Lil’ Joe Saldana got the racing bug from his uncle, Orville Hoffman. Hoffman and Buck Fallstead had a modified stock car, which they raced at Capitol Beach Speedway in Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as other local circle tracks. Joe became very interested in the sport and put a car together to race at the Beach. He bought it for $500, fixed it up and was ready to go racing. The only hitch in his plan was that he was only 15 years old. So what did he do? He did what any self-respecting young racers would – he lied about his age!
By 1967 he was one of the top racers in the Midwest, nearly winning the Knoxville Nationals that year. In 1970, Lil’ Joe had become a top draw across the country, winning the Knoxville Nationals and the Knoxville track championship to boot.
It was time to step up in class, so Joe moved to Brownsburg, Indiana, and joined USAC for the 1971 season. Saldana dutifully served his apprenticeship across all of USAC’s open wheel divisions and got his first win at Charleston, Illinois, aboard George Gamester’s midget in 1972. He scored a major victory in 1973, with a win at Terre Haute in the Hulman Classic. ABC’s Wide World of Sports had shown the first two Hulman’s on a tape-delay basis because of weather issues, so the 1973 edition was the first sprint car race to be shown live on national television.
Joe’s other signature USAC win came in the 1976 Hoosier Hundred when he outfought A.J. Foyt for the victory.
Joe also had Silver Crown success in the Ted Horn 100 at DuQuoin, Illinois in 1984 and a one-lap track record at Springfield, Illinois in 1985, which was his last year as a driver.
The list of car owners Saldana has driven for reads like a hall of fame roster: Mauri Amerling, Maynard Boop, Dick Hammond, Gus Hoffman, John Leverenz, Don Seibert, Bill Smith, Ray and Cissy Smith, Bob Trostle, Johnny Vance and Lloyd Weaver.
Since retiring as a driver, Joe has remained involved in the sport, helping his son, Joey, to a successful car sprint car career.