Wednesday, November 23, 2011

1970 - Derr Leads Iowa Sweep of Five Top IMCA Spots

Ernie Derr

Des Moines, Iowa (November 23, 1970) – For the first time in the 22-year history of the International Motor Contest Association’s stock car division, Iowans have swept the first five places in the point’s standings.

Statistics released Saturday show Ernie Derr of Keokuk winning his eleventh championship with 3,715 points, Ron Hutcherson of Keokuk is second with 2,956; Irv Janey, Cedar Rapids, third with 2,355; Fred Horn, Marion, fourth with 2,035, and Gordon Blankenship, Keokuk, fifth, with 1,219.

Iowa drivers also filled three of the next six positions with Mel Morris of West Liberty eighth (841), Bill Stark of Des Moines tenth (660) and Mike Derr of Keokuk eleventh (630).

It is the first year Iowans have dominated the organization since 1963 when seven of the top 10 were from the Hawkeye state. In the ensuing years, the state’s best showing was four out of the top 10.

However, Iowans have won the last 18 national championships and been runner-ups for the last 13 seasons.

Only two non-Iowans have ever won stock car championships - Herschel Buchanan of Shreveport, La., (1950-51) and Dominic Perlick of Minneapolis, Minn., in 1952. Eddie Anderson of Grinnell won the inaugural title in 1949.

Other champions were Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan, Iowa (1956-57), Don White of Keokuk, Iowa (1954-55-58) and Dick Hutcherson, also of Keokuk (1962-63). The remaining titles are Ernie Derr’s. He won 19 of the 35 features in 1970.

Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., cruised to his first IMCA sprint car title, winning seven of 31 features and compiling 2,900 points to runner-up Jerry Richert’s 2,275.

Richert, of Forest Lake, Minn., won the title in 1964, 1965, 1966 and ’68 and made a grand comeback after sitting out most of the ’69 season while recuperating from surgery.

Jay Woodside and Dick Sutcliffe of Kansas City, Mo., finished third and fourth, respectively, and Eddie Leavitt of Kearney, Mo., was fifth. Defending champion Darl Harrison of Tiffin, Ohio, finished sixth and Don Mack of East Grand Forks, Minn., who with Woodside tied for second, last year, was eleventh.

No Iowa drivers were among the top 24 in point standings. However, Woodside drove a car owned by Hank Smith of Mount Ayr, Iowa and seventh-place driver Jan Opperman of Beaver Crossing, Neb., chauffeured a car owned by Larry Cahill of Iowa City while Dave Van Patten of Des Moines is owner of the racer in which Ron Perkins of Wood River, Ill., drove.

Final Point Standings

IMCA Stock Car -

1. Ernie Derr, Keokuk, Iowa – 3,175
2. Ron Hutcherson, Keokuk, Iowa – 2,956
3. Irv Janey, Cedar Rapids, Iowa – 2,355
4. Fred Horn, Marion, Iowa – 2,035
5. Gordon Blankenship, Keokuk, Iowa – 1,219
6. Butch Hall, Russell, Minn. – 958
7. Vernie Covert, Topeka, Kan. – 920
8. Mel Morris, West Liberty, Iowa – 841
9. Jerre Wichman, Kansas City, Mo. – 822
10. Bill Stark, Des Moines, Iowa – 660
11. Mike Derr, Keokuk, Iowa – 630
12. Freddy Fryar, Baton Rouge, La. – 595
13. Bill Schwader, McCausland, Iowa – 555
14. Royce Whitlock, West Monroe, La. – 513
15. Thurman Lovejoy, Kansas City, Mo. – 510
16. Bud Helm, Brainerd, Minn. – 485
17. Sandy Sandstrom, Kansas City, Mo. – 400
18. Leon Bowman, Wichita, Kan. – 375
19. Warren Hughes, Baton Rouge, La. – 355
20. Mert Williams, Rochester, Minn. –345

IMCA Sprint Car -

1. Jerry Blundy, Galesburg, Ill. – 2,900
2. Jerry Richert, Forest Lake, Minn. – 2,275
3. Jay Woodside, Kansas City, Mo. – 1,795
4. Dick Sutcliffe, Kansas City, Mo. – 1,745
5. Eddie Leavitt, Kearney, Mo. – 1,665
6. Darl Harrison, Tiffin, Ohio – 1,580
7. Jan Opperman, Beaver Crossing, Neb. – 1,390
8. Benny Rapp, Toledo, Ohio – 1,330
9. Chuck Lynch, Springfield, Ill. – 1,080
10. Ron Perkins, Wood River, Ill. – 1,020
11. Don Mack, East Grand Forks, Minn. – 935
12. J.D. Leas, Winterville, Ohio – 870
13. Bill Utz, Sedalia, Mo. – 845
14. Tom York, South Bend, Ind. – 830
15. Russ Laursen, Cumberland, Wis. – 775
16. Jim Murphy, South Haven, Mich. – 765
17. Bobby Adamson, Wrightsville, Pa., - 750
18. Joe Saldana, Lincoln, Neb. – 700
19. Tom Corbin, Carrollton, Mo., - 675
20. Ralph Parkinson, Blue Springs, Mo. - 655

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Remembering Red Droste

Photo courtesy of Ron Beck

By Kyle Ealy

Waterloo, Iowa – In the 1980’s pro wrestler Rick Flair used a famous catchphrase; “To be the Man, you gotta beat the Man!”

It could have very well been the catchphrase that LaVern “Red” Droste used throughout the 1960’s. Starting in the early 50’s and ending somewhere around the mid 1970’s, Droste was by far the most dominant stock car driver in Eastern Iowa and probably the Midwest.

You either loved him or hated him, but you always respected his driving ability and innovation that consistently put him in the winner’s circle.

Simply put; Red Droste was the man in Eastern Iowa racing circles and he dared anyone to beat him. Hundreds of drivers tried and hundreds of drivers failed.

It has been said many times that when Droste pulled into the pit area at a Eastern Iowa track on any given night, the rest of the field knew they were running for second place. He was that great of a driver.

Hawkeye Racing News’ Keith Knaack was once quoted as saying, “I really do believe Droste wins 50 percent of his races by mental power over other drivers when he drives through those pit gates. He’s that good…”

Red Droste was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. Like a lot of kids, Droste attended school but after his parents split up, he was forced to quit school after the eighth grade to help the household. To earn money, he ran the dairy farm of a neighbor and was the man of the house from the time he was age 14.

Married at age 17, Droste and his wife, Eleanor “June” lived in Tripoli, Iowa but drove every day to Waterloo for their jobs.

In 1947, Droste started Red’s Auto Service in Waterloo, eventually moving to town. Barely subsiding on their incomes, the couple lived in a small trailer with no running water while working on cars, something for which Red showed a natural ability.

The shop grew and he added more stalls to accommodate his business. Race car drivers from near and far began coming to Droste to have him work on their engines. “It was the city’s first real speed shop,” recalled Rich, the oldest of the Droste children.

Droste began building engines for race cars and then moved on to building whole cars. It’s because of working on race cars that Droste himself decided to take up racing, competing in cars he built himself.

He would have immediate success…

Droste started his legendary career around 1951 or 1952, racing at his hometown track of Tunis Speedway. Even starting out at a young age, Droste established himself fairly quickly and because of his aggressive nature on the track, immediately became the villainous driver that he would portray for the next 20 plus years.

This advertisement found in the May 27, 1953 edition of the Waterloo Courier, promoted the grudge match between the "villain" Red Droste and the "hero" Arnold Spore.

In 1953, promoter Judd Tunis quickly capitalized on his new star driver’s appeal by staging a special grudge match between Droste and one of the more popular fan favorites at Tunis, Arnold Spore. It was a true novelty act, with both men driving ancient, but drivable cars. Spore won when Droste’s car left the track with a broken wheel. His car rolled coming out of the second turn and landed on its top. Droste scrambled out, made a quick trip to the ambulance for first aid, then jumped in his regular car and went on to win the feature that night.

A star was born…

Back then, if you wanted to be up front and make money at the end of the night, sometimes you had to be a little “assertive” on the track. That, as it would turn out, would never be a problem for Droste for unseen years to come.

Later that same season, Red’s overaggressive style sent another fan favorite, this time Chub Liebe of Oelwein, Iowa tumbling off the track at Tunis. It so incensed area race fans, letters to area newspapers were being written right and left, complaining about the “dirty tactics” that were being employed by the young hot shoe.

One upset race fan wrote a letter to the Oelwein Daily Register; “Red Droste will never qualify for public relations chairman at the Tunis Speedway. The stock car racer has a few dirty tricks that even in fighting would be called “below the belt.” It was his shenanigan that threw Chub Liebe of Oelwein off the track on Labor Day night. We saw the whole thing develop and there was no question. Probably he resents the impertinence of anyone outside Waterloo using his track.”

Years later, Droste himself admitted he didn’t fool around on the race track. “Things were different in those days,” he said. “And we ran a little bit rough.”

Droste would prove to be as tough as he was rough. September 19, 1954 was the season championships at Tunis Speedway. The program was highlighted by a special 100-lap feature. It would be one of those rare hot, steamy days for September. Those hot temperatures took their toll on man and machine that day and with 20 laps left, it came down to Droste and Gene Petersen of Cedar Falls, Iowa. They battled back and forth for the remaining circuits but on the final lap it was Droste who came in for the checkered flag. He pointed his car for the infield, pulled up to victory lane, got out of his car and then blacked out for about 10 minutes, the time it took to revive him.

Once on his feet, Red was sipping a cold one and smoking a cigarette as he accepted the championship trophy.

Red Droste started his racing career in in early 1950's piloting this car, competing in the Hawkeye Racing Association at Tunis Speedway.

Even when he didn’t have a properly working race car, Droste would find a way to muster up a victory. In a 1957 race at Tunis, Red had issues with shifting during his heat race. Upon further inspection, he discovered that the transmission had thrown second gear. Not a problem…Droste, racing in low gear for the entire feature, came from dead last, sped past point leader Bob Hilmer of Dysart, Iowa and Bill Zwanzinger of Waterloo to win that evening.

It wasn’t just stock cars that Ol’ Redhead excelled in either. Red proved that if it had four tires and a steering wheel, he could win in just about anything. In 1958, Droste got behind the wheel of a midget and soundly beat the 1957 California State Midget Champion, Barney Flynn of Carlsbad, Calif., at Tunis Speedway. Droste, driving a midget he built himself, also took the time trials, the trophy dash and the first heat.

With more winning, came more hatred from the fans. But instead of being bitter, Droste took a lot of humor in the fact he was so despised. At one point, in the mid 1960’s, Red printed up a 1,000 t-shirts that said, I Hate Red Droste” on the back, and made sure they found their way into the people’s hands.

One night after a race at Hawkeye Downs, he made an infrequent trip to the beer pavilion. There, seated at a table next to his, was a group of people wearing their “I hate Red Droste” t-shirts.

One woman, in particular was talking in a very loud voice and using foul language in discussing “that damn Red Droste”. Droste sat and quietly listened for a while and then ordered a round of beers for the table. He then went over and asked the woman, “Lady, this Droste guy you keep talking about – who is he?”

After about two words, the woman recognized who she was face to face with. Droste simply pulled up a chair, bought a round of beers, talked it all out and the group, Droste said, walked out as his newest fans.

“It’s easy to hate somebody when you don’t know them,” he summed up later. Apparently Red Droste was also a prophet.

Despite his rough and tumble reputation, Droste did have his stable of fans. In 1967, Droste, in a dispute with then promoter Homer Melton at Hawkeye Downs, decided to boycott the track that season. There were hundreds and hundreds of pleas from race fans, including numerous letters to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, pleading for him to return.

Even Gazette sportswriter Gus Schrader mentioned in one of his columns how missed Droste was; “Someone mentioned the words Red Droste. This was as popular as serving gefulte fish at an Arab unity dinner. Droste has been kindling a few fires under Homer and the fair board — all from the relative security of Waterloo, of course. Red isn’t racing in Homer's Saturday night events at Hawkeye Downs this year. He’s dissatisfied with the financial terms. Everybody misses him — the 50 percent who come to cheer his exciting brand of driving and the 50 percent who come to see him crowded off a curve, or at least be defeated by the Good Guys in the White Hats.”

The mere mention of the name Red Droste could spark a lively debate over whether he was unfairly deemed a villain. But no matter which side of the fence one came down regarding Droste, one thing that couldn’t be argued, and that was Droste’s impressive statistics.

During a span of 11 years, from 1960 to 1970, while racing at Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Independence, Red Droste won 29 out of a possible 33 track championships. In 1970, racing at Darlington, Wis., he won every single feature race that season.

In addition to those three tracks, Droste would also “step out” once in awhile and terrorize the competition at Davenport, Farley, Independence, Mason City, Monticello, and Tipton. If there were features to be won and money to collect, you could count on the ‘Ol Redhead to show up.

Phil Roberts, a long-time motorsports journalist and track announcer here in Eastern Iowa, remembered Droste well; “I began watching races from the bleachers at Davenport Speedway when I was in my early to mid teens. Then, in 1965 at age 16, I began helping out on the pit crew of a Novice Division car at the track. During those years, Red Droste competed now and then in Davenport Speedway’s late model division, and I saw him turn many laps. He was one of the finest drivers I've ever seen and, though I didn't know him, he also appeared to be a nice guy. Red wasn't a regular competitor at Davenport, but you knew when he showed up there was going to be a heck of a feature race. Red Droste is one of those special people who has made racing from that era so memorable.”

As fine as a driver Droste was, he was also an innovator in stock car racing. Red built the cars he raced and even built cars for his fellow competitors. “One year at Tunis, there were only seven cars NOT using my engines,” Droste was quoted as saying.

Red wasn’t too proud to scrounge ideas from other people either, especially if it meant more victories under his belt and more money in his pocket. An idea he borrowed from Texas sports car driver, Jimmy Hall, was incorporated in Droste’s 1957 Chevrolet right before the 1966 season.

“We’re going to use an automatic transmission in this car,” he was quoted in the April 3, 1966 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “It will do several things for me; eliminate much of the weight of a standard gearbox, free myself from having to shift during a race, and make it easier to stop in case of an accident.”

According to Droste, it marked the first time that an automatic transmission was used in a late model or modified stock car in the area.

Droste also took a page out of a local racer’s handbook by mounting the steering wheel towards the center of the car. “It’s very similar to the little Chevrolet coupe that Charlie Moffitt of Stanwood drove several years ago,” Droste said. Droste has also lowered the entire chassis, “so it would handle better.”

When asked why he had made all of the revolutionary changes on his already fast Chevy, his answer was straight to the point, “I had a bad season last year. I only finished second.”

For Droste, though, experimenting with new and innovative creations was often short-lived. “I tried a lot of things over the years but usually they were banned for the next,” he said with a laugh.

Darrell Dake, one of Droste’s chief rivals in the 60’s, was once quoted saying, “Droste would try almost any gimmick he thought might give him a small edge in the competition. Red always told everyone that he had his steering column moved towards the middle so his car would balance better. I told Red I thought the real reason he moved his wheel over was for safety features. He always got his cars so light that he wanted to get as far away as possible from that plastic left door on it.”

As much as Droste understood that horsepower was an important thing in racing, it wasn’t what he spent most of his time with. His attention to driving details was the reason for most of his success. “My whole deal was always trying to figure out how to get around the track quicker than the next guy,” he once said. “How to get through corners quicker and how to “finesse” the car to turn laps a little quicker was what I thought about most.”

Towards the end of his career, Droste drove a car owned by Don Herbst. He's shown here at Independence Motor Speedway in 1967 - Photo courtesy of Ron Beck

The career of Red Droste started in the 1950’s, peaked in the 1960’s and lasted until the mid-70’s, competing on a number of different tracks in the Midwest. As his career started to wind down, Droste would always state that he raced more for the money than titles. “Winning a championship used to mean a lot to me, but I really don’t have a lot to prove any more,” he was quoted as saying in a 1973 Cedar Rapid Gazette column.

After Droste’s remarks, Al Miller, the racing editor for the Gazette summed it up best about Red, saying, “That’s hard for most of us to believe, especially because of the reason given. Naturally, Red races to make money, but anyone who knows Red Droste well knows he has a tremendous desire to excel, even after 20 plus years of racing. And, we suspect, until the day he’s through with racing, he will attempt to maintain his No. 1 status.”

You’ll always be #1 with us Red. Thanks for the memories…

Red Droste at Farley, Iowa in 1974. - Kyle Ealy Collection

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Little 500 - The IMCA Years

By Kyle Ealy

Anderson, Ind. – It was the IMCA sprint car division’s long endurance race from 1962 to 1971. Five hundred laps around a tight ¼-mile high-banked asphalt track. The International Motor Contest Association competing right in the heart of USAC sprint car country, Indiana.

In 1948, promoter Joe Helpling built Sun Valley Speedway and it became an instant success. Roadsters and midgets seemed to be the popular drawing cards, so Helpling decided that a race like no other was in order.

His idea was to have 33 roadsters line up and race around his tiny track 500 times. Naysayers told Helpling that he was foolish to race that many cars for that many laps. “It’ll cost $800 in tires and no one will be around to finish the race”, they told him.

But Helpling stuck to his guns and on May 27, 1949, the first annual Little 500 became reality. In the inaugural event, to the surprise of those who said it would never work, 18 of the 33 cars that started finished, including five that didn’t even make a pit stop.

The first 13 years of the event were sanctioned by several groups including the Mutual Racing Association (MRA), the All-American Racing Club (AARC) and the Midwest Auto Racing Club (MARC).

In 1962, Helpling and race director Bob Hopkins enlisted the help of Al Sweeney and his National Speedways, Inc. group to supervise what had already become one of the biggest (and longest) sprint car races in the United States.

Historically, the International Motor Contest Association promoted races on half-mile and one-mile dirt tracks at fairgrounds across America. This race would mark precedence for the country’s oldest sanctioning body as this would be the first time ever they would fly their banner over a quarter-mile asphalt track. Al Sweeney mentioned that after viewing the layout of the track and studying the past history of the event, “The Little 500 will add to the prestige of IMCA as well as the organization to sanction this premier event.”

One of the largest purses ever offered for a short-track race was up for grabs when the 14th annual Little 500 took place on Tuesday evening, May 29, 1962. Up for grabs was a payoff in excess of $12,000. Included in the record payoff was $2,500 in lap money being subscribed by the Anderson Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Heading the list of entries for the ’62 event included Parnelli Jones, two-time winner Ronnie Duman, A.J. Shepherd, Jim McWhitney, Red Amick, Bud Tinglestad, Jack Rounds, Bob Cleburg and defending race winner Jim McElreath.

Popular Arnie Knepper of Belleville, Ill., won the 1962 Little 500. IMCA's Gene Van Winkle presents the checkers. 

Al Sweeney couldn’t have asked for a better debut as a capacity crowd of more than 12,000 fans elbowed and pushed their way into the facility to see Arnie Knepper of Belleville, Ill., pass Clare Lawicki of St. Clair Shores, Mich., on the 481st lap to grab a half-lap decision over the Michigan challenger. Knepper, driving the Pete Mocca Offy, became the second Offy to win in the history of the speed classic.

Lawicki took over the lead from Warren, Michigan's Johnny White on the 438th lap, before surrendering it to Knepper later. White, the 1955 Little 500 winner, would lead the most laps on the night, grabbing his first lead on lap 21 and holding strong until the 210th go-round and then regaining the point on lap 246 and staying there until Lawicki took over. He would eventually finish third behind Knepper and Lawicki. Front row starter Nolan Johncock (1-8) and three-time IMCA kingpin Pete Folse (211-221) were the other two leaders in a race that saw a total of six lead changes among five drivers. The race was completed in 2 hours, 14 minutes and 17 seconds.

1962 IMCA national champion Johnny White of Warren, Mich., with some help from Bob Coulter, would win the 1963 Little 500.

Johnny White would claim the Little 500 crown on May 25, 1963 but not without the help of a relief driver. White had suffered a back injury in a racing accident at Winchester, Ind., only two weeks before and despite a fascinating duel with Pete Folse of Tampa, Fla., for most of the race, White’s back had endured enough and Bob Coulter was requested to take over on lap 263.

Coulter jumped in and renewed the duel with Folse until Coulter pulled in for what seemed like an unscheduled pit stop on the 419th lap. The somewhat shocked crowd of over 13,000 watched as Coulter got out of the car White climbed back in. The White/Coulter duo lost almost three laps during the pit stop and with only 81 laps remaining to be run around the quarter-mile oval it appeared as though Folse had the win in his back pocket.

However, in what turned out to be the most fabulous “charging” ever shown by a driver in a Sun Valley event, White passed Folse no less than four times in those final 81 laps to win with more than a one-lap margin. White would pick up $2,570 of an $11,000 total purse.

A dumbfounded Folse would settle for second while Arnie Knepper and Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., would finish on the lead lap as well making it the closest finish in Little 500 history. Al Smith of Dayton, Ohio would round out the top five finishers.

A dominating performance would net Dick Good of Mishawaka, Ind., the 1964 Little 500 at Sun Valley. - Wayne Bryant Photo

Dick Good of Mishawaka, Ind., would dominate the 16th running of the Little 500 on May 23, 1964. Good, who start on the outside of the second row, would pass race leader Al Smith on lap 241 and the lead the rest of the way, winning by a comfortable 6-lap margin when the checkers waved. His winning time was 2 hours, 13 minutes, 42.88 seconds.

Jerry Richert of Forest Lake, Minn., Sandy McWhorter of Fort Worth, Tex., Al Smith and Tommy York of South Bend, Ind., would follow the winner in what the local paper (The Anderson Herald) deemed, “an uneventful race”.

The 1965 event, held on Saturday evening May 30th, would turn out to be similar to the 1963 race that was won by Johnny White and his relief driver, Bob Coulter.

Chuck Taylor (shown standing in car) teamed with Bob King (in dark jacket) to win the 17th annual Little 500. - Jack Burgess Photo

Former champion Bob King of Muncie, Ind., and rookie driver Chuck Taylor of Edwardsville, Ill., would combine their talents to drive the No. 35 Nagel-Taylor Chevy sprint machine from East Alton, Ill., to first-place honors in the 17th annual event before a record-breaking more than 14,100 fans.

Although Taylor qualified the car, it was King at the wheel when the green flag dropped and the 1953 winner of the 500-lap endurance drove the first 300 laps before Taylor took over as the relief pilot. 

Starting 20th in the field, King worked his way brilliantly through traffic to take the lead away from Rollie Beale of Toledo, Ohio, on the 181st lap. From that point, the race saw no other leader as King gradually increased his margin over the field and ate up $5 per lap in prize money.

When King pitted on the 301st turn of the oval and Taylor stepped into the cockpit as relief driver, the Illinois-owned machine had a five-lap advantage over the field, which Taylor increased to seven as the checkered flag flew.

Leading a total of 320 of the 500 laps, the Nagel-Taylor machine pulled down a payoff of a record-breaking purse of $12,510. The pre-race favorite Beale (493 laps) would settle for second while another fellow Toledoan, Benny Rapp (489 laps), took third, Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., finished in fourth and Jerry Weld of Kansas City, Mo., grabbed fifth. The time of the race was 2 hours, 29 minutes and 22 seconds.

The man picked to win in 1965 was just a year late getting into the winner's circle as Beale drove the Don-Ken Special, a Chevy-powered machine owned by Kenny Lay, to victory on May 28, 1966 before 14, 500 spectators; the largest crowd in the history of the event.

1966 winner Rollie Beale is presented his trophy by '58 champion Wayne Alspaugh. 

Qualifying for the event saw Dean Mast of Dover, Ohio, driving the Chevy-powered #64 Howell Special, out of West Lafayette, Ohio, go on a record-breaking binge, churning out a total four-lap time of 53.13 seconds to erase from the record books the old mark of 53.58 seconds set by Johnny White in 1963. Along the way, Mast toured one lap in 13.09 seconds to shatter the previously quarter-mile best time of 13.29 established by Jim McCune of Toledo, Ohio, in 1963.

In the big show, Beale survived numerous challenges throughout the race before gaining control on lap 338 and winning the 2,000 left-hand turn endurance by a 7-lap margin over Bill White of Temple, Tex., in 2 hours, 13 minutes and 18 seconds.

Beale, who drove without brakes from lap 50 to the end, masterfully worked his way thru traffic and finally sailed past leader Jerry Richert on the 232nd lap when the Forest Lake, Minn., chauffeur made a pit stop.

Richert still was very much in the race, however, and he set a mad pace after his pit stop until he got around Beale and reclaimed the lead when the Toledo, Ohio driver pitted after 251 circuits. Then, with both cars equipped to go the remainder of the race, Beale consistently churned laps faster than those he posted on qualifying day as he roared after Richert. Brake trouble forced Richert the pits after 337 laps and Beale grabbed the lead, one that he would never again relinquish.

Two-time winner Johnny White, although not possessing the speed of Beale and Richert, worked his way steadily thru the field and would finish one lap ahead of Richert for runner-up money. Another steady performer, Ray Elliott of Lockport, Ill., driving the Bob Lockard Chevy Special nosed out Tommy York of Mishawaka, Ind., for fourth place money as 19 cars were still running as the checkers dropped.

Records fell like raindrops on Nay 27, 1967 as Darl Harrison of Tiffin, Ohio, and Cy Fairchild, Muskegon, Mich., combined their talents to drive the No. 91 Weyant-Schemmer Chevy Special out of Burgoon, Ohio, to victory in the 19th annual Little 500 before more than 12,500 fans.

Cy Fairchild and Darl Harrison combined talents to win the '67 Little 500. 

The ’67 event was the fastest Little 500 to date with the winning duo of Harrison and Fairchild crossing the finish line in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 29.63 seconds eclipsing the old mark of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 7 seconds set by Wayne Alspaugh in 1958. Ironically, it was Alspaugh who drove the pace car for the event. Another record to fall to the wayside was of the monetary sort. The winning car took home $4,125 of the $13,430 total payout, to wipe out the $3,850 check that Bob King earned in 1965.

Harrison would lead the majority of the race, taking the top spot on lap 22 and holding steady until he pitted on the 384th circuit. Before Fairchild, who dropped out after only 34 laps driving the Dallas Varney Ford Special, could get into the car as the relief driver and back out on the track, Jerry Richert had taken over the top spot.

A two-car duel then developed with Fairchild finally overhauling Richert on the 431st lap to regain the lead. And when Richert pitted on the 482nd tour for fuel, Fairchild was home safe with a three-lap margin at the end. Richert, the defending IMCA national champ would settle for runner-up honors. One of the all-time top driving jobs in the race was turned in by a young man named Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg, Iowa who, taking his first ride ever in a sprint car, wheeled the #42 Merle Heath Chevy Special from Silvis, Ill., to third money without any relief driver. Dale Breedlove of Waco, Tex., would finish fourth followed by Benny Rapp of Toledo, Ohio.

Karl Busson of Toledo, Ohio, relaxes before the 1968 Little 500. Busson would win the rain-delayed race on Sunday afternoon, May 26th.

Karl Busson of Toledo, Ohio, the 1967 IMCA national champion, won the two-day, rain-interrupted, tragedy-marred Little 500 on Sunday, May 26, 1968.

A downpour of rain halted the race after completion of 239 laps on Saturday night, just 31 laps after a four-car pileup brought about the second death of a driver in the 20-year history of the 125-mile race. Harry Kern, 42-year-old chauffeur from St. Paul, Minn., died at St. John's Hospital less than one hour after suffered head and chest injuries in the four-car melee.

The accident started when Steve Lehnert of North Olmstead, Ohio got sideways coming out of turn two on lap 208. Kern, driving the Roger Hegg Ford, slid into Lehnert and was, in turn, broadsided by 1967 co-champion Cy Fairchild. Fairchild’s ride careened into the infield and about that time, Chuck Lynch of Springfield, Ill, crashed into Kern’s mount, rode up over the cockpit of the Minnesota sprinter and flipped one and half times. Lynch machine came down its side, rolled up onto its wheels and burst into flames. The fire was quickly extinguished and Lynch escaped without any burns. Both Kern and Lynch were rushed to St. John's Hospital where Kern died of his injuries and Lynch was treated from cuts and bruises of the left arm and shoulder and then released.

Busson was one of four drivers involved in a heated struggle for first place on Saturday night. Little 500 “rookie” Don Nordhorn of Wadesville, Ind., Ray Wright of Elkhart, Ind., and Jerry Richert all played musical chairs with the lead in the early going. Nordhorn grabbed the lead on the 13th turn of the oval and began increasing his margin as Busson was steadily working his way towards the front from his starting spot inside in the second row.

Busson moved into second on the 44th lap and then, finally, caught and passed Nordhorn on the 85th lap to take his first lead of the race. Busson stayed in front until he made a pit stop on the 228th lap, at which point Nordhorn once more grabbed the lead. On the 238th lap, Nordhorn’s engine gave way and Richert was back in front. One lap later, the sky opened up and the race was halted, to be completed on Sunday evening.

It was Richert, Wright, Busson, Nordhorn and Wes Stafford of Vincennes, Ind., in that order, when the race restarted on Sunday. Nordhorn’s crew had installed new motor overnight which permitted the promising young driver to be back in the lineup when the race resumed.

Busson got around Wright on the 256th lap to take over the second spot and when Richert made his pit stop after completing 300 laps, the Toledo veteran shot into the lead and would never relinquish thereafter. Richert, always the bridesmaid in this event, would finish second, three laps behind the leader. Wright would take third followed by defending champion Darl Harrison and Jim Moughan.

Buzz Gregory of Speedway, Ind., would “rock” his way to victory in the 21st running of the Little 500 on May 25, 1969. Gregory, out of brakes and out of fuel, almost blew a three-lap lead in the final 10 circuits, yet managed to hang on to beat Ray Wright and Bobby Black by mere inches to win. Gregory’s winning time for the 125-mile run, before 15,000 race fans, was 2 hours, 18 minutes and 12.47 seconds.

Practically pushing the car around the high-banked quarter-mile over the final two laps by the rocking motion of his body in the cockpit, since the fuel tank was bone-dry, Gregory got the Dave Robinson Chevy across the finish line less than a car length ahead of Wright and Black.

Finishing fourth, less than two laps behind was Benny Rapp of Toledo, Ohio, who undoubtedly was robbed of a potential victory when his car stalled in the pits. Rapp lost seven laps, all of which were made up later, when his car stalled in the pits and a push truck couldn’t be found to give him a shove.

Like the 1968 race, the lead changed hands numerous times during the 500 lapper, with seven lead changes among five different drivers. Pole sitter Tommy York of South Bend, Ind., grabbed the initial lead until Darl Harrison grabbed the top spot on lap nine and despite constant pressure from York, held it until the 78th go-round. After a side by side duel, York over took Harrison again on lap 79 and kept that spot until Harrison regained the point on lap 98 and started to strengthen his lead. The Ohio chauffeur continued to run strong until the 150th lap when the eventual ’68 national champion’s motor blew on lap 196 and he was forced to the sidelines.

When the engine blew on Harrison’s sprinter, Dick Gaines of Mitchell, Ind., sent the Diz Wilson sprinter into first place and he led the field until he pitted on lap 306. Gregory took the lead with Bobby Black nipping at his heels. Black sped past Gregory on lap 330 and led for the next 60 laps until Gregory was able to scoot by on the 390th tour.

Gradually losing his brakes and running short on fuel, Gregory slowed almost down to a crawl for the last 25 laps and was merely coasting at times through the corners during the last 10 laps as Wright and Black made a furious rally towards the end. 

Darl Harrison of Tiffin, Ohio, celebrates after winning his second career Little 500. 

If anyone ever decided to hold a sprint car race on a frozen lake, put down Darl Harrison to win the thing. Harrison got in some good practice Saturday night, May 24, 1970 and made the rest of the field look bad doing it.

While an oil-slickened track was putting cars out left and right, and over and around, Harrison calmly guided his maroon and white Dennis Maloy entry through the oil, sand and wreckage to his second career victory in the 22nd annual Little 500.

Sun Valley Speedway, sold out for the first time, more resembled a frozen pond than a race track as a dozen or so cars bounced off various portions of the guard rail. The drivers had their hands full just trying to stay on the track and not all of them did. All three members off the front row in the starting field - the three fastest qualifiers - were involved in spins or collisions.

Pole sitter Bobby Black hit the wall in the fourth turn on lap 177. Jerry Blundy, who started second and finished in the same place, tangled with Art Braithwaite between turns one and two on the 401st lap. Dan Bowler of Bloomington, Ind., the other front row starter, tangled with the wall on lap 155 and was finished for the night.

Harrison didn't lead the entire race by a long shot, but he did lead the most important lap - the last one.

Bowlen charged from his outside spot on the front row to lake the lead coming out of the second turn. Black trailed by car length but only until the second lap when he charged past Bowlen at the end or the back stretch. Black had an unscheduled early pit stop and veteran Benny Rapp of Toledo, Ohio, took over. Rapp led through lap 120 and gave up the lead to Dick Gaines. Gaines hit the wall on the 12th lap and Rapp obligingly took the lead again. Rapp led for six laps before South Bend's Tom York, who spent most or the 1969 season on crutches, look over. Rapp had trouble with the left rear wheel and had to stop three times to have the tire change before some spindle trouble was corrected.

Don Hewitt wrestled the lead from York on lap 184 but York came right back to take over on 195. York led Harrison on a merry chase until he went out of the race on the 391st lap. From there on it was all Harrison. The Tiffin, Ohio flash drove like he was on eggs but kept a huge lead, which he built to 11 laps with 50 laps to go.

“I really wasn't sure I could go all the way without relief,” said Harrison after the race. “But I felt so good when we made our pit stop, I just kept going.” Harrison had his head strapped in a pillow-like pad to keep his neck from tiring after taking 2,000 left hand turns.

Harrison's time of 2 hours, 20 minutes and 51 seconds for the 500 laps was well off the record held by Cy Fairchild set in 1967. But Harrison was right where he wanted to be – way out front.

Only seven cars were running at the finish. Besides Harrison there were Chuck Lynch of Springfield, Ill., who finished second, Benny Rapp who finished fifth, Jerry Powell of Indianapolis, who finished seventh, Jimmy Murphy of South Haven, Mich., who finished ninth, Bob Sitz of Arcola, Ill., who finished 10th and Oscar Fay of Mishawaka, Ind., who finished 11th.

Harrison took home $3,125 of the $13,770 purse for his night's work. He won the $2,000 first prize and $1,125 in lap prizes.

Sun Valley owner Joe Helping reported the crowd at more than 15,000, the largest ever to attend the race. Standing room only tickets were still being sold at 10 p.m., nearly an hour after the race started.
Atlanta, Georgia's Herman Wise accepts his trophy for winning the 1971 Little 500. - Kyle Ealy Collection

Herman Wise of Atlanta, Ga., was a long-time veteran of sprint car wars and a driver who excelled on paved surfaces. That experience paid off on May 23, 1971 as Wise drove his sprinter on a rail to win the death-marred Little 500. Wise’s nearest competition was 22-year-old Bill Cassella of Weirton, W.Va., and Chuck Amati of Freeman Spur, Ill., who led the first 151 laps of the event.

The race took the life of 29-year-old Billy Tennill of Shelbyville, Ky., who was fatally injured when his car locked together with Danny Milburn. Milburn was driving relief for Chet Johnson at the time with the leader on the 405th lap. Milburn’s car suddenly veered right as he approached turn two. His car struck Tennill’s and the two locked together, slamming the guardrail nearing the turn three pit gate. Tennill’s car was crushed on both side and landed on top of Milburn’s car. Milburn walked away but Tennill was pinned for nearly 30 minutes before rescue workers could free him of the wreckage. He was declared dead on arrival at the local hospital.

The race was halted for nearly 40 minutes by the accident which occurred with 19 cars still running. Wise, who had taken the lead from Amati on lap 152, had a six lap lead at the time of the accident and had no trouble holding that margin at the finish. But he didn’t take it easy.

“You wouldn’t want a winner who doesn’t go all out, would you?” asked Wise in victory lane. “That wouldn’t be fun for the spectators.”

It was a different finish for Wise compared to the year before. In the 1970 race, Wise blew his engine on the very first lap of the race. This time around, Wise dominated the event, completing the 125-mile race three minutes faster than anyone had ever accomplished before. His record time was 2 hours, 5 minutes and 49 seconds.

Wise admitted getting tired but refuse relief help several times. “I bet I looked like a rag doll the last 50 laps the way I was hanging out of right side. I know was leaning over so far I couldn’t see to pass on a car on my left.” He would later mention that the break they received during the red flag (the Milburn-Tennill accident) helped him get through the remainder of the event.

Following behind Wise, Cassella and Amati was Benny Rapp, who would grab the fourth spot and ’70 winner Don Gregory, rounding out the top five.

In 1972, the American Speed Association, a long time stock car sanctioning body with strong ties to the Hoosier state, started promoting sprint cars as well. It was because of the formation of a sprint car division by the ASA that Helpling decided to sever the highly-successful relationship with IMCA. ASA president Rex Robbins convinced Joe Helpling to “buy local” and Helping couldn’t resist the temptation to jump on board.

The 10-year run of the International Motor Contest Association sprint cars at the famous high-banked quarter mile Sun Valley Speedway had come to an abrupt end. With the notable exception of the annual Winternationals held in Florida, sprint cars under the IMCA banner would rarely compete east of the Mississippi River again.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cornhusker-Hawkeye Challenge

By Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - As the late model class came into its own in the late 60’s and early 70’s, a series of big races or “specials” started to pop up at tracks across eastern Nebraska and western Iowa with the hopes of attracting big name drivers from outside the area. That didn’t seem to happen with much success. So in 1972 Sunset Speedway promoter Lyle Kline decided to try something a little different. He increased the purse and also decided to have the race late in the season when other tracks were shut down.

Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa won the 1972 Cornhusker - Hawkeye Challenge.

On October 2, 1972 the inaugural running of the Cornhusker-Hawkeye Challenge was held at Sunset Speedway northwest of Omaha. The race was designed to see whether eastern Iowans or eastern Nebraskans were better drivers. It would turn out over the years that the Hawkeyes would dominate the Cornhuskers. That October night turned out to be a disappointing time for local fans and drivers as Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Verlin Eaker totally dominated the show, winning his heat, trophy dash and leading all 100 laps of the feature. In fact, Eaker finished a half lap ahead of runner up Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa. Denny Hovinga brought home a third place finish for western Iowa fans with perennial Sunset points champion Bob Kosiski coming home fourth and Bob Hilmer of Dysart, Iowa rounding out the top 5. The event drew 55 cars with 29 coming from eastern Iowa.

In 1973, 2,350 fans showed up for the 2nd running of the October Classic which drew 63 cars. Unfortunately for the locals they would go home disappointed again as Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Darrell Dake wheeled his 1972 white #8 Nova to the checkered flag. Unlike Eaker the year before, Dake had to do it the hard way. Dake won a consolation race and started the 100 lap feature in 21st place. By the halfway point of the race Dake was leading and went on to take first place money of $1,500 plus $250 lap money. Waterloo, Iowa’s legend Ed Sanger would bring his familiar #95 home in second place with Estherville, Iowa’s Bob Shryock in third. John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa finished fourth with Randy Sterner of Blair, Nebraska the leading Cornhusker in 5th place. Ed Morris of Omaha was the only other Nebraskan in the top ten with a 7th place run.

Bill Martin of Council Bluffs, Iowa

On October 6, 1974, after being rained out, the third annual Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge was held at Sunset. Finally, the locals had something to cheer about. Bill Martin of Council Bluffs and a Sunset regular took the lead with 66 laps to go when leader and former winner Verlin Eaker’s engine quit. Martin would pocket $1,590 for winning the event. After the race Martin said, “The track was in such bad shape because of recent rains that I thought we would break something, but the car really worked good tonight.” To add to the local celebration, Omaha’s Jerry Wancewicz came home second. Bill Beckman of Lisbon, Iowa was third, Blair, Nebraska’s Randy Sterner fourth and Delhi, Iowa’s John Connolly fifth.

The local’s celebration was short lived as the eastern Iowa dominance was back in 1975. On October 4, 1976, Curt Hansen of Dike, Iowa wheeled his familiar blue #9 Camaro to the win after a see-saw battle with fellow eastern Iowan, Ed Sanger of Waterloo.

Hansen took control of the race on lap 70 and lead to the end in a race that saw Hansen leading 55 laps and Sanger 43. The vent was marred by tragedy as Jefferson, Iowa’s Rich Lyons was killed in a freak pit accident. It was the first fatality at Sunset in its 19 year existence. Duane Steffe of East Moline, Illinois completed the sweep for the invaders, with Omaha legend Bob Kosiski finishing fourth and Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa fifth. Eastern Iowa drivers took 8 of the first 9 finishing spots.

The fifth addition of the annual event was ran on October 2, 1976 and saw the familiar blue #9 Camaro of Curt Hansen back in victory lane. Hansen took the lead on lap 35 when leader “Injun Joe” Merryfield of Des Moines lost his transmission. The 31 year old Hansen would sail to the win and a check of $1,525. Tom Stueding of Altoona, Wisconsin added some outside flavor to the race and finished second. Em Fretheim of Decorah, Iowa was third, young Joe Kosiski of Omaha fourth and George Barton of Ankeny, Iowa rounded out the top five.

Curt Hansen (#9) and Don Hoffman (#2) lead the field at the start of the 1977 Cornhusker - Hawkeye Challenge.

On October 2, 1977 the sixth version of the race was ran on Sunday afternoon, after being rained out the previous night. Despite a dusty track this would turn out to be one of the most exciting finishes in the history of the race. Two-time and defending champion Curt Hansen set on the pole and led for most of the race before giving way to Ed Sanger on lap 78. From there to the end it was a battle with Hansen pulling along side of Sanger several times but not able to make the pass. Midway through the final turn on the last lap, Hansen was able to get by Sanger and win the race by one-half car length to claim his third straight Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge. Hansen pocketed $1,510 for his effort. Bob Kosiski upheld the local’s pride with a third place finish with Joe Merryfield of Des Moines fourth and Bob Shryock of Estherville, Iowa fifth.

Gary Crawford was the overall points champion of the two-day Cornhusker - Hawkeye Challenge in 1978.

In 1978 the race changed locations and formats. The event was actually a two day event, with the first race on September 30 at the Shelby County Speedway in Harlan, Iowa followed by a companion event the next day at Midwest Speedway in Lincoln, Nebraska. Points were given for heats, trophy dashes and features and at the end of the two day affair; Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa compiled 400 points and won the coveted trophy. Curt Hansen of Dike with a second at Harlan and a first at Midwest was second at 390 points. Dean Ward of Grand Island, Nebraska was third in points and Joe Merryfield despite a feature win at Harlan and a second at Midwest finished fourth in the points. Clayton Peterson of Grand Island, Nebraska with a third at Midwest claimed fifth in the overall points.

Mike Niffenegger is joined by promoter John Beaman (left) after winning the 1979 event.

In 1979, the event was a two day affair at the Shelby County Speedway in Harlan. A huge field of cars saw Friday night action include 8 heat races and 4 consolation races. On Saturday night a consolation race, trophy dash and semi precluded the 27 car, 75 lap main event. Mike Niffenegger of Kalona, Iowa took advantage of his pole position and jumped into the lead, by lap 19 Don Hoffman of Des Moines had moved up to challenge from his fifth starting position and finally on lap 18 took the lead from Niffenegger. The two literally ran away from the field with Niffenegger trying repeatedly to get the lead back. Finally after 10 laps of trying Niffenegger regained the lead and held it to the end of the race. An interesting note about Niffenegger’s car was that he was running Goodyear’s on the front and McCreary's on the rear. Don Hoffman held on for second with Tom Hearst of Wilton, Iowa third, Joe Merryfield of Des Moines fourth and Dick Schiltz of Waterloo, Iowa fifth giving the Hawkeye’s another sweep.

Kevin Gundaker is all smiles in victory lane after winning the 1980 Cornhusker - Hawkeye Challenge.

The ninth and what would be the last Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge was run in late September of 1980 in Harlan. The 75-lap feature went to an outsider, as Kevin Gundaker of St. Louis, Missouri drover his #11 to victory. Second went to a young and up and comer out of Des Moines who would be destined for dirt late model greatness in Billy Moyer, Jr. Dick Schiltz was third and 1978 World 100 winner Ken Walton of Viola, Iowa was fourth.

So would come to an end the tradition of the Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge. There is no doubt that drivers from eastern Iowa dominated the event. But then again if you look back at the 70’s, eastern Iowa drivers were a dominant force in dirt late model racing across the country. In fact, eastern Iowa drivers won the prestigious World 100 four times in a seven year span in the 70’s.