The Minnesota State Fairgrounds
By Kyle Ealy
St. Paul, Minn. – It was the IMCA stock car version of NASCAR’s Daytona 500. It was considered the granddaddy event of the IMCA stock car national circuit and a Labor Day tradition.
The Northstar 500 was so named because it consisted of 500 laps on the half-mile asphalt at the Minnesota State Fair. It was a true test of man and his machine, a long endurance encounter that was like no other.
For the first five years of the event, it also showcased two of IMCA’s best drivers, Ernie Derr and Ramo Stott. The epic battles they put on in this event, only added to their rivalry, which is legendary.
As you read last month, the Northstar 500 followed it’s sister race, the Northland 300. Because both races ran within a 48 to 72 hour period of each other, this took a toll on the drivers and their race cars.
It all began on Monday afternoon, September 6, 1965. It was originally scheduled as a 200-mile event, so it was aptly named, the Northstar 400. It was by far the richest prize of the year, with a total purse exceeding $10,000.
Ramo Stott of Keokuk, Iowa, would take all the honors that day as the bid of another Keokuk driver, Ernie Derr, ended his afternoon in bad luck and frustration.
Stott completely dominated the inaugural event, leading the race at both the 200 and 400 lap portions of the feature and cashing in $4,500 when the checkers flew.
His success story was just the opposite of Derr's luck. Derr led through the first 154 laps and lost it to Stott while making a pit stop for fuel and a new tire. Back on the track, Derr fell farther back on the 214th lap when he hit an oil spot and spun out. And the race ended for him altogether on the 263rd lap when a tire blew out and he crashed into the wall. Derr was not hurt but his car could not continue.
The next year, however, fortunes would be reversed and it was Derr with the good luck and Stott who couldn’t catch a break.
The race was extended another 50 miles bring the number of laps to 500, by far the longest race ever run on the Minnesota State Fair Speedway half-mile.
On September 5, 1966, Derr would show Stott and the rest of the field what the meaning of the word “dominance” was. Derr, piloting a 1966 Dodge, would lead 461 of the 500 laps, finishing the race in 3 hours, 30 minutes and 54 seconds. He would earn $2,200 for his herculean efforts.
Stott, plagued by two flat tires and a blown valve, was forced to make three unscheduled pit stops. He struggled around the final few laps at only 40 miles per hour to finish fifth.
Lenny Funk of Otis, Kan., in a 1964 Ford, was second and won $1,500. Dave Marcis of Wausau, Wis., would finish third, Bob Jusola of Mound, Minn., was fourth, followed by the ailing Stott. Eddie Harrow of Corpus Christi, Texas, Columbus Junction, Iowa’s John Mickey, Perry Cottingham of Inglewood, Calif., Jerry Kaufman of Minneapolis and Paul Feldner, Colgate, Wis., would round out the top 10 competitors in a race that saw only 15 of the 31 cars starting finish the endurance marathon.
You couldn’t blame Stott if he felt a little sad when the racing action at the Minnesota State Fair came to an end at the 1967 event. After winning the Northland 300 on Saturday, September 2nd, Stott would give a repeat performance on Monday afternoon, September 4th. All in all, he would leave the twin cities with over $4,000.
Ramo captured the 500-lap marathon with a brilliant performance before a packed house of 20, 803. His time of 3 hours and 29 minutes for the 250-mile distance would set a world record. He would earn a hefty paycheck totaling $2,300.
“I'll drive this track any day,” quipped Ramo, who always had a smile on his face and a few quotables whether he won or loss. “I love this asphalt.”
Stott would start on the pole alongside Derr. There would be four lead changes via pit stops by both drivers with Ramo regaining the margin the second and final stops.
On Stott's 392nd tour, he lapped Derr coming out of the fourth turn. Stott was in the low groove when he and Ernie scraped and Derr almost became a casualty.
Stott, driving a 1967 Plymouth with a hemi-powered engine, would take the checkers almost two full laps ahead of Derr. Ole Brua of Albert Lea, Minn., Willie Crane of Springfield, Mo., and Bob Malechek of Marshalltown, Iowa would round out the top five.
Hometowner Buzz McCann, Dave Noble of Blooming Prairie, Minn., Roger Carlson of Hibbing, Minn., Blackie Wangerin of Minneapolis and Dick Oldham of Des Moines would finish out the top 10.
The following year, September 2, 1968, Stott would set two world's records in the Northstar 500, yet lose the race. Ramo's records were in doing 125 miles in 1 hour 39 minutes 15 seconds and 150 miles (300 laps) in 1:59.7. He had led from about the 100th lap to the 325th, when his engine blew.
Derr, running second for most of the event behind Stott, was in the right place at the right time and would win the race in world record fashion, 3 hours, 28 minutes and 38 seconds. Derr would collect $2,400 out of the $12,225 purse. Future NASCAR runner Dave Marcis of Wausau, Wis., would take runner-up honors.
1968 would mark the final year of the “Ernie and Ramo” show. Stott would seek greener pastures and start competing with the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) during the 1969 season, leaving Derr to continue on with his dominance of IMCA.
Sure enough, when the Minnesota State Fair rolled around the next year, the "Old Fox" did just that, and once again in world record time on September 2, 1969.
Ernie Derr accepts the trophy after winning the 1969 Northstar 500.
Driving a 1969 Dodge Charger, Derr won the 500-lap stock car race and $2,600 on the last day of the Minnesota State Fair before a crowd of 16,862. Derr’s Charger was timed in 3 hours, 21 minutes, 51 seconds, dropping the 250-mile mark he set almost a year ago to the day.
Finishing behind Derr was Bob Jusola of Minneapolis, Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa, Ole Brua of Albert Lea, Minn., and Irv Janey of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The 1970 Northstar 500 will long be remembered for being filled with controversy and in the middle of it was none other than Ernie Derr.
Flash back a week before the actual race, on Aug 29th, Bud Helm of Brainerd, Minn., had finished second to Marv Marzofka of Nekoosa, Wis. in the Northland 300 (remember the “warm-up race”?) event at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, earning a tidy $1,275.
The following Saturday, September 5th, Helm went one better, beating Jim Sauter to the finish before 12,469 in the State Fair's 200-lap event, with Ernie Derr and Ron Hutcherson in the third and fourth spots.
Helm's triumph so incensed the veteran Derr that he walked over to Helm's hauler after the race and actually threatened to keep the Brainerd driver from winning the big Labor Day 500.
“He as much told me he was going to do it, especially if I was winning the race,” Helm disclosed. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
On Monday afternoon, September 7th, Helm was winning. Not only was he winning, he was dominating the event, having established four new world records with his marks after 50, 75 and 400 laps (two hours, 41 minutes, 36 5 seconds for the latter).
Helm was in the lead and was about to pass Derr for the THIRD time on the 290th lap. The flagman waved the blue flag for Ernie to move over and allow Helm to pass. Derr moved down as ordered while Helm tried to catch a groove of rubber to help him go high (but not too high) on the turn.
From most eye witness accounts, Derr raced Helm extremely hard as the two drivers entered turns one and two and as they entered turn three, Derr "drifted" high and caught Helm on the bumper sending the veteran Minnesota driver into a spin. Helm avoided hitting the wall but a puff of smoke from his engine ended Helm’s afternoon.
“He tried to put me into the wall on that corner (turn one) and the next two. I didn't hit the wall, but he spun me on down the track on the third turn," Helm reveals, adding, “Most people thinking the over-revving (8,000 rpms) when he spun me was what led to my engine's giving out.”
It first got Derr a black flag penalty of five laps, but when his crew began going after track officials, he was promptly told to park his car for the rest of the race. The sold-out crowd showed it’s displeasure by yelling every name in the book at Derr as he pulled to the infield.
Ron Hutcherson of Keokuk, Iowa, sitting in the third spot, took over and held on for the $3,000 first prize. Irv Janey of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was second, Mert Williams of Rochester, Minn., was third, Norm Setran of Minneapolis fourth and Bill Nelson of Minneapolis fifth.
Helm finished sixth for $650 but for the big three days of racing, he finished second on the money list.
Ron Hutcherson accepts his trophy after winning the 1970 Northstar 500.
Derr was heavily censured by beat writers covering the State Fair races. Charley Hallman of the St. Paul Dispatch headlined his article: “Derr Disgrace in Race Rhubarb” with an added caption, “Iowan Slams Helm; Pit Crew Jumps Official”.
Said Hallman, "When starter Jake Bozony informed Derr that he was going to be penalized five laps for rough driving, Derr's crew went at Bozony like a group of wild men — and in clear view of the 11,000 race fans. Bozony was soon down on the ground and the public address announcer began screaming for assistance."
Another columnist for the same newspaper, Don Riley, wrote; “If the IMCA has an ounce of courage and integrity it will ban Iowan Ernie Derr for at least six weeks on the racing circuit — and black ball him for next year’s fair. The indefensible aggression he showed to Bud Helm could have been tragic and his pit crew’s ridiculous attack on track officials should ground this ornery, surly competitor until he learns the fair is not Derr’s own personal playground.”
Despite Riley’s plea and outcry from quite a few race fans, Derr was not suspended following the race and was allowed to continue on in his quest for a national title. When the season ended in late October, Derr would indeed clinch his sixth straight title and 11th overall.
A week later, however, IMCA officials would slap Derr with a fine of $500 and place both him and his crew on one-year probation. IMCA secretary Bill Hitz, in a prepared statement, said, “Derr was fined for "rough driving in an IMCA race at the Minnesota State Fair on Labor Day.”
The statement continued: “In addition, a one-year probation period was given to Derr and his pit crew for roughing up an IMCA official after the black flag was given.”
Derr, reached by telephone in Keokuk, said he has 30 days to appeal the action. “I'm not sure what I'll do,” he said. "But I think they sure made a mountain out of a mole hill.”
According to earlier reports, Derr pulled into the pits after receiving the black flag and flagman Jake Bozony motioned that he wanted to talk to Derr.
Derr reported he planned to load the car and leave. He said Bozony walked to his pit area and tried to hand him a note indicating that he (Derr) could return to the race on lap 300. Derr said he pushed the note back to Bozony and walked away. Apparently, one of Derr’s crew members stepped in front of Bozony. Gene Van Winkle, co-promoter of the race, had said Bozony was not shoved or pushed to the ground.
When the 1971 Northstar 500 rolled around on Monday, September 7th, several of the pre-race favorites fell victim to either accidents or mechanical failure.
A seven-car accident at the end of the first lap eliminated new fan-favorite Bud Helm from contention along with six other cars.
The yellow flag went up again when another favorite, Marv Marzofka of Nekoosa, Wis., blew an engine on the 13th lap and had a minor collision. He had set a track qualifying record of 21.62 seconds around the half-mile oval.
Mechanical difficulties left front-running Tom Reffner of Rudolph, Wis., to head for the pits after dominating a good portion of the event. Jim Sauter of Necedah, Wis., took the lead from Reffner on the 232nd lap and held off the persistent challenge of Bob Jusola of Burnsville, Minn., to win.
A crowd of 11,017 watched the racing windup at the Minnesota State Fair.
Sauter's time was 3:28.0.35 and he won $3,250 in prize money. Jusola. who finished 9.2 seconds and about a half lap behind Sauter, won $1,800. “Mr. Controversy” Ernie Derr was third and won $1,500, followed by Mert Williams of Rochester, Minn., who won $1,000. Defending champion Ron Hutcherson came in fifth and won $800.
It was survival of the fittest in the ’71 event as only 16 of the 40 starting cars finished the race.
1972 was the year of Dick Trickle. No one could stop him as he was on his way to topping Ramo Stott’s national record of 58 feature wins in a season. When he arrived in St. Paul, Minn., at the end of August, he was only four wins short.
On August 27th, Trickle would set fast time and easily win the 300-lap “warm-up” race for win #55 establishing himself as the pre-race favorite for the 500-lap marathon.
On race day, Trickle set fast time (21.56) and continued his dominant performance but still needed a little luck to score the win. He would survive five unscheduled pit stops and an empty gas tank Sunday to win on Sunday afternoon, September 4th by three laps over Dick Strang of Minneapolis in 3 hours, 22 minutes and 35 seconds. Dave Chase of Council Bluffs, Iowa would take third followed by Rich Somers of Stevens Point, Wis., and Les Anderson.
The Wisconsin Rapids driver was forced into the pits several times when his hood kept popping up. Later, he would be forced to coast his 1970 Mustang in for refueling with seven laps to go after building up a five-lap lead.
Victory #56 was worth a record $4,500 out of $17, 500 total purse for Trickle who would go on to amass 67 feature wins on the season, a record that has yet to be broken.
Sadly the 1972 Northstar 500 would be the last 500-lap event for the IMCA stock car division and it would be the last IMCA-sanctioned event ever at the Minnesota State Fair.
For the next few seasons, the USAC stock car and NASCAR late model divisions would be the Labor Day headliner at the fair. Starting in 1978, the American Speed Association (ASA) and ARTGO Series would be the main attraction for the next 17 years.
While there would be many 200, 300 and 400 lap races in those series, there would never be another marathon 500-lap race run again.
There would only be one Northstar 500.