Monday, January 25, 2016

Remembering Santa Fe Speedway & The National Clay Track Championship

by Lee Ackerman
Hinsdale, Ill. - It’s a housing development now, and like so many dirt tracks across America it has faded into a memory, but for over 40 years 91st Street and Wolf Road in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale was the site of one the most famous dirt tracks in America, Santa Fe Speedway. Actually the history of Santa Fe Speedway goes back to 1896 when Frederick Tiedt built and operated a multi-purpose facility which included in addition to a race track, a dance hall, beer garden, bowling alley and other refreshment stands. The original facility was destroyed by a tornado in the 1920’s.

In 1953, Frederick’s son Howard established Santa Fe Park Enterprises, Inc and built the Santa Fe Speedway that most race fans are familiar with. There were actually two tracks, a quarter-mile track and one that was a 7/16th mile facility. From 1953 through 1995, Santa Fe Speedway would provide area fans with one of the most versatile racing programs in the county.

 In addition to stock car races, they hosted sprint car races, big car races, midget races, the AMA national motorcycle series, figure 8 racing, enduros, demolition derbies and power puffs. In 1954 the NASCAR Grand National stock cars even visited the facility. But perhaps the signature event at Santa Fe Speedway was the annual National Clay Track Championship (NCTC).

In 1953 Santa Fe hosted three 200-lap feature races, one of which was the inaugural running of the National Clay Track Championship. Midlothian, Illinois’ Fred Kasten won the first NCTC driving a Buick.  Bill Van Allen won the second NCTC in 1954 at 300 laps. Van Allen would win the NCTC a total of five times to add to his impressive list of six track championships. After several years at 300 laps the event was cut to 100 laps in 1958 before the race was changed to 200 laps (for the reminder of its existence) in 1962.
Dick Nelson (11) and Jim O'Conner (8) battle for position during the 1972 National Clay Track Championships. O'Conner would go on to win that day and become a four-time winner of the event (1972, '76, '79 and '83). - Mayer & Storm Photo

By the 70’s a new generation of drivers was moving to the forefront at Santa Fe Speedway and they would be major factors in the NCTC race. Arnie Gardner of Batavia never won a late model championship at Santa Fe but he was extremely tough in the NCTC winning the event four times. Kankakee’s Jim O’Connor won the track championship three times in the 70’s and added four NCTC wins. When asked about setting up his car for such a long race, O’Connor said, “We went through the whole car the night before. The day of the race we took power away from car as the track got very slick and you didn’t need as much power. We put on a different carburetor and took some gear out.”

Lastly, there was the driver who became known as “Mr. Santa Fe”, Bridgeview’s Tony Izzo. In 1977 he won the first of four straight track championships. After taking three years off from his rule, he returned in 1984 to regain the track championship and would win five straight track championships. Izzo won win the NCTC three times the last in 1978 when he lapped the entire field.

"Mr. Santa Fe" Tony Izzo, won the National Clay Track Championship three times (1974, '77 and '78) - Photo Courtesy of Al Lewis

At 200 laps they would run 100 laps then stop all the drivers on the front stretch and the crews would have 8 minutes to refuel, change tires, and make changes or fix what ever needed to be fixed on the cars. Then they would fire them up and run the second 100 laps. While the race started as a local event in the later years when it started paying $10,000 or more to win regional and national drivers started showing up.

Arnie Gardner won the third of his four NCTC titles in 1981 when he used the patented “Santa Fe Bump” to pass Brian Leslie on lap 91. A lead he never relinquished. In 1982 Leslie who had moved from Illinois to Tupelo, Mississippi, returned with a vengeance. It also didn’t hurt that he brought along a new Ray Callahan Bullitt Race Car. After setting fast time, Leslie led the entire 200 laps followed by Izzo.

"The Tall Cool One" Bob Pierce of Danville, Ill., was the 1984 winner.

1984 saw the field include a pair of Iowa hot shoes in Gary Webb and Roger Dolan. Also in the field was a down state Illinois driver who would go onto national prominence in Danville’s “Tall Cool One” Bob Pierce. Tony Izzo would set fast time with a lap of 18.467 seconds with Pierce qualifying second. Jim O’Connor and Tony Izzo would start on the front row as a result of winning preliminary 25-lap features.

O’Connor jumped to the lead until lap 9 when Izzo took over the front spot. Izzo would continue to lead until lap 63 when Pierce made the pass for the lead. On lap 75 it was Izzo back to the lead. The last 25 laps of the first segment saw positions change back and forth and at the break it was O’Connor at the point followed by Pierce. Pierce passed O’Connor on lap 113. By lap 130 John Provenzano had moved into second and would pressure Pierce the rest of the way, but “the Tall Cool One” held on for the win with Provenzano settling for second.
The NCTC race that seems to be remembered the most by race fans was in 1990. The field included pole sitter and winner of the previous nights “Silver Crown 50”, Chargin’ Charlie Swartz of Ashland, Kentucky, Bob Pierce, Ronnie Johnson of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Omaha, Nebraska’s Joe Kosiski. At the start 1990 Santa Fe point champion Bob Pohlman Jr. got the jump on Swartz and pulled away. On lap 50 Provenzano spun brining out the yellow with only 7 cars on the lead lap. On lap 64, Provenzano experienced transmission problems and coasted to a near stand still on the back stretch. An 18 car pile-up resulted on the backstretch taking out most of the front runners and bringing out a red flag.
"The Big One" occurred at the 1990 National Clay Track Championships. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

A long delay ensued as the safety crews pulled cars apart and got things back in order. The race would resume based on the running order at the end of lap 63. The mandatory break at lap 100 would also be eliminated as the teams had plenty of time during the red flag conditions to make the necessary adjustments. Due to the lengthy delay, Provenzano was able to replace his transmission and enter the race in second place.

Swartz led a slimmed down field to the green, but it didn’t take Provenzano long and he passed Swartz for the lead. Pierce would soon get by Swartz for second and challenge Provenzano put Pierce’s car torn up from the big wreck wasn’t good enough to pass Provenzano, who picked up his third “200” win in four years. Provenzano and Pierce ended up being the only cars on the lead lap.

In 1991, arguably the best dirt late model driver of that era, Billy Moyer showed up at Santa Fe to try his hand at the 200. Track veterans Jim O’Connor and John Provenzano would share the front row with Provenzano jumping to the lead only to be passed on lap 8 by Larry Jackson. Izzo then assumed the point with Jackson reassuming the lead on lap 19. Izzo went back to front on lap 35 but the man on the move was Billy Moyer of Batesville, Arkansas. Moyer grabbed the top spot on lap 62 and would go on to pick up the win and $13,000 for his efforts. NCTS mainstay Provenzano would finish second. That year the field included Peter Parker, who finished third, Gary Webb, Joe Kosiski and Willy Kraft.

1993 saw the always tough Provenzano set a new track record with a lap of 17.174 seconds and started on the pole. But before the first lap was in the book, Westmont’s Gibby Steinhaus had the lead from his outside starting position. Steinhaus and Springfield’s Dick Taylor would swap the lead a couple of times before Taylor excited the race on lap 29. The next lap, “the Modern Day Cowboy” John Gill passed Steinhaus for the lead and never looked back. The race was cut short to 160 laps by rain.
John Gill remembers how he got the advantage early on in the race and how it was taken away during the mandatory lap 100 stop. “The track was really slick, but there was one dry spot coming high out of four where I could get traction and really fly down the front straight.” During the break he heard a “varoom” in turn four and turned to see an earth mover removing the dry spot. “I guess they thought they were evening up the odds.” Gill commented.

The 1994 race was run under threatening skies that had wiped out the previous nights Silver Crown 50 for the third year in a row. Nick Knipers Jr set fast time and led until Kevin Roderick took the top spot. Soon the race would be a battle between Roderick and Bob Pohlman Jr. By lap 70 Provenzano had joined the battle. Rain started to fall near the end of the first segment and the race was stopped for the mandatory pit stop on lap 102.

The late Kevin Roderick won the National Clay Track 200 in 1994. - Photo Courtesy of Al Lewis

During the break the rain subsided and the race was resumed with Provenzano at the point. Tom Pauley challenged “Little John” but after awhile Provenzano started to pull away and Roderick passed Pauley for second on lap 158. Then it happened, late in the race Provenzano was into the backstretch wall allowing Roderick to assume the point. Roderick would go on to win the race, with his closest call coming on the last lap when he had to swerve to miss two cars that crashed on the back stretch. For the late Palos Park driver it would be his biggest win.

In 1995, the race was shortened to 100 laps but it didn’t make much difference as the driver who had been as strong as anybody in the race, “Little John” Provenzano picked up his fifth NCTC crown. Sadly, it would be the last NCTC to be run at Santa Fe.

In January 1996 the famous “Dear Driver” letters were mailed out to competitors by the management of Santa Fe saying racing had been suspended for the 1996 season. In March 1999 the famous facility would fall to the wreck ball to make way for an upscale housing development.

Santa Fe Speedway and the National Clay Track Championships are now just a fading memory. But to those many die-hard Chicago dirt track racing fans there will always be a very special place in their heart for both.

A special thanks goes to two racing historians for their contribution to this story. Stan Kalwasinski and Bob Markos. Without their input this story would not have been possible.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Miller 200 (1970 - 1979)

Editor's note: This is part two covering the 200-mile USAC stock car race at the historic Milwaukee Mile. If you haven't read part one yet or need a quick refresher, here's the link to that story...http://www.midwestracingarchives.com/2013/01/the-milwaukee-200-1960-1969.html

By Kyle Ealy
West Allis, Wis. – As spectacular and star-studded as the annual USAC stock car 200-miler at the Milwaukee Mile was in the 1960’s, the 70’s version of the mid-summer classic wouldn’t disappoint. The new stars of the United States Auto Club stock car division were ready to set the bar a little higher.

Backed by new sponsorship from right down the street, the Miller Brewing Company, the race was appropriately named the “Miller 200”. And for the next 10 years, USAC stock car racing at the Milwaukee Mile in July would truly be, “The High Life”…

Norm Nelson’s Chrysler-backed racing team came to State Fair Park on Sunday, July 12, 1970 to do a job. And sure enough, they did it.

Roger McCluskey #1 battles teammate and car owner Norm Nelson #41 during the Miller 200 at the Milwaukee Mile on July 12, 1970.

 “A one-two finish, that’s what we came here for,” said Roger McCluskey after the Tucson, Ariz., driver pushed his 1970 Plymouth Superbird to a 77-second victory over teammate Nelson of Racine, Wis., in a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner. He also set fast time during Saturday’s qualifying, touring the oval at 34.349 seconds.

McCluskey’s only serious challenge came from Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, who raced him neck and neck for some 10 laps around the blistering hot one-mile asphalt ribbon. The track temperature was reported to have reached 105 degrees at race time. 

White edged into the lead at the beginning, only to lose it all when a cracked valve forced him to call it quits on the 52nd lap. “He (White) pushed it hard for a while,” said McCluskey. “I enjoy driving against him.”

“My car handled well,” said McCluskey, who picked up $10,360 of the $57,475 purse –the largest for a USAC stock car race on a one mile track that year. “We didn’t have any problems with the heat.”

McCluskey averaged 98.169 miles per hour for the 2 hour and 2 minute race, leading all but 12 laps. He finished this time - unlike the 1968 race when his feet blistered from the heat and he had to quit earlier than he wanted to.

He said his principal worry was not himself, but the tires and how they would hold up in the sweltering humidity. “We had some new type Goodyear tires, and we had no projection what they’d do,” he said. “We planned a tire change on the first pit stop for fuel because the tires wear more early in the race. The second stop, as it would turn out, was for fuel only.” Both pit stops were extremely brief.

After the second stop, Roger battled A.J. Foyt briefly, with the Texan hanging all over his back bumper for 80 laps before a problem with his transmission sent him to the garage.

Sal Tovella of Addison, Ill., who dueled Nelson most of the afternoon, finished third, giving Plymouth win, place and show on the afternoon. Butch Hartman of Zanesville, Ohio took fourth and Bobby Wawak of Villa Park, Ill., rounded out the top five, both driving 1969 Dodge Chargers. 

Norm Nelson’s two-headed monster would return to the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday, July 10, 1971 and again prove to be the kings of the mountain; in qualifying. McCluskey earned the pole position after shattering the track record (107.242 miles per hour) by more than two seconds and Nelson put forth the next best mark to share the front row for Sunday afternoon’s race. But none of it mattered when Sunday rolled around.

It would be another two-horse team that would steal the headlines come race day, as Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio and his able-bodied teammate, A.J. Foyt, would run one-two in the Miller 200.

“We came here to race,” Bowsher said of the difference between his team’s and Nelson’s on qualifying and race days. If you want to set a car to qualify and have a week to do it, you can set it up to do a couple of fast laps, but you can’t run 200 laps that way. We didn’t do a thing to the cars to qualify or race.”

Foyt, who qualified third, grabbed the lead away from McCluskey at the start with Bowsher taking his turn at the top spot later on. The dynamic duo led 173 of 200 laps in their 1969 Ford Torino’s and did so in convincing fashion. McCluskey would lead 21 laps in taking home the third spot.

Nelson’s team, based 40 miles from the track had spent all week testing, but it was all for naught. After the race, Nelson conceded that Bowsher and Foyt did their homework in outrunning his team, and the rest of the field for that matter.

“When it got hot and the tires got sticky, the track got oily,” Nelson said.” They were running beautifully and could get around us anytime they wanted. We were just spinning our wheels, so to speak.”

Bowsher averaged 95.763 mile per hour in winning the event, which was timed in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Bowsher collected $9,048 out of a $55,000 purse, with Foyt cashing in on an additional $6,263. Not a bad payday for what Bowsher called his “low budget operation”.

“When you talk independents, we’re as independent as you can get,” he remarked. “I ain’t kidding. I‘ve got my brother here and my kids helping out. I’ve only got one guy who really works for me.”

Jack Bowsher and Bobby Unser #5 lead the field to green at the 1972 Miller 200.

What’s a race without some controversy? The end of Miller 200 on July 9, 1972 would have just that. Roger McCluskey passed defending champ Jack Bowsher with four laps left when one of Bowsher’s tires began losing air, then drove his 1970 Plymouth Superbird to what seemed to be a victory in the race at the State Fair Park one-mile track.

Bowsher, of Springfield, Ohio, had led for 119 laps in a 1971 Ford, and claimed afterwards he was leading at the finish. He told USAC officials that instead of finishing five seconds (4.7 actually) behind McCluskey, he was actually ahead by almost a lap when the checkers waved. He claimed he gained the advantage early in the race when McCluskey made two pit stops for tire changes.

USAC officials responded by saying their scoring tapes and charts, along with those kept by Bowsher’s camp, would be sent to USAC headquarters in Indianapolis for review, with a decision to be rendered in a couple of days.

McCluskey averaged 89.644 miles per hour in his “unofficial” victory, as 54 laps were run under caution flags for a series of minor accidents. He said afterwards that he was afraid he was out of the race after his two early pit stops. “When I had two tires go I thought I’d had it,” he said. “But we switched to a harder compound tire and they wore well.”

Bowsher’s tire problems ended just after the race when the tire went completely flat, and the soft tire slowed him down noticeably.

“I saw Bowsher slowing down. He slowed even more, so then I thought I’d put the heat on him,” McCluskey said. “I didn’t run as hard as I could have, but it was enough to leave him behind.”

Three days later, USAC officials upheld the decision and awarded the victory to McCluskey. 

Contrary to what Bowsher’s team claimed, McCluskey made five pit stops, all during the caution flag. “Bowsher made three pit stops, two on the green and one on the yellow,” remarked Richard Sauer, chief of timing and scoring for USAC. “Bowsher’s scorer gave him credit for a lap he didn’t complete.”

Neither 90-degree-plus heat nor brake failure could stop Larry “Butch” Hartman, after he scored one of his infrequent victories in the Miller 200 on Sunday, July 8, 1973.

Hartman, who won the USAC stock car point title in 1972 without winning a race, took the lead with 29 miles left and held it the rest of the way, averaging 90.314 miles per hour in his Dodge Charger, and earned $10,165.

Don White led from the 79th to the 130th lap before taking a pit stop. He regained the lead on lap 132 and held it until his Charger blew an engine and hit a wall on lap 165. That gave the lead to Roger McCluskey. But he had to stop because of a flat tire on lap 171. Hartman grabbed the lead at that point and breezed to victory despite having no brakes.

“My brakes started going after the first 50 miles and for the last 100 miles I didn’t have any brakes at all,” the South Zanesville, Ohio, veteran said. “I told my crew it was a hard way to do it, but the way the car handled I should leave the brakes off next time.”

Johnny Rutherford exited the race early when he was overcome by the heat and high humidity, but Hartman said it didn’t bother him. “The heat never bothers you when you’re out front,” he said. “You won’t believe the cold chills I had when I saw the white flag out.”

McCluskey finished second in a Plymouth Roadrunner, while H. B. Bailey of Houston, Tex., was third in a Pontiac Firebird. Ramo Stott was fourth in a Dodge Charger and Jack Bowsher fifth in a Ford Torino.

Hartman, called the “Cheese Champion", because he didn’t earn a single win during his title run in ’72, said the label irritated him at times. “People, don’t realize I’m finishing well and getting the points,” he snapped. “I’d rather have eight seconds than only one first.”

Ohio's Butch Hartman would successfully defend his Miller 200 title on July 14, 1974.

Hartman could have very well been labeled the “Cheese Champion” again the next year, but for a different reason. After his Miller 200 victory in ’73, Hartman couldn’t stop winning at Milwaukee, claiming three more USAC victories and he was the odds-on favorite when the Miller 200 returned on July 14, 1974.

 Hartman would go on to score his fifth straight victory at Milwaukee that Sunday afternoon, but rest assured, his win wasn’t easy. Even with a half-lap lead in the closing laps of the race, Hartman never started counting his money. “At no point was I confident,” he said afterwards. Even in those last 10 laps when I was out in front, I was nervous as hell. Nothing was certain.”

He averaged 86.884 miles per hour in winning the event. He collected $10,019 of a $54,800 total purse.

Hartman, driving a 1974 Dodge Charger, took the lead from polesitter Bobby Unser after 35 laps. Unser would eventually leave the race after breaking a valve in his ’74 Charger.

Hartman would pit and Dick Trickle of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., would inherit the top spot on lap 87 and hold it until lap 117 when Hartman took over. Trickle would remain behind Hartman until he spun his ’72 Charger on lap 143 on an oil slick caused by the blown engine of Paul Feldner of Richfield, Wis., in a ’72 Charger. Trickle’s car hit the wall, but he walked away uninjured.

Hartman’s final challenge would be from Ramo Stott who had been hampered by brake problems in his 1972 Plymouth all afternoon long but had somehow managed to stay with the leaders. “I knew he was right behind me,” Hartman said. “But I also knew he had some brake issues. It was one heck of a race he (Ramo) drove.”

Norm Nelson would finish third despite being hampered when he made a pit stop on the 50th lap, picked up a piece of metal while leaving the pit area and had to return only three laps later with a flat tire. Jack Bowsher was fourth and Bay Darnell fifth.

In the 1960’s, you could say that Don White owned the Milwaukee Mile, scoring an amazing 11 USAC stock car wins during that decade. But the 70’s had treated the Keokuk, Iowa veteran differently. He had only won twice at “The Mile” and it had been nearly three years (September 10, 1972) since his last victory.

On the other side the fence, the 70’s had been overly generous to Butch Hartman. The four-time USAC stock car national champion and two-time defending Miller 200 titlist had won seven of the last eight USAC stock car races at the famed oval and was enjoying another banner season on the USAC circuit.
A familiar face in victory lane during the 60's, Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, would score his final Milwaukee victory on July 13, 1975.

On July 13, 1975, it would be a showdown of the old guard versus the new star…

The old guard would win out as the 49-year-old White drove his 1972 Dodge Charger past Hartman on the 142nd mile of the 200-mile event, then held off both Bay Darnell and Hartman down the stretch for the victory, worth $9,518 from the record $62,600 purse.

“This has been a long time coming,” said White. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction because I build my own cars, I drive my own cars, I do it all myself.”

White had no sponsorship on his car and was so low on cash he had to qualify using year-old tires. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing you can put a car together yourself and still beat the guys who have money to burn.”

Darnell was second, Hartman managed third despite losing more than a lap after an early accident, and Irv Janey was fourth. All drove 1974 Chargers, while fifth place finisher Ralph Latham of Cincinnati, Ohio piloted a 1975 Chevelle.

The 200-miler was delayed by six yellow caution flags and numerous spins and crashes, including a spectacular collision on the 85th lap. Ramo Stott’s Plymouth blew an engine and burst into flames, and then Jack Bowsher crashed into the wreckage. Neither driver was hurt, but both cars were out of the race.

Butch Hartman would come back with a vengeance the next year, overcoming both the sweltering heat and an unruly race fan to win the Miller 200 on July 11, 1976. Hartman, driving a 1976 Camaro, passed Sal Tovella to take the lead for good on the 158th circuit and ran away unscathed for the remainder of the contest. The three-time winner of the event picked up $9,734 of the $60,000 purse, the richest on the USAC stock car circuit.

Afterwards, Hartman used the ‘ol one-two combination on a fan using obscenities towards the Zanesville, Ohio speedster. “I don't like it,” he said after the scuffle, which ended with the spectator escorted away by police officers. “I don't allow words like that in my home and there’s no place for them here either. There’s no sense in language like that in front of women and little children.”

Hartman, who started on the pole for the Sunday afternoon race, finished with a winning speed of 88.115 miles per hour, outdistancing Tovella at the end by six seconds in 97 degree heat that sent the track temperature to 147. Jack Bowsher, driving a 1976 Ford Torino, finished a distant third and Larry Moore of Dayton, Ohio, in a 1974 Charger was fourth. Fifth place went to Dave Whitcomb of Valparaiso, Ind., in a 1976 Camaro.

Defending champion Don White lasted 51 laps before pulling in because of brake problems. Ramo Stott, the ‘75 USAC national champion, was knocked out of the race with a broken crank shaft pulley on the 89th lap.

Tovella, driving a 1974 Plymouth, was hampered by rear spring and right rear fender damage suffered when his car was involved in a multi-car pile-up on the 72nd lap after Paul Feldner’s 1974 Charger blew an engine. Oil from Feldner’s car spilled onto the track, and Hartman avoided the oil, but Tovella spun and crashed into Feldner's car. Four other cars hit either Feldner’s car or the wall, but no serious injuries were reported.

History was made that afternoon as well as Arlene Hiss became first woman to drive in a Milwaukee stock car race. She was lapped twice by the field in the first 16 laps and spun out in the second turn of the 29th lap. Neither she nor her car suffered any damage, and Tom Williams, owner of the car, took over the driving duties until the 72nd lap when his was the third car in the multi-car crackup.
In the early 1970’s, a young man by the name of Dave Watson started his career in short track racing. His goal was to one day, go big-time. The Beloit, Wis., driver decided to be patient, though, and wait until the time was right to pursue that dream. By 1976, the 30-year-old driver had made huge strides, winning 41 of 76 features he entered and becoming one of the top short track drivers in the nation. After the ’76 season, Watson decided it was time to move up in the ranks, or, as he put it, “I’ve kinda reached a plateau in racing. I’ve won everything there is to win in short track racing. We can’t go anywhere else but down.”

 Dave Watson is interviewed by announcer Jack Baker after winning the 1977 Miller 200. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

On Sunday, July 10, 1977, at the Milwaukee Mile, Dave Watson got his first taste of big time stock car racing. And all he did in his rookie appearance was whip everyone and win the Miller 200 with drivers of the capability of NASCAR star Bobby Allison, who finished five seconds back in second place, Indy 500 veteran Bobby Unser, who took third, and USAC champions Don White and Ramo Stott in his wake. Not bad for a debut…

But things weren't entirely easy for Watson. He was held up a lap in the pits as a penalty for passing cars in the backstretch under the yellow caution flag. After getting his lap back, he eventually made his way to the front and on lap 158 roared past Allison to take the lead. However, USAC officials had the binoculars out watching him as circled the track.

“They told us his right rear tire was chunking off and we’d have to call him in,” said Watson’s car owner Dave Deppe. Deppe, who owned a disposal company in Baraboo, Wis., convinced USAC officials that everything was just fine, they conceded and continued to let him race. The whole time, Watson wasn’t even aware of the incident and didn’t even hear about it until he was in victory lane afterwards, hoisting the trophy and collecting his winnings of nearly $10,000.

Still, almost an hour after the victory, USAC officials still weren’t satisfied and started combing Watson’s car for violations. Routinely, the top five finishers at Milwaukee were always torn down for inspection but the perusals usually didn’t go beyond a quick check of the engine and gas tank.

Deppe was called in to the impound area during the inspection and was engaged in conversation with officials for over a half hour before the car finally was cleared and the results declared official. Asked afterward what the trouble was, Deppe said, “The biggest problem was that a rookie driver and a guy that owns a garbage truck business won a race.”

The rookie driver mentioned afterwards that he wasn’t awed by who he was competing with, not even the veteran Allison. “I thought he was at as much of a disadvantage as I was,” Watson said. “He hadn’t raced here before either so I figured he and I were on equal ground.”

Allison would get his revenge the next year, July 9, 1978, but amidst a little controversy. Allison, driving an AMC Matador, was the first to cross the finish line when the checkers came out, three seconds ahead of runner-up Sal Tovella.

But, to a lot of people’s confusion, both drivers proceeded to take a victory lap…

Tovella’s crew signaled for him to head to the winner’s circle and two and a half hours of conflict followed. Tovella’s crew was under the impression that Allison was one lap behind at the end of the 200-mile race. They argued that Allison had made a series of illegal pit stops under the yellow flag during laps 131 through 134, which according to their own scoring, put him one lap back at the finish.

Neither Bobby Allison (left) or Sal Tovella (right) were willing to concede the 1978 Miller 200. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

A couple of hours later, long after fans had left and race cars had been loaded up, Bill Saxon, the USAC stock car director, said an investigation of records showed that Allison had completed the required 200 laps and was the winner. The confusion, Saxon said, developed because Allison had been credited with one long pit stop when actually he made three quick pit stops under yellow flag conditions.

The final Miller 200 of the decade would take place on July 8, 1979 with Joe Ruttman of Upland, Calif., the younger brother of racing legend Troy Ruttman, leading more than three-quarters of the way and pulling ahead for good at the Wisconsin State Fair Park track. Ruttman’s victory, his first at the Milwaukee track, came before a crowd of 21,169 and earned him the winner’s share of a $75,000 record purse

Joe Ruttman  receives the celebratory kiss after winning the Miller 200 on July 8, 1979. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

Ruttman, who led 152 of the 200 laps on the paved one-mile oval, took the lead for good when he passed Terry Ryan of Davenport, Iowa going into the third turn of lap 130. Ryan, Ruttman, A.J. Foyt and defending race winner Bobby Allison had battled for the lead for the previous 20 laps. Ruttman managed to stay a second ahead of Ryan and Foyt for the next 10 laps and then began increasing his lead to as much as five seconds.

Foyt had won the pole position on Saturday with a record speed of 112.15 miles per hour. He led the first seven laps but was slowed throughout the event having to pit on seven different occasions, including one when he was called in by USAC officials for pitting too early when a yellow flag was posted. Foyt was bothered most of the day by handling and tire problems.

Ruttman averaged 96.33 miles per hour in his ’77 Pontiac Phoenix and finishing ahead of Ryan and Foyt, who both drove ’78 Camaros. Tom Sneva of Spokane, Wash., was fifth in a ’79 Ford Granada, and Jim Cushman of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was sixth in a ’78 Plymouth Volare.

Even though he won by five seconds, Ruttman didn’t feel he was the best driver on the track. “I had the better car today,” Ruttman said. “I didn't finish ahead of (A.J) Foyt because I’m a better driver than he is. I could see that he had lots of problems with his car today. I felt sorry for him, but then he’s beat me an awful lot of times, and I wanted to beat him for a change.”

The Miller 200 at the Milwaukee Mile would be USAC-sanctioned for two more years, in 1980 and 1981. Rusty Wallace, an up and coming star from St. Louis, Mo., would give race fans and fellow competitors a sneak preview of his driving talents by winning both races.

Rusty Wallace of St. Louis, Mo., would win the last two USAC-sanctioned Miller 200 stock car races in 1980 and 1981. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

By 1982, however, the USAC stock car division was losing its luster and while the Miller 200 would continue at The Mile, it would be sanctioned by the American Speed Association for the race’s remaining years.

By 1984, the USAC stock car division had faded into obscurity. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

1983: Remembering the NSCA Sprint Car Series

T. J. Giddings driving the #81 Marty Johnson/Shady Oaks Steakhouse #81. - Lee Johnson Photo
by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - In 1978 with the demise of the old International Motor Contest Association (IMCA), a new organization came into being to fill the void for promoting races in the Midwest. It was called the National Speedways Contest Association (NSCA) and its promoting arm was called National Speedways, Inc., which had been a long time promoting arm of IMCA.
The race directors of National Speedways, Inc. would be two Des Moines residents, Dave Van Patten and Robert Lawton. Van Patton would serve as President of NSCA and Lawton as Vice President.
NSCA promoted sprint car races and later late model races throughout the Midwest from 1978 thru 1984. In 1985 the NSCA Sprint Car series became the regional arm of the World of Outlaws. One of the concepts of the NSCA, was to have eight member board of directors for each division. These boards were made up of four drivers and four car owners. These groups established the rules for racing within each division.
The series scheduled several races in the later part of June 1983 and those are the focus of this story simply because this writer was able to attend the last two of these. The race scheduled for June 26 in Marshall, Missouri was rained out.
Things started off with the Annual Casey’s General Stores Missouri Sprint Car Nationals at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. The King of the Outlaws, Steve Kinser, would set fast time of 19.883 seconds aboard the C.K. Spurlock Gambler House Car normally driven by Doug Wolfgang. 
Scott Ritchhart, Junior Parkinson, Wolfgang and Kinser would claim Friday night heat race wins. Australian Brett Lacey would take the B-main over Ricky Hood. In the preliminary feature on Friday night it would be Kinser followed by Larry Gates, Ritchhart, John Sernett and Cliff “Woody” Woodward.
Saturday night ended up being a very interesting night. First off, Bob Lawton was hit by a sprint car during the packing of the track sending him to the local hospital with a broken leg. Then rain delayed the start of the show till 10 pm. In heat race action it was Randy Smith, Bobby Layne, David Dwyer and Ricky Hood picking up wins. Gates would claim the B feature over Sonny Smyser.
The 25-lap feature once again saw “The King” Steve Kinser come out on top of a race that saw Layne take a wild flip that brought out the red. At the end of the event it was Kinser besting Wolfgang, Hood, Smith and Sernett.
The next night the action moved to Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas and a race that yours truly fondly remembers because it took only 1 hour and 50 minutes to run the program from start to finish. 30 cars were on hand for the event that saw John Sernett set fast time at 19.389 seconds.
Heat action saw plenty of passing as Larry Gates won heat one from the fourth starting position, Tim Baker heat two from the 7th and last starting spot, Randy Smith from the fourth starting position to win heat three and Brett Lacey from the outside front row for the fourth heat. Sixth starting Jr. Parkinson won the 10-lap B feature.
The A feature would see a local driver hold off the big names to take home the $2,000 first prize. Kansas City’s T. J. Giddings driving the #81 Marty Johnson/Shady Oaks Steakhouse car would start on the pole and hold both Steve Kinser in the Gambler House car and Doug Wolfgang in the Nance Speed Shop House car for the win. Finishing behind Giddings, Kinser and Wolfgang were Ricky Hood and fast qualifier John Sernett.
The following Friday night before a near capacity crowd the NSCA Sprinters would test out the third-mile high banks of  Eagle Raceway just east of Lincoln, Nebraska. Just 18 Sprinters showed up for the event which saw Randy Smith of Mt. Ayr, Iowa  driving the #55 Jensen Construction Sprinter set fast time at 14.057 seconds with Jr. Parkinson and Bob Thoman second and third in time trials.
Bob Thoman driving the #87 car would win the dash over Rocky Hodges in the Casey’s General Store #47. Joe Wade driving the #12 sprinter would use the pole position to good advantage in taking the first heat. Woody Woodard would take the second heat from his fourth starting position and Jr. Parkinson was never headed in winning the third heat from the pole.
Sixteen cars would take the green flag in the A feature with Dan Shorney and late arriving T. J. Giddings scratching. Woody Woodward would take command of the feature from his outside front row starting position and would hold off the challenges of Bob Thoman for the first half of the race and appeared to have things well in hand until a lap 20 red flag thrown for a turn one altercations between Hodges, Parkinson and Gene Brudigan.
On the restart Woodward again seemed to have things in hand when he experienced mechanical problems on the next to last lap and Randy Smith inherited the lead and took the win. Seventh starting Mike Pinkney would finish second followed by Thoman and Brett Lacey who started in the final row.
Randy Smith would go on to win the 1983 NSCA Sprint Car Championship, but the series was in its final stages and would fade from the scene after running as the World of Outlaw Regional Series in 1985. During its day however, the NSCA provided Midwest race fans with some great racing action.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Corn Belt Race

By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – In the 1950’s and 60’s, one of the more popular stops for the IMCA stock car division was Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Starting in 1952 and continuing until 1961, the series would hold two race cards during the All-Iowa Fair, held annually in August. The first of the two would be highlighted by a 100-lap, 50-mile feature; longer than most races on the series’ schedule, but merely a tune-up for what was to come. Termed the “Corn Belt Race”, the second main event, usually held a day or two later, was a 200-lap, 100-mile slugfest.

Two thoughts came to mind when researching this article. Being that the race was in August; the heat had to be unbearable not only for the drivers, but for the fans in attendance. The second notion that came to mind; Completing 200 laps would require 800 left-hand turns of the steering wheel...steering without the “power” that we take for granted today.

To win a race that distance, a little luck can’t hurt either, and that is exactly what the first winner needed – and got.

Wally Dahl, a hard-luck driver from Minneapolis, had been dealing with misfortune all season long. Early in the season he was running second in the national points when he flipped his car at Spencer, Iowa, demolishing it. He took what was left of his car, went home and rebuilt it. A week later he was back on the circuit, however, bad luck continued to follow Dahl wherever he went. At times when it appeared he was heading for a decent payday, his car would break down in the last few laps and he would go home empty handed. He stuck with it, though, in hopes his luck would turn.

On Tuesday, August 12, 1952, Dahl’s fortune improved as he came from behind in a thriller to capture the inaugural 100-mile Corn Belt race.

Dahl was more than a half-lap behind Jimmy Clark of Fort Worth, Tex., with 25 laps to go, when Dahl’s left front wheel caved in. It looked as though Dahl's bid was doomed.

But despite animated pleading from his pit crew to come in, Dahl mashed the gas pedal on his 1951 Hudson and decided it was all or nothing. Sure enough, “Lucky Wally” caught Clark on the 192nd lap and won going away as Clark was forced to rock his car through the final five laps to get the most of a dwindling gas supply.

According to Cedar Rapids Gazette race reporter Jack Ogden, the race was 'one of the best of the season, with a finish that was hard to beat'. Dahl and Clark battled hub to hub with less than 10 laps to go and Dahl was never out of danger, running on only three tires.”

It was a bitter windup for Clark, who trailed Don White of Keokuk for the first 11 laps and then led all the way until the final eight of the 200-lap race. At one point he was more than full lap ahead of the field.

Dahl won the title in 1 hour, 54 minutes, and 36 seconds - a fast pace considering that at least a dozen laps were run under the caution flag. Dahl and Clark were followed by Ernie Derr of Fort Madison, Iowa, Chuck Magnison of Minneapolis and E.T. Durr of Shreveport, La.

Hard driving Ernie Derr of Keokuk scored a car-length victory over “Wild” Bill Harrison of Topeka, Kan., on Sunday afternoon, August 16, 1953, to capture the 200-lap duel before an All-Iowa Fair crowd of 7,500.

Piloting a 1952 Oldsmobile, which he had used to lead the IMCA point race for most of the year, Derr took over the point on the 51st lap, and was never headed, winning in 1 hour, 55 minutes and 56 seconds.

Three cautions slowed the action and kept Derr from making the contest a runaway. The final caution, with 20 laps to go, allowed Harrison to close the gap, making for a blazing finish during the final 5 tours.

Harrison led the race for the first 47 laps, and did some excellent driving to keep the hot running Derr behind him. The two cars were side by side at times in the corners and on the front and backstretch before Derr finally made the pass.

The Keokuk speedster then pulled nearly a lap in front before the yellow flags began to wave. Chuck Magnison was less than 10 yards behind the second running Harrison in his bid to get to the front when he crashed through the fence on the west turn. A blown right front tire caused the accident, but a severely damaged radiator kept him from re turning to action.

Sunday’s test saw only eight of 15 cars finishing the grueling distance. The most serious of accident came on the 190th lap, when three coupes tangled while dueling through the first turn. Dick Johnson of St. Paul, Minn., flipped his ’48 Plymouth, and was badly shaken up.

The events were nearly an hour late in getting underway, probably because hundreds of race fans were still jammed on the roads approaching the fairground. It was said that some fans spent up to 40 minutes traveling the last six blocks to the grounds.

On August 15, 1954, Bill Harrison pulled off what most thought would be an improbable feat.

He drove 200 laps without a pit stop in winning the Corn Belt in convincing fashion. A crowd estimated at 8,000 watched the Topeka speedster turn the trick in 1 hour, 57 minutes and 24 seconds, leading home Gene Brown of Fort Worth, Tex., who also finished the race without having to stop.

The non-stop performances were unusual, since most of the field of 19 cars found the hot day and the hard track too much of a test for their equipment. Possibly more remarkable however, was the fact that not one lap was run under the yellow caution flag even though most of the cars were in the pits at least once with minor mishaps such as blowouts and an assortment of engine problems.

Most of the highly-rated Iowa chauffeurs were victims of the outbreak of minor defects. First Don White and then Ernie Derr were forced out of the race while leading. After both White and Derr bowed out, Harrison took over the lead and was never challenged.

Ernie Derr would capitalize on his brother-in-law’s misfortune to win the accident-free Corn Belt race on August 14, 1955. Derr, driving a 1954 Oldsmobile, copped the lead on the 123rd lap of the 200-lap endurance test when Don White was forced to the pits when his right rear wheel locked. White had powered his new ’55 Oldsmobile to a comfortable lead, having lapped the entire 25-car field except Derr.


When White dropped out, Derr’s chief challenger would be Herschel Buchanan of Shreveport, La driving a 1954 Ford Thunderbird. But again Derr’s fortune was the result of another man’s bad luck when Buchanan fell out of the race at 155 laps with front wheel trouble. Derr, the 1953 IMCA national champion, was unchallenged after that.

Like Bill Harrison the year before, Derr did not require a pit stop in winning the long-endurance contest. His time for the 100-miler was 1 hour, 47 minutes, and 34 seconds. The fast condition of the track also enabled Derr and Buchanan to establish one-lap track record of 30.10 seconds in the time trials. A crowd of 7,500 watched the afternoon events.

In 1956 and 1957, there wasn’t a more dominant driver in the IMCA stock car ranks than Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan, Iowa. Beauchamp would score an amazing 38 feature wins in ’56 and follow up with 32 main event wins in ’57, winning IMCA national titles both years.

Naturally, the ’56 and ’57 Corn Belt races at the All-Iowa Fair would be a notch on Beauchamp’s championship belt.

Before one of the largest crowds ever to witness a race at Hawkeye Downs, Beauchamp steered his 1956 Chevrolet to a dominating performance on August 19, 1956.  An estimated 11,000 fans saw Beauchamp outdistance second place finisher Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids by seven laps.


The “Flyin Frenchman” displayed somewhat of an ironman performance, not stopping once during the 100-mile grind. His counterparts, meanwhile, made several pauses for equipment checks and fuel.

That Sunday afternoon turned out to be record-breaking day for drivers. Beauchamp's time of 1 hour, 47 minutes, and 40 seconds was about two minutes slower than the IMCA world record but the one-lap record for qualifying was broken.

It was George Miller of Cedar Rapids who accounted for the world half-mile mark. He toured the distance in 28.18 seconds bettering Sonny Morgan’s mark of 23.30 seconds. The Beaumont, Tex.., veteran had set that record only minutes before Miller’s trial run.

Beauchamp trailed Miller in the feature race until the 26th lap, when he overtook him on the far straight-away. Beauchamp quickly took a five car-length lead and was never in trouble the rest of the way.

Miller stayed within a half lap distance until he was forced to the pits with a pierced fuel tank. It only took Miller’s crew 30 seconds to get him rolling again and he brought his ’56 Ford home in fifth place.

As dominant as Beauchamp was in the ’56 race, nothing could compare to what he would do on August 18, 1957. Before an estimated 7,500 fans, Beauchamp would establish two IMCA world records and as the Cedar Rapids Gazette would report, “blow the doors off of 16 other competitors” in winning the 200-lapper.

“The Harlan Flash” won all three races he entered, with a blazing 1 hour, 33 minutes, and 53 second performance in the 100-mile tour topping his list of accomplishments. He trimmed almost 5 minutes off the record he had set at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul in September of 1956. Earlier in the afternoon, Beauchamp set a new 8-lap, 4-mile mark of 3 minutes and 45 seconds in the trophy dash.

A hometown driver would give Beauchamp all he could handle in the main event. Darrell Dake pushed Beauchamp to the 100-mile record, using everything his 1956 Ford had to give. Dake ran less than 5 seconds behind the leader for the last 11 circuits but didn’t have enough to take the vaunted No. 55.

Beauchamp and Dake would lap the rest of the field in the 100-mile feature that saw only eight of the 16 cars that started able to finish after the blistering pace that saw the record established despite seven caution laps. That caution occurred when the rear axle on George Miller’s 1957 Pontiac broke on the 86th lap, shearing a wheel and sending the car skidding into the infield. Luckily it didn't overturn and he was shaken but not injured.

Dake, who was quickly becoming one of IMCA’s great young stars, had himself a field day. In addition to running under the world’s record on the evening program, he was third the afternoon feature and won the eight-lap first heat by a nose, edging out another up and comer, Bob Burdick, in the day’s closest finish.

Ernie Derr, for the most part, had been somewhat absent for IMCA competition during Beauchamp’s reign in ’56 and ’57, competing with other racing sanctions. In 1958, Derr decided to come back and make another title run and when the stock cars arrived in Cedar Rapids on August 17, 1958 for the Corn Belt race, Derr and Bob Burdick were locked in a tight battle.

Derr would score an important victory on this day before 7,500 fans, winning the 200-lap feature and putting himself safely into the point’s lead as well. As expected, the duel on the half-mile was between Derr and Burdick, but motor trouble canceled Burdick’s bid for continuing his title run.

The young Omaha driver was leading the race when he was forced into the pits after 116 laps. Derr, who had been a lap back moved into the lead for keeps. Burdick returned to the track, but a lap later he was forced out of the race.

Derr’s winning time was 1 hour, 35 minutes and 54 seconds, less than 2 minutes shy of the IMCA world 200-lap record. Derr might have set a new mark, except for two caution flags that slowed the field down a total of 4 laps.

Derr, who drove a 1957 Pontiac and Burdick piloting a 1958 Ford, were the only two drivers who held the lead after the 33rd lap. Darrell Dake, who set fast time on the half-mile with a 27.65 second run, led for the first 32 circuits in his ’57 Chevrolet. He would end up in seventh place. Jule “Chub” Liebe of Oelwein, Iowa, would finish second behind Derr.

Despite Darrell Dake being a consistent winner on the IMCA circuit elsewhere, the Cedar Rapids speedster had been somewhat jinxed on his hometown track, not having been able to score a feature victory.

On Sunday, August 23, 1959, Dake changed all that by heading home a 16-car field in the 200-lap IMCA championship race before some 6,000 fans - going the route in a respectable 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 45 seconds on a track that was dangerously slick at the start. He finished more than a lap ahead of runner-up Lennie Funk of Otis, Kan.

Dake was in third in the early going but moved up to second on lap 89. Shortly after the halfway point, Dake was a half lap behind the leader Bob Kosiski of Omaha. The two front-runners were a full three laps ahead of the rest of the field.

When Kosiski pitted his ’59 Thunderbird on lap 114, Dake powered his 1957 Chevrolet to the front and was never challenged after that, although Funk did threaten for the lead when Dake pitted on lap 130.
Kosiski was the hard-luck driver on the afternoon; he entered the pits at 114 laps, he returned to the track and immediately was making ground on Dake only to spin out of contention on the back stretch.

Ramo Stott would chauffeur his 1960 Ford convertible to one world record and nearly set another on August 21, 1960, as the late model stock cars brought the 25th anniversary of the All-Iowa Fair to a close.

The young Keokuk, Iowa driver won the 5-lap dash event in the afternoon in a record time of 2 minutes and 18.65 seconds, bettering the old time of 2 minutes and 19 seconds set by another Keokuk driver, Ernie Derr, in 1959 at Oskaloosa, Iowa.

Stott came back in the evening before a sellout crowd of about 7,000 to cop the grueling 200-lap event in 1 hour, 33 minutes, and 4 seconds, just 2.5 seconds off the IMCA world’s record for a half-mile dirt track. He probably could have set the mark if the race hadn’t been slowed for 5 laps due to a spinout.

The fans saw quite a battle all the way for the top spot. Stott, Joe Dolphy of New Brighton, Minn., in a 1960 Plymouth and Lennie Funk of Otis, Kan., in a ‘59 Plymouth were bumper to bumper throughout the entire grind. All three drivers were trying to outlast the other as their gasoline supply dwindled.

Finally on the 147th lap, Dolphy gave up his runner-up position to refuel. Within the next 10 laps, the top four drivers had all made a pit stop for fuel. From then on the top three spots were pretty well settled, with Stott, Dolphy and Funk finishing in that order.

The final Corn Belt race, held on August 20, 1961, would see an unexpected entry surprise a packed house in an interrupted 200-lap event.

While racing in Mason City, Iowa, the night before, Jerry McCreadie blew the engine in his 1960 Pontiac and wasn’t expected to make the Cedar Rapids affair. But after working all night and into the morning on his engine, McCreadie showed up right at feature time to everyone’s surprise.
After being announced as a late entry, the Keokuk, Iowa, driver quickly became the crowd favorite. Starting in the 20th position, due to arriving after qualifications had already taken place, McCreadie methodically made his way to the front of the field, much to the delight of those in attendance. He held down the third spot after 116 laps.

McCredie grabbed the lead on the 134th lap after both of the pre-race favorites, Chub Liebe of Oelwein and Buzz McCann of St. Paul, Minn., were forced to the sidelines with car trouble.

Liebe was probably the tough luck racer of the day. The Oelwein pilot led the 20-car field for 116 laps and looked like a sure winner, as he had lapped every competitor by the time he turned the 115th lap. But on the next circuit, engine trouble on his ’61 Ford forced him out of the race. McCann faced the same difficulty in later laps, the time trial leader picked up where Liebe left off and led the pack until the 134th lap. A broken axle eliminated him and his ’61 Ford.

After securing the top spot, McCreadie was never headed after that cruising to an easy victory in front of a very pro-McCreadie crowd. The top three finishers in the race, in fact, were unexpected. Art Brady of Peoria, Ill., driving a 1960 Thunderbird, was a surprise second place finisher and Johnny Babb of Ottumwa, Iowa, driving a 1957 Ford, took third.

The IMCA stock car series would continue to stage 200-lap, 100-mile races at Hawkeye Downs for many years to come, but the 1961 Corn Belt race would be the last time the popular division would have a long-distant contest during the All-Iowa Fair.