By Kyle Ealy
Odessa, Mo. – From 1976 to 1980, it was one of the biggest and richest short track events not only in the Midwest but the entire nation, and it became well-known for bringing together the very best stock car drivers from the ASA, ARTGO, NASCAR and USAC organizations.
Every autumn, just as the leaves were starting to turn brilliant colors, the stars and cars of short track racing would congregate to the high-banked half-mile asphalt of I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo., to compete in the prestigious World Cup 400.
The inaugural race in 1976 would be dominated by Midwestern pilots with Tom Reffner of Rudolph, Wis., winning the 200-mile contest on Sunday afternoon, October 17.
The first driver to take the track during time trials on Saturday, Reffner overcame temperatures hovering in the upper 30’s to circle the half-mile in 17.414 seconds, eclipsing his own month-old mark of 17.49. Although 37 other drivers timed within one second of Reffner’s mark, no one was able to better the new track record.
Reffner led early in the 44-car feature, but Joe Shear, Larry Detjens, Bob Senneker, Dave Watson, and Johnny Ziegler dominated the middle stages of the contest. However, Reffner returned to the front of the pack again as the race neared its conclusion and he proved to be unstoppable in the final laps.
Reffner would take command when the green flag fell again but any chance of building a cushion on his nearest rivals were dashed by a series of caution flags for the next dozen or so laps.
The second caution occurred on lap three when California’s Sonny Easley rammed the outer wall and two Michigan drivers, Jerry Makara and Tom Maier, tangled trying to avoid Easley.
Action finally resumed on lap 18 but nine laps later, defending USAC stock car national champion Ramo Stott spun on the backstretch, taking out Ed Hoffman of Niles, Ill., Jim Campbell of Harrison, Ark., and Jack Constable of Princeton, Mo. The incident retired Stott with a broken rear frame and the clean-up necessitated the yellow flag to wave through lap 35.
The race’s fourth caution period, encompassing four caution laps, came when Terry Bivens of Shawnee Mission, Kan., spun in water spewed on the track by Easley’s mount and moments later, the yellow flag waved once more when Freddy Fryar of Baton Rouge, La., slammed into the front stretch wall of the 58th tour. The mishap retired Fryar’s Chevy Nova from the competition but Fryar would return to relieve country and western singing star turned racer Marty Robbins in a joint effort, which would net them a 19th place finish.
Another USAC standout, former four-time and current point leader Butch Hartman of Zanesville, Ohio, lasted only 109 circuits before pulling out when his Camaro began smoking.
Dave Watson began making a strong bid for leadership when he passed Senneker for second on lap 70 and after another caution on lap 76 the Milton, Wis., star zipped past Reffner into the lead on the restart.
Reffner and Senneker fell back when the decided to pit on lap 91, which brought Joe Shear of South Beloit, Ill., and Johnny Ziegler of Madison, Wis., into contention. Watson and Ziegler would pit on lap 136, allowing Shear to claim first in front of Red Farmer of Hueytown, Ala., Larry Detjens of Wausau, Wis., and Reffner, who had made his way back to the top five.
Detjens, driving a 1974 Camaro, put on a strong rush and took the lead from Shear on lap 147 and remained in front until the halfway point of the race. A caution of lap 209 forced a slowdown for the field and both Detjens and Shear went to the pits for fuel and fresh tires and when the yellow flag was replaced by green, it was Senneker again out in front.
A caution on lap 238, allowed both Senneker and Reffner to pit again and Watson regained the top spot with Shear close behind. Shear moved ahead of Watson on the 262nd circuit and he held the upper hand until lap 333, when overheating problems forced him to slow his pace.
Three laps later, I-70 regular Bill Crane of Kansas City spun on the backstretch and sailed over the turn three wall, bringing the yellow back out. Shear pitted on lap 342, giving the lead back to Watson, who would pit two laps later, permitting Reffner to regain control.
Despite one more caution on lap 374, Reffner cruised to victory over Watson, who was handicapped by an overheating problem, which forced him to make a late pit stop, and Senneker, who had lost valuable ground when he pitted under the green to remedy a tire problem. Larry Phillips of Springfield, Mo., took fourth and Mike Eddy of Midland, Mich., grabbed fifth.
Reffner collected $10,000 for his efforts, a sum nearly three times larger than his biggest previous single-race earnings of $3,500.
Four hundred laps would turn into a 5-lap trophy dash on September 11, 1977 between Larry Detjens and Bob Senneker and when the checkers finally waved, it was Detjens’ Camaro a car-length ahead of Senneker’s.
Finishing third, one lap behind Detjens and Senneker was Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., Dick Trickle, driving relief for fellow townsman Mike Miller in a Ford Mustang.
Finishing fourth, after seemingly having the victory in his hip pocket just eight laps from the finish was Larry Schuler of Lockport, Ill., in his Camaro. Holding a half a lap lead and in cruise control, Schuler’s hopes were dashed on lap 391 when gasket let go and he spun in turn four in his own water. That cost him two spots before he could get his car straightened out.
To compound his woes, Schuler was penalized a lap after completion of the race because of failure to drop to the end of the line under the yellow. The American Speed Association, the sanctioning body of the event, stated in its rule books that the last five lap of any race 50 laps or longer, must be run under green flag conditions. Schuler spun out on lap 391 and the yellow was displayed through lap 395, at which time scoring of all cars was halted until the green flag came back out.
When Schuler spun, Senneker jumped into first with Detjens right on his tail. And when the green came out for the final five laps, those two tied up in a head to head dashing duel. Senneker led three of those laps, with Detjens putting the nose of his car inches ahead of Senneker as the crossed the start/finish line to take the white flag.
Detjens pulled away temporarily down the backstretch, only to have Senneker come roaring back as they entered the final turn. But Senneker didn’t have the horses to overhaul the Wisconsin ace and Detjens was the winner by a car-length, picking up $7,590 out of a purse that well exceeded $50,000.
Senneker was the fastest qualifier of the 35-car field, but it was Detjens grabbing the lead at the green with Joe Shear sliding into second. Shear slipped past Detjens on lap 33 and took charge with Detjens, Don Gregory of Columbus, Ohio, Dick Trickle, Dave Roahrig of Inwood, Ind., Jimmy Pierson of Janesville, Wis., hot on his tail.
Shear continued to set the pace after 100 laps but positions behind him were being juggled like hot potatoes. Trickle had settled into second followed by Gregory, Roahrig, Senneker, Schuler, Detjens, Jerry Makara, Mark Martin of Batesville, Ark., and Larry Phillips.
Trickle had his Pontiac Firebird hamming and overhauled Shear on lap 120 to take the lead. Shear’s car would last only four more turns and then began overheating sending him to the sidelines.
Gregory would grab the point away from Trickle on lap 132 as misfortune started to strike some of the top contenders. Mark Martin retired on lap 145 with a red-hot engine and Trickle was done on lap 169 when an oil pump let go in his car.
At the halfway mark it was Gregory, Detjens, Makara, Schuler, Phillips and Bob Sensiba of Middleville, Mich.
Gregory increased his margin a little bit with each lap until he was going down the backstretch on lap 296. At that pint, his right front tire blew, sending Gregory climbing up the wall between turns three and four and almost out of the ballpark. Damaged beyond any immediate repair, Gregory’s machine went to the pits as Schuler flashed into the lead.
At 300 laps it was Schuler, Senneker, Detjens, Trickle (driving relief for Mike Miller) and Everett DeWitt of Janesville, Wis., in the top five. The only change in that running order from the three-quarter mark and lap 350 came when DeWitt blew an engine on lap 345 and Sensiba moved up from his sixth position.
That set the stage for all of the big dramatics in the final nine laps of the chase, which Schuler triggered with his spin and the five lap slugfest between Detjens and Senneker.
Mike Eddy of Midland, Mich., would drive a near perfect race in the World Cup 400 on Sunday afternoon, October 15, 1978, but a tiny miscue would cost him the $9,500 winner’s share of the nearly $60,000 purse.
Eddy had dominated the entire race, leading 320 of the event’s 400 laps and was in the lead when he bobbled slightly exiting turn four on lap 386. Dick Trickle, who was close behind, capitalized on the mistake, surging around Eddy to take the lead at the outset of the 387th circuit and held off Eddy the rest of the way to record the win.
Michigan’s John Anderson, the only other driver to complete the 400 laps, placed third and could have well won the event had he not incurred a one-lap penalty for passing Eddy’s pace-setting Camaro during a caution period on lap 292. Bob Senneker came in fourth with fellow statesman Jerry Makara rounding out the top five.
Bob Sensiba, who set a track qualifying record on Friday with a time of 17.17 seconds, started the long-distance race on the pole and charged into the lead at the drop of the green flag. However, after leading for only four laps, mechanical issues forced Sensiba into the pits for a series of lengthy stops. The issues eventually sent him into early retirement after only 65 circuits.
Eddy, who had started third by virtue of winning the first 15-lap semi-feature on Saturday, inherited the top spot when Sensiba pitted and remained there until lap 193. Eddy was forced to earn his feature starting berth in the semi-feature after the engine in his racer gave way during Friday’s qualifications.
Mark Martin took over the number one spot on lap 194 and stayed in the lead until yielding to Eddy on the 229th circuit. Eddy surrendered the lead to Martin for the second time on lap 298 and the 19-year-old Batesville, Ark., pilot remained on top until lap 321, when he was forced to the sidelines, turning over the point to Dick Trickle.
Eddy passed Trickle four laps later to take command again but was unable to open up a comfortable lead over the Wisconsin chauffeur. Then on lap 386, Eddy made his slight mistake, which Trickle converted into victory.
“I was starting to lose some of my stagger, but I was running real hard to that point. I simply lost it,” a disappointed Eddy said afterwards. “I lapsed just for an instance and it cost me.”
Mark Martin parlayed a hard pace and efficient pit work into the biggest payday of his young career on Sunday, October 21, 1979, winning the fourth annual World 400 on an unseasonably hot and windy afternoon. Martin would collect $10,475 for his impressive victory.
The victory gave Martin a clean sweep of the two-day event, which he led off by turning a record 16.813-second qualifying run on Saturday afternoon. No late model driver had ever toured the .54-mile oval in under 17 seconds before. Martin’s Camaro was the only car credited with completing the full 400-lap distance of the main event.
Second place finisher Bob Senneker was credited with only 399 circuits, despite incurring two separate one-lap penalties, the first for passing the lead car during a caution period and the second for racing through the stop sign while exiting the pits to rejoin the field.
If there was a bright spot to finishing second, Senneker netted $5,350, making him the first driver in the ASA circuit’s history to top the 100,000 mark in career earnings. Third place went to Mike Eddy with a couple of Illinois veterans, Joe Shear and Ray Young, following in the fourth and fifth spots.
Dick Trickle grabbed the early lead from his outside front row starting spot and led the first 53 laps before being overhauled by Shear. A caution on lap 98 precipitated wholesale pit action as a result and Martin took the top spot on the 101st circuit.
Eddy, Randy Sweet, Don Gregory, and Trickle followed behind Martin until yellow flag waved for debris on the track, which triggered a rash of pit stops on lap 175. Gregory paced the 176th lap under caution, but pitted the next time around, giving the upper hand to Shear.
With the green back out, Trickle mounted a charge at the event’s midpoint and got around Shear on lap 211. However, a spent water pump and housing gasket forced Trickle to the pits five laps later, handing Eddy the lead. The problem eventually forced the defending race champion to park his Firebird after 223 circuits. The Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., resident didn’t sit in the pits for long though, as he relieved Dave Roahrig, eventually bringing his Camaro home in seventh.
Martin replaced Eddy in the front running position at 219 rounds and held of both Senneker and Eddy until pitting during a caution period on lap 323. Senneker incurred both of his penalties during the slowdown and Eddy claimed first place on the same lap when he returned to the track ahead of Martin at the conclusion of pit stops.
Eddy remained in front until an oil pump leak slowed his Camaro allowing Martin to regain the number one position on lap 343. “I thought at first it was a bearing because the smoke was coming out by the front wheels,” Eddy said. “But the car wouldn’t turn because oil was spewing all over the tires. I was driving in my own oil.”
Although the problem was repaired during a late caution period, Martin put Eddy a lap down in the closing circuits.
Meanwhile, Senneker also had his problems late in the chase, slowing perceptibly in the last 10 circuits. “The heat did it,” a nearly exhausted Senneker said afterwards. “The car was capable, but the last 10 laps I was just too damn tired to drive it.”
Surprisingly fresh following the grueling contest, Martin said, “The race was fast, but I expected it to be fast. I don’t normally lead races, but I got mad when Bob (Senneker) passed me under the yellow. I thought I was racing Eddy.”
The final World Cup 400 would place on Sunday, October 21, 1980. Dick Trickle, despite having a flat tire at the midpoint of the race, would claim the $10,000 first prize at the ASA Circuit of Champions event.
Joe Shear would beat Alan Kulwicki in a photo finish for second place in a margin so small, that ASA officials in the tower and on pit road were consulted and video replays were viewed before a decision was rendered. Jim Sauter of Necedah, Wis., took fourth and Michigan’s Randy Sweet would come in fifth.
Defending champion Mark Martin got the event off to a flying start on Saturday night by shattering his own one-lap track qualifying record by a half-second with a 16.323-second (119.095 mph) clocking. That mark compared favorably to the USAC sprint car standard of 16.8 seconds set in 1978 at the speed plant.
Martin, however, was plagued by two broken valve springs in his mount on the day of the big race, and wound up retiring after 239 laps, good for 19th place. Nevertheless, the performance enabled Martin to clinch his third ASA Circuit of Champions driving title.
The race began with a bang when sixth-running Mike Eddy had his engine in his Camaro fail in turn four on the second lap. Eddy’s sudden loss of power in the groove triggered a massive tangle which to one degree or another involved at least 20 of the 34 starters. John Martin, Don Gregory and Terry Wooten were sidelined immediately and several additional races were forced out later as a result of damage sustained in the mishap.
Trickle’s road to top was complicated by a flat tire, which forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop at 159 laps. As Trickle was about to make his stop, the caution flag appeared, forcing him to complete another lap because of an ASA rule requiring the pace car to be on the track before any pitting can be done under the yellow. The time lost amounted to one lap, forcing Trickle to drive harder than he had planned for the next 125 rounds.
After un-lapping himself shortly after the midway point in the race, Trickle needed about 50 laps to down Kulwicki for second place. Then on the 292nd revolution, Trickle passed Shear to take over the top spot for good.
“Once I got that last lead I just wanted to stay out of trouble,” Trickle commented. “I knew I had it made if nothing further happened. After getting myself back on the same lap, I felt pretty good when I was in second place, saw Joe (Shear) and was gaining on him.”
Shear and Kulwicki traded second place several times even though Shear was running on only seven cylinders late in the race. Shear finally reclaimed the runner-up spot for good 10 circuits from the finish, but Kulwicki’s last turn charge nearly allowed him to earn second place money.
Shear was philosophical about his problems later saying, “A rocker arm broke, but I just kept going because it was still running cool. All of a sudden you have to take what you can get.”
In 1981, Bill Roberts, the man who built I-70 Speedway in 1969 and made it one of the fastest and toughest paved ovals in the Midwest, sold the facility to open-wheel legend Greg Weld, who immediately covered the racing surface with dirt.
Gone was the asphalt; gone were Trickle, Shear, Detjens, Eddy, Martin, and Senneker. And gone was one of the greatest short track events ever, the World Cup 400.
Gone, but not forgotten...
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