Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1970 - Ernie Derr; "Winning Gets Tougher"

Keokuk, Iowa – Ernie Derr figures it isn’t too difficult winning a championship. The tough part is defending it.

Derr should know…

He just completed his 20th campaign as a race car driver. Last year, he won his fifth consecutive driving title in the International Motor Contest Association and his 10th overall crown in what has become a legendary career.

“It gets tougher as the years go by,” Derr admitted. “Good young drivers show up every year, learning the tricks of the trade and then go on to bigger things. I’ve seen a lot of them come and go.”

Derr, who hails from Keokuk, Iowa, a community noted for producing numerous good drivers, has no plans to retire.

“I enjoy racing, and as long as I have good health and reflexes, I’ll continue to race. I expect to be driving at least three or four more years and if I’m still in good shape, stick with it.”

Derr made shambles of the IMCA circuit last season, competing in 30 events and taking the checkers 25 times. He compiled 3,920 points to 2,480 for second place finisher Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa.

He doesn’t know how many races he’s won in a career that started back in 1950.”Somewhere over 250, probably,” he said. “The records of some wins were lost when the headquarters building at one of the sanctioning bodies burned down.”

He expects the 1970 season to be his toughest ever. For one thing, a new rule change has left IMCA promoters hopeful that the circuit will be it’s most competitive ever. Unlike the past year when stock cars up to four years old were eligible to compete, the new rules states that cars cannot be older than three years.

The new rule change doesn’t bother Derr, however. “I’ll be back in a 1970 Dodge Charger. The 426 cubic hemi is a proven engine and the handling characteristics makes it almost unbeatable on short tracks.”

Derr also credits some of his success to his knowledge of the IMCA-sanctioned tracks. “I’ve run them all, dozens of times, and except for the normal changes that come from the weather and normal track use, I know every bump, every dip. It takes a while for drivers to learn these things.”

As for possible retirement, Derr confessed that his future depends on the racing careers of his two sons. Mike, 21, a senior at Northeast Missouri State Teacher’s College, will graduate in the spring with a degree in business education. Steve, 20, is a student at the same school and is also an education major.

Both want to follow in their dad’s footsteps on the track. Mike competed in his first IMCA events this past year.

“Mike looked awfully good in the two races he ran,” Ernie beamed. “I’d like him to race during the school year, but its difficult trying to study, take exams and then run off to a race track. I don’t want him to miss any credits; it’s more important for him to finish his education. He’ll have a lot of time to race later on.”

Mike’s two races were at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines and he came in fourth in both events.

Steve has yet to compete in a sanctioned event, but Ernie is hopeful the youngster will get into action in 1970. He’ll make is debut on dirt tracks around the Keokuk area.

The boys have been around racing all their lives. Aside from following their father all over, their uncle, Don White, is one of the nation’s top drivers, having won the United States Auto Club stock car championship in 1968.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The First and the Last IMCA Stock Car Races

Bob McKim of Salina, Kan., won the very first IMCA-sanctioned stock car race on May 30, 1949 in Topeka, Kansas. - Photo courtesy of Bob Lawrence/Kansas Racing History

by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - In 1915 a gentlemen by the name of J. Alex Sloan created a new racing series called the International Motor Contest Association. Known for many years for Big Car Races, the series would start a stock car division in 1949. Actually the first IMCA Stock Car was said to have been held on November 9, 1947 in Lubbock, Texas but no documentation of the race is available.

On May 30, 1949 at the Mid-America Fairgrounds in Topeka, Kansas, the International Motor Contest Association held its first documented Stock Car Race. While there is not a lot of information available on this race, we do know that the 200-lap race was ran on a slippery race track and took 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete. Bob McKim of Salina, Kansas, known more as an open wheel driver piloted a 1949 Oldsmobile '88 owned by Abilene, Kansas Oldsmobile dealer, Ronald Rice to victory lane. The average speed for the race, a blistering 45 miles per hour.

Ray Rutman would finish second, a whopping 12 laps down. McKim and Rutman were the only competitors to complete the event without making a pit stop. Third place went to Eldon Burkholder of Duenweg, Missouri in his 1940 Mercury, also 12 laps down. Future IMCA promoter, Frank Winkley of Minneapolis, Minn., would finish fourth, 20 laps down in a car owned by his wife Verna and Ronnie James of Miami Beach, Fla., would round out the top five finishers, completing 170 of the scheduled 200 laps.

The IMCA Stock Car Series would go on to run somewhere between 12 and 15 races that first season. Eddie Anderson of Grinnell, Iowa was unofficially crowned the first IMCA national stock car champion.

The last IMCA Stock Car Race (called Late Models by 1977) of the old IMCA era would take place on September 10, 1977 at the World’s Largest County Fair, the Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa. Twenty-four cars entered the event with Jerry Holtkamp of Williams, Iowa setting quick time of 25.25 seconds on the big half-mile.

Heat race action saw Bill Wrich of Kennard, Nebraska win the first heat race over eventual 1977 series champion Kent Tucker of Aurora, Nebraska with Dick Elliott third. The second heat was won by Randy Sterner of Blair, Nebraska with Carroll, Iowa’s Frank Jorgensen second and Windsor, Missouri’s Shorty Acker in third. Mike Richardson won the third heat followed by Loren Theis and Gary Lindgren. The consolation event went to Kansas City, Missouri’s Bud Dibben with future late model star Bob Hill second and Steve Coe third.

Bill Wrich of Kennard, Neb., would win the last IMCA stock car race in Spencer, Iowa on September 10, 1977. - Kyle Ealy Collection

Crafty old veteran Bill Wrich took the lead from Bud Dibben on lap 16 of the 50-lap feature and went on to win the last ever IMCA Stock Car race. The then 41-year-old Wrich said that he had a problem early in the race in that he couldn’t get his tires heated up because of the numerous yellow flags at the start of the race. Wrich further explained that his tires were 7 years old and were of a harder compound than those normally ran in 1977.

Wrich was driving a 1974 Chevelle with a 454 cubic inch engine. Bill said that his car weighed about 600 pounds more than the Camaro’s that were running the same engine. He went on to say the track was a typical afternoon race track that was slippery and dusty.

Following Wrich at the line were Bud Dibben, 1977 series champion Kent Tucker, George Barton of Ankeny, Iowa, Jerry Holtkamp, Bob Hill and Randy Markley.

Between the first race in 1949 and the last race in 1977, the IMCA Stock Car Series would run over 600 events at tracks across the United States and Canada. For many years the series would start the season at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport in March and end the season back in Shreveport in October.

Many great stock car drivers raced in the series including "Mr. IMCA Stock Car" Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa who won 328 IMCA stock car races and 12 series titles. Other series champions included Keokuk residents Don White (a three-time series champion and later the winningest driver in USAC Stock Car history), Dick Hutcherson a two-time series champion and later NASCAR star, and Ramo Stott, (many a time a runner-up in the series but later a two-time ARCA champion).

Other series greats included Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan, Iowa who teamed with veteran mechanic Dale Swanson and totally dominated the series in the 1956 & 1957. Beauchamp would later go on to lose the most controversial Daytona 500 in it's history in 1959. Beauchamp was awarded the win but it was later given to Lee Petty.

In the heyday of IMCA, crowds exceeded 20,000 at such series staples as the state fairs in Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

As the crowds dwindled at the state and county fairs and late model racing came in to its own, the series faded into the history books after providing race fans 29 years of great stock car racing.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The National Late Model Modified Stock Car Championships

By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – In early 1963, a group of promoters and track owners formed a new racing group, the Mid-Continent Racing Association. The group elected Davenport racing promoter Homer Melton as their new president and it immediately paid dividends. Davenport, Tipton and West Union came aboard right away.

In 1964, things really started taking shape as Melton convinced both Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids and Tunis Speedway in Waterloo to leave the Cedar Valley Racing Association (which included Independence and Vinton) and jump on board with his group. With the addition of those two premier tracks, the MCRA was a strong presence in not only Iowa but bordering states Illinois and Minnesota.

After a successful first season at the helm in Cedar Rapids, Melton announced in November of 1964, a race like no other for next season. It was a race that would have MCRA-sanctioned drivers from a three-state area convene in the “Parlor City” for a year-end special event including a whopping $4,000 purse with $700 of that going to the winner of the 100-lap feature.

The first annual National Late Model Modified Stock Car Championships was set for Saturday afternoon, September 18, 1965.

The list of entries for the inaugural race sounded like a who’s who of auto racing. Headlining the race was recently crowned MCRA champion Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids. Dake had clinched the point’s title at both Davenport and the Downs’ that year.

Even with his impressive list of accomplishments, Dake knew the competition would be tough. One driver in particular who had given Dake fits all season long was on his mind as the race drew near. “I’d really like to win this one,” the 39-year-old pilot said. “But I’ll probably have to beat the redhead from Waterloo. That “redhead” that Dake was referring to was none other than the Waterloo track champion, Luvern “Red” Droste.

In addition to Dake and Droste, another top threat was Buzz MCann of St. Paul, Minn., driving a 1964 “Hi-Riser” Ford owned by Rex Barker. McCann had just come off an impressive showing, taking a third-place finish behind Ernie Derr and Ramo Stott in the IMCA-sanctioned North Star 400 at the Minnesota State Fair.

Other top modified stock car drivers entered included Jerry Reinhart of East Moline, Ill., Dean Montgomery of Milan, Ill., Benny Hofer and Bob “Shorty” Bennett, both of Rock Island, Mike Murgic and Bill Mueller, both of Minneapolis, Cal Swanson of Reinbeck, Iowa, Charlie Moffitt of Stanwood, Iowa, Jim Gerber of Mount Joy, Iowa and MCRA rookie of the year, Bill McDonough of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The big race also included two drivers entered who had controversial engines under the hood of their car. Verlin Eaker of Blooming Prairie, Minn. was driving a hemi-powered 1959 Plymouth, while Bob Hilmer of Dysart, Iowa was behind the wheel of a 1957 Chevrolet powered by a new “396” engine.

Unfortunately for race fans, the Droste-Dake dual would never materialize. Droste had suffered broken ribs in a racing accident in Waterloo several weeks before and then just days before the big race, broke two fingers in another accident in Davenport. John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa, who had blown his motor in Davenport that same evening, was asked by Droste to fill in.

On September 18, 1965, the inaugural race took place on a cold and blustery day. Even with the uncomfortable conditions, 4,500 race fans packed the grandstands to see the very best drivers in the region.

After time trials, heat races and the consolation, it came to no surprise to see Darrell Dake sitting on the pole in his 1962 Ford convertible. True to form, Dake took the lead on the first lap in the accident-marred championship feature, and though hard-pressed at times, was never headed.

Benny Hofer bought the crowd to their feet when he put his 1955 Chevrolet right on Dake's bumper on the 98th lap and stayed there as they crossed the finish line in what was described by MCRA public relations director Tony Dean “as one of the most thrilling races ever held at Hawkeye Downs”. Finishing behind Dake and Hofer were a couple of Peoria, Ill., drivers, Don Bohlander and Herb Shannon, with Ray Guss of Milan, Ill., bringing up the top five.

A serious accident on the 72nd lap sent Buzz McCann to the local hospital where he was listed in fairly good condition with possible internal injuries. McCann slammed into Lyle McNull of Aledo, Ill., after McNull spun out in a cloud of dust on the second turn. McCann was then hit by Harry Odeen of Marion, Iowa.

The success of the 1965 race gave Melton no choice but to bring it back the next year. Melton did just that and decided to up the stakes with a $5,000 purse and a cool $1,000 going to the winner. Melton also made the race more of an “open competition” not just limited to MCRA pilots.

With the added purse and some of the restrictions lifted, the 1966 event brought some new faces. Minnesota was represented by the “Golden Gopher” Mert Williams of Rochester as well as the Minnesota state champion, Norm Setran. While fans and drivers were familiar with driving style of Williams, Setran brought an impressive resume to the race.

Although Setran was the top point man at two asphalt tracks, Elko Speedway and Twin City Speedway in Minneapolis, he brought little experience as far as dirt tracks were concerned. Another driver quite experienced on pavement but not on dirt was Ken Pankrantz of Mosinee, Wis. Pankrantz drove a 1960 Ford Thunderbrd.

With some new faces in the crowd, a total 72 drivers showed up on Sunday afternoon, September 11th to do battle including the defending champ Darrell Dake and most of the cast from last year’s event. It was another cold fall day but 7,200 race fans came out to see who had what it takes.

One gentleman who didn’t think he would be racing that day was Lee “Stub” Kunzman of Guttenberg, Iowa. Kunzman had totaled his car, a 1966 Chevy convertible, the night before. With no ride for the big race, Kunzman found one at the last minute in a 1964 Ford, owned and chauffeured normally by Buzz McCann of St. Paul.

After suffering some injuries a month ago, McCann was under doctor’s orders not to compete and things couldn’t have worked out better.

The outcome of the 100-lap feature produced a check for $1,000 to Kunzman and McCann, the largest chunk of change ever won in a single race by the popular 22-year-old.

“It feels great,” Kunzman said as he received the championship trophy from promoter Homer Melton. “Buzz’s car handled beautifully. It was real steady during the whole race.”

For the second year in a row, Benny Hofer finished second followed by Mert Williams and John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa

Kunzman and Hofer drove a drove a dandy of a race, even though the 100-lap spectacular started out as if it was a game of “catch us if you can” with front row starters Verlin Eaker and Darrel Dake, both of Cedar Rapids, setting the pace for the first 58 laps.

Eaker earned the pole position by setting a Downs record on the quarter-mile oval with a 16.67 seconds clocking during time trials in his hemi-powered 1965 Dodge. The previous mark of 16.89 was established by Mert Williams earlier this year. Dake also cracked the standard with 16.74 timing.

When the green flag waved to signify the start of the race, Eaker’s high-horsepowered ride shot out to the lead with Dake not far behind. Dake, hoping to defend his national championship successfully, charged into the lead on the 58th lap when Eaker's car began to heat up. Red Droste of Waterloo, one of the pre-race favorites and the top point guy in Waterloo, had already dropped out on lap 25.

Dake’s hopes to defend lasted only two laps when he was forced out with a slashed tire. Eaker regained the lead, but by this time, his car was smoking badly and it was obvious that he couldn’t keep the torrid pace much longer. On lap 65, the inevitable happened.

Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan, Iowa, who had started seventh but was now running second, dropped to the inside of the sagging Eaker and pulled into the lead followed by Kunzman and Hofer. Kunzman had started 10th in the feature and Hofer had even farther to move to the front, having started 20th.

For the next 30 laps, Beauchamp controlled the thrilling action in his ’55 Chevy. The ex-Daytona driver’s experience seemed to hold the difference in the long-distance contest. Beauchamp indeed looked untouchable and headed to victory.

On lap 95, however, coming out of turn four, Beauchamp’s cap on his right front tire broke, sending the multi-time IMCA national champion to the sidelines. Kunzman snapped into the lead and then held tight for the remaining four laps as Hofer was literally on his bumper as the checkers waved.

From no ride on Saturday night to victory lane on Sunday afternoon. Kunzman couldn’t have summed it up any better when asked what his thoughts were on his win, “I borrowed the ride of my life”.

The purse for the 1967 race was still the same, $5,000, with the winner receiving $1,000. But this season, an additional $500 in lap money was added to the race as well as a free trip for two to Miami, Fla., all added by area sponsors. The race was also moved from its previous cold September dates to a warmer day and month, July 24th.

In addition to the defending champion Kunzman there, more new faces were entered for the race this year including Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa, Jack Rebholz of Peoria, Ill., Ron Weedon of Pleasant Valley, Iowa, Tom Hughes Monticello, Iowa, Del Williams of Aledo, Ill., and Boyce Sparkman of Rockford, Ill.

With the success of the first two races, Melton and his public relations director, Tony Dean were expecting big things as the day approached. Over 70 drivers were pre-entered and with the date being moved to a warmer time of the year, another packed house was expected.

The day of the race, however, morning rains throughout Iowa and Illinois and the ever present threat of showers in Cedar Rapids no doubt affected crowd attendance as well as driver representation which was well below the official pre-entry list of 51 cars. Only 29 cars checked in and the crowd was at 3,345, which would have been spectacular for some tracks, but disappointing for Cedar Rapids.

Verlin Eaker, the current point leader at the Downs, started on the pole and led the entire 100-lap distance on the quarter-mile oval to capture the $1,000 first -prize money.

Verlin and his hemi – powered 1965 Dodge also walked off with the entire lap purse of $500 awarded on the basis of $5 per lap to the leader. As the race winner, Eaker also was awarded a free trip for two to Miami.

Eaker was never challenged on the dirt track which resembled asphalt even before the feature began due mainly to the heavy pounding of time trials and five previous events and a blistering 96 - degree temperature.

Eaker admitted after the race that he suffered a few “anxious moments” during the race. Eaker's “worries” began during the first 10 laps “when the engine started sputtering."

“I got worried when the fuel pressure wasn't up where it should have been,” he explained. “I think it stored up on me when I had to slow down to lap other cars.”

Second place finisher Dean Montgomery of Milan, Ill., provided more worries for Eaker even though Dean was almost lapped by Eaker in the event. “I knew he wasn’t too close to me. But every time I looked for him, I couldn’t find him. That worried me.”

Asked if he knew by how much he won, Eaker responded with a smile, “I have a pretty good idea.”

The famed Johnny Beauchamp of Atlantic, Iowa showed his driving skills by climbing from his 16th starting position to finish third, right on the bumper of Montgomery who started on the outside pole.

With about 22 laps to go in the feature, the former Daytona 500 star lost his brakes. “I thought I had a good chance of catching Montgomery until that happened,” Beauchamp said.

Fourth place in the feature was earned by Mert Williams of Rochester, Minn., while fifth went to Darrel Dake, the National winner in 1965. Last year's titlist, Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg, was never a factor and went out with engine trouble on the 25th lap.

Melton’s three-year contract he had signed with the All-Iowa Fairboard had expired and after the 1967 season, the heads of state decided to go another direction and brought in nationally-known promoter Frank Winkley of Minneapolis to take the reins.

A strong supporter of IMCA-sanctioned racing, Winkley ended Hawkeye Downs’ alliance with Mid-Continent Racing Association, ending any chance of a fourth annual event.

Before the race had an opportunity to grow and become an annual event for years to come, it was gone for good.

But for three years, the National Late Model Modified Stock Car Championships at Hawkeye Downs brought great drivers from near and far to compete and fans witnessed not only spectacular racing but some legendary names in victory lane.