Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring has sprung; 200 laps at Hutchinson (1953-1959)

By Kyle Ealy
Hutchinson, Kan. – It was a race that went by many names but the time, place and distance remained the same for a six-year span.

Usually taking place towards the end of April or the beginning of May at the historic Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, the IMCA stock cars would fight tooth and nail for 200 laps with one relatively unknown Texan and some quite familiar Iowans gracing victory lane in the long-distance event.

It all started on May 3, 1953 as race promoters offered “spills, thrills and chills,” at the inaugural Wheat Belt Championships and made good on their sales pitch as more than 5,000 fans saw the opening stock car race of the season Sunday afternoon at the state fairgrounds.

Fans not only experienced the spills and thrills, but felt the chills. A cold north wind provided the “chills” even before the race program got well underway, and from then on it was a matter of braving the cold to see one of the most entertaining stock car race programs presented in Hutchinson in awhile.

The big “spill” came when Rex Evans of Wichita pushed his car a little too fast on the north turn, got an unexpected “tap” from another car and flipped end over end coming to a stop on it’s top with Evans pinned in against the outside fence. An unidentified man came to Evans' assistance and helped him out through the rear window. Except for some minor bruises, Evans was not hurt.

The “thrills” of the event came in the final laps of the 200-lap race. Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa grabbed the lead on lap 45 and was comfortably ahead for the balance of the race. He had only two and a half (5 laps) miles to go to claim victory.

Gene Brown of Fort Worth Texas, had made bids for the lead about a half dozen times in the previous 25 miles of racing and Derr knew full well that even though Brown was 200 yards behind, he was creeping up one last time in an attempt to mount one more challenge.

For most of the race, all of the drivers competing had issues negotiating the north curve, the same curve that had caused Rex Evans to tumble.

On lap 195, Derr’s ’53 Oldsmobile hit the north curve with his wheels skidding. A rut, or something similar, caught Derr’s rear wheel, pulling the tire clean off of the rim. With some measure of difficulty, Derr managed to get his car back under control and headed in the same direction as the other cars, but was now speeding at a snail’s pace.

Brown, also driving a brand-new ’53 Oldsmobile, saw the door open and sped past the ailing Derr to grab the top spot. Third-place driver Bill Harrison of Topeka, noticing that Derr had slowed, opened the throttle up on his ’52 Desoto in an attempt to claim second place money. But as Harrison entered the south turn, the left front tire on his car sheared completely off the axle. Like Derr, had he stopped, Harrison would have lost his third-place earnings, so he kept going…on three wheels.

As Brown took the checkered flag, Derr was nearly a half-mile behind. Derr finished the 200 laps, driving the last 5 circuits on three tires and a well-worn rim. Harrison was on the 193rd lap, the last two skidding on the brake bands, when the race was officially over.

Brown, the early point’s leader on the IMCA national circuit, collected $450 for the victory, while Derr cashed in $360. Harrison would hold on for third while Ken Jones of Fort Worth would take fourth and Art Combs of Emporia, Kan., would round out the top five. Derr would go on to claim his first IMCA stock car national championship that season.

There would be no spring race in 1954 for the IMCA stock cars. The official in charge of the Kansas State Fairrounds decided that their would be no auto racing that year except during the state fair in September. That official, according to Kansas auto racing historian Bob Lawrence, was replaced and the spring race would return on Sunday afternoon, May 1, 1955. Frank Winkley and his promotion, Auto Racing, Inc., would be in charge of the second annual event.

After waiting all winter, over 10,000 race fans, thirsty for stock car action would witness Ernie Derr and Bill Harrison swap the lead several times before Derr grabbed the top spot for good in winning the lion’s share of the record $22,000 purse.

Don White would grab the early lead and maintain the top spot until an unscheduled pit stop gave the lead to Derr. With Derr in the lead, “Wild” Bill Harrison settled into the runner-up spot and when Ernie pitted on lap 57, inherited the point. Only a couple of laps before, Harrison would tag the south wall hard but his 1955 Oldsmobile bounced off and kept on going.

Despite some damage on the exterior, Harrison would continue to lead the race until lap 141 when a tire went down, sending Harrison into a wire fence on the north side of the track. This time, the damage was severe enough to send him to the pit area. Derr, running second at the time, would inherit the point and never look back finishing the marathon in 1 hour, 52 minutes and 28 seconds.

Don White, who had a long pit stop early in the race, spent all afternoon playing catch-up and managed to grab runner-up honors. Amazingly, Bill Harrison was able to finish third despite two blow outs and some fence smashing because of an efficient pit crew. This outfit twisted lug bolts with an electric drill and managed to change a tire in well under one minute.

Robert “Doc” Narber of Cedar Rapids would take fourth place and Frank Black of Fort Worth, Texas would grab the fifth spot. Both were driving Chevrolets. It should be noted that a young man by the name of DeWayne “Tiny” Lund of Anita, Iowa would take home a 14th place finish out of 18 competitors.

The race remained the same but the name was changed as the Wheat Belt Championship became the Wheat Belt 100 for the 1956 event.

On April 29th, the hare and the tortoise fable was re-enacted when Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan, Iowa, driving a 1956 Chevrolet, won the 100-mile race before 5,000 well chilled fans.

Beauchamp and his Chevrolet filled the tortoise role only in the fact that he ran steady pace and kept it to the finish while faster drivers, applying the pressure from the start, eliminated themselves. Beauchamp's pace, however, was not that of a slow plodder.

For the first 50 miles of the race, Beauchamp waited patiently. He hung around in third place and waited for someone to break or make a mistake. His patience paid off…

On the 60th lap, race leader Bob Burdick of Omaha broke an axle on his 1956 Ford and threw a wheel and the second place car of Sonny Morgan of Beaumont, Tex., driving a ’56 Chevrolet, caught fire. Both Morgan and Burdick had been running well out in front of Beauchamp, but the steady Iowan then took over the lead and held strong to the finish, with only Shorty Ebert of Kansas City, driving a '56 Dodge close enough to give him much trouble. Beauchamp finished ahead of Ebert by 300 yards.

Third place in the race went to Lenny Funk of Galatia, Kan., in a 1950 Dodge. Funk had completed 196 laps (98 miles) when Beauchamp took the checkers. Bud Burdick of Omaha would take fourth place and Milton Luft of Great Bend, Kansas would round out the top five finishers.

A couple of crashes marred what was mostly a caution-free afternoon.

Fred South from Salina, Kan., came out of a roll-over on the south curve of the track with a sprained arm, sore chest, black eye and bruises. Fans marveled that he came out of it at all. South's 1955 Oldsmobile had been forced out of action early in the race when it lost a wheel and South was trying to make up for lost time when he hit a rut on the south turn with too much speed. The car turned sideways on the track, hit with a terrific bounce on its top and then rolled over four times before coming to a rest on its wheels. The gasoline tank flew about 25 feet into the air.

“When I turned broadside I knew I was going to roll,” South said. “All I could think about was grabbing the steering wheel and hanging on to it. I was getting tossed around so hard, I couldn't even hang onto the steering wheel and I don't know what might have happened if I hadn't been strapped in. Even then I got some pretty nasty bumps.”

Verdeen Rath of Pipestone, Minn., was also thankful for belt straps, a crash helmet and roll bar. Rath's 1956 Dodge car did a double flip on the north turn shortly after South's accident. Rath was able to walk away and suffered only minor bruises.

Yet another name change came to the event when the IMCA stockers rolled into town on April 28, 1957. The Wheat Belt 100 was now named the Sunflower Century.

What didn’t change was the winner of the event. Johnny Beauchamp, the defending IMCA national stock car champion, grabbed the lead at the halfway point and put it on cruise control after that. The Harlan, Iowa speedster would claim his third victory of the young season before 8,000 race fans on a beautiful spring afternoon.

Two track records were posted despite the fact the track had been soaked with too much water and was described as “wet, slow and rutted”. The track “cut out” at corners and by the time 25 laps had been run it was so bumpy it was bouncing wheels off the ground.

Jerry Draper, Moline, Ill., dropped the time trial half mile mark from 32.24 seconds to 31.74. Bob Burdick, Omaha, also broke the old record with a time of 31.76. Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was credited with a new track record for 50 laps, turning the 25 miles in 27 minutes and 40 seconds. But the plowed ruts on the turns wouldn't permit continuation of the pace, and the 100-mile time mark was a slow two hours, two minutes and 7.34 seconds.

It was Dake that set the pace for the first 61 laps of the race before his engine caught fire, sending him to the pit area. His crew got the car going again but on the 73rd lap, the front wheel on the 1956 Ford gave out. Again, Dake’s crew made quick repairs and he was back on the track. Finally, on lap 111, the engine conked, sending him to the infield for the remainder of the afternoon.

At the midway point, Don White would be in the lead by half a lap and the two-time national champion (’54 and ’55) looked to be headed to his first victory of the season but the gears on the rear end of his 1957 Ford would break, sending the hard-luck driver to the pit area.

A Kansas driver, Lenny Funk of Otis, also driving a 1957 Chevrolet, chased Beauchamp across the finish line for second place. Funk, a lap and a half behind Beauchamp with 10 laps to go, closed the margin by half a lap. It was then that Beauchamp, who had a margin of two or three laps on all other rivals, decided to begin racing. In the last five laps of the race, the two drivers were tire to tire at times but Funk couldn’t complete the pass for the lead.

“The Flying Frenchman” would stomp on the gas pedal and win by half a lap over the Kansas wheat farmer when the checkers waved. Following Beauchamp and Funk across the finish line was Bob Burdick of Omaha, Dick Jepson of Hoxie, Kan., and Tubby Harrison of Topeka.

The last and final name change to the 100-mile, 200-lap event was made for the 1958 race. On April 27, 1958, the Jayhawk 200 took place at the state fairgrounds before more than 5,000 race fans.

Beauchamp, with two victories at the spring race, showed exactly why he was the defending and two-time national stock car champion when he came from more than a lap behind to win his score his third consecutive victory.

Don White roared to the lead and heavy footed his 1958 Ford to a big lead on what was a well-groomed track for the beginning of the race. But the racing surface, which was famous for starting out great and deteriorating as the day went, would be White’s demon. As the racing continued, both turns became extremely rough with the south turn having “a bath tub sized hole”.

White’s Ford caught that hole and bounced up on all four wheels. White, the veteran driver held on to the wheel and kept the car on course but would promptly slow down.

Beauchamp, meanwhile, rode his 1957 machine in the manner of a cowboy on a bucking bronco. “I just let ‘er rip,” Beauchamp would say later in victory lane. With 160 laps in the books, he had gained three quarters of a lap. On lap 174, the “Harlan Flash” would pass White for the lead and was more than a quarter mile ahead of White when he flashed under the checkers.

White, Lenny Funk, Herb Shannon of Peoria, Ill., and Frank Richards of Cedar Rapids, Iowa would follow Beauchamp across the finish line in a race completed in 1 hour, 51 minutes and three seconds.

After the race, drivers complained about the primitive conditions of the surface and race promoter Frank Winkley was on the side of the drivers. According to Winkley, the straight-aways were in fair condition but the corners needed to be dug to the depth of three or four feet deep and replaced with clay. “This could be an outstanding track,” Winkley pointed out, “but it can’t be until those corners are properly repaired.”

After the 1958 season, Beauchamp would leave IMCA, much to the delight of all the drivers who I’m sure were probably tired of chasing him. When the 1959 Jayhawk 200 rolled around, both drivers and fans realized that a new winner of the spring race would be crowned.

The 200-lap main event shaped into a three-car battle for the early part of the race. Two Keokuk, Iowa speedsters, veteran Ernie Derr and 27-year-old pilot Dick Hutcherson raced with Wichita’s Frankie Lies.

Following a bumper-to-bumper duel that lasted the first half of the race, Hutcherson passed Derr on the 111th tour. On the 138th lap, Derr was forced to take a pit stop for gas and a window clean. Two laps later, Hutcherson took his last pit pause and came back into the race with a great deal of gratitude for his pit crew's efficient work.

Hutcherson would re-enter with a lap-and-a-half lead over the rest of the field, a comfortable margin that would hold up the rest of the race. Derr would end up finishing second and Lies, after spending most of the afternoon in the runner-up spot, would settle for the third spot. Sonny Morgan of Beaumont, Tex., would finish fourth followed by Bruce Nystrom of Oshkosh, Wis.

Hutcherson, driving a 1959 Pontiac, drove the 200 laps in one hour, 46 minutes shaving nine minutes off the old record. It was only his second race, the first being in Shreveport, La., a week earlier. He had won that race also.

The May 4th edition of The Hutchinson News would report that another driver from Keokuk, Iowa, named “Raymo” Stott, would finish 12th that afternoon.

After the 1959 race, the stock cars would not return to the Hutchinson half-mile anymore in the spring. The International Motor Contest Association stock cars would still continue to compete there until 1967, usually staging a two-day show in late September as the season began to wind down.

Call it what you want, the Wheat Belt Championship, the Wheat Belt 100, the Sunflower Century or finally, the Jayhawk 200. It would go down as one of the historic early-season races on the IMCA stock car circuit that would set the tone for the year as the circuit moved it’s way north as the Midwest weather warmed.
Editor's note: Special thanks to Bob Lawrence of Kansas Racing History for information pertaining to this story.

No comments:

Post a Comment