Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ernie Derr; The King of IMCA Stock Car Racing

Ernie Derr (1) of Keokuk, Iowa races with Ole Brua during an IMCA stock car race. Derr would win 12 IMCA national championships

by Lee Ackerman 
Omaha, Neb. - Did you every watch, Back in the Day on the Speed Channel with Dale Earnhardt Jr.? That’s where Dale Junior hosts a series of old NASCAR Cup races from the 60’s & 70’s originally released as Car & Driver and hosted by Bud Lindeman. 

Well, I’m going to take you back even further as we go look at the International Motor Contest Association Stock Car Series that competed primarily at the county and state fairs from 1949 through 1977. 

Specifically, we are going to take a look at the king of the series, Ernie Derr. When you meet Ernie Derr, you see this small, quiet man and you if didn’t know better you would say he probably lived a quiet life. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

While Ernie has always been quiet, and to himself, his accomplishments in auto racing and the International Motor Contest Association in particular, simply go off the charts. 328 feature wins and 12 championships in IMCA alone, what else needs to be said. It didn’t matter what brand of car it was, in 1951 he won in a Mercury, then it was Oldsmobile’s for several years, then a long run with Pontiac’s, then a year with Plymouth’s, and then he simply steamed rolled the competition in his Dodge.

Ernie Derr drove Mercury's, Oldsmobile's, Pontiac's, Plymouth's and Dodge's (shown here) with equal success in the IMCA stock car ranks.

Ernie Derr was born November 29, 1921. While known as the part of what this author calls the “Keokuk Connection”, he actually lived for many years in nearby Fort Madison.

He got his start in racing in 1950 after watching brother-in-law, Don White race and thought “it looked like a good way to make a dollar.” That year he finished 17th in IMCA points running only a few races. On July 1, 1951, Ernie won his first IMCA race winning the prestigious 250-lap feature at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in his Mercury and went on to finish 5th in the points.

In 1952, this time behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile, Ernie won 7 IMCA features and finished second in the points. In 1953 Ernie won his first of 12 IMCA championships, winning 15 races in his Oldsmobile beating out brother-in-law Don White for the title.

In 1954 Don returned the favor edging Ernie for the title. In 1955, Ernie decided to try ARCA as well as IMCA and went on to win six events with that series. He was also in fifth place in IMCA in September 1955 with several wins, when IMCA stripped him of his points for running an unsanctioned race. He would win a total of 11 ARCA races in a limited ARCA career.

In 1957 he returned to compete more regularly with IMCA and won several racing finishing fourth in points. In 1958, brother-in-law, Don White edged Derr out for the championship, with Ernie picking up 13 wins in a Pontiac.

In 1959, Ernie Derr would move to the front of the pack again, wheeling his Pontiac to 30 series wins and the Championship. He followed that up with Championships in 1960 & 1961 with 22 & 21 wins respectively.

In 1962, Ernie drove his Pontiac to a fourth straight series championship, winning 28 of 51 races including 8 in a row. For this phenomenal feat he earned $19,289.

In 1963 and 1964 he would finish third in the points to Dick Hutcherson and Ramo Stott. From 1960 thru 1964, Keokuk drivers would finish, 1-2-3 in IMCA points.

In 1964 Ernie switched to a Plymouth. 1964 was a perfect season for the Keokuk Connection of Derr, Dick Hutcherson and Ramo Stott. The three of them combined to win all 56 IMCA stock car races held that season.

In 1965, Ernie Derr switched to a Dodge and as they say the rest is history. Seven straight IMCA championships and domination of the IMCA series, with only fellow Keokuk native, Ramo Stott able to give Derr a run for the points title. During one three-year period, 1964 to 1966, Keokuk drivers (Derr, Stott & Dick Hutcherson) won all but two races in IMCA and at one of those races, they were not in attendance.

Like some NASCAR stars, there were races that Ernie had trouble winning. One of those was the Iowa International 300. Ernie had actually won the race in 1951 (his first ever IMCA win) and again in 1953, but those races had been 250 lap affairs. In 1957, the race was extended to 300 laps and gremlins always seemed to bug Derr at the 300.

In 1966, he finally got rid of the gremlins and won the Iowa International 300. Once Ernie got things figured out, you were in trouble. He would win the event every year through 1971, the year he retired from full time racing.

Ernie Derr accepts the checkers and the trophy for winning the Iowa 300 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa in 1969.

In 1969, Ernie won 25 of the 30 IMCA features, including the last 12 races of the season. Also, that year Ernie was joined on the IMCA circuit by his son Mike, and later son Russ would also compete in IMCA. Mike would go on to win several IMCA events and would battle fellow Keokuk resident, Gordon Blankenship for the 1973 IMCA Championship, losing to Blankenship by just five points.

Following the 1971 season and perhaps realizing that he had done it all, Ernie Derr cut back on his racing endeavors and ended his career at the Fall Jamboree in Knoxville in September 1977. During those last seven seasons, Derr would win 145 out of 245 races contested in the IMCA stock car series.

From 1971 through 1976 Ernie would campaign a limited schedule with the United States Auto Club competing against the likes of five-time series champion Butch Hartman, two-time series champion and winningest driver in USAC Stock Car racing, Don White, 3-time series champion Norm Nelson, former nemesis and 1975 USAC champion Ramo Stott, as well as Al Unser, Roger McCluskey and Tiny Lund. Ernie would log three wins and at least 8 runner-up's and almost always was in the top 5.

Ernie Derr would run only one NASCAR Cup event (then called Grand Nationals). That would be on August 2, 1953 at the Davenport Speedway in Davenport, Iowa. He would finish well done in the running order of that 200-lap event.

Of course, in 1953, NASCAR was just another series. One wonders what would have happened if Ernie would have lived closer to the heart of NASCAR. Ernie still lives in Keokuk and keeps busy around the property he owns, and as always, he doesn’t say much. He doesn’t have to; his accomplishments say it ALL.

In June, 2005, with the help of Ernie’s son Mike, I got to spend some time with Ernie. I had been told that Ernie was not very easy to talk to, but he finally relented and for about 45 minutes he shared some of his experiences with me, and then it was time to mow the lawn. That and 45 minutes with brother-in-law Don White early in the day, doesn’t seem like a lot of time to learn much about a person, but combined with some comments made by son Mike, it was enough. “Dad simply outworked them.” That and being a very good and smart driver, I think were the secret to Ernie Derr’s incredible success.


  1. Nascar doesn't hold a candle to the quality of drivers that came from my little home town of Keokuk. My love of racing was grown from watching these guys race every weekend with my father, Joe Murray, who pit-crewed for Ron Hutcherson when he ran ARCA.It would be hard pressed to find anothe city or even county that could put that many quality drivers on the map. Jeff Murray

  2. Harlan/Shelby Co. - Tiny Lund - Johnny Beauchamp - nuff said

  3. I too found a love for racing while my father, William Steele, was on the pit crew for Norman and Butch Hall (car 99). Every weekend during the summer we were at places like Des Moines, Cresco, Odessa, Sedalia, Topeka, etc. I never had the traditional two week family summer vacation. What I got was MUCH better. Thanks Ernie, Ramo, Ron, Dick, Gordon, Ole, Lewis, Lenny, Don, Butch and Norm.
    Karl Steele

    1. The State of Iowa produced a lot of good drivers (who were good mechanics too). I always thought it was because of all the fairground race tracks. I would bet that Iowa had more race tracks per person than any other state in the country. It was a great place for a race fan to grow up in the 1960's.

  4. anyone out there pitcrew or knew ernie derr? i would like to talk to you , iam collecting books, pictures, newspaper clippings anything to do with derr, my email blunceford@hotmail.com thanks

  5. My dad married Norm Hall's daughter. Before he turned 21 years old, they used to sneak him into the pits in the trunk of a car. My uncle Butch raced the car at that time.

    1. I knew Butch in school and used to run to his place when he started up his 64 Ford #99. Got any pictures? Wayne Bossen

    2. Looking for photos also of the 64 Galaxy or the 69 Torino #99 Jerry Willfong

  6. My father pit crewed for Ernie late early 60's through early 70's. I was 8-10 years old when I traveled with them on weekends to races throughout Iowa and MO. Lots of memories, County fairs, State Fairs, etc. I have original programs, IMCA annual books, etc. somewhere in storage. I met Don White and Ramo through Ernie. There's a guy in W. Burlington, IA that has one of Ernie's cars, his hauler, etc.

  7. When I was watching Ernie, Ramo and Dick run at the Iowa State Fair Grounds in Des Moines back in the 60's I was torn between Ernie and Ramo, because my Father was partial to Chrysler products. I graduated from UNI in 1969 with a teaching contract and the first thing I did was purchase a 69 Dodge Charger R/T for $4200. My God, what wonderful memories! Thanks!

  8. When I was a young kid my dad took me to Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids to see some 200 mile race. Ernie and Ramo were both in it and ran 1-2 nearly the entire race. There were some very talented drivers in that race, but both Ernie and Ramo were smooth as silk just gliding through the turns on the old dirt half mile. Nobody could keep up with them. They were amazing to watch!

  9. I'm from just outside Charlotte NC & was immersed in stock car racing, (both Nascar & local), from 1968 on. Thanks to Stock Car racing magazine I was also exposed to the awesome accomplishments from those Keokuk drivers. The itonic thing is I now live in SW Iowa, & most people here have no idea of the history & legacy of the SE corner of the state, as well as just up the road from them in Harlan & Atlantic. I find that very, very sad.

  10. I watched Ernie, Ramo, Don, Dick,Ron, Ole and Lenny in Donnellson and a few other tracks. You would have to walk a mile to get into Donnellson on race night. They were the best of the best and proved it! But I loved that #1 Dodge Charger and the guy that drove it!

  11. Looking for photos of #99 Hall Racing


  13. I grew up in Keokuk. I graduated from high school with Ernie's son Steve. I had the pleasure of watching Ernie, Ramo, Eldon Sheffler, Jerry McCredie, Ernie McMahon and others race in places like Donnellson, the old Fairgrounds in Burlington, Memphis, MO and Des Moines. Saw John Mickey beat Ramo by about 2 feet one Saturday night in Memphis. One hell of a race!!
    I hung around Ramo's old shop at 16th and Blondeau through most of my early teens. Helped get the lavender zero car built. It was a brand new car off of Tigue Motors lot.

    What a great childhood for a born motorhead!!

    PS, I would love to find some 8mm or 16mm film or video of some of those duels between Ramo and Ernie.

    Jim Scott

  14. It was great to read all of the "cool" comments from everyone regarding IMCA stock car racing "back in the day". I am partial to one driver in particular, OLE BRUA, as I was part of the crew for several years, traveling to ALL of the races. I also got to know Ernie, Ramo, Ron, Norm & Butch, Lewis taylor, Dale Keesling, Karl Stouffer, Lenny, Fred Horn, The Janey Bros., Darrel Dake, and so many others! I was luck enough to have been asked by Ernie to help in the pits at the Minnesota State Fair. I also did a "lettering job" on the side of his right rear quarter panel at a race in Madison, Mn. Fieldcrest Fertilizer was the name. I was pretty nervous about doing that. I stopped to see Ernie a few years ago at his place. I hadn't seen him in 30 years. He hadn't changed one bit! We talked for a long time about Ole, racing, and alot of other "stuff". I have alot of 8 mm movie film that I am going to put on a CD and make available. Most of it is IMCA stock car racing. While Ole will always be #1 with me, Ernie, Ramo, Ron, and the rest of the gang will be right there with him. It WAS the best time of my life!!!!

    1. I was just wondering if you made that CD? Also if you have any old IMCA stuff for sale let me know. Thanks

    2. Yes I would be interested in a CD or DVD of old IMCA races...
      my email is allischalmersguy@gmail.com
      be glad to pay something too!

  15. I was told today (1-8-14) that Ernie passed away. Can anyone verify this? I guess I will check on Facebook and see what I can find out.
    If it is true, one of Stock Car Racing's TRUE Legends has finally come off of turn 4 for the last time. Everyone in racing will miss you, Ernie, but, I for one, have a lot of great memories (and photos as well) to remember you by.

    Rest In Peace. My condolences to the entire Derr family.

    Jerry Monson Albert Lea, Mn

    1. Yes Jerry he has passed away...obituary will be posted here: http://www.dejongsfuneralhome.com/obituary/121655/Ernest-Derr/

  16. Ernie Derr has passed away.R.I.P.,Ernie

  17. I helped Ernie make a green 1960 Pontiac street car into a stock car.
    We took the front end off the car and put it in a red barn off the alley behind his house.
    Then we put a damage front end on the stock car that he got from a salvage yard.
    I helped him at the 1962 Minnesota state fair and we work on the race car at a Pontiac dealer ship and we raced three times at the fair week.
    One time Johnny Beauchamp came into the garage and Ernie ran him out.
    Johnnie was a very big man and Ernie was very short person.
    I was working in Davenport at this time and drove a new Corvette to the fair Ernie did not know I had this car and said we can not all fit in this thing to go out to eat.
    There were five of us and we had go all ride in his car hauler the 1959 tilt cab ford truck.
    Bob Haas, Darrell Maring, Skinner, Ernie and myself.
    Later I worked for Don,and Ramo.
    I also sold Firestone racing tires and Ernie would com to Davenport to race local of Friday's races and firestone was to change the dirt tires for next year form seven bars to eight bars and he wanted to buy all of my seven bars.
    I knew what he was after the seven bars would better in loose dirt and he ran a lead sled type car.
    He was a very good at knowing what it use.
    Larry Miller

    1. I loved that super green 1960 Pontiac. I remember it had a picture of Chief Keokuk on the driver's door holding a big number (1)one...

  18. my uncle bought his charger and ran it in north Dakota and was pretty dominant until he died in that very same car while racing at the red river valley speedway west fargo nd.May 13 1977 he rolled it over and another car hit him on the drivers side ,so that car was dominant wherever it was ran my uncle was one of the best around.

  19. The previous post from tk is correct. This driver was Mike Swangler from Grand Forks, ND. He ran Derr's Charger for about 2 years, and won with it 3 to 4 times in 1976 against full fields of Camaros. The Dodge had to have been much heavier, as most of the Camaros were Howe kit cars or copies. And West Fargo was a high-banked 1/2, not a flat 1/2 like Ernie used to win on at Des Moines or St. Paul. Mike used to run the 1st and 3rd corners deeper than the camaros, and would then try diamond the apex and go lower in turns 2 & 4. It was truly impressive when he had the Charger's hooked up. He was also much busier on the steering wheel than the easy-handling camaros... which you could see - because the car was big, and the line he had to run on the track was peculiar. Sweet memories!

  20. Began my love of auto racing around the age of 5 in Shreveport, La. at state fair speedway. My daddy would put me up on his shoulders so I could look over the old wooden fence in turn 2. Later on through the years into high school I fell in love with the # 1 of Ernie Derr and Ramo Stott. Was in the grandstands of every race at the Louisiana State Fair and the Pelican in April. The paving of state fair speedway in 1969 spelled the end of Ernie's domination of IMCA racing in Shreveport. The big heavy cars just could not keep up with the lightweight Chevelles and such from Baton Rouge, Houston, and southern Mississippi. Wonder where Ernie's old race cars are? Wonderful memories. One driver was from Lake Elmo,Minnesota. Anyone know who he was? He drove a Ford convertible. Never won anything though.

  21. Ernie and Ramo, I wonder how many race fans they created. From Bloomfield, Iowa to Des Moines, to Donnelson, that's what racing was all about, the good ole days are gone.

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