stay with Wiles.

“I just need to get a decent start,” Kopp said. “If he gets the hole shot, I need to follow him for a while and not show him what I've got until the end.”

Wiles, whose only Grand National wins have been at Peoria, said this race takes a special kind of rider.

“It's a track that separates the men from the boys,” he said. “It has a jump that you jump over 100 feet on that takes a certain mentality. You can drive it deep into a corner on a mile or half mile but your wheels never leave the ground. That (jump) definitely adds a different element to it. Some people like it, some people dread it.”

Though some riders may dread the jump, no one dreads coming to the racetrack.

“Driving down that hill, it's just a feeling of being awestruck that we're back here again in this beautiful place,” Wiles said. “There's no other place like it in the world, and it's just a great feeling in general just to be there. The race results and everything else, that's almost second to being there and being able to race.”

So special is winning the Peoria TT that Kopp pulled out the videotape of his 1997 victory and watched it Tuesday.

“It's a real important race to me,” he said of his first Grand National win. “It was real emotional. I've won quite a few races over the years and it's hard to remember the exact feeling of some of the others but I'll never forget that one. It was really special.”

The club members, who take care of every aspect of the race, have the facility in top shape.

“The track's excellent,” said longtime race director Bert Sanders. “The place looks super right now considering how hot it was.”

Though this is the 60th anniversary of the first national event, which was run in 1947, it is the 59th running of the race. Sanders said one race in the 1970s was lost to weather, though it didn't rain on the day of the race. Heavy rains the two days prior to the event washed out the south end of the track and repairs could not be made in time to hold the race.

This year's special guest is 1970 Grand National champion Gene Romero, who was a Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee in 1998.

IF YOU GO

What: 59th running of the American Motorcyclist Association Grand National Peoria TT, the longest continuous running dirt track motorcycle race in the world.

Where: Peoria Motorcycle Club Race Park, 605 Cameron Lane, Bartonville.

When: Sunday. Gates open 8 a.m., practice at 11:45 a.m., opening ceremonies 1:30 p.m., heats at 2 p.m., semifinals at 2:50 p.m., main event at 3:30 p.m.

Defending champion: Henry Wiles, Blanchard, Mich., who has won three Peoria TTs in a row, plus the Hot Shoe race in June.

What does TT mean? TT stands for Tourist Trophy, which describes a racing circuit that is irregular, has left and right turns and includes a hill - in this case, a jump. It must not have a water or mud crossing and must be at least 15 feet wide.

Admission: $20 at the gate. Children younger than 12 are free when accompanied by an adult. There is no permanent seating, so fans are advised to bring lawn chairs or a blanket. Beer is not allowed to be brought onto the grounds, but food and non-alcoholic beverages are permitted. Concessions also are available on the grounds.