DuQUOIN, Ill. — To say that the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds is a special place for Joe Cooksey would be an understatement, times 10.
As the crow flies, Cooksey, of Centralia, Illinois, lives just more than 40 miles from the “Magic Mile.” His connection to the famous fairgrounds dirt track in DuQuoin, Illinois, reaches back as far as he can remember.
In other words, DuQuoin is home turf for the ARCA Menards Series veteran driver.
“Everything in racing since I was a little itty-bitty guy revolved around racing at DuQuoin,” said Cooksey.
Beyond the creature comforts of home, Cooksey, at 56 years-young, says he’s not done checking off the boxes.
“That’s the deal. I’m not done. I have some real unfinished business (at DuQuoin). I just can’t walk away without checking that box. These young kids can be beat; I ain’t done trying.”
It’s not like Cooksey is just blowing smoke. His ARCA track stats at DuQuoin — and the Springfield dirt mile for that matter — are down-right impressive.
Not only did Cooksey earn the pole at DuQuoin in 2000, some of his best ARCA finishes came on the dirt miles, including a pair of third-place finishes at DuQuoin in 2003 and ’06. Only Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader out-paced him in ’03 race. It’s also worth noting that Cooksey finished third at Springfield twice. Between the two aforementioned tracks, Cooksey has earned 14 top-five finishes in ARCA Menards Series competition. That’s not exactly chicken scratch.
“This may be it, maybe my last time I ever go. I’m going to hit it hard. I’ll have a meeting with my team. If they’re not willing to lose a limb, maybe this isn’t for them. When we show up at DuQuoin, we are going to be on it. It’s not just a good time; we’re coming to race. I’m excited to go.”
All that talk about his team, yet Cooksey has no idea who will be on his crew at DuQuoin. What he does know for now is that he’ll be driving a car fielded by Andy Hillenburg’s Fast Track Racing team in the Sept. 4 Southern Illinois 100. As a bonus, Cooksey will be a teammate to three-time DuQuoin ARCA winner Ken Schrader, who is also driving for Hillenburg.
According to Cooksey, the plan is to have a great time yet when it comes down to business, neither driver will be sharing any serious notes.
“He’ll do his thing and I’ll do mine,” Cooksey said. “We’ll poke around with each other and have a great time but we’re each in it to win it. Besides, the last time I asked Schrader for advice, all he said was, ‘You’ve got three pedals and a steering wheel; just figure it out.’
“We’re definitely serious about it, but no matter what it’s going to be a good time. Andy (Hillenburg) is generally excited. We’ll come out with years of stories out of one weekend. It’s gonna be good, but he (Hillenburg) also knows he’ll have a better chance with the two of us in his cars.
“But when the race starts, I’m as serious as a heart attack. It doesn’t matter who it is. Once we start racing, it’s every man (and woman) for himself.”
Cooksey is also aware that the “young kids” he referenced earlier will be driving top-notch equipment for powerhouse teams such as Venturini Motorsports, GMS Racing, Rette Jones Racing and David Gilliland Racing, to name a few.
“We know we’ll be out-monied, but racing on the dirt is the great equalizer. Money doesn’t always get the job done at DuQuoin. Seat-time matters, probably more at DuQuoin than anywhere. Those races are complicated; they’ll wear you out more than anywhere. It’s always hot and miserable. There’s so much going on inside the car that doesn’t go on in pavement racing. The track is forever changing. You’re never at ease on the dirt; you have to drive it every inch. It won’t just go down the straightaway; you have to drive it.”
If this does end up being Cooksey’s final ride in an ARCA car, it couldn’t come at a more perfect place.
“This just makes me happy. If there was any place I’d get excited for, it’s this. I could be running Daytona in February and it wouldn’t be as exciting as going to DuQuoin.”
Cooksey’s career-best ARCA finish was second at Flat Rock Speedway in 1999.
Former Southern Illinois 100 ARCA winners at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds include Stewart, Schrader, Dean Roper, Bob Keselowski, Billy Thomas, Frank Kimmel, Bob Strait, Bob Schacht, Parker Kligerman, Chris Buescher and Grant Enfinger.
The Southern Illinois 100 is Sunday, Sept. 4. ARCA Menards Series practice is from 4:15 – 5 p.m. CT, with General Tire Pole Qualifying at 6. The Southern Illinois 100 is scheduled to end under the lights with a start-time of 8 p.m. CT, live on MAVTV and FloRacing.