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