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Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Nashville 420

Darrell Waltrip of Franklin, Tenn., waits for the start of the 1976 Nashville 420 - David Allio photo
 


by Kyle Ealy
Nashville, Tenn. – While I’m not a fan of the modern day NASCAR, there are certain drivers, events and racetracks from the 1960’s and 70’s that appeal to my historical curiosity.

The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is the second oldest operating racetrack in the United States, constructed in 1904. Only the Milwaukee Mile, built in 1903, is older and still active.

It was initially a one and eighth mile dirt oval, but the track was reconfigured into a half-mile paved oval in 1958. That same year, NASCAR came calling, staging a 200-lap Grand National event. A capacity crowd of 13,998 watched Joe Weatherly win the first NASCAR race on August 10. It would be the beginning of a love affair between the city and the premier racing sanction in the United States.

In 1969, the track was reconfigured for a second time; a 5/8-mile oval with 35 degree banking. The track’s steep banking would generate a great deal of speed for the next few years.

To showcase the track’s new configuration, the promoters put together a 420-lap, 250-mile NASCAR Grand National event. The race was called the Nashville 420 and for the next 15 years, sell-out crowds would watch some of the biggest stars in racing compete against each other.

Bobby Isaac in victory lane after winning the 1970 Nashville 420.
 

Before a record crowd of 17,000 and a nationally televised audience on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Bobby Isaac of Catawba, N.C., would drive his 1969 Dodge to victory on July 25, 1970 with an average speed of 87.830 miles per hour. Isaac survived the race that saw a starting field of 36 reduced to nine at the finish because of extreme heat and a rough track that knocked many cars out with blown tires. Isaac collected $3,310 for his eighth victory of the season, and his 29th career Grand National victory. The time of the race was two hours, 60 minutes and 47 seconds.

Lee Roy Yarbrough of Columbia, S.C., and Richard Petty of Randleman, N.C., were co-favorites going into the race, but neither was a factor at the end. Yarbrough, who qualified at 116.618 miles per hour to grab the pole, jumped into the early lead. Petty overtook Yarbrough after 17 laps, and both of them held wide margins over the rest of the field until misfortune hit both of them. Lee Roy completed 45 laps when his right front tire blew and be hit the northeast wall, putting him out of the race. Petty lasted through 154 laps, when the same thing happened to him and he bent the front end of 1970 Plymouth so badly he could not continue.

Petty would get his revenge the next year and dominate in a way that only “King Richard” could. Leading all but 20 laps, Petty would earn his 132nd career NASCAR victory as his 1971 Plymouth passed cars effortlessly.

Winning $4,025 to boost his career earnings to about $2,500 short of the $1 million career mark, Petty held 60-second plus leads throughout most of the race at the 5/8-mile track.

Bobby Allison was the only other leader, darting ahead on the second lap and holding the lead until the 22nd lap when he went out with a broken torsion bar.

Petty finished about 40 seconds ahead of second place James Hylton of Inman, S.C. in a Ford. Hylton, who ran second throughout the second half of the race, won $2,375. Benny Parsons, of Ellerbe, N.C. was third in a Ford and won $1,525. Like the year before, heat and a rough track took its toll as only 13 of 29 starters finished.
 
Bobby Allison set a new track record in qualifying en route to winning the 1972 Nashville 420.
 
 

An error by “The King” would prove costly during the third annual Nashville 420 on August 26, 1972.  A one-lap penalty against Petty would provide the necessary margin of victory for Bobby Allison.

Allison would take the pole position, setting a new track record in qualifying at a blistering 116.932 miles per hour. Petty, would qualify second fastest and start alongside Allison on the front row. With 19,500 enthusiastic race fans on the edge of their seats, a two-man duel between Allison and Petty would ensue, with both drivers going neck and-neck for the top spot for three-quarters of the race.

Petty would have to make a pit stop on the 327th lap to change tires. The all-time NASCAR money winner would gun it back onto the track coming out of the pits and according to officials; “was going too fast to obey a ‘stop’ flag that was being waved because of congestion at the pit exit.”

Two laps later, Petty was halted and handed the penalty which gave the race to Allison. The Hueytown, Ala., racer put it on cruise control after that and won by little less than a lap. Finishing in third place was Darrell Waltrip of Franklin, Tenn.

While 35 degree banking provided high speeds, it also proved to be too treacherous for the local weekend racers and for a third time, the track was once again modified; this time to its current day 18 degree banking.

On Saturday, August 25, 1973, another record crowd of 25,000 would watch Buddy Baker win the Nashville 420 without any strategy and Cale Yarborough lose it by wrecking during a caution light.

Baker, of Charlotte, N.C., led the last third of the race after Yarborough threatened to make it a runaway earlier.

“I didn’t really have a strategy,” Baker said afterwards. “Luck was on my side.”

Yarborough, the pole sitter, wrecked while leading on the 258th lap when his Chevrolet skidded down the front straightaway and smacked the retaining wall. He would make repairs and return to the race 14 laps later but was never a factor again. He finished 14th.

Baker, who started seventh, said he was right behind Yarborough when he wrecked. “He just came in too fast,” said Baker, who led the rest of the way and pocketed $5,200 of the $43,000 purse.

Petty would finish second, five laps behind Baker when the checkers waved. Coo Coo Marlin, David Sisco and Ed Negre would round out the top five.
 
Who won? Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough made victory lane a bit crowded after their controversial race in 1974.
 

 
Every annual racing event has its one moment of controversy and on Saturday, July 20, 1974, the Nashville 420 ended in confusion with Bobby Allison challenging Cale Yarborough’s apparent victory.

Yarborough, of Timmonsville, S. C., driving a Chevrolet took the checkered flag ahead of Allison, also in a Chevrolet, but it was both drivers who headed for victory lane afterwards, both claiming they had won the race.

“I showed them where he (Yarborough) lost two laps,” Allison told newspaper reporters after the race. He said the pace car was put in front of the wrong car after an early accident, allowing Yarborough to make up one lap.

“They (Yarborough) sat in the corner for a lap after the wreck near the end,” added Allison. “NASCAR didn't notice that.”

“Bobby is making claims that aren’t true,” replied a hot Yarborough.

Allison immediately filed a challenge, claiming Yarborough lost two laps which officials failed to detect.

Two days later, Bill France Jr. and officials ruled in favor of Yarborough. NASCAR officials said Yarborough was probably credited with an extra lap, but added that penalties must be assessed during the race, not after it is over. In reviewing the tape, not only was Yarborough awarded the win, but NASCAR scorers also gave Darrell Waltrip an extra lap, which moved him from fifth to third, followed by David Sisco and Alton Jones.

Yarborough would become the first two-time winner of the Nashville 420 Grand National race on July 20, 1975, and this time without controversy.

But he would have to spin out intentionally in order to win it…

On lap 307, Yarborough was leading when David Sisco spun in front of him on the fourth turn. "I spun intentionally to keep from hitting him," Yarborough said afterwards. "I would have T-boned him."

Yarborough, of Timmonsville, S.C., hit nothing, sped on and was able to maintain his lead the rest of the race. He would lead 385 of the 420 laps and earn a nice $6,235 payday.

Richard Petty was second, a lap behind, and won $3,805, including qualifying and appearance money, to push his 17-year career earnings to within some $6,400 of the $2 million mark.

Historically a Saturday night event, the race was postponed because of showers and moved to Sunday afternoon. Over 21,000 race fans braved a hot, humid day and witnessed a Yarborough-Petty duel in the early going that lasted until the midpoint of the long grind. Yarborough would eventually extend his lead by eight seconds after the halfway point and lap Petty on lap 365.

Dave Marcis of Skyline, N.C., finished third two laps back and Benny Parsons, the pole sitter, took fourth eight laps back although Coo Coo Marlin drove the last fourth of the race for him because of the 95-degree heat.
 
Benny Parsons would win the 1976 Nashville 420.
 
 
Benny Parsons, who had been a strong contender at the 5/8-mile track the past few years, finally got over the hump, winning the Nashville 420 on July 20, 1976. Parsons beat Richard Petty by 15 seconds for his second victory NASCAR victory of the year.

Parsons, who started from the sixth position, took the lead for good on lap 330 when Buddy Baker’s car dropped a valve. Baker had led most of the race, usually by a comfortable 20 seconds.

Darrell Waltrip would finish third, right behind Petty. Lennie Pond and two-time winner Cale Yarborough rounded out the top five.

Parsons, driving a 1976 Chevrolet, won $6,615 and Petty in his Dodge earned $4,065.

The previous weekend, Bobby Allison had suffered multiple injuries during a race in Elko, Minn., and had spent several days in the hospital. But you can’t keep a good racer down for long. Neil Bonnett would put Allison’s Mercury on the pole during Friday qualifying and on Saturday night, Allison, released from the hospital less than 24 hours, would slip behind the wheel, complete 415 laps, and finish seventh.

On July 16, 1977, hometown favorite Darrell Waltrip would overcome 90 degree plus temperatures, open up a 40-second lead at the halfway point and hold on to capture his first career Nashville 420. Waltrip, who started his Chevrolet from the sixth position, won $9,415 of the $62,000 purse.

Bobby Allison grabbed second place and Richard Petty finished third. Both were some 25 seconds behind Waltrip.

The race developed into a Waltrip - Allison duel at the midway point after earlier leaders fell out of competition because of either wrecks or mechanical troubles.

Pole-sitter and defending champion Benny Parsons led the first 32 laps until losing a wheel during a caution lap. He was never a threat thereafter. National point leader Cale Yarborough fell out of the race shortly afterwards when he lost four laps because of a cut tire. Nevertheless, he finished fourth.

Janet Guthrie, the first woman driving in the Indianapolis 500, started 15th and finished in the same spot in the 30-car field with relief driving from Richard Childress for the last two-thirds of the race.

As soon as the checkers waved, rumors going around mentioned that this was possibly the last Nashville 420 at the Fairgrounds. A new super speedway was being built across town and consensus was the race would move there. It didn’t happen…yet.
 
Cale Yarborough was king of the NASCAR mountain in 1978. Pulling into Nashville on July 14, he had won six of 12 races on the circuit and was well on his way to defending his Winston Cup championship.

After qualifying for the front row in his Buick, Yarborough made short work of the field, leading 411 of 420 laps and winning by a full two laps over his nearest competitor, defending race winner Darrell Waltrip. It was Yarborough’s third career Nashville 420 win.

Waltrip, who was driving a Chevrolet, survived a two-car pileup with O.K. Ulrich on the 259th lap. Ulrich also continued in the race to finish 20th.

Taking the checkered flag behind Yarborough and Waltrip were Richard Childress, Dave Marcis, J.D. McDuffie, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison, Dick Brooks and rookie Ronnie Thomas.

Lennie Pond of Chester, Va., had won the pole position Friday by pushing his 1975 Chevrolet around the 5/8-mile oval in an average time of 104.009 miles per hour. Yarborough drove at an average of 103.938 mph to gain the number two spot.

Just before climbing into the cockpit of his race car on July 14, 1979, Darrell Waltrip told a track official he was going to win. Waltrip, 32, the hometown favorite from suburban Franklin, would make good on his promise and snare his fifth victory of the Grand National season on the 5/8-mile winning by a lap and two seconds over Yarborough.

Waltrip, who began the race from the pole position, led for all but five laps of the 250-mile event. A broken valve during the last 20 laps, however, gave him some anxious moments

“I heard the valve go - I heard it on the pipes,” Waltrip said. “I was heartbroken. The car was missing, it was firing on seven cylinders, but it was still going. The gauges were okay. Nobody was catching me so I kept going. Luckily, so did the car.”

Despite the engine problems, Yarborough, like Waltrip, driving a Monte Carlo, was able to make up only one second on the leader during the final 20 laps.

“Darrell could outrun me down the straights, I just couldn't stay with him,” Yarborough said after the race.

In the battle for third, Dale Earnhardt from Kannapolis, N.C., took the flag ahead of Benny Parsons from Ellerbe, N.C.
 
Dale Earnhardt practiced while most drivers sought a cool spot to escape 101-degree heat the day of the 1980 Nashville 420 on July 12. Earnhardt said his Saturday afternoon practice prepared him for the 150-degree temperature in his car on Saturday night.

“It set the car up for real hot temperatures that we encountered - tires heating up real hot. We got an idea of what the heat was going to be and it helped us.”

Earnhardt edged polesitter Cale Yarborough by two car lengths to win the Grand National stock car race before a near-capacity crowd of 16,700. The 29-year-old driver from Kannapolis, N.C., set a race record, averaging 93.811 miles per hour on the 5/8-mile oval. Bobby Allison, who finished sixth, set the old record of 92.240 mph in 1972.

Richard Petty was not so lucky. He pitted on the 347th lap and collapsed. His crew gave him oxygen as relief driver Harry Gant took the wheel, finishing fifth.

The race's only caution flag came on the 384th lap, when Allison spun on the front straightaway. That set up a three-way race between Earnhardt, Yarborough and Benny Parsons.

With Earnhardt and Yarborough running on four new tires, Parsons couldn't keep pace with the bumper-to bumper racing. Yarborough tried bump-and-run tactics as well to slip around Earnhardt, but he couldn't get past the 1979 Rookie of the Year.

"That was one of the best races I ever won," Earnhardt said. "If Benny had changed all four tires like Cale and I did, I think he would have been in the battle for the lead."

The race was the first since NASCAR dropped a rule penalizing drivers for changing tires during a caution period on a short track. Earnhardt said changing the rule “kept it a competitive race. It wasn’t a runaway.”

Yarborough picked up $10,160 for his second-place finish. Parsons trailed by a half lap and received $7,910. Waltrip, the defending race winner, was one lap back and got $5,750 for fourth.
 
Mark Martin (02) and Dale Earnhardt (2) battle during the 1981 Nashville 420. - David Allio Photo
 
 

The newly-renamed Busch Nashville 420 would see a dogfight between NASCAR point’s leader, Bobby Allison, and the hometown hero Darrell Waltrip on Saturday, July 11, 1981.

Waltrip would hold off Allison's late charge to win a nearly race-long duel between the two veteran speedsters as Waltrip picked up his third career Nashville 420 victory, crossing the finish line on the 420th lap around the high-banked 5/8-mile track just one car length ahead of Allison.

Allison, the NASCAR season point leader, kept trying to go past Waltrip on the outside in the turns on the final few laps. But Waltrip managed to stay in front, then finally moved up higher on the track for the last lap and simply outran Allison to the finish.

The 34-year-old driver, piloting a Buick Regal prepared by Junior Johnson, picked up first-place money of $14,700 from the $130,000 purse.

Waltrip was holding a lead of about four seconds over Allison as the third and final caution flag of the 250-mile race came on lap 346 when Tommy Houston spun between turns one and two.

That gave Waltrip and Allison an opportunity to make their final pit stops under the yellow flag. Both took on fuel and changed all four tires and Allison was in front when the green flag fell on lap 351. But it took Waltrip just four laps to move past.

From that point on, it was a bumper-to-bumper battle between the two Buicks, with the Nashville crowd, estimated at more than 20,000, on its feet much of the time.

Benny Parsons was a distant third in a Ford Thunderbird, with Ricky Rudd's Oldsmobile Cutlass fourth and Terry Labonte's Buick fifth. Both Rudd and Labonte were a lap behind the leaders.

Quickly becoming known as the “King of Short Tracks”, Waltrip would continue to make the speedway his own personal stomping ground as he would grab his fourth career Nashville 420 on July 10, 1982. Starting third, the brash 35-year-old driver would lead 400 of the 420 circuits, lapping the star-studded field by lap 151.

Waltrip won $22,025 from the total purse of $158,075 as he averaged 86.524 miles per hour.

Terry Labonte, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, wound up second, about five seconds behind Waltrip on the track and more than a lap behind in the race.

Harry Gant, in a Buick, made a valiant effort shortly after the halfway point of the 420-lap event to get back onto the same lap with the leader. But he never was able to get past and eventually slipped to third. He was followed by Ricky Rudd in a Pontiac Grand Prix, and Tim Richmond in a Buick.
 
Dale Earnhardt celebrates after winning the 1983 Nashville 420.
 

Dale Earnhardt would prove that the rest of NASCAR's drivers were starting to catch up with Darrell Waltrip. On July 16, 1983, Earnhardt would guide his Bud Moore-prepared Ford to a one-half lap victory over Waltrip's Chevrolet in the Saturday night special.

In the process, Earnhardt snapped Waltrip's four-race win streak at Nashville and broke his own personal string of 39 consecutive Grand National starts without a victory. Earnhardt had last entered the winner's circle in 1982 at the TransSouth 500 at Darlington, S.C., while Waltrip last tasted defeat on his home track in the 1981 Cracker Barrel 420.

"I knew he'd (Waltrip) be the one to beat," said Earnhardt, who averaged 85.726 miles per hour around the 5/8-mile oval. "Darrell was a little off, but he was still the one to beat. It's always hard to beat Darrell on the short tracks, but there are a lot of guys that are tough to beat.”

"This year we changed our car around to run on the bottom of the track. We didn't run too hard at first. We wanted to save the car for the end of the race and it just kept getting better and better," explained Earnhardt.

Waltrip, who had led 1,201 of the last 1,260 laps he had run at Nashville, appeared ready to make a shambles of the race when the green flag dropped on the field. He jumped ahead of polesitter Ron Bouchard and held a three-length lead after only one lap.

But the two-time defending Winston Cup points champion found challengers everywhere he looked. The race saw 12 lead changes with Earnhardt, Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison and Dave Marcis all in front of the pack at least once.

Earnhardt's Ford took the lead for the third and final time when it beat Bonnett's Chevrolet out of the pits during the race's fourth caution flag.

Earnhardt first subdued a challenge by Tim Richmond and then held off Waltrip over the race's final 72 miles.

Richmond finished third, just ahead of Allison, the series point’s leader. Both were one lap behind the leader. Ricky Rudd was fifth, three laps behind Earnhardt.

One more name change was in store for the 420-lap race; it would be called the Nashville Pepsi 420 and sadly, it would be the last Grand National race at the speedway.
 
After a five-year Earnhardt-Waltrip stranglehold on victory lane, a new winner would emerge in former East Coast modified star Geoff Bodine. The race was watched by an all-time record crowd of 25,150.

Bodine, the New York transplant now living in North Carolina, spent the closing laps of the race watching his rearview mirror and hoping he wouldn’t make a mistake. Looming large in that mirror was none other than Darrell Waltrip.

But Bodine never slipped, beating Waltrip by about two car-lengths for his second career victory and second of the season.

The winner led the 420-lap event six times for a total of 326 laps, but Waltrip - the only other driver on the same lap at the end – wouldn’t fade.

"I don't really know if he got faster or we slowed down there at the end." said the 35-year-old Bodine. "I think Darrell just reached back for a little more.”

“Really, there was no reason for me to try to try to get away from him late in the race. So, I just tried to run comfortably and not make a mistake.”

“All it would have taken was one little slip and he would’ve gotten by,” Bodine added. “And I seriously doubt if I could get back by him.”

Waltrip said, "I was racing real hard, trying to see if I could get by Geoff, but I saw I couldn't. And I was using up my tires pretty fast.”

"So, I held up a little after that to see if I could slip by him. I tried to go by with about three laps to go, but I couldn't do it. He just had a little better tire there at the end."

Dale Earnhardt, who was a lap behind, would finish third. Ron Bouchard and Bobby Allison were fourth and fifth, respectively, also a lap behind. Allison lost a lap and his shot at the victory when he had to pit because of a flat tire 62 laps from the end.

Despite the success of the Nashville 420, financial problems at the track had been apparent in 1984 and it came to a head when California businessman Warner Hodgdon, who owned the majority of the stock in Nashville Speedway Inc., declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on the track February 7, 1985. The track was leased from the State Fair Board.

Gary Baker, a former partner of Hodgdon's who paid off the track's $102,000-plus 1984 debt,  foreclosed on the track in early March of ’85 and a foreclosure auction was scheduled.

A few days later, NASCAR decided to withdraw its sanctioning of two Grand National races at the financially troubled speedway, the Music City 420 held in May and the Nashville 420 in July. After playing host to NASCAR events for 27 years, it was all over.

Nashville’s hometown hero, Darrell Waltrip summed it up best, “"Because of greed on some people's part and procrastination on others' parts, they have lost the premier spring events in Middle Tennessee.”

"Under the circumstances, everyone is a loser, from the state of Tennessee to Joe Blow who owns a race car."
 
With new ownership, the track continued to stage weekly racing and in 1981, the All American 400 became a reality; a race that’s still held annually to this day. In 1995, the NASCAR Busch Series would return. A year later, the Craftsman Truck Series would make their first appearance. But both series would eventually move to the new Nashville Superspeedway in 2001.

As of 2011, both Waltrip and multi-time track champion and former NASCAR star Sterling Marlin were trying to save the track, which were the cradle of their distinguished careers.

"It’s the best racetrack in the country," Marlin stated "It's the best short track layout ever. You can run side by side for 100 laps."

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is termed by many as “the short tracks of short tracks” and the Nashville 420 was definitely one of the premier short track events that will be remembered always.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The United States Auto Club Stock Cars at Knoxville

 
Ray Bohlander of New Berlin, Wis. (far right) puts Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, (center) and Jim Tobin of Bloomington, Ill. (near left) a lap down during the USAC-sanctioned stock car race at the Marion County Fairgrounds on June 11, 1972. Bohlander would finish third in the 100-lap contest. - Morris "Beetle" Bailey Photo
 
 
 
by Lee Ackerman
Knoxville, Iowa - For six straight years starting in 1969, the stars of the United States Auto Club (USAC) Stock Car Division invaded the Marion County Fairgrounds in Knoxville, Iowa.

There first visit on June 7, 1969 was definitely impacted by damp, chilly and what would end up being rainy conditions. A crowd of 5,362 braved the chilly weather conditions and turned out for the inaugural visit of the USAC Stock Cars.

Nineteen cars took time trials with then three-time Indy 500 winner A. J. Foyt setting fast time at 24.91 seconds. Threatening weather conditions then caused officials to change the order of events and run the feature first. At the drop of the green outside front row starter Paul Bauer took the lead for 5 circuits before Butch Hartman came charging through the inverted field to take the lead.

Meanwhile 18th starting Foyt was on the move and inherited the lead on lap 35 after leader Hartman retired with axle problems. On lap 45 Foyt caught the wall and this allowed Don White to take the lead. Foyt then pitted on lap 51 because of a mud splattered windshield and his 19 second pit stop put the Texan a lap down.

Returning to the fray, Foyt would pass White with four laps to go, for what some thought was the lead. Foyt was actually given the white flag first and then the checkered flag first. Officials then realized there mistake and awarded the win to White, his 37th USAC stock car victory.
 
“When they give you the white flag first, and then the checkered flag first, what else can you think except you have won the race?” said Foyt, after the race.

Roger McCluskey (2) and  Don White (3) battle early on during the USAC stock car feature at Knoxville on June 7, 1969. White would go on to win the controversial race while McKluskey would take fourth. Photo courtesy of Vince Pepple
 


Don White, one of many talented stock car drivers from Keokuk, Iowa, would be awarded the win aboard his ‘69 Dodge Charger, Foyt was second in his Ford Torino, Verlin Eaker was third in a ‘68 Dodge, Roger McCluskey fourth in a ‘69 Plymouth and Paul Feldner fifth in a ‘67 Ford. After the feature, Foyt beat Eaker in the trophy dash and as they were lining the cars up for the first heat the rains came and the balance of the program was called. One interesting comment was made by Roger McCluskey that day that modern Knoxville fans might find amusing. “I never saw so many people at a rodeo grounds before.”

USAC’s second trip to Knoxville on June 6, 1970 can be summed up in one word. Keokuk. That’s because the first three drivers across the finish line were all products of Keokuk, Iowa. Only 16 cars made the call and when time trials were over Roger McCluskey had set fast time of 24.01 seconds. Heat races went to Ramo Stott and Lem Blankenship.

Billy Reis jumped to the lead of the feature in his ‘69 Camaro and would pace the field for six laps before being passed by Ramo Stott who would lead the race for just four laps before Don White took command of the race in his ‘69 Dodge and led until lap 62 when local driver Earl Wagner took command. White would regain the lead on lap 62 and stay in front for the rest of the way picking up his second straight USAC win at Knoxville.

Another Keokuk driver Lem Blankenship would come home second in his 69’ Plymouth with a third Keokuk chauffeur Ramo Stott bringing home his ‘70 Plymouth in third, giving MOPAR and Keokuk the week. Wagner would hold on fourth in a Plymouth and Jack Bowsher would finish fifth in his Ford.

For the first time during the 1970 season defending series champion and point leader Roger McCluskey would fail to finish in the top three, coming home 11th in his ailing Plymouth.


Roger McKluskey races around the historic half-mile during the 1971 contest.
 

It was another damp, muddy and heavy track that greeted the USAC drivers when they returned for their annual battle on the half mile on May 1, 1971. Those conditions caused problems all day for the competitors especially with radiators and windshields. Two-time defending race winner Don White grabbed the pole with a lap of 24.8 seconds.

At the drop of the green Wally Christensen took the lead in his Ford, he led until surrendering the lead to Dave Wall of Kansas City, Wall was passed by 1969 series rookie of the year Verlin Eaker, Eaker stayed out front until lap 67 when Butch Hartman put his Hartman’s White and Auto Care Charger out front and stayed there for the remainder of the race. It would be the South Zanesville, Ohio’s fourth win in his six year career and it certainly would not be his last.

There was controversy once again at the Marion County facility. First, some USAC driver objected to Ernie Derr and other non-USAC regulars competing. Promoter Marion Robinson made things easy for them to accept when he added $600 to the $7,500 purse allowing six more drivers to compete as a field of 26 cars started the event. Secondly, mud and dirty windshields would once again have a hand in the outcome as defending series champion Roger McCluskey was forced to pit twice because his windshield wipers did not work.

The race was heralded as a McCluskey-White-Derr shootout but that did not materialize. White the fast qualifier started 19th in the mostly inverted field and retired on lap 19 with clutch problems. McCluskey had his windshield problems and Derr despite finishing second was a lap down to Hartman. Paul Feldner, John Reimer and Terry Ryan rounded out the top 5 in a 100-lap feature completed in 50 minutes 4.06 seconds. Hartman pocketed $1,075 for his efforts witness by a crowd of 6,000.

Chuck McWilliams of Walton, Ky., is congratulated by promoter Marion Robinson (left) after winning the 100-lap USAC stock car feature on June 11, 1972.
 

A standing room crowd of 11,500 fans greeted the series when it returned to Knoxville for the fourth time on June 11, 1972 and the winner of the race was not one of the favorites. Chuck McWilliams of Union, Kentucky, in his first season with USAC, took the lead when Ramo Stott dropped from the race on the 75th lap with oil pressure problems in his 71’ Dodge. McWilliams, a graduate of the independent dirt tracks in the Ohio and Kentucky area, kept his ‘72 Plymouth out front the rest of the way to take home the win in 45 minutes and 42.03 seconds.

Fast qualifier Verlin Eaker, piloting a ‘70 Dodge, with a lap of 24.6 seconds grabbed the lead from his pole position and led the affair for nine laps before being passed by Lem Blankenship in his ‘72 Dodge. On lap 21 Eaker regained the lead and then on lap 33 Eaker collided with Paul Sizemore. Eaker kept on going but Don White and Paul Feldner plowed into Sizemore’s wrecked car bringing out the caution. Eaker led for two more laps before going pit side to have a fender pulled out and Blankenship inherited the lead.

On lap 46 Bay Darnell would take command of the race and lead until lap 72 when Stott when to the front for his three laps before retiring. Following McWilliams were Blankenship, Ray Bohlander, Ken Reiter and Butch Hartman.

The April 28, 1973 race would once again be a Keokuk affair. Don White would set fast time and lead for eight laps before surrendering the lead to second starting Ernie Derr, but Ramo Stott took over from that point and led the remaining 90 laps. Stott turned the 100 laps in 43 minutes and 56 seconds in his Plymouth. Jack Bowsher, Derr, Butch Hartman and Bay Darnell rounded out the top five.

Ramo Stott of Keokuk Iowa, is joined by car owner Jack Housby of Des Moines after Stott won the USAC trophy dash on May 24, 1974.
 


May 24, 1974 would be the final appearance at Knoxville for the USAC stock cars and this time Butch Hartman would ruin the Keokuk party. Hartman started on the point and while he only led 23 laps he was out front at the end in a race that saw but a single caution.

The other race leaders were the three Keokuk drivers of runner-up Ernie Derr who lead for 16 laps, second starting Don White, led for 23 laps and third starting Ramo Stott led for 38 laps. Stott would drop from the race after 61 circuits with suspension problems and White would hang on for fifth.

At the checkers for the final time for the USAC Stock Cars at Knoxville it was Hartman, Derr, Irv Janey, Larry Phillips and White. After racing for six straight years at what Roger McCluskey called “the rodeo grounds” the USAC stock cars would never return.

As for the Knoxville Raceway at the Marion County Fairgrounds it has since become the Mecca of sprint car racing around the world.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The IMCA Sprint Cars at the Knox County Fair

Jerry Blundy in victory lane at the Knox County Fair. Blundy would score wins at the historic half-mile in the 1950's, 60's and 70's.
 
 

By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – Right off of Interstate 74 on exit 51 in Knoxville, Ill., is the Knox County Fairgrounds; an historic half-mile that lies dormant except for maybe once a year when the fair is in town. It’s just one of those tracks that fell on hard times and now is nothing more than a memory.

While I’ve never attended a race there personally, I’ve heard plenty of stories about some of the great stars who have competed there and fantastic races that have taken place over the years and of course, my historical-hungry brain took over and I decided to do a little investigating on whom, what and when.

So, here goes…

As it turns out, the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) played a big part in shaping the history of the track. Starting in 1957, IMCA big cars (sprints) became part of IMCA’s regular fair circuit and when the Knox County Fair came around every August, so did the big cars.

On August 2, 1957, a driver quite familiar in that area grabbed top honors in the 15-lap feature. Jerry Blundy of nearby Galesburg, Ill., fought off a determined Duke Hindahl in what would turn out to be his only big car victory of the year on the IMCA circuit. The 15 circuits were completed in 6 minutes and 5 seconds before a standing room only crowd.

In 1959, the IMCA returned to town on August 6. Pete Folse of Tampa, Fla., driving Hector Honore’s legendary “Black Deuce” took the 20-lap headliner as he dueled Blundy for much of the race.

Big car races were quickly proving to be so popular attraction there, so Al Sweeney, promoter of National Speedways, Inc. and organizer of the event, decided to make it a two day show starting in 1960. On August 5, Pete Folse and Harold Leep of Wichita, Kan., got in a side-by-side battle with Folse gaining the upper hand to take the win. The next night, August 6, Folse took the 20-lap feature with that local guy Blundy right on his bumper again.

The 1961 Knox County Fair sprint car races saw two new faces in the winner’s circle. Harold Leep, after coming so close the year before, outran Emmett “Buzz” Barton of Tampa, Fla., on August 4 for his first win of the season but Barton came back on August 5 to claim the 20-lap main over Leep and a young man by the name of Jay Woodside.

Harold Leep would win IMCA sprint car races at the Knox County Fair three consecutive years (1961, 62, 63).
 

With scheduling issues, the race was cut back down to one day in 1962 but that didn’t drive the crowds away. On August 3, over 3,000 race fans saw Harold Leep, piloting the Red Lempelius Offy; win the 20-lap feature event. Leep and Jerry Blundy put on quite the show for the fans before Leep prevailed again, earning himself $215 in first place money.

Spin-outs and multi-car pile-ups highlighted the action on Thursday, August 1, 1963, as Leep would win his third Knox County Fair race in a row. Driving the No. 25 Chevrolet, Leep took an early lead in the main event and stayed on top the rest of the way. Jerry Blundy stayed in close pursuit but settled for the bridesmaid role once again.

Friday night’s main event, August 2, saw the 1962 IMCA sprint car national champ, Johnny White of Warren, Mich.; take top honors, out running Leep to the checkers.

That same program also saw one driver being suspended for the rest of the season after two days of what National Speedway, Inc officials termed “rough driving”. Bob Coulter of Lakewood, Calif., who was involved in four accidents during the two-night race program, hit Jerry Blundy from the rear to cause the Galesburg driver to start a spinout. Blundy was leading the field at the time.

Al Sweeney, president of National Speedways, Inc., and starter of the two races, recommended a suspension of not less than 30 days. However, on the basis of Sweeney’s testimony and that of several other track officials and drivers, the IMCA ruled to keep Coulter off IMCA tracks for the rest of the year.

Jerry “Scratch” Daniels of St. Paul, Minn., would capture the 25-lapper on August 7, 1964 and on the very next night, August 8, the defending national champion, Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., would claim the 30-lap finale.

On August 6, 1965, Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., took the win over Tom Bigelow of Whitewater, Wis., Don Brown of San Fernando, Calif., Jerry Blundy and Gordon Woolley.

Jerry Richert of Forest Lake, Minn., would earn a hard-fought 30-lap feature victory over Moughan, Bill Puterbaugh, Dean Elliott and Gordon Woolley on August 6, 1966.

As the 60’s started to come to an end, hometown favorite Jerry Blundy finally started winning the Knox County Fair sprint car races. He also became a top contender for the national title as well.

On Thursday evening, August 4, 1967, Blundy edged Tom Corbin of Carrollton, Mo., to take the 20-lap feature and then followed that win with another trip to victory lane the very next night, again beating Corbin and Chuck Lynch of Springfield, Ill., to the stripe. At the end of the season, he would finish third in nationals points.
 
Ron Perkins grabbed Knox County Fair wins in 1968 and 1969.
 

On August 2, 1968, Ron Perkins of Bethalto, Ill., grabbed Thursday night honors, winning the 25-lap main over Jerry Daniels. However, the following night, Blundy roared back in the 30-lap big money main event and took home the top prize over Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg, Iowa and Perkins. Once again, Blundy would tally enough points at season’s end to take third in the national standings.

August 1, 1969 saw Ron Perkins back in the winner’s circle again, winning the 25 lapper over Blundy and Darl Harrison of Tiffin, Ohio. Harrison would come back the next night, August 2, and take home the bacon with stellar drivers such as Benny Rapp of Toledo, Ohio, Blundy, Jay Woodside and Buzz Rose of Cedar Rapids, Iowa trailing behind. Harrison would go on and win the IMCA national championship that same season.

The Knox County Fair would only see one race in 1970 but it was a meaningful one. Jerry Blundy, driving the L & M Motors Chevrolet, would grab the lions share of the $1,260 purse that day, beating another star-studded line up of Benny Rapp, Dick Sutcliffe of Kansas City, Jim Moughan and Jay Woodside.

After sliding down to ninth in IMCA sprint car points in 1969, this was the year Jerry Blundy put it all together and won his first IMCA national championship. His seven victories were tops on the circuit for the year and he beat out four-time and defending champion Jerry Richert in the process.

The two-day show returned on August 6, 1971 with Blundy once again in victory lane. He grabbed the 25-lap feature win over Dick Sutcliffe with Ron Larson of White Bear Lake, Minn. in third. The next night, August 7, Sutcliffe turned the tables and scored the win in the 30-lap finale with Chuck Amati of Greenfield, Tenn., taking runner-up honors and Ron Larson again taking third. Blundy would go on to claim his second straight national championship at the end of the season.

A month before the 1972 Knox County Fair sprint car races were to take place, Jerry Blundy was involved in an accident in Webster City, Iowa. It not only ended any chances of winning at his hometown track but also wiped out the chance to win three consecutive IMCA national championships.
 
Ray Lee Goodwin would win the Knox County Fair race in 1972 en route to winning the IMCA national championship.
 

Ray Lee Goodwin of Kansas City, Mo., was trailing Blundy by only 10 points in the national standings when he pulled into the Knox County Fairgrounds on August 4, 1972. When he headed out of town later that evening, Goodwin was the new point’s leader.

Weaving his way through the middle of the field, Goodwin scored a come-from-behind victory in the 25-lap feature event. The hard-charging Goodwin throttled his Chevy-powered sprinter into the lead with four laps to go and coasted to victory behind the wild cheers of area race fans. Goodwin would take his point’s lead and never look back, winning the IMCA national championship.

1973 would see a new winner to Knoxville. Ralph Blackett of Des Moines, Iowa led from start to finish in winning the 25-lap feature on August 3. More than 2,500 area race fans turned out to see the hard-charging Blackett survive three yellow flags and a late come-from-behind effort by Bill Utz of Sedalia, Mo. Thirty-five drivers from 12 states took part in time trials with Buzz Rose of Mt. Vernon, Iowa, had the quick time of the evening with a half-mile clocking of 26.66.

It was “Missouri night” on August 3, 1974 as two talented drivers from the “Show Me” state showed the field and the crowd some quick and steady driving in the 17th annual and final running of the IMCA sprint cars at the Knox County Fairgrounds.

Bill Utz of Sedalia, runner-up in last year's sprints at the Knoxville half-mile, grabbed the lead from Sonny Smyser on the eighth lap of the feature and was never headed.

Another Missourian, Gene Gennetten, could possibly have won the feature had it gone a few laps longer. Starting in the 10th position because he did not finish his heat race, Gennetten steadily moved through the pack, passing Larry Kirkpatrick of Bushnell, Ill., for second place on lap 16 and pressing Utz hard when the final checkered flag dropped.

The IMCA sprint car circuit would press on for two more years, but with other sprint car organizations sprouting up, the days of the fair circuit were pretty much dried up and so were the annual IMCA sprint cars programs during the Knox County Fair.

Several other sanctions made appearances over the years including the now-defunct National Speedway Contest Association and most recently, the Sprint Invaders but nothing packed them in from near and far like the IMCA sprint cars. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Team Racing: Remembering The Playland 300


by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - While planning for the 1958 racing season at Council BluffsPlayland Park, General Manager Keith Chambers was trying to come up with something different. All the talk in racing was about the Indianapolis 500. “An idea occurred to me about having a Playland 500 on the 4th of July,” said Chambers. “After much thought, I decided to make some changes. First, since there was to much racing in the area around the 4th of July, run it later in the month, and secondly, 500 laps maybe to many laps to ensure a good field of cars or a good finish. So let’s have a 300 lap race and make it a team race.”

On July 25 through 27, 1958, one of the biggest racing events in the then 10 year history of Playland Park Speedway took place in the inaugural running of the Playland 300. Always keen to the idea that the purpose of the stadium (racing, boxing and wrestling) was also to help promote the amusement park income, Chambers decided on a three day event with time trials over the first two days and the race on Sunday, July 27. This would provide for additional amusement park traffic and increase the income for the overall complex.

The purse for the event would be $2,000 plus lap money and manufacturers’ awards with $500 going to the winning team. The race would be limited to twenty teams of two cars each. (In the early years of the race, one of the team cars would exit the track and go into the pits, once he was in the pits his teammate could go onto the racetrack. In later years, the pits were moved to the infield for the event).

When the smoke had cleared after two days of qualifying on the quarter-mile asphalt surface, a pair of Buds and fan favorites had grabbed the pole. Bud Burdick turned the fastest lap in qualifying in his famous yellow V8 with a lap of 16.07 putting him and teammate Bud Aitkenhead on the pole for the event. Bob Adams and Peter Huffman would start outside pole after a lap of 16.22. Nineteen teams qualified to participate in the inaugural event.

Four thousand, two hundred and fifty-seven fans were on hand for the first Playland 300 which was led by just two different teams. Bud Burdick and Bud Aitkenhead escaped a host of crashes and the challenges of two top teams to win the 75 mile contest in 1 hour 17 minutes and 59 seconds. A burned-out wheel bearing doused the hopes of the chief challengers, the Don Pash-Ernie Bonney team. They were the only other team than the winners to lead the race.

Pash, was running a close second after 221 laps when he was forced to the pits with bearing trouble catching his teammate Bonney by surprise. Before Bonney could get into the race, Burdick hand pulled to a comfortable lead and the second starting team of Adams and Huffman were back in second place. At the end Burdick led by a lap and half over Adams with Pash back on the track 3 laps down in third.

The race had been a Burdick-Pash duel at the start with Burdick leading the first 84 circuits before pitting and handing it over to Aitkenhead. This gave the third starting Pash a lap lead until he pitted after the halfway point of the race giving the lead to Aitkenhead who led until he handed it back to Burdick on lap 212.

 
Bud Burdick and his famous V-8 at Playland
 

 
The first thing to fall in the second year of the Playland 300 was Bud Burdick’s qualifying record. The old record was broken three times and equaled by Burdick himself. Once qualifying was over Burdick and new teammate Don Pash of Avoca were setting on the pole as a result of Pash’s lap of 15.87 seconds. Their main competition would come from a couple of outstate Nebraska chaueffers in Cliff Sealock of Hastings and Norm Robertson of Oxford, who had also broken the track record in qualifying.

On race day, 4,151 fans would be in attendance for the second annual 300 lap marathon. Sixteen teams would start the affair with 14 still running at the end of the event, a testimonial to the drivers and their mechanics. The race itself would be totally dominated by the Burdick-Pash tandem. Pash led the first 102 laps before handing a half-lap lead off to Burdick. Burdick extended the lead until lap 180 when the team had a scary moment when Burdick blew a front tire. Burdick was able to limp into the pits and Pash returned to the event still holding a comfortable margin.

Pash continued to add to the ever growing lead before handing it back to Burdick for the final 54 circuits. The pair was followed to the line by Sealock-Robertson team who maintained a substantial lead over third place Bobby Parker and Bud Aitkenhead. Sealock had made a successful Playland Park debut the week before by winning the feature. One of the two teams forced to retire from the race was the team of former IMCA Champion and NASCAR star Johnny Beauchamp and Jim Vana.

The third annual Playland 300 had only 12 teams starting the race with 11 running at the the end of the affair. Defending race winners Bud Burdick and Don Pash returned and started where they left off by grabbing the pole. Bud Aitkenhead teamed with George Odvody of Morse Bluff, Nebraska and would start third. Bob Parker would team with Pete Huffman and Cliff Sealock, a runner-up the year before would find a new teammate in Holdrege, Nebraska’s Wilbert Hecke.

3,629 fans saw Bobby Parker take the lead when early race leader Don Pash headed to the pits on lap 13 with mechanical woes. It was also the future Nebraska Hall of Famer would need as he built a comfortable margin by lap 152 when he handed the lead to Huffman. Despite frantic efforts from runner-ups Aitkenhead and Odvody, Huffman was never headed as he and Parker took home the win. Omahans Jim Vana and Dan Kosiske (brother of Bob) drove a solid race to finish third.

In later years, the Playland 300 returned to the quarter-mile oval as Promoter Jerry Slusky brought back the marathon concept. 1967 saw brothers-in-law John Earnest and Bob Jura take the lead with 55 laps and go on to win the event. In 1968 Jura would team with Roger Schram and the team would lead the final 268 laps for the win. In 1969 Ron Tilley and Dave Blowers picked up the win.

Racing continued at Playland Park through the 1977 season. In 1978, the wrecking ball showed up and took away one of the areas most memorable racing venues. The list of legends that raced at Playland Park reads like a who’s who of Midwest racing. The facility hosted many different types of races, and other performances but one of the interesting events was certainly the Playland 300.

 

Playland Park in later years