Friday, February 4, 2011

1956 – 1970: The USAC Champs at Du Quoin

A.J. Foyt of Houston, Tex., would win the Ted Horn Memorial a record 5 times (1960, '61, '63, 64, and '67). - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection


By Kyle Ealy
Du Quoin, Ill. – Labor Day Weekend and grass-roots racing have gone hand in hand for many a year.

The casual race fan usually doesn’t have to look hard to find a race to their liking. Some of the biggest races of the year tend to fall on this three-day vacation.

Probably the biggest Labor Day racing tradition will be entering its 63rd year and it’s still going strong. It’s one of the longest running events in racing, not only in the Midwest but the United States.

On September 4, 1948, a 100-lap race was launched at the historic dirt mile of the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds. It was an AAA-sanctioned event with Lee Wallard, driving a "speedway-type" car, winning the race in 1 hour, 7 minutes and 53 seconds (88.381 mph). Myron Fohr finished second and third place went to Ted Horn.

The 38-year-old Horn was a very successful driver having won the AAA national championship two times and he was very popular with race fans. It was said that Horn always carried “lucky” coins in his shoes as a good luck charm on the days he raced.

Ted Horn's good luck coins, which he had carried in hundreds of races failed him a little more than a month later, on October 10th, when he crashed his race car at Du Quoin and was killed instantly. It was said that when hospital attendants removed Horn's left shoe, his "lucky" dime dropped to the floor. Two pennies he carried in his right shoe wore lost when that shoe was torn from his foot in the crash. Despite his death, Ted Horn clinched his third national title.

In 1951, Du Quoin State Fairground officials decided to name the race, the Ted Horn Memorial in honor of the fallen hero. Still AAA-sanctioned, Tony Bettenhausen would win the event. Ironically, Bettenhausen would lose his life in 1961 and in his honor, have a race named after him.

The event remained AAA-sanctioned until 1955, when they ceased racing competition due to the tragic racing accidents of some of their top stars, including Bill Vuckovich. For the 1956 season, the national championship was taken over by a new sanctioning body formed by the then-owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Hulman. It was called the United States Auto Club (USAC).

And that’s where this story begins….

With USAC taking over, the Ted Horn Memorial, already a reputable race, became one of the biggest events in the nation with some of the biggest stars, nation-wide, coming to Du Quoin, Ill., every Labor Day Weekend to see who could tame the one-mile dirt oval.

Jimmy Bryan would win the the first USAC-sanctioned Ted Horn Memorial. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection


On Monday, September 5, 1956, hard-driving Jimmy Bryan of Phoenix, Ariz., who was seeking his second national championship in three years, won the 100-mile Ted Horn Memorial. Bryan took the lead on the 33rd lap when Johnny Thomson of Boyertown, Pa., lost control of his car momentarily on a curve, allowing Bryan to pass by and then stay in front for the remainder of the race. Thomson would settle for second, about half a lap behind the winner who collected a healthy $3,665.

The next year, it was hard-driving, hard-drinking pilot who wowed the crowd and his fellow drivers on the “Mile”. Jud Larson of Kansas City, Mo., piloting the Watson Offenhauser, won the 100-mile race after setting a new qualifying record in time trials.

Larson’s time for the 100-lap dirt track event was one hour, 5 minutes and 58.29 seconds – only a minute off the record set by Jimmy Bryan the year before. This all happening despite the fact the field was under the caution flag twice due to accidents. The biggest mishap eliminated both two-time former winners in this event, Bryan and Tony Bettenhausen.

Johnny Thomson would finish the race in the same spot as the year before, second place. Rodger Ward of Los Angeles, who led the first 52 miles, finished third, despite a broken shock absorber. It should be noted that a 21-year-old driver from Houston, Texas would qualify badly and not make the field that day. The young man’s name was A.J. Foyt, and he would be heard from again.

The next year, Johnny Thomson decided that the bridesmaid role was not for him and in a thrilling finish, won the Ted Horn Memorial on September 1st. Thomson took the early lead on a dusty Du Quoin track only to lose it to Tony Bettenhausen on the 57th circuit. Betterhausen stayed ahead until lap 97 when Thomson edged ahead of him and won by just a few feet at the finish line.

Johnny Thomson shed the bridesmaid role and won the 1958 Ted Horn Memorial. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection


Thomson, in the D-A Lubricant Special, averaged more than 97 mile per hour in the event, which was witnessed by 15,000 fans. Following Thomson and Bettenhausen to the checkers was Don Branson of Urbana, Ill., piloting the Hoover Motor Express. So close was the racing action on this day, a spread of seven seconds separated the first six finishers.

When the Labor Day spectacular rolled around in 1959, Rodger Ward was already the talk of the racing world, having won the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day. When Ward left Du Quoin, he added the Ted Horn Memorial to his bags of titles.

Ward, steering the Watson D-3 Offy, took the lead at the green and never look back, leading all 100 laps. He finished 7 seconds ahead of second place finisher Don Branson and Tony Bettenhausen. The 38-year-old veteran of Speedway, Ind., received $5,450 of a $20,000 plus purse. A record-breaking crowd of over 22,000 packed the grandstands to take in the action.

Rodger Ward would win both the Memorial Day and Labor Day events on the USAC circuit in 1959. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection


In 1960, Jim Packard, making his first appearance at Du Quoin, won the hearts of 17,000 champ car racing fans on Monday afternoon, September 5th even though he would finish fifth. Packard, out of Speedway, Ind., raced high on every turn with such reckless abandon that he wore out his right rear tire in 75 laps and had to make a pit stop which cost him the lead and the race.

Even after his pit stop, Packard kept racing as if he had a chance to win. He came out of the north turn so hard one time that he banged into the rail and sent railbirds scattering away from the fence. Packard kept his car under control and zoomed on down the home stretch.

Remember that kid named Foyt? Never worse than third position from start to finish in the race, A.J. moved into the lead by a process of elimination as first Don Branson and then “Mr. Thrill-A-Mile” Packard faded from contention. Once in the lead, he finished almost a lap ahead of runner-up Tony Bettenhausen. Driving the Bowes Seal Fast Special, Foyt collected first place money totaling $4,165. Don Branson shattered the qualifying record of 35.57 seconds with a 34.46 clocking that figured out to 104.47 mph.

Foyt had never won a champ car race until his win at Du Quoin. He went on to win the national driving title that year with the Du Quoin track eventually his stepping stone to stardom.

On September 4, 1961, a record crowd of 25,000 fans saw the defending champion jump into the lead as track announcer Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbeck called the start. Foyt slipped by Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif., in the first quarter-mile and he was only headed once after that. Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif., was Foyt’s top threat. After Foyt's car developed magneto issues on the 75th lap, Jones slowly closed the gap and grabbed the lead on the 86th lead. Jones' command was short-lived however.

Motor trouble forced Jones to the pit on the 90th lap while he was a quarter-mile ahead of Foyt. A.J. regained the lead and Jones, who seemed on his way to an easy victory before the misfortune, never was able to get back into the race. Foyt averaged 94.24 miles per hour en route to the $4,837 winner's share of the record purse. Second-place Shorty Templeman of Seattle, Wash., banked $3,483 and Eddie Sachs of Allentown, Pa., who came in with a solid third place, collected a $1,935 payoff.

The 1962 event was rained out, so Foyt had to wait another year to defend his title. On September 2, 1963, Foyt became the first three-time winner of the 100-mile Labor Day classic winning the race in the time of 1 hour and 3 minutes. Foyt set a breath-taking pace to cut more than 19 seconds off the one, hour, 3 minutes and 19 second mark set by Johnny Thomson in 1958.

The Texan had to go all out to catch Rodger Ward, who took the pole position with a 34.17 second qualifying time, which lowered the record of 34.46 set by Don Branson of Champaign in 1960.

After Jim Hurtubise unsuccessfully tried to grab the lead from Ward on the first turn, Ward streaked ahead of the open field to build up a huge lead, which he held for 43 laps. Foyt, starting from the fifth position, was close enough to touch Ward's car after 35 laps and dogged him on every turn until he got the lead in the north turn on the 43rd lap. Foyt then lengthened his lead steadily to as much as three quarters of a mile and won with out any threat from Ward to regain the lead. Foyt's only worry came in the closing laps when his fuel supply was running-low.

Foyt won $5,587 of the record purse of $22,350 before a crowd, which was some 2,000 short of capacity. Ward collected $3,799 for second, Chuck Hulse $2,458 for third, Bob Marshman $1,620 for fourth and Branson $1,341 for fifth.

The 29-year-old Foyt returned on September 7, 1964 and successfully defended his Horn Memorial title, scoring his record fourth victory. The Texan reached an all-time peak in auto racing by becoming the first driver in history to win $200,000 in purses in a season.

Foyt won the 100-mile big car event with a wire to wire blazing first place time of one hour, 1 minute and 21 seconds to lower his own race record of last year. He wheeled his Sheraton - Thompson Special around the mile Du Quoin dirt oval at a clip of 97.8 miles per hour.

Only Bobby Marshman of Pottstown, Pa., driving the Hopkins Special, gave Foyt any competition as the two drivers lapped the entire field. Marshman was never in a position to pass the front-running Foyt and finished five-eighths of a mile behind at the 100-mile mark.

Don Branson of Champaign, Ill., set a new qualifying record of 33.95 seconds to win the pole position. Branson's pole advantage lasted only a few seconds. He slowed momentarily coming out of the first turn and both Foyt and Marshman sped by him. The race continued to it’s conclusion with Foyt, Marshman and Branson running one-two-three on each lap.

It was time for someone needed to knock Foyt off his perch and on September 6, 1965, Don Branson, the 45-year-old grandfather, finally ended Foyt's four-time domination of the event.

Branson grabbed the lead from Foyt on the fourth lap and doggedly held his position for 30 more laps as Foyt stayed right behind him but could not pass. A.J. went to the pits for a change of his right rear tire on the 34th lap. He fell one full lap behind Branson and lost all hope of catching him as Foyt had to make another pit stop on the 60th lap to change the right rear tire again.


Don Branson of Champaign, Ill., broke A.J. Foyt's four-win stranglehold on the Ted Horn Memorial with an impressive victory in the 1965 race. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection


Branson negotiated the entire 100 laps without a pit stop. The 16,000 fans saw the slowest time in 12 years as Branson's time of 1 hour, seven minutes and 34 seconds or 88.792 miles per hour was the first time the race had gone under 90 miles per hour since 1953.

The field of 18 was almost 100 percent Offenhausers, which had dominated the Indianapolis 500 for years until Jim Clark of Scotland won the 1965 race in a rear-engine Lotus Ford. There was one Chevy and most notably, one rear-engine Chevy in the starting lineup.

The rear engine car was a complete flop, not that wasn't expected on a mile dirt track. Driver George Morris of Indianapolis had the slowest qualifying time of 43.00 seconds and got to start only because his was the 18th car ready to race after three other faster qualifiers were withdrawn. Morris did not last even one full lap as he pulled into the infield without crossing the finish line once.

Every big racing event can usually boast of one upset and the 1966 race would probably be categorized as that...

Bud Tingelstad of Indianapolis, Ind., won the 100-mile big car race at Du Quoin on Monday, September 5th as 19,000 fans watched local favorite Arnie Knepper of Belleville, Ill., bow out of the race late with engine trouble. Nobody had come close to challenging Knepper until engine failure sent him to the pits on the 88th lap. He would settle for 11th place.


Bud Tingelstad would score the upset victory at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds on September 5, 1966. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection

Tingelstad, no better than the 12th fastest qualifier in the 18-car race, captured his first major big car event and the $5, 000 first place money by means of steady rather than spectacular driving. He had his Federal Engine Special no better than seventh after 40 laps. He moved to fourth at 60 miles, third at 80 miles and second at 83 laps.

The elimination of Knepper put him up front and he breezed home easily when his chief contender and defending champ, Don Branson, blew a tire on the 91st lap.

Four-time Horn winner, A, J. Foyt, was a surprise added starter in the same Sheraton- Thompson Special with which he won at Du Quoin twice but he could finish no better than seventh. Bobby Unser of Albuquerque, the fastest qualifier in 34.10 seconds, held the lead for 23 laps until Knepper, charging up past Branson and Foyt in successive laps, slipped past Unser on the inside of the north turn to take the lead.

A.J. Foyt didn’t enjoy seeing someone else in victory lane and for the past two years at Du Quoin, that’s what he saw. The fiery Texan who thinks first is the only proper place for him to finish, toyed with the field on Monday afternoon, September 6, 1967 to win the 100-mile event by half a mile over runner-up Mario Andretti.

Andretti was one of several newcomers who had been threatening to take the spotlight away from A.J., until Foyt won his third Indy 500 on Memorial Day Weekend and then took his record fifth Ted Horn Memorial crown on Labor Day.

Fast qualifier Bobby Unser and Jim McElreath sat on the front row, but both had problems early. Unser went into a spin leaving the south turn on the second lap but got back on track to finish sixth. McElreath went out after 34 laps, never to return.

With the two fastest qualifiers off the pace, the first half of the race was a dog fight between race leader Roger McCluskey and Foyt. McCluskey went high in each turn with Foyt parking his Sheraton-Thompson Special inside to bring a thrill at every turn.

McCluskey withstood the pressure until the 44th lap when Foyt finally got past him. Andretti, after working his way from his 11th starting position, harassed McCluskey on the 48th lap and set out to challenge Foyt. The "Little Italian" from Nazareth, Pa., was no match for Foyt, however, as the latter gradually drew away to a half-mile advantage.

The Italian would get his revenge on September 1, 1968. Andretti withstood a final 15-mile challenge by his arch-nemesis to win before an estimated 18,400 fans. The leader of the race since the eighth lap, Andretti saw a 8 to 10 second lead almost completely disappear as Foyt nearly overtook him on the front stretch of the 86th lap.


The "Little Italian" Mario Andretti would win the 1968 Ted Horn Memorial outdueling A.J. Foyt. - Bob Scott Photo/Bob Mays Collection

The two ran neck and neck for the inside position for the next five laps until Andretti slowly widened his lead by three car lengths. Foyt’s final hopes for victory flickered as he hit one of the track's many large chuckholes coming out the first turn on lap 99. Andretti then slowly pulled away, winning $5,700 of the $24,100 purse. Early leader Bill Vuckovich would finish third behind Andretti and Foyt.

On Labor Day Weekend of 1969, Foyt would see victory lane once again…in the USAC stock car 100-miler on Sunday, August 31st. He would come up short in the champ car event on Sunday afternoon in what would be a wild finish with only a few laps left.

Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser had been running in a tight blanket for 20 laps when they hit the north turn with only four miles to go. There was no reason to suspect the cars would not finish in that order.

That is when Jerry “Scratch” Daniels, one of 30 also runs still circling the track in search of that extra $50 for a higher finish than the next guy, ran out of gas. Instead of getting out of the way of the front runners, Daniel’s decided to coast toward the pit area. He cut in front of the charging Foyt, who had to brake his car to avoid Daniels.

Al Unser shot to the inside of the track entering the straightaway in front of the grandstand and Andretti came right with him in the middle with Foyt on the outside. They came across the finish line like trotting horses coming down the stretch.

All three cars hit the south turn side by side and Unser, on the inside, took the lead with Andretti second and Foyt third. Only the excellent driving skills of three great drivers prevented a pileup as the cars were tail pipe to tail pips.

Foyt's right rear tire was already wearing badly and he could make no run for the lead over the final three laps. Andretti could not get past Unser and the 1968 Indianapolis 500 winner held on to edge this year's Indy champion, Andretti, by a car length.

Sports writer Merle Jones of the Southern Illinoisan mentioned in his column; “A. J. Foyt probably felt like leaning out of his car and taking a swing at fellow driver Jerry Daniels after the 100-mile big car race at Du Quoin Monday. Then after a cooling off period, Foyt may have felt more like taking a few slugs of sour-mash Jack Daniels.”

Bobby Unser took the initial lead in the $27, 900 event with Andretti second and Foyt third coming out of the first lap. That is the way they raced for 30 miles until Foyt took the lead. It was anybody's race as Foyt, Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser raced in a blanket for almost 70 laps.

Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser gunned his Johnny Lightning Special to a seven-second win over his brother Bobby at the Ted Horn Memorial on September 7, 1970.

Unser, the Albuquerque, N.M. hot shot, was never seriously challenged in the final 50 laps of the race after A. J. Foyt lost control of his car and sailed over a wall on the third turn. Foyt was brought back to the pits in an ambulance but got out and limped around as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Before the accident, Foyt and Unser dueled wheel-to-wheel. Unser, sitting in the pole position, led for 12 laps before Foyt passed him on the 13th lap. Larry Dickson of Marietta, Ohio was running third.

After 25 laps of the 100 lap event, the race was still close as only a quarter of a lap separated the first six cars - Foyt, Unser, Dickson, Johnny Rutherford, Gary Bettenhausen and Bobby Unser.

Foyt began lapping the field on the 28th lap with only 11 of the 18 starters left in the lineup. Unser regained the lead on the 36th lap and steadily began pulling away from Foyt until the Houston, Tex. driver hit the wall at the halfway point.

Unser's winning time of 1 hour, 1 minute and 7.66 seconds was a new race record. The old record of 1 hour, 1 minute, and 21 seconds was set by Foyt in 1964. The winner's share of the $33,000 purse was worth $8,300.

Al Unser was a two-time Ted Horn Memorial winner, having won both the 1969 and 1970 events. - Bob Scott/Bob Mays Collection


In 1971, the United States Auto Club made the decision to cut the dirt tracks from the National Championship series making it all pavement for the first time since 1927. A separate, new division appropriately named the Champ Dirt series was formed.

Even with the new format, one thing did not change; on the first Monday of September, the 100-mile race on the dirt at Du Quoin. Through the 70’s, more drivers added to the legend; George Snider, Tom Bigelow, Bubby Jones, Duane “Pancho” Carter, Gary Bettenhausen and Rich Vogler all have their name etched on the trophy.

In 1981, the Champ Dirt series was renamed to what we know as today; the Silver Crown Series.

While the names of the cars have changed, one thing has remained consistent. On Labor Day each year, the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds is where the champs are.

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