Sunday, May 28, 2017

1984 – An Indy 500 Veteran Remembers Days of Speed and Daring

Cliff Woodbury at Indianapolis in 1927
By Gary Sharp
Alton, Ill. (May 28, 1984) – Life is a bit slower now, but Memorial Day still ha special memories of speed for 89-year-old Cliff Woodbury who got a taste of both victory and near-disaster in four years of racing in the 1920-era brick track of the Indianapolis 500.
Woodbury placed third a “The Brickyard: - as Indianapolis Speedway was known – in 1926, the first year he entered the legendary Indianapolis 500. In 1929 – his last Indy 500 and his last year of competitive racing – he won the pole position with the best qualifying speed, 120.599 miles per hour, but crashed on the third lap, “creating a wonderful big pile of wreckage for ‘em”.
Until about a year ago, when he came to Godfrey, Ill., to live the youngest of his four daughters, Theresa, and her husband, Edmund Morrissey, Woodbury lived in LaGrange Park. For some 53 years, until retiring in 1973, he operated Woodbury Brothers Garage in Chicago with his brother, Elmer.
Woodbury’s fascination with autos started early. He paid $50 in cash earned by cutting grass for driving lessons and in 1915, even before he married his late wife, Sarah, he bought his first car and won first place in a race on a dirt track in Davenport, Iowa. In 1927, when dirt track racing was recognized by the American Automobile Association (AAA), he became the National Dirt Track Champion.
Woodbury retired from competitive racing after a second accident in 1929 on the banked board speedway at Altoona, Pa. A car in front of him hit the guard rail, scattering steel on the track. “I came along and ran into the debris,” Woodbury remembers. “The car was in a fair way to disintegrate.”
Woodbury’s car hit the debris, flipping end over end. First radio reports said he had been killed along with another driver; though he survived the crash, he was hospitalized for some two months and full recovery took several years.
Cliff Woodbury in his Boyle Valve Special in 1927.
Accounts of Woodbury’s career in the reckless daredevil days of racing note his “skill and daring” on all sorts of tracks, including dirt, board and brick, and his penchant for record setting. On one afternoon in 1924 he set a new world’s record at Crown Point, Ind., completing a half-mile lap in 27.2 seconds, then went on to win a 10-mile race in the world record time of 9 minutes and 38 seconds. In 1926, driving a banked board track in Culver City, Calif., he averaged 138 miles per hour during warm-up, setting a track record and was flagged off the track by over-cautious officials.
The tales off his racing exploits are the stuff of legend – from his 1924 defeat of racing great Stan Nowicki at the State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee to his 1926 loss in Detroit to Frank Lockhart in a 100-mile race.
“Lockhart ran the entire distance without a pit stop,” Illustrated Speedway News observed in 1948,” while Woodbury made SIX STOPS with a leaky radiator, lost at least seven laps and still only lost the race by one lap.”
While some of his Indy memories are dimmed by the passage of almost 60 years, Woodbury’s eyes still shine when he talks about his glory days of racing and he still has a sense of humor about that “wonderful big pile of wreckage.”
The brick Indy track was “quite rough,” Woodbury says, probably with some understatement. “We had to put up with it, because that was it.”
Dirt tracks weren’t much better, “That’s all there was when I got my first pair of goggles,” he says. “You learn to do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
Leafing through photo of himself in cars, surrounded by assistants and spectators, Woodbury picks out the faces of his mechanics. “He made $50 a week plus 10% of my winnings. That’s a precarious way to make a living, but he did it.”
Woodbury always remembers his small scale start as a mechanic. “I had a box of tools so I kind of developed a little shop of my own to work on automobiles. After a few years of that kind of work, I got a few of these race cars. I made enough money chasing these things around that I was able to get into it myself.”
Cliff Woodbury's business card
While he financed his first cars and earlier races himself, Woodbury later obtained the sponsorship of Mike Boyle’s Boyle Valve Company in Chicago. It was a Boyle Valve Special – a Miller Straight 8 – that Woodbury roared to a third-place finish in the 1926 Indy 500.
Woodbury modified one of his cars, a Frontenac, rebuilding it without the transmission and differential. As a result, the car ran in only one gear – fast forward. Such adaptations later became common, but were innovative in the days when Woodbury’s Frontenac had to be pushed to get it started but finished far ahead of its competitors. “On the dirt tracks, it was a bear,” Woodbury recalled.
Cliff Woodbury returned to Indy in 1975 to race one of those ancient cars in an Old Timers race. According to reports of that race, Woodbury whizzed around the track at some 90 miles per hour with son-in-law Tom Culligan hanging on for dear life – the old cars weren’t equipped with seat belts. Thankfully for the passenger, it finally quit running.
According to Bob Laycock, the Indianapolis Speedway historian, there are some veterans of Indy, including Colonel Edward Towers, who was in the 1911 race. But Towers was a “riding mechanic” and Woodbury, Laycock says, is probably the oldest living driver who started an Indy race.
Woodbury still watches the Indy 500 on television, but he’s sure the sport was “more exciting back then. You didn’t have a load of safety built into them.” And he notes, “After I left the brick track, they turned it into a modern track.”
The Woodbury legend still fascinates his family of five children, three daughters besides Mrs. Morrissey and a son, Cliff Jr; 38 grandchildren, including 11 Morrissey’s; and 42 great-grandchildren.
One grandson, Patrick Culligan, turned his grandfather’s saga into an English term paper titled One Man’s Indy 500. “The Memorial Day classic still attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and amateurs still dream of the big time,” the grandson wrote. “Only those who experienced the excitement and the danger of the Indy 500 really know what it’s all about.”
Editor’s Note: Cliff Woodbury would pass away 6 months later, on November 13, 1984 at the age of 90.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

1970 - West Liberty’s Morris captures feature event

Mel Morris proudly holds the checkers after his win at Oskaloosa.
by Ida May Van Gendren
Oskaloosa, Iowa (May 27, 1970) - Mel Morris edged out last week's winner, Pokey West, to capture the 15-lap super stock feature event Wednesday night at the Southern Iowa Fairgrounds.
The first six cars were so close during the main you could put a blanket over them as the cars were averaging around 84 miles per hour around the fast half-mile oval.

With Morris of West Liberty and West of West Chester finishing in the first and second places, it was John Moss of Riverside in third spot. Following them across the finish line were Ron Hemsted of Lone Tree, George Barton of Ankeny, Stan Stover of Reinbeck, Dan Hoffman of Des Moines and Phil Reese of Des Moines.

Bob Helm of Atalissa took home the five-lap trophy dash. George Barton and Ron Perdock were second and third.

The super stocks registered an average of over 84 miles per hour in the first eight-lap heat. It was a bumper to bumper finish with Pokey West, the victor. Next came George Barton, John Moss and Bill Martin of Council Bluffs.

Mel Morris also won the second eight-lap heat. In a race for second place Mark Mosier of Washington edged out fellow townsman, Ron Perdock, and Don Hoffman of Des Moines.

Joel Rasmussen of Ames took starter Jack Thompson’s checkered flag to win the third and final heat race of the evening. Pokey West passed Larry Embrey on the last lap to finish second. Bob Helm was third and Embrey from Grimes was fourth.

The race fans were treated to some fast and furious racing during the six-lap Australian Pursuit. George Barton and Mel Morris were side by side so often it looked as though they were hooked together. Barton managed to hold Morris off until the last lap when Morris sped by him, thereby eliminating Barton to win the race. Ron Hemsted was second and Pokey West third.

Ron Perdock won the 10-lap semi-main by a comfortable margin over Phil Reese. Alan Jones of Ainsworth placed third in his first time on the Oskaloosa track this season.

Results –

Trophy Dash: Bob Helm, Atalissa
First Heat: Pokey West, West Chester
Second Heat: Mel Morris, West Liberty
Third Heat: Joel Rasmussen, Ames
Australian Pursuit: Mel Morris
Consolation: Ron Perdock, Washington
1. Mel Morris
2. Pokey West
3. John Moss, Iowa City
4. Rom Hemsted, Lone Tree
5. George Barton, Ankeny
6. Stan Stover, Reinbeck
7. Don Hoffman, Des Moines
8. Phil Reece, Des Moines

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

1992 - Veteran Jackson Opens with Deery Brothers Win

Marshalltown, Iowa (May 24, 1992) – Veteran late model driver Ron Jackson led 23 of 35 laps en route to capturing the first round of the 1992 Deery Brothers Summer Series for IMCA late models Sunday night at Marshalltown Speedway.

Jackson, from Danville, Iowa, hovered in second place behind hometown favorite Darrel DeFrance through the early stages of the race. However, DeFrance broke an axle on lap 12 and was forced to the pits. Jackson then separated himself from the field by as many as 10 car lengths on the high-banked quarter-mile and looked like an easy winner.

But, a caution on lap 20 tightened the field up again, and allowed another veteran, Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa, to battle Jackson at the front. Sanger grabbed the lead once, but was unable to maintain it, and had to settle for second place in the 35-lapper.

A fourth-place finisher in the series’ point standings a year ago, Jackson found the good luck that had eluded him through the first month of the ’92 season.

“We have broken nine of the 14 nights so far this year, so this (win) is a big deal,” Jackson said. About halfway through, I lost a cylinder and was down to seven. I think it was the best thing that could happen.”

Results –

1.    Ron Jackson, Danville, Iowa
2.    Ed Sanger, Waterloo, Iowa
3.    Mike Smith, Jewell, Iowa
4.    Craig Jacobs, Des Moines
5.    Jeff Aikey, Cedar Falls, Iowa
6.    Kevin Cale, Donnellson, Iowa
7.    Terry Ryan, Davenport, Iowa
8.    Kelly Shryock, Story City, Iowa
9.    Darin Burco, Independence, Iowa
10. Ray Lundry, Maynard, Iowa
11. Tim Cooney, Corning, Iowa
12.  Les Verly, Grundy Center, Iowa
13.  Greg Kastli, Waterloo, Iowa
14. Kevin Pittman, Waterloo, Iowa
15. Ron Cochran, Des Moines
16.  Lon Mincks, Ottumwa, Iowa
17.  Lynn Idler, Ionia, Iowa
18. Gary Pedersen, Rolfe, Iowa
19.   Pat Graham, Forest City, Iowa
20.  Todd Johnson, Des Moines
21.  Darrel DeFrance, Marshalltown, Iowa

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

1984 - Flip Doesn't Stop Amati at Lincoln Park

Putnamville, Ind. (May 23, 1984) - Chuck Amati recovered from a second heat flip to earn a main event starting berth in the same preliminary event and went on to capture the 30-lap feature to highlight Wednesday night's USAC Pre-Indy sprint car show at Lincoln Park Speedway.

Amati tumbled his mount on the backstretch during the second heat, but was able to restart the contest and finish third, behind Buck Boughan and Rick Hood. The performance was god enough to give Amati a feature starting assignment, since the top four in each of the evening's heats automatically transferred into the main event.

Since the feature starting line-up is based on time trial performances, with the six fastest participants inverted at the start, Amati found himself on the pole as the 20-car field was gridded for the 30-lapper.

Greg Staab, who started on the outside, got the jump on Amati as the main began and led the opening circuit, but Amati moved into first place the next time around. Sheldon Kinser and Hood both got around Staab later on the same lap to gain second and third.

Amati then maintained a 10-car length advantage over Kinser and Hood until the 22nd lap when Amati collided with a car he was attempting to lap. Amati got clear of the incident without any damage to his mount but the yellow came out for the first time in the event.

When the green returned, Amati grabbed the lead followed closely by Kinser and Hood. Hood overtook Kinser to gain second on lap 24 and began to challenge the leader. Amati was able to hold off the heat applied by Hood and took the checkered by one-car length. Kinser finished third ahead of Staab, Randy Kinser and Kelly Kinser.

Results -

1. Chuck Amati
2. Rick Hood
3. Sheldon Kinser
4. Greg Staab
5. Randy Kinser
6. Kelly Kinser
7. Tim Bookmiller
8. Leon Thickstun
9. Jack Hewitt
10. Denny Donaldson
11. Leon Gentry
12. Tony Elliot
13. Rodney Ritter
14. Keith Campbell
15. Dave Feese
16. Jerry Russell
17. Buck Boughan
18. Larry Martin
19. Frank Weiss
20. Mike Helm

Monday, May 22, 2017

RIP - Mike Niffenegger 1940 - 2017

Michael Larry Niffenegger was born March 12, 1940 at the Washington County Hospital, the son of Arlis and Muriel I. (Michel) Niffenegger.  He graduated from Kalona High School and on June 17, 1961 he was united in marriage to Joyce Altenhofen at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Richmond. 

Mike was the best husband and dad anyone could ever ask for.  Mike "The Flying Dutchman" was best known for his career as a late model race car driver, and is in the Hall of Fame at Hawkeye Downs, Farley and West Liberty.

Mike sold cars, worked at Slabach Construction and grew 200 acres of tomatos for Heinz.  He was a member of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, and many auto racing associations.  Mike loved to fish, play cards, play pool and visit and entertain his many friends.  In his younger years he was an excellent swimmer and enjoyed playing golf. Spending time with his wife and daughter was very important to Mike.