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.

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