Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hawkeye Downs; Big Cars and Fireworks

Advertisement for the 1965 event.

By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – For numerous years, the International Motor Contests Association (IMCA) would have traditional dates on its schedule year in and year out, whether it was sprint cars or stock cars.

One of those long-established dates was the IMCA sprint cars at Hawkeye Downs on July 4th weekend. Starting in 1951 and continuing until 1968, race fans could get the best of both worlds on the holiday weekend; seeing their favorite open-wheel stars and then witnessing fireworks afterwards.

Deb Snyder would be in a class all by himself on July 4, 1951 at Hawkeye Downs as he rolled to three victories in the American Legion-sponsored big car program before 4,000 shivering fans. The handsome Kent, Ohio, veteran laid claim to three IMCA world speed records in the process, taking advantage of ideal track conditions. The only blemish on Snyder’s afternoon was when he failed to finish the first heat because forgot to take the radiator cover off and his motor and it overheated

Snyder started out by turning fast time on the half-mile oval in 23.49 seconds. The IMCA record for the distance was 23.70, set at the Minnesota State Fair track by the late Gus Schrader on Aug. 23, 1941.

Deb then lowered an Emory Collins mark when he won the 7-lap semi-main in 2 minutes and 2.90 seconds. The retired LeMars, Iowa, driver claimed that mark with a 2:04.50 effort at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 29, 1948.

Another Schrader time was eclipsed in the feature when Snyder went the 12.5 miles in 10 minutes and 37.58 seconds. Schrader had turned in an 11:51.50 time on the Hawkeye track back on May 29, 1938.
Ohio's Deb Snyder dominated the first three holiday cards at Hawkeye Downs from 1951 - 1953.

Snyder would come back on July 4, 1952, to defend his title but experience a little more difficulty in doing so. Once again Snyder turned in the fastest time, breaking the year old mark he established, with a time of 23.25 seconds.

After winning the trophy dash and first heat effortlessly, it appeared that Snyder would have another easy time of it in the 20-lap main event. But Snyder, while leading the race in the first few laps, uncharacteristically spun out, allowing his chief rivals, Pete Folse and Bert Hellmueller, to pass by him.

Snyder would right the ship, however, and make his way back to the front to challenge the leaders. By lap 10, Snyder would get by Hellmueller and on the 15th circuit, power by Folse for the top spot and eventually the win.

An Iowa farm boy turned big car pilot would come within two laps of beating the two-time defending champion at Hawkeye Downs before more than 4,500 fans on Saturday, July 4, 1953.

In a sizzling finish to the American Legion’s big car auto races, Leon DeRock led Deb Snyder for 13 blistering laps. The Mason City speedster fought off Snyder’s efforts to pass him at every turn until the two drivers started approaching slower traffic on lap 13.

As they came out of the turn in front of the grandstand, DeRock was forced to let up momentarily in the traffic and that was all Snyder needed. The defending IMCA champion buried his foot in the carburetor, swung his car wide and took over the lead. But for 13 laps it was the most torrid big car competition seen at the Downs in recent years.
Snyder winning was made all the more heroic by the fact that he was driving in misery the whole way. He had slipped a disc in his back while lifting a motor block recently. He had been hunched over and walked with a limp. He was almost unconscious when he brought his car to a stop in victory lane. First aid had to be administered and he had to be helped from the cockpit of his Offenhauser.

When the IMCA big cars rolled into town on July 4, 1954, there would be no Deb Snyder to contend with, which I’m sure brought a smile to most of the competitors signed in. Leon DeRock, who almost beat Snyder the year before, was beaming by the end of the afternoon program.

The Mason City pilot, driving a car powered by an Emory Collins Offenhauser motor, established a 20-lap record of 8 minutes and 41.54 seconds in winning the title. The old mark of 8:53.90 was set in 1952 by Snyder.

Before a crowd of 4,000, DeRock led home “Wee” Willie Thompson of Mill Valley, Calif., and Stan Calloway of Miami, Fla., in the feature race, his first career win at the half-mile in three years of big car competition. DeRock also set fast time and won his heat race.
IMCA big car drivers pose before a race in Cedar Rapids. Front row (l-r): Pete Folse, Stan Calloway and Bob Carpenter. Back row (l-r): Jim McWithey,  Cecil Greenley,  Ernie Johnson,  Harry King,  Marvin Pifer, Leon DeRock and Bert Hellmueller.

Bert Hellmueller, the grizzled dirt track veteran from Louisville, Ky., had visited the Hawkeye Downs oval many times in the last few years but always as “a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

He would thrill 4,000 big car race fans on Monday, July 4, 1955, when he tooled his new four-wheel machine past Bobby Grim of Indianapolis to take the 10-mile feature in 9 minutes and 21.35 seconds.

It was the first appearance on a racetrack of the new Hellmueller-designed machine and Bert's weather-beaten face was wreathed in smiles when fans swarmed around the machine after the race. The victory was more impressive since it was registered over Grim who had been dominating the IMCA point’s standings.

Grim started the feature in the pole position while Hellmueller was seventh in the 12-car field. It took the “Kentucky Colonel” four laps to get behind Grim. Then he rode on Grim’s bumper for another three tours before the Hellmueller Ranger, throwing dirt with every one if its four-powered wheels, edged past Grim.

Johnny Poulsen of Gardena, Calif., would parlay his ability to slip through heavy traffic into a feature victory on July 4, 1956 in the first big car ever held under the lights at Hawkeye Downs.

A crowd of 8,000 fans were on hand as Poulsen dueled with Jack Jordan of Alhambra, Calif., and Don Carr of Indianapolis for most of the 20-lap feature. In the late laps, when the lead cars began lapping slower cars in the 12-car field, Poulsen did some fancy work in the first turn and on the backstretch to wrap up the feature title.

Poulsen also had the night’s fastest time trial as he negotiated the half mile oval in 23.93 seconds. The IMCA pilots found the rebuilt Downs oval to their liking, although a slick spot in the backstretch gave the drivers some trouble. Seven of the 18 cars that timed made the grade under the 24 second bracket and five others timed in the 25 second bracket.

Vic Ellis, a former Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association driver, did an excellent job with a Dodge conversion. The Rockton, Ill., speedster qualified fourth fastest in 24.50 seconds and finished seventh in the feature.
Bobby Grim won the 1957 IMCA big car event at Cedar Rapids. - Bob Mays Collection
Bobby Grim of Indianapolis led an assault of the IMCA record book on Thursday, July 4, 1957 at Hawkeye Downs in the first big car race on the reconditioned half-mile track.

Taking full advantage of the newly banked turns, Grim rolled his Offenhauser to a new track record, an unofficial IMCA one-lap mark and a six-lap IMCA record. He probably would have set a 10-lap record too, except that an accident eliminated the time element. In addition, Vic Ellis raced to an IMCA 12-lap mark in the semi-main, and Buzz Barton of Tampa, Fla., lowered the circuit’s 10-lap record in the second heat.

Grim scored a sweep on the evening in his powerful Offenhauser, one of 12 in the field of 25 cars, taking the 25-lap feature, the six-lap dash, the first heat and the fast qualifier. Grim led most of the way in the 15-lap feature, but the track apparently had grown too slick for record-breaking at that point.

Grim turned the Downs oval in 22.03 seconds during time trials for the fastest one lap ever recorded by IMCA. However, it was calculated by a stop watch. The old track record had been 22.86 seconds, set by Joe Sostillio. An idea of the speed presented for some 5,000 fans at the Legion-sponsored event, six cars qualified in the 22-second bracket, an exclusive group in past years, and nine other cars timed in the 23-second range.

Grim’s time of 2 minutes and 21.19 seconds in the 6-lap trophy dash, however, would go down in the books, as would the records set by Ellis and Barton. Ellis won the 12-lap semi-main in the record time of 4 minutes and 52.07 seconds and Barton set an all-time IMCA mark of 4 minutes and 6.7 seconds for 10 laps in winning the second beat.

Grim would come back to defend his title on July 4, 1958, but the program would be marred by the death of an up and coming, and very popular driver.

Vic Ellis, a 31-year-old veteran of racing, was killed during the consolation event. The Rockton, Ill., driver, who had long been a favorite in Eastern Iowa racing circles, died in an ambulance en route to a hospital after his # 51 Dodge conversion flipped on the lap 7 of the race.

Ellis was running fourth when the accident occurred on the dangerous west turn. Arnie Knepper of St. Louis, who had earlier bounced off the rail on the same turn, appeared to have lost control of his Offenhauser. It went sideways in the turn and bumped the car driven by Ellis, sending the #51 car tumbling end over end.
The mangled remains of Vic Ellis' car.

Few fans or drivers were aware of Ellis' death when Grim raced to the 20-lap feature victory, leading home Al “Cotton” Farmer, Pete Folse and Jim Packard.

Just prior to the fatal accident Ellis had seen his IMCA 8-lap record of 3 minutes and 8.60 seconds eclipsed in the first heat race of the night. That was won by Farmer in the record time of 3 minutes and 6.1 seconds.
Afterwards, IMCA officials said that Ellis had been uncertain of his chances of entering the Cedar Rapids race because of damages to his car a week ago. Ellis attached a note to his pre-entry that read: “Car was smashed up some last week. Hope to get it fixed in time to make race. Vic.”

Two spectacular crashes would highlight the big car finale on July 5, 1959. On the white flag lap, Mickey McCormick of Hutchinson, Kan., hit a rut on the backstretch of the track and lost control of his car. He hurtled through the fence about 50 feet from where Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif., had crashed on the second lap of the race.

Hurtubise had earlier tangled with another car in the battle for the runner-up spot heading out of turn two. Suddenly, his car started rolling end over end through the air. His car virtually leaped over the back guard rail, spinning out of sight and into the darkness. The car came to rest on railroad tracks that parallel the Downs’ backstretch.

Both drivers were transported to a local hospital where they were reported to be in satisfactory condition.

Sidebar story: http://www.midwestracingarchives.com/2009/08/1959-frank-winkley-short-story.html

Pete Folse of Tampa, Fla., dominated the big car events as expected. The current IMCA point leader set fast time of 23.87 seconds, then won the first heat, a special 4-lap dash event and led the entire 12-lap feature. Arnie Knepper would take second; Jack Rounds of Huntington Park, Calif. took third; Ed Loetscher of St. Louis was fourth and Wayne Alsbaugh of Anderson, Ind., earned fifth.
California's A.J. Shepherd would win the 1959 holiday card. - Lou Ash Photo/Bob Mays Collection

A.J. Shepherd of Gardenia, Calif., would come close to a grand slam but settle for a triple on July 3, 1959.

Before a capacity crowd of 8,000, Shepherd would set fast time (23.77), win his heat and then race home in front of an impressive field in the feature. His only miss would be the four-car trophy dash, where he would be locked in a tense duel with Harold Leep of Wichita, Kan., and eventually settled for third place.

Leep, in fact, would be the only non-Offy driver to put up a successful challenge in the Sunday night program. Driving a Chevrolet conversion, Leep won the second heat, scored the win over Shepherd and then earned a solid fourth place finish behind Shepherd, Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., and defending race winner Pete Folse in the 20-lap main.

Dick Ritchie of Cedar Rapids, a crowd favorite, wound up second in his heat, second in the trophy dash and finished eighth in the feature after starting 12th.

It would be “Jim McElreath Night” in Iowa, on July 4, 1961. An estimated crowd of 8,000 people watched McElreath wheel his #7 orange Offenhauser to first place in the feature event.

McElreath was reaping all kinds of honors on this particular July 4th. The up-and-coming driver not only swept the Hawkeye Downs main event, but he also won the main attraction on the Davenport oval earlier in the same afternoon. It was the same car that A. J. Shepherd had piloted to victory in 1960.
Jim McElreath would steer his Offy to victory on July 4, 1961. - Ken Simon Photo/Bob Mays Collection

McElreath, who had won the second heat race earlier in the night, showed his driving ability in the feature. After starting in the 12th spot on the outside, he fought his way to third after 9 laps had been concluded. On the 10th lap Buzz Barton, who had led to that point, gave way to McElreath. The whole race would change position after that.

Gordon Woolley, who had been in the running, was injured when his radiator hose blew up and the car caught fire. The drivers were given the red flag, at the end of 11 laps, and all pulled into the pits.

After a 10-minute delay, only 11 of the starting 16 cars went back on the track. At this time McElreath and Barton were still the top contenders, but Buzz Rose, who hadn't done much all evening, snatched the runner-up spot on the 12th lap and pressed McElreath all the way to the finish.

As it was, Rose wound up in the runner-up spot, two-time national champion Pete Folse was third, while Barton ended in sixth place.

At the start of the evening events it looked as if the big race would come from a couple of Tampa, Fla., drivers, Barton and Folse. The two experienced pilots finished 1-2 in the time trials. Barton was fast qualifier, speeding around the fast half-mile in 22.96 seconds while Folse notched a time of
Johnny Rutherford, behind the wheel of Dave Beatson's #63, won the 1962 race at Cedar Rapids. - Bob Mays Collection

Race fans - 7,840 of them paid – would beat the threat of rain and a young hotshot driver by the name of Johnny Rutherford upped his IMCA point lead by grabbing the feature event on July 4, 1962.

The speedy Texan walked off with most of the prize money as he grabbed the lead early in the 25-lap feature and was never headed. Rutherford, driving a Chevy conversion, had to withstand the challenges of Offenhauser drivers; Minnesota’s Jerry Richert, Pete Folse, Johnny White and Harold Leep.

Despite the rains early in the day, the track was fast. The first 20 drivers in the time trials finished within one and one-half seconds of each other. Rutherford and Johnny White of Warren, Mich., shared quick time on the day, qualifying in at 22.76 seconds.
Johnny White, the defending IMCA national champion, would out duel Gordon Woolley to win the 20-lap IMCA big car race on July 4, 1963. White’s winning time was 8 minutes and 9.73 seconds.

Quoting Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Phil Maly; “Johnny White of Warren, Mich., put on a one-man fireworks display as he electrified a Fourth of July crowd of 7,500 in winning the big car races at Hawkeye Downs.”

The competition centered around White and Woolley all night long. Woolley captured two races during the evening and White added precious points to his circuit leading total with victories in the semi-main and the feature.

Woolley looked as though he would be a triple winner on the muddy Hawkeye Downs track, but he saw his hopes fade in the ninth lap of the main attraction. The Waco, Tex. driver throttled his Diz Wilson Chevy into an early lead, which stood up until White passed him on the first turn of the 10th lap.

White didn’t stick around for any more duels, widening his margin and lapping every driver except for Woolley and Jerry “Scratch” Daniels of St. Paul, Minn. Daniels wound up third in the feature and Pete Folse, who was battling White for IMCA point leadership, wheeled his Hector Honore Offenhauser to the fourth spot.
"Old-school" Buzz Barton showed everyone else the fast way around the half-mile in 1964. - Leroy Byers Photo/Bob Mays Collection

While Chevrolet was becoming the engine of choice by the ’64 season, there were still a few owners and drivers who still couldn’t part with their “relic” Offenhausers. And on July 5, 1964, Buzz Barton would prove to Chevy owners that the Offenhauser was still a lively corpse in big car racing.

The lead-footed driver from Tampa, Fla., gunned his big Offy home ahead of the field to capture the 15-lap feature in the Auto Racing, Inc., sanctioned races. A crowd estimated at 7,200 attended the holiday spectacular.  Barton would finish five car lengths ahead of the Chevrolet conversions, led by Jerry Richert, who started on the pole position after winning the first heat race.

Jerry Daniels, also operating a Chevrolet, was a close third in the feature. He had the fastest qualifying time, turning the half-mile oval in 23.72 seconds. Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., won the second heat, Gordon Woolley grabbed the third heat and Keith Thomas of Madison, Wis., took the semi-main.

Because race officials took extra time to remedy the slippery condition of the west curve, the first race didn’t start until after 9:30 and it was after 11:00 when the feature ended.
Veteran Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., driving the Hector Honore Chevrolet-powered Bardahl Special race car, would lead from green to checker in an exciting 25-lap feature event at Hawkeye Downs to win top honors on July 4, 1965.

Although he was never headed, Woolley was never safe. Ted Ready of St. Paul, Minn., then Jim Moughan, and finally Ron Larson of Milltown, Wis., all challenged for the lead in a series of duels that delighted more than 6,000 fans.
"The Original Outlaw" Gordon Woolley, took Hector Honore's Black Deuce to victory in the 1965 tilt. - Leroy Byers Photo/Bob Mays Collection

The victory was an important one for Woolley. It moved him out front in the International Motor Contest Association's national big car point standings. Woolley took over the point lead from Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., who had been leading the points with his Chevrolet-powered machine.

Red Amick of Muncie, Ind., a former Indianapolis 500 pilot who was one of the pre-race favorites was the hard-luck driver for the night, and also was involved in the only two mishaps. Late in the first heat, his Chevrolet jumped out of gear heading into the main stretch. Ted Jones of Waco, Tex., who had the evening’s fast time (23.33 seconds) drove over the front left axle of Amick, bounced in the air but was able to continue on. The result was a broken axle for Amick.

Red then took over the newly-constructed Turner Chevrolet and won the second heat. He was moving up in the feature rapidly when misfortune struck again. Challenging for fourth coming out of turn three, he spun the car and was forced out of the race.

Tom Bigelow of Whitewater, Wis., also driving a Chevrolet powered machine, won the third heat. Buzz Gregory of Indianapolis, in another Chevrolet-powered car, took the consolation race.

The annual 4th of July big car races would take a break in 1966. Hawkeye Downs was in the midst of constructing a new grandstand and the project hadn’t been completed. The bleacher section, which had been serving fans for weekly racing, collapsed only weeks before the scheduled holiday program. Big cars and fireworks would have to wait a year…

Jerry Richert would win the last 4th of July special at Hawkeye Downs in 1967. - Al Consoli Photo

Defending IMCA national sprint car champion Jerry Richert would celebrate the Fourth of July in fine fashion by capturing the 30-lap feature event on July 4, 1967. Surprisingly, it was the first win of the season for the three-time champion who hailed from Forest Lake, Minn.

Richert was elated over the win and confessed, “It seemed like a long time coming. It just seemed like I was in a rut.”

Richert started on the outside of the front row and whipped into the front after one lap. His # 63 wasn’t troubled the rest of the way, although there was a dandy of a battle for next three positions.

Jay Woodside of Kansas City and Karl Busson of Toledo, Ohio, traded the runner-up spot three times in the final six laps before Woodside snuck inside on the last lap to nip Busson. Tom Corbin of Carrollton, Mo., was fourth.

The world record for one lap failed to fall during time trials but two other world marks were lowered. Both records would belong to Iowans.

Popular Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg set a record on the splendidly conditioned half-mile of 3 minutes and 55.75 seconds for the 10-lap first heat. Prior to Kunzman’s feat, Mount Ayr’s Hank Smith topped the 7-lap trophy dash in a record 2 minutes and 35.81 seconds.
Jerry Blundy stands in victory lane after winning the main event in 1967.

Jerry Blundy would use the Hawkeye Downs cushion to perfection and cop the Independence Day classic on July 4, 1967 before 3,602 paying customers. The Galesburg, Ill., flash would nip Lee Kunzman for top honors in the accident-free finale.

Blundy pretty much had clear sailing after slipping inside the 24-year-old Kunzman on the ninth lap to take the lead, but Jerry gave his loyal followers some anxious moments the last five tours on the half-mile dirt track.

He repeatedly went high in the third turn, kicking up the loose dirt, and each time Kunzman closed fast. However, Jerry maintained control throughout his daring tactics and Kunzman - the IMCA sprint car rookie of the year in 1967 - was unable to overtake him.

“The track was hard and slick and I went high because that was where the cushion was,” explained Blundy. “I figured I had enough to stay in front.”

Kunzman echoed those thoughts. “Jerry just had too much horsepower for me,” said. "I tried to force him through the cushion but he's too smart to do that.”

National point leader Jerry Richert won the trophy dash but a mishap of his own doing ruined his chances of topping the 19-car field in the feature.

Richert started on the pole with Kunzman on the outside. But, on the first lap, Jerry hit the guard rail going into turn three and nearly flipped his machine. By the time he made repairs and got back onto the track, Richert was in 15th place.

However, in true “Richert style”, Jerry went to the top of the track, rode the cushion for the remainder of the feature, and finished in third place. Richert, though, was displeased with himself afterwards. “I just got into the turn too hard,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was going that fast. I was halfway over the fence before I realized it.”

Unbeknownst to drivers and fans, the ’68 contest would be the last of the annual holiday event. Frank Winkley, who’s Auto Racing, Inc., sanctioned the annual program for all of those years, would be killed in an auto accident later that same month and his widow Verna, who would take over the reigns, decided not to reschedule for 1969.

Five years later, on July 3, 1973, a Fourth of July sprint car special would be held. Earl Wagner of Pleasantville, Iowa, would pilot the Hank Smith-prepared Chevy to victory before 7,000 race fans.

With the exception of Deb Snyder’s three-year reign in the early years of the event and Bobby Grim’s two victories, the Fourth of July race at Hawkeye Downs would prove to be one of the tougher races to win on the IMCA big car circuit.

4th of July Winners -

1951 – Deb Snyder
1952 – Deb Snyder
1953 – Deb Snyder
1954 – Leon DeRock
1955 – Bert Hellmueller
1956 – Johnny Pouelson
1957 – Bobby Grim
1958 – Bobby Grim
1959 – Pete Folse
1960 – A.J. Shepherd
1961 – Jim McElreath
1962 – Johnny Rutherford
1963 – Johnny White
1964 – Buzz Barton
1965 – Gordon Woolley
1966 – No Race
1967 – Jerry Richert
1968 – Jerry Blundy
1973 – Earl Wagner

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

1973 - The Battle of Keokuk

Gordon Blankenship

by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. -  Following the 1971 IMCA Stock Car season, the legendary Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa retired from active competition in the IMCA circuit having won the IMCA Stock Car Championship a record 12 times, including the last seven years in a row.

In 1972, Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Irv Janey won the Championship and the only driver in the top ten from Keokuk was Gordon Blankenship who finished fourth in points. Keokuk’s domination of the IMCA Stock Car series was apparently over. Well not quite. The 1973 IMCA Stock Car Championship came down to just five points (one position) as two drivers from Keokuk fought it out to the end.
Gordon Blankenship led the IMCA Stock Car point standings from the third race on, but a late season charge by Mike Derr of Keokuk (Ernie’s son) made for an interesting battle to the end and returned drivers from Keokuk once again to the top of the list in IMCA Stock Car racing.
The 1973 IMCA Stock Car season opened as usual at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport with the Pelican 200 on April 1. The one-half mile Fairgrounds track had been paved during the 1969 racing season but still served to not only open the IMCA Stock Car season but the series ended up back at Shreveport in October for the final three races of the season.
Louisiana asphalt drivers dominated the Pelican 200 as Freddie Cook of Monroe set fast time at 22.74 seconds with Bossier City’s Harlan Beene Jr. second quick at 23.04. However, in the race their roles would be reversed as Beene captured the 200 lapper with Cook finishing second. Blankenship staked his claim to the championship with a third, Gary Brooks of Irving, Texas finished fourth and Vern Mondry of Lake Elmo, Minnesota rounded out the top five.
A first in IMCA history occurred at the Pelican 200 as Martha Wideman of Lufkin, Texas made her IMCA debut driving a 1972 Monte Carlo. Mrs. Wideman became the first women to compete on a regular basis in IMCA Stock Car history and raced the series throughout the season finishing tenth in points at the end of the year.
Race two of the season was the “Illowa 101” at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa and it was local, John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa taking home the win. Gary Brooks of Irving, Texas finished second and temporarily led the point race over Blankenship who finished fifth.
Three races in five days quickly changed the landscape in the point’s race. On June 30 at one of the old standby tracks of the IMCA, the Mid America Fair Speedway in Topeka, Kansas, Blankenship quickly took over the point lead by winning the” Kansas 200” in 1 hour 46 minutes 30.50 seconds. Lampe, Missouri’s Ferris Collier threw his hat in the ring for a series championship with a second-place finish. While Gary Brooks had second quick time in qualifying, he was not able to finish in the top ten.
Ferris Collier continued his assault on things by setting fast time, winning his heat, the STP Dash and the 100-lap feature at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds the next day. Blankenship finished third in the event.
Things got further shook up on July 4th when the cars visited the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines and defending series champion Irv Janey picked up his first win in the “Iowa 300” by making 300 circuits in 2 hours 19 minutes 14.75 seconds. Mike Derr finished second with Gary Brooks grabbing fifth. Third fast qualifier Blankenship did not finish the event.
After a five-week layoff, the cars headed to the Wisconsin Valley Fair in Wausau where Ferris Collier continued to add pressure to Blankenship by winning a 100-lap feature while local star Roger Regeth of Kimberly, Wisconsin won a 50-lap event as part of a day/night doubleheader on August 12.
Things started to change when the cars returned to the Iowa State Fairgrounds for a 200-lap feature during the Iowa State Fair. Mike Derr started to make his move as he banked $1,025 for winning the 200-lap feature with Blankenship bringing home a third-place finish.
The next day, the series headed to perhaps Mike Derr’s favorite race track, the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia and Derr did not disappoint. First, on August 19, Derr won the 50-lap feature at Sedalia with Blankenship finishing a distant 10th.
Mike Derr at the Sedalia Mile
Then on August 25, the series returned to Sedalia for a day/night double header but with a wrinkle. The 101-mile event in the afternoon would be on the big mile and Mike Derr liked the mile. Derr won the 101-lap event in 1 hour 11 minutes 15.33 seconds as he defeated short track legend to be Larry Phillips for the win. Blankenship finished seventh.
The evening portion moved back to the half mile and it was Gerald Harrison of Topeka taking the 25-lap feature but Mike Derr was right there in second and once again Blankenship had to settle for a seventh-place finish.
Action continued the next day back in Des Moines as Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa won the 200-lap finale at the Iowa State Fair with a red-hot Mike Derr second and Blankenship fourth. Finishing tenth in that event was the inaugural IMCA Stock Car Champion Eddie Anderson, who won the championship in 1949.
As the season started to wind down, the series made their annual visit to the world’s largest county fair in Spencer, Iowa and Kennard, Nebraska’s Bill Wrich won a rain-shortened event with Derr third and Blankenship fifth. The next day action moved to the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln where local Joe Wade of Lincoln won the feature with Mike Derr taking fourth and Blankenship registered a DNF.
There were only two more events on dirt at Oklahoma City before the season ending events back at Shreveport and Mike Derr was still on the move. On September 29, Derr won the 25-lap feature over Ferris Collier with Blankenship scoring a seventh-place finish. The next day, Super Joe Wallace of Kansas City won the 100-lap main with Derr grabbing second, Blankenship third and Collier fifth.
Heading back to Shreveport the scorecard read; Blankenship 1,635, Mike Derr 1,495 and Ferris Collier 1,434.
If there is one conclusion that can be reached when reviewing the three races held on the paved half-mile of the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, it’s the Gordon Blankenship came terribly close to losing the championship.
The first event was held on September 20 and Vance Cook of Jonesboro, Arkansas came away with the 50-lap feature with Mike Derr seventh and Ferris Collier tenth.
When action returned the following day, Collier made a bid to overtake the competition as he posted a big win on the pavement taking the 100-lap feature, but Mike Derr was right there in third position with Blankenship once again missing the top ten.
On September 28, the season came to an end the same way it started with Harlan Beene, Jr. winning the 150-lap finale, but with a little luck as four other leaders fell by the wayside. Mike Derr finished fifth and missed tying for the championship by just five points.
The 1973 IMCA Stock Car season had its ups and down for several drivers but it was an early lead and hanging on that won Gordon Blankenship the Championship. An early start or a single position improvement in several races could have secured the championship for Mike Derr.
Asked about the 1973 season and beating Mike Derr by just five points at a Keokuk reunion years later, Gordon Blankenship commented “I can honestly say that I wish we could have tied for the title.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

1949 – The Mighty Midgets at the Ce-Mar Speed Bowl

by Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – In 1944, Don McElhinney of Marion, Iowa purchased a piece of land on the Cedar Rapids/Marion city line. Because the property covered both Cedar Rapids and Marion, he appropriately called it Ce-Mar Acres. On that piece of property was already a ballroom, which he quickly converted into a roller rink. In 1946, McElhinney built a 1/5-mile dirt track on his property and because of its bowl-shaped dimensions, named it the “Ce-Mar Bowl”.

Running primarily midget cars on the small track, it immediately became a hit with drivers and fans alike, producing lightning-fast speeds and some of the closest side-by-side racing action in the area. Advertised as “The Fastest Cars in the Midwest”, it drew skilled drivers from not only the Midwest but from all over the United States. “Cedar Rapids was the hotbed of midget racing,” Hall of Famer Buzz Rose would say. "There was a lot of midget racing in it’s hey day and the best drivers always raced at Ce-Mar.”

On Sunday mornings, you went to church. On Sunday evenings, you went to Ce-Mar Bowl to watch the midgets compete. It became such a popular venue in such a short amount of time, that in 1948, McElhinney would have to add more bleachers (2,000 more seats) to accommodate the overflow crowds. When all of the new seating was in place, McElhinney announced that close to 6,000 race fans could enjoy midget racing at Ce-Mar.

At the end of the ’48 season, McElhinney also announced that the racing surface, which had been clay since it’s opening, would be replaced with good ol’ Eastern Iowan black dirt. McElhinney was convinced that as fast as the midgets toured his track on clay, the black dirt would make them go even faster..
While McElhinney was the track manager, the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association (MMARA) was the primary sanctioning body at Ce-Mar, with legendary sprint car pilot turned promoter, Johnny Gerber managing the circuit. Gerber announced that May 8th would be the season opener at Ce-Mar and he was expecting anywhere from 25 to 30 cars. Included in that field was defending MMARA champion Danny Kladis of Chicago. Kladis, driving the Eric Lund #39, was scheduled to attempt to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 later in the month of May.

Gerber also announced that Tony Russo of Kenosha, Wis., driving his own #2 entry, would be there for the season opener. Russo, a 12-year veteran of the racing wars, had ranked high in the AAA indoor midget circuit and had already scored victories during the winter season at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.

Dick Ritchie

Several local midget drivers were entered including popular young driver Dick Ritchie, driving the #50 car owned by Ernest Fredrickson of Kenosha, Wis. Ritchie held the Ce-Mar one-lap qualifying record. Another pilot from the area, Red Hoyle, was driving the Art Jacobson #43 from Omaha. Paul Newkirk announced that he was driving the rebuilt Max Morgan #5 entry from Cedar Rapids. Another consistent runner at “The Bowl”, Lloyd Thurston of Waterloo, was competing in Leon Mensing’s #55 out of Lowden, Iowa. 

Others expected to be there for the season opener were Vernon Bein’s #99 Kurtis-Kraft entry from Silvis, Ill., with Vernon’s brother Jerry driving. Oskaloosa car dealer Paul Van Zee completely rebuilt is #63 midget over the winter months and Chicago’s Clyde Young was expected to be behind the wheel of that car.

Besides Johnny Hobel of Cedar Rapids having already entered in Al Willey’ #12, Hobel’s brother Dick, behind the wheel of Dick Elliot’s #1 out of Davenport, was also ready to compete. Marion Robinson of Des Moines was entering two cars, with Carroll Gooden and Jim Harriet doing the driving and Ed Critchlow of Ottumwa would power his own ride, the #47 Critchlow and Meeker Special.

Other previously announced drivers included the A. F. Reisenbigler car from Erie, Ill., with Art Wheeler driving. Also coming out of Erie was Paul Kaminky's #3 Kurtis Kraft with Ray Hall piloting. Earl Findley of Big Rock, Ill., was driving his own #17 car; George Miller of Cedar Rapids was in Merle Cheney's # 25; Walt Raines of Alta, Iowa, (recently relocated to Bettendorf) was behind the wheel of his new #29 Kurtis car, and Vic Ellis of Rockton, Ill., was handling his own rebuilt # 66. D.W. Doty of Davenport, Iowa would field the #100 entry with Paul Allen of Chicago steering.

When the 1949 season rolled around, the excitement at the track was at a fever pitch. On April 24th, seven midgets and their drivers showed up for practice on a chilly and windy day. McElhinney opened the track so drivers could shake the winter rust off themselves and the spring bugs out of their new engines. That Sunday afternoon, an estimated 1,500 race fans showed up to watch. Remember, this is only practice…Johnny Hobel was one of the lucky seven drivers on hand and trying out the newly re-surface oval, timed in the low 15 second bracket on several occasions.

Program from the May 8, 1949 season opener

An opening day crowd of 5,071 paying customers saw the 1949 midget racing season open Sunday afternoon, May 8th at the Ce-Mar Bowl.

Art Wheeler, formerly of Davenport and now of Princeton, Ill., shook off the bids of two top Cedar Rapids drivers - Johnny Hobel and Dick Ritchie – to capture the season's first feature event. He turned the 20 circuits on the 1/5-mile track in 5 minutes and 17 seconds.

Some of the best driving ever seen in the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association as well as a series of top thrills in spins and bumps, kept the opening crowd enthralled.

One of the best races came in the third qualifying heat, won by Dick Hobel in the Elliot #1. The big battle was for second place, with George Miller and Tony Russo winding up in almost a dead heat. The judges awarded the decision to Miller

One accident sent Paul Allen of Chicago and Bill Murphy of Alta, Iowa to St. Luke's hospital.  In the accident, Walt Raines of Bettendorf was bumped into the infield on the second lap of the semi-main. Right behind Raines, Allen spun and Murphy flipped over the top of Allen's car. Both cars were forced out of further competition.

The only disappointment of the program was the absence of Danny Kladis, the defending point champion, who was a no-show. He was called to Indianapolis the day before for a test run on the Speedway, and Gerber confirmed that it was doubtful if he would be in competition until after the traditional Memorial Day Weekend event concluded.

The next weekend was an off week for Ce-Mar, so Davenport could kick off their season opener for the MMARA. A healthy crowd of 8,846 at the Mississippi Valley Amusement Park watched as Cedar Rapids’ Dick Ritchie would take the season opener by overtaking Ray Hall on lap 13 of the 20-lap main event. Ritchie also set e new track record in qualifying with a 16.27 mark.
Unfortunately, Ritchie’s victory was not the talk of the town the next day. Paul Allen, after being treated and released for minor injuries in Cedar Rapids the weekend before, was not so lucky in Davenport. Allen, driving the D. W. Doty car from Davenport, flipped on the east turn during the second heat race of Sunday's events. Allen was thrown out of his car and the machine rolled over him while crashing down the outside of the banked curve.

Hospital officials said that he was suffering from a skull fracture and a possible broken back. It was also feared that Allen may have severed his spinal column.

Thirty plus cars were expected for the second race of the season at Ce-Mar including a couple of new entries. Included was John Spach of Chicago, with his midget that he raced at the Davenport opener and Joe Bowers of Waterloo, driving the Eugene Cornell entry from Fort Dodge. Cornell's auto was entered in the first Ce- Mar race, but motor trouble kept it from appearing. The third entry was the Frank Cavanaugh owned racer out of Hamilton, Ill. and piloted by Bill Sallow.

A special attraction on the track will be Don Haynes, who had gained national fame for his efforts to win s $25,000 bet by sealing himself in a car for 14 months. Haynes has already spent three months in the welded car, and he was going to be a guest of Ce-Mar on Sunday, while en route to the Indianapolis Speedway events on Memorial Day.
Another attraction that day, although not advertised as a special feature, was the appearance of a near 300-pound driver from the Kansas City area named Branch “Tiny” Wainwright. Wainwright had contacted Paul Van Zee of Oskaloosa about driving his midget.

On Sunday, May 23rd, Cedar Rapids drivers carried off the lion’s share of the prize money despite the fact that Tony Raines of Bettendorf grabbed the 30-lap feature win. The sweep came from the next five drivers who finished behind Raines in the main event. Red Hoyle, driving the Jacobson #44, finished second, followed by Paul Newkirk, George Miller, Dick Ritchie and Johnny Hobel, all of Cedar Rapids.

Dick Hobel

The Sunday events at Ce-Mar were marred by one serious accident that sent Joe Gustaf, of Silvis, Ill., to St. Luke's hospital with cuts and bruises about the face.

Gustaf escaped more serious injury when his #60 Kurtis Kraft took a dangerous, slow flip on the west curve after a false start in the semi-main. He flipped over the wheels of the # 42, driven by Eddie Koslow of Chicago.

Sunday's events launched the full-scale summer operations for the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association. The circuit drivers would race at Columbus Junction on Tuesday nights, at Macomb, Ill., on Thursday evenings, and at Waterloo on Saturday before returning to Ce-Mar on Sunday. McElhinny also announced that it would be the last day race of the year and that all future races would be run under the lights.

Memorial Day Weekend brought the biggest stars in the nation to the Parlor City as across town at Hawkeye Downs, the International Motor Contest Association was hosting a Big Car spectacular with Indianapolis’ Jimmy Wilburn holding off multi-time IMCA national champion Emory Collins of LeMars, Iowa on Sunday afternoon before 6,700 fans.

For those race fans that still hadn’t got their fill of racing, you could drive across town and check out the midget races on Sunday evening. Ce-Mar Bowl could boast that it had its own national star in attendance.

Danny Kladis, who had been at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the last three weeks, made a surprise appearance to Ce-Mar on Sunday, May 30th. After the evening’s program had finished, most drivers probably would have wished that Kladis stayed in Indianapolis.

The little Chicagoan thrilled crowd of 4,643 by walking off with the feature, handicap and first heat victories - after turning in the best time trial of the night, 15.32 seconds. In the handicap and first heat race, Kladis started sixth and threaded his way through the entire field for victories. Kladis started on the pole in the feature event, took the lead at the drop of the green and never relinquished his position, despite a constant bid by Ray Hall of Kansas City.

One record was established in Ce-Mar's first night event, as Johnny Hobel captured the 15-lap semi-main in 3 minutes, 54.5 seconds. He skimmed 3.32 seconds off the old mark held by his brother, Dick Hobel.

Lloyd Thurston

With Kladis’ dominating victory on Sunday, the defending MMARA champion was the heavy favorite when the circuit headed to Davenport the next day. To everyone’s surprise, Waterloo’s Lloyd Thurston, driving the Mensing #56 from Lowden, Iowa shocked the record crowd of 10,681 by driving a nearly flawless race and holding off Kladis for the victory. Kladis did manage to break Dick Ritchie’s qualifying record of 16.27 with a new mark of 15.91 seconds around the fast quarter-mile oval.

Red Hoyle of Cedar Rapids had been a model of consistency in the young season and on Sunday, June 6th, it paid off with a victory. Hoyle, the MMARA point’s leader, grabbed his first feature win of the season before a paid crowd of 3,877 in what Cedar Rapids Gazette sportswriter Jack Ogden called, “the best race of the season so far.”

Dick Ritchie of Cedar Rapids started the 20-lap final in front, but had motor trouble on the second lap, where he lost the lead to Hoyle. Ritchie stayed in the competition, however, taking third behind Lloyd Thurston of Waterloo, who was now piloting the Dick Elliot #1 after the Mensing car, in which he won the Davenport main with, developed motor problems in Columbus Junction earlier in the week.

Dick Hobel managed to grab the A-main victory at Davenport on Friday, June 10th with Art Wheeler and Danny Kladis battling tooth and nail behind him before a crowd of 6,000. Walt Raines of Bettendorf, Iowa, was injured when his car bounced off two other machines and rolled. Raines suffered second degree burns on the wrist, and was kept overnight at the local hospital.

After the races, Gerber announced that not only would there be midget racing in Waterloo on Saturday and Ce-Mar on Sunday, but the Benton county Fairgrounds in Vinton on Sunday afternoon as well.

Danny Kladis tried out two cars Sunday, June 13th and did pretty well for himself in each.

In the afternoon, he made a clean sweep of events before more than 700 fans at the Benton County Fairgrounds in Vinton, driving the Harold Zunke #26, the car he used to capture the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association point title in 1946. The Vinton races, a special event for low point cars, would be the only half-mile race scheduled that year by the MMARA.

Danny Kladis behind the wheel of the Eric Lund #39 at Crown Point, Ind., in 1947 - Photo Courtesy of Stan Kalwasinski/Bob Sheldon Collection

Driving the Eric Lund #39 at Ce-Mar Bowl Sunday night, Kladis copped the feature title and the first heat before 3,799 paying fans. Kladis took the feature lead on the first lap, and was never headed. The top race was for second, where George Miller, Dick Ritchie and Red Hoyle battled.

The best racing of the season to date would marred on June 20th at Ce-Mar by what was described as a “rhubarb” that followed with the barring of local Johnny Hobel from the feature event.

A paying crowd of 3,616 fans saw Dick Ritchie steal the limelight from Danny Kladis, by nipping Kladis in the second heat and handicap and then rolling to victory in the feature. Both Ritchie and Jimmy Summers of Kansas City finished ahead of Kladis in a three-car race, in which a blanket would have covered all three, any time during the 20 laps.

The “rhubarb” resulted when four members of the MMARA contest board hurriedly ruled to bar Johnny Hobel from the feature event because he twice jumped the starter's flag, and, on the third trip, collided with Jimmy Summers in the first turn.

Several hundred racing fans milled around association officials for three quarters of an hour, arguing the pro’s and con’s of the decision. There was considerable complaint over the race being started well into the first turn, which was blamed by many for the congestion and the resulting accident.

Immediately after the race, an irate Hobel stated he would not be in competition this week, but did not indicate whether or not he planned to return at a later date. The younger of the Hobel brothers, Dick, protested the decision on the grounds that no like decision had ever been made when cars jumped the starter's flag, and that the barring of his car left the impression that he was being charged with deliberately crowding the field in the first turn.

Contest board members, however, were quick to deny any such implication, pointing out that it was their duty to bar any car which consistently jumped the flag on any one race, and that they did not feel Johnny was guilty of any crowding.

To further enliven the evening, Jerry Draper of Carbon Cliff, Ill., driving the #6 car from Davenport, leaped from his midget when it caught fire during warm-up laps. The midget was completely re-wired, and competed in the semi-main.
Branch "Tiny" Wainwright

There was even more excitement the day before the “rhubarb” but that news didn’t reach the newspapers until the next day. It had been discovered that the Saturday before the race, “Tiny” Wainwright had been arrested in Columbia, Mo., on charges of assault and intent to rob.

The state patrol reported that Wainwright and his associate were traveling near Jefferson City, Mo., when their car stalled. They located a farm nearby and with guns drawn, attempted to rob the farmer. Finding no money, they bound the gentleman and left with his vehicle instead. The gentleman farmer managed to untie himself and contact local authorities. On top of his charges from that Saturday, it was also discovered that he was wanted in a grocery store robbery that happened earlier in the year in Columbia. Needless to say, Wainwright’s season would be short-lived.

A few days later, the contest board of the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association admitted it had erred in its decision and reinstated Johnny Hobel. But another issue was starting to surface, one that would affect not only Hobel but also their biggest star, Danny Kladis.

A issue regarding motor regulations had been brought to the surface and it would affect the two cars driven by Kladis and Hobel. Both cars were believed to be using a special cam shaft, which may, or may not, be illegal according to the interpretation of association rules. A deadline was set for the cars having illegal motor equipment, but it was believed that if illegal equipment was uncovered, that car owners involved would be given a grace period to re-convert their motors if they wish to remain in the MMARA. It was later found, that the clarification of the rule stemmed from a petition, signed by nine active drivers of the association.

That Sunday, June 26th would be another day-night doubleheader for the MMARA circuit. A new track had been constructed in Burlington, Iowa over the winter months and in its inaugural race, Lloyd Thurston of Cedar Rapids would lead the first 17 laps before spinning into the infield, allowing Jimmy Summers of Kansas City to scoot by for the win. However, in the nightcap at Ce-Mar, Thurston would gain some measure of revenge by coming from his fourth starting position to pass Dick Ritchie on the final lap to score the win before 4,272 paid fans.

In the meantime, the contest board met again after the program and ruled that the cars of Kladis and Hobel, with their non-stock camshafts, did not meet the requirements of the MMARA and would not be allowed to run until changes were made.

After the decision had been made, a furious Kladis openly stated that he would no longer compete with the association unless the Eric Lund-owned car could race “as is”.

By the following Friday, however, Kladis had changed his tune and showed up in Davenport for the weekly races, which would eventually be rained out. Kladis told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that the Lund car “was trying out a new camshaft”. The defending point champion did not indicate, however, if the newly installed part would meet MMARA specifications.

On Sunday, July 3rd, the races went on, without much fanfare as both Kladis and Hobel were in attendance. Both racing stars decided to do their talking on the track and what ensued was a terrific three-way battle between Kladis, Hobel and Dick Ritchie in the 20-lap feature. As those three heavyweights fought, Ray Hall shot out to the front of the pack and hid. The Kansas City speedster grabbed the lead at the green and circled the one-fifth mile track in the quick time of 5 minutes and 17 seconds. Hobel, Kladis and Ritchie battled back and forth before finishing in that order before an announced crowd of 3,925.

The next week, July 10th, Hobel and Kladis were both no-shows for the Sunday races. Kladis was competing in a 150-mile stock car race in Milwaukee and Hobel, still upset about the board’s recent decisions, decided to continue to boycott MMARA events. Hobel’s brother, Dick, was not expected to be there either, as he was injured after flipping his ride at Davenport on Monday.

With Kladis gone, Art Wheeler got behind the wheel of the controversial Eric Lund #39 midget and would grab top honors on this night. Red Hoyle had dominated the evening’s events and was heading to easy victory in the feature when the axle snapped on his midget, sending him to the pits instead of victory lane. As Hoyle limped to the sidelines, Ray Hall would inherit the lead for a moment on the back stretch, until some fancy driving by Wheeler netted him the lead coming out of turn four and past the start/finish line. Wheeler would hold the lead for the remaining laps to seal the win.

Several drivers jumped to new rides as the mid-season approached. Jimmy Summers, the Kansas City pilot, was one of the those drivers who made the shift to a new ride and it paid off handsomely as he scored the victory on July 17th. Summers, temporarily driving the Dick Elliot #1 out of Davenport, put on a clinic in setting fast time, winning the handicap, his heat and the 20-lap main at Ce-Mar. Summers, who had also scored a win in the same car at Macomb, Ill., earlier in the week, jumped from fifth to third in the MMARA standings.

Paul Newkirk

A new winner graced victory lane on Sunday, July 24th as Paul Newkirk of Cedar Rapids, driving the Max Morgan #5, would miss the feature time mark by one second in taking the win. A crowd announced at 3,000 watched as almost every race was a fraction of a second over the track record. Point’s leader Red Hoyle set a new mark in the 15-lap semi-main as he toured the ultra-fast oval in 3 minutes and 50 seconds.

On July 26th, it was announced that Eric Lund was in negotiations to sell the #39 midget that both Danny Kladis and Art Wheeler had driven this season. Speed Chumley of Waterloo, Iowa, former IMCA Big Car driver, was the driver showing interest in the car.

Sunday, August 1st was mid-season championship night and a surprise of sorts happened as Johnny Hobel checked in at the pit gates to compete. Hobel, barred from competing in MMARA –sanctioned races until is motor met association specifications, had been driving the Al Willey #12 in the Chicago area the past month. Apparently missing the excitement of Ce-Mar, Hobel had installed a stock motor in his ride the previous week that met all requirements.

The buzz in the pits and the grandstands was the return of Hobel, but at the end of the evening, the talk was about the newest winner on the circuit.

Vic Ellis of Rockton, Ill., a 23-year-old gift to midget racing, grabbed his first feature win ever in his three years of competition, before a crowd of 4,955. Ellis turned the trick in the #51 midget, recently purchased for him by H. L. Fry of Waterloo. It was the same car that Dick Ritchie drove to the Waterloo mid-season title two weeks before the sale of it. Until a week ago, Ellis had piloted a black #66 that he built himself, gradually working his way into the paying circles and earning a reputation as one of the most promising younger drivers in the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association. Dick Ritchie, the borrowed Dick Elliot #1, would shatter the track qualifying mark, lowering it to 14.66 seconds.

The August 8th race would be the last scheduled Sunday race for three weeks because of the All-Iowa Fair across town. Don McElhinney announced the track would sit idle until after the fair ended on August 21st.

Dick Ritchie, driving the constantly shuffled Dick Elliot #1, had been on a hot streak going into the August 8th event, having won at Columbus Junction, Macomb, Ill., and Waterloo and finishing second at Davenport already that week. The streak continued as Ritchie would make it four out of five nights reaching Ce-Mar victory lane before 3,350 fans.

The special Saturday night program would be marred by accident and injury to 23-year-old Harry Ross of Cedar Rapids. Ross’ injury came early in time trails when the inexperienced driver spun his car coming out of the turn, flipped and landed upside down in the Sonny Manzell #97. Ross suffered a broken arm, back injuries and chest contusion.

Dick Hobel’s victory in the feature was his second win of the week, having scored the win at Indianola on Thursday afternoon during the Warren County Fair. Hobel was a triple winner on the evening, winning his heat, the handicap and the 20-lap feature.

When the midgets return to Ce-Mar on a special Tuesday night program, on August 23rd, Red Hoyle was leading the MMARA points, despite the fact that he had only won twice that season. Hoyle had just passed the 700-point plateau with Dick Ritchie, Lloyd Thurston, Jimmy Summers and Ray Hall trailing behind him. Cedar Rapids’ Dick Hobel had been the hottest driver on the circuit during the month of August, winning five of the last seven programs.

Vic Ellis

Vic Ellis, who just weeks before had won his first feature on mid-season championship night, returned that Tuesday and added another trophy to his mantel, winning the feature event. The likable Ellis edged point’s leader Red Hoyle by less than five feet at the checkers before a slim crowd of 1,500. Hoyle hounded Ellis for all 20 laps as the two raced side by side through the turns for most of the race.

Sunday night racing finally returned to “The Bowl” on August 28th and a hometown favorite would take the feature win. “Johnny Hobel would turn in one his finest performances of the season” wrote Cedar Rapids Gazette sportswriter Jack Ogden, as the veteran pilot started in the seventh position and methodically weaved his way through traffic. He found himself in second place at the halfway point of the 20-lap race and with only a couple of laps to go, snuck under race leader Art Wheeler, also of Cedar Rapids, for the top spot and the eventual victory.

Summer was coming to an end but the midgets were just heating up. For the second straight week, Johnny Hobel had the Al Willey #12 all wound up on September 4th at Ce-Mar and ran off with a triple victory. Hobel was head and shoulders above the other combinations on the heavy fifth-mile and took all three wins by substantial margins. 

In the feature, the Cedar Rapids veteran started on the poll, and pulled far into the lead, leaving Vic Ellis and Jimmy Summers to battle wheel to wheel for most of the 20 laps. Behind Johnny, one of the closest finishes in Ce-Mar history taxed the race judges and thrilled the meager crowd of 1,970, who appeared despite threatening weather. The Summers-Ellis duel in the feature was so close that even officials differed on giving the nod to Ellis.

The MMARA point’s battle was winding down as season-long leader Red Hoyle held a slim 19-point lead over Dick Ritchie with four weeks remaining. Unfortunately, the following week, the weather went from chilly to wet and the Sunday night program would have to be canceled.

Despite the rainout at Ce-Mar, they were still racing elsewhere and when the midgets returned to the “Bowl” on September 18th, Hoyle’s lead over Ritchie had been trimmed down to 3 points thanks to Ritchie’s huge win at Davenport on Friday night. In addition to Ritchie’s victory, Hoyle’s car was involved in an accident and when Sunday rolled around, it was unsure if Hoyle wouldn’t even have repairs made in time.

As it turned out, Waterloo, which normally ran on Saturday nights, was rained out and quickly moved to Sunday afternoon, so another day-night doubleheader was in store for those competing.

That Sunday afternoon, Johnny Hobel would take the win over Ritchie and Jimmy Summers on the quarter-mile but Sunday night at Ce-Mar Ritchie would turn the tables and grab a narrow victory in one of the best features of the season. Point’s leader Hoyle would not be present at either race, which would turn out to be critical. As the result of Ritchie’s feature victory at Ce-Mar and second place finish at Waterloo in the afternoon, Ritchie leaped far into the lead for the 1949 MMARA point’s title. He would enter the weekend of racing two points behind Hoyle and come out with a 36-point edge.

Program from the September 25, 1949 race card 

As the season came down to its final weeks, it was quite apparent that both Dick Ritchie and Johnny Hobel had things figured out as they continued to swap wins back and forth no matter where they raced. Vic Ellis would put the Hobel-Ritchie domination to a finish on September 25th, in what would be the last night race of the season at Ce-Mar

Ellis would start in the fourth spot, work his way to second where he battled race leader Tony Russo of Chicago wheel to wheel for the next 10 laps. Ellis would grab the top spot from Russo and hold it the rest of the way. Johnny Hobel, who started seventh in the main event, made his way to second place but had nothing for Ellis. Red Hoyle would return and turned in a successful run, finishing fourth.

On October 1st, an Indian summer day would greet the 2,645 race in attendances that were there to witness the season-ending championships and a special 40-lap feature. Vic Ellis and Johnny Hobel would start on the front row and with their recent success it was hard to bet against either driver. Unfortunately, starting on the front row would not equal success.

Ellis would take the lead at the green flag with Hobel in hot pursuit. Hobel would spin out on the second lap attempting to pass Ellis. Ellis would continue to lead for the next few laps until an unlikely candidate, Dick Hobel, would pass Ellis for the lead on lap 7. Hobel, driving the Morris Springer #43, had started seventh in the event, took to the outside groove and then took Ellis after a half-lap battle.

Both Red Hoyle and Dick Ritchie would follow Hobel as Ellis would fall back to sixth place and never be a factor. Both Hoyle and Ritchie would move within few feet of the elder Hobel on several different occasions but could never muster enough gas to get around. It was a huge upset as it was the first feature victory ever for the Illinois-based car owner.

It wouldn’t be the only shocker of the evening as immediately after the program, McElhinney announced that the MMARA-sanctioned race would be it’s last at Ce-Mar. He stated that stock cars and Offenhausers would run at the fifth-mile track for 1950 and that Johnny Gerber had already been in negotiations with Hawkeye Downs about the installation of a quarter-mile track there.

A few days later, it had been confirmed that Gerber and All-Iowa Fair manager Andy Hanson and race superintendant “Doc” Hunter had come to terms with the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association.

Dick Ritchie would claim the Ce-Mar point’s title and then the following Sunday, October 9th, would clinch his first Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association championship in Davenport, Iowa.

The MMARA would continue on until 1955 with Ritchie winning the point’s title every year except 1951, which would go to Red Hoyle. Ritchie would later claim midget titles in the Badger Midget Series and International Motor Contest Association in the 60’s and after his death in 1988, would be inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007.

Vic Ellis, the 22-year-old youngster from Rockton, Ill., would continue to compete in the MMARA with great success but when the series disbanded, Ellis decided to try his hands at the wheel of a sprint car and would compete on the IMCA circuit. Ellis would have moderate success on the circuit for several years but on July 7, 1958, Ellis would lose his life in a race accident at Hawkeye Downs, snuffing out the life of a young and very talented driver.

Paul Newkirk would continue racing until a stock car accident in Oskaloosa, Iowa cut short his career in 1953. Still wanting to earn a living and make a contribution to racing, Newkirk would eventually become one of the top racing mechanics in the United States, wrenching for the Zecol-Lubaid racing team. USAC pilots Don White, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were some of the drivers that Newkirk was partly responsible for their success. He would pass away suddenly in 1966.

Johnny Hobel would continue to race midgets in the MMARA and then move on to the AAA and USAC ranks, competing nationally with equal success. Alive and well today at over 90 years of age, it isn’t uncommon for Hobel to still get behind the wheel of a midget and take it out for a spin. His brother, Dick Hobel, would also continue to compete in midgets and then go on to a career in automobile sales and real estate. He would pass away in 1996.

George Miller would stay in Cedar Rapids and begin a successful wrecker and towing business, which would last over 50 years. Red Hoyle would race until the late 50’s and then become a successful home builder near, Kalona, Illinois.

The “Golden Greek” Danny Kladis would go on to national success competing not only in midgets but at the Indianapolis 500 on several occasions. He would win multiple midget titles all over the Midwest and would eventually be inducted in to the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007 alongside Dick Ritchie. Kladis, the father of seven children would pass away in 2009 in Joliet, Illinois.

Some say that McElhinney’s decision to run jalopies and stock cars instead of midgets was the reason for its eventual downfall. Competing against the bigger and more modern Hawkeye Downs Speedway, race cars and race fans became less and less as the years passed and finally, in 1955, the track would shut down for good. McElhinney would pass away in February of 1983 at the age of 71.

The 1949 season at the Ce-Mar Bowl, however, will long be remembered for the showcasing the very best midget drivers that the Midwest had to offer. Thrilling races before capacity crowds will never again be matched.