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.

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