Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Hawkeye Futurity

Tom Custer (76) and Jim Moughan (2) lead the field to start at the 1967 Hawkeye Futurity at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa.

By Kyle Ealy
Des Moines, Iowa – The word “Futurity” is defined as “a race or competition for which entries are made well in advance of the event”. That definition turned into a dream for a former Huron, South Dakota auto racing promoter.

The Hawkeye Futurity, held annually from 1955 until 1970 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, would be considered the biggest and richest event on the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) sprint car circuit.

The idea behind the Hawkeye Futurity was considered brand new in dirt track racing circles and was actually conceived in 1952 by Gaylord “Lefty” White, then a partner with Al Sweeney in National Speedways, Inc.

White wouldn’t live to see his dream become a reality, passing away unexpectedly in 1954, but plans for the one of kind event were never abandoned. Instead, they were given even further impetus by his partner, Sweeney, in cooperation with the race supervisors for the Iowa State Fair Board, and fittingly, the meet was dedicated to White’s memory.

Modeled after the horse racing “Futurities,” entry fees had been paid into the purse by car owners and drivers starting in 1952. That money was matched dollar for dollar by National Speedways for the next three years and the money was held in escrow in a Des Moines bank. By the time the first event became reality in 1955, L. B. Cunningham, the Iowa State Fair secretary, noted that the purse had reached the neighborhood of $10,000, quite the hefty sum back in this time and it was by far the richest purse ever paid in Iowa racing history.

When the inaugural race started on June 5, 1955, a total of 21 states were represented in the entries, with the state of Missouri leading the way with 11 cars and Illinois second with five. Other states represented include Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, Kansas, South Dakota, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa, Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, California, Michigan and Florida.

The inaugural race was marred by the death of 29-year-old Bob Slater of Kansas City, Mo. Slater, the 1954 IMCA national champion, would slam into a retaining wall on the sixth lap of the race and die instantly before more 10,000 horrified spectators.

Slater spurted to an early lead in the 100-lap feature race, but Leland “Bud” Randall of Fairmount, Ind., overtook him quickly. Slater fought back into the lead and was comfortably holding the top spot when his car went out of control and slammed into a retaining wall, bouncing back quickly on the speedway and landing on its wheels.

Photographer Les Burianek took this shot of Bob Slater right before he was killed at the 1955 Hawkeye Futurity. This spectacular shot was seen in newspapers all over the country. - Courtesy of John Burianek

The race was stopped when the accident happened and resumed again at the sixth lap when the track was cleared. It was slowed by two other minor accidents in which the drivers suffered no Injuries

Slater was pronounced dead on arrival at local Des Moines’ hospital. His wife, who was in attendance that day, was hospitalized with shock. Slater, it was said, died of head and chest injuries.

Randall would lose the lead on lap 26 to Bobby Grim of Indianapolis who was then overtaken by Jud Larson of Austin Tex., at the halfway point of the race. Larson would go on to win the 50-mile event in a time of 45 minutes and 51 seconds.

Larson claimed $1,680 in prize money, plus another $225 in lap and special prize money. Twenty drivers were in the feature race, which was held at the start of the day’s program because of threatening rain.

Jud Larson would win the Hawkeye Futurity in both 1955 and 1956. - Barry Cisna Collection

Slater had held four of the distance records on the fairground track, including the 25, 20, 15 and 3 ½ mile events. Slater also held the IMCA half-mile track record for a 25-mile race, which he posted almost a year to the day in Des Moines on June 6, 1954. He also held the IMCA 15 and 7 ½ mile records. His reckless, “go for broke” driving style would be sorely missed.

On June 10, 1956, it would be Jud Larson again in victory lane in the Hawkeye Futurity. Larson, now operating out of Kansas City, outhustled Bill Chennault, also of Kansas City, to secure his second straight victory in the big race. Jack Jordan of Alhambra, Calif., Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., and Vic Ellis of Rockton, Ill., would take the top five spots on the afternoon.

Larson, still recuperating from burns he sustained in a crash in September of 1955, set a half-mile track record in time trials with a car he borrowed on a commission basis from Jimmy Campbell of Bates, Mo., only hours before the big race.

Larson added $100 to his $750 Futurity purse by racing around the track in 23.55 seconds to beat the former record of 24.10 set by Bobby Grim of Indianapolis in a 1953 spring meeting. He also picked up another $75 as a heat winner and another $25 as a lap leader at the end of 15 miles.

The same crowd of 10,000 that watched Larson speed to victory also witnessed one of the most spectacular crashes in years at the Iowa State Fairgrounds track. Walt McWhorter of Wichita, Kan., spun end-over-end in a six-car crash on the opening lap of the 5-mile race. McWhorter suffered only a bruised shoulder and minor scratches.

Before another capacity crowd of 10,300 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Bobby Grim of Indianapolis, Ind., the defending IMCA national sprint car champion, would break Larson’s stranglehold of the event on June 9, 1957, winning a race delayed nearly two hours by a muddy track. A record 48 cars entered the meet.

Grim pushed his big car through the 25-mile feature race in 23 minutes, 5.53 seconds to take his first victory in the Iowa racing classic. Second place went to Cotton Farmer, Fort Worth, Tex., and third to Jerry Kemp, St. Louis Mo. The $1,010 purse money Grim won would be split with Hector Honore of Pana, Ill., who owned the speedy Offenhauser that Grim drove.

Fourth-place finisher Buzz Barton, Tampa, Fla., threatened to protest his placing, claiming he passed Kemp just as the starter gave winner Grim the checkered flag. Leon Rubble of Linton, Ind., would round out the top five.

Despite the muddy condition of the track, only one accident occurred during the afternoon. During time trials, John Parker of Shakopee, Minn., flipped his car on a turn but was not hurt in the mishap. The best time trial turned in on the afternoon was by Don Carr of Detroit, Mich., who turned a lap in 25.41 seconds. In the feature race, Carr led briefly but was forced out by engine trouble.

Bobby Grim, behind the wheel of Hector Honore's Black Deuce, would win the Hawkeye Futurity in 1957 and 1958. - Bob Mays Collection

Just like Jud Larson in the first couple of Hawkeye Futurity’s, Bobby Grim would go out and prove that winning the prestigious event again was no fluke. On June 8, 1958, the 33-year-old Indianapolis hotshot won his second consecutive race. Driving the signature “Black Deuce”, Grim won the event in 22 minutes and 58 seconds to nip the mark of 23 minutes and 5 seconds he set the year before.

The winner was one lap ahead at the halfway mark and was never pressed. His victory put him back in the lead in the International Motor Contest Association’s rating, ahead of Don Carr. Carr, for the second year, couldn’t finish the feature race here. This time he spun and tagged the wall, sending him and his battered car to the infield earlier than expected.

Cotton Farmer of Fort Worth, Tex., would place second, veteran Herschel Wagner of Hickman Mills, Mo., would be scored in third and Vern Chamberlain of St. Paul, Minn., would grab fourth.

The race was almost marred by tragedy. Ken Gottschalk, a 28-year-old St. Louis, Mo., speedster, came out of a spill with only a black eye and sprained shoulder alter his car flipped end over end and rolled almost the entire length on the east curve on the very first lap.

You could say that Pete Folse “backed” into the winner's circle of the 5th annual Hawkeye Futurity on Sunday, June 7, 1959.

Folse, of Tampa, Fla., was running third for most of the race, but the two pace setters, Arnie Knepper of Belleville, Ill., and Herschel Wagner of Hickman Mills, Mo., would both drop out with mechanical woes, making it clear sailing for Folse, who was now behind the wheel of Hector Honore’s “Black Deuce”.

Folse would finish several hundred yards in front of up-and-coming driver from Lennox, Calif., Jim Hurtubise. Folse’s winning time in the race was 23 minutes and 48 seconds.

Pete Folse of Tampa, Fla., piloting Hector Honore's Black Deuce, would win the Hawkeye Futurity in 1959 and 1960.

Following suit with the two previous winners of the Hawkeye Futurity, Folse would come back on June 19, 1960, and successfully defend his title, collecting $700 for the victory and another $200 for setting fast time.

Driving the Honore Offenhauser, Folse was clocked going around the half-mile in 22 minutes, 28.72 seconds, a new record for the event.

Bob Hewitt of Mount View, Calif., suffered back injuries, face cuts and possible internal injuries when his car rolled at the conclusion of his time trial. The car rolled three times and pinned Hewitt. Track officials said rollbars on the car kept him from being killed.

Buzz Barton accepts his trophy from National Speedway's Al Sweeney after winning the 1961 Hawkeye Futurity. Joining in the celebration is car owner Irene Lempelius (far left) and mechanic Red Lempelius (with hat). 

Emmet “Buzz” Barton of Tampa, Fla., driving the beautiful red and white #52 Lempelius Offenhauser, would come from behind to win the 7th annual Hawkeye Futurity on Sunday afternoon, June 11, 1961. Barton, who started in 17th position, would make his way through the field and close with early leader and two-time defending Futurity champ Pete Folse. After a caution, Barton would speed past his Tampa rival and breeze to an easy victory.

Jim McElreath of Arlington, Tex., would grab second behind Barton. Harold Leep of Wichita, Kan., and Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., would earn third and fourth respectively with Colby Scroggins of Eagle Rock, Calif., coming in fifth.

The race, before some 9,700 fans, was marred by only one accident. Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., crashed into the west retaining wall on the 19th lap when the steering arm on his car broke. He was thrown 25 feet from his car but did not suffer any serious injuries.

Harold Leep accepts the Gaylord White Memorial trophy from promoter Al Sweeney after winning the 1962 Hawkeye Futurity. Car owner Red Lempelius joins in the ceremonies. 

It was same car in victory lane at the ‘62 Hawkeye Futurity but a different driver behind its wheel. Harold Leep of Wichita, Kan. won the 25-mile race on June 17, driving the same Lempelius Offenhauser that Buzz Barton had won with in ’61.

Leep covered the 50 laps in 24 minutes and 36 seconds in capturing the $600 top prize. Leep moved in front at the 13th lap and was never headed. Bill Horstmeyer of Stoughton, Wis. finished second in an Offy and Gordon Woolley, of Waco, Tex. was third, driving Leep’s former Chevrolet owned by Chet Wilson of Wichita.

The 1962 IMCA national champion Johnny White of Warren, Mich., was already enjoying a banner year when he pulled into the Iowa State Fairgrounds on June 2, 1963, for the 9th annual Hawkeye Futurity. White, driving the #1 Sid Weinberger Chevy, became the first man in racing history to turn a lap at 100 miles per hour at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway in early May. A little over a week before the Futurity, White won the grueling Little 500 on the paved quarter mile in Anderson, Ind.

Johnny White of Warren, Mich., is shown accepting his trophy in victory lane after winning the 1963 Hawkeye Futurity.

Before a crowd of 8,500, White would set the tone for the afternoon by eclipsing a 25-year-old world’s record, winning the 8-lap first heat in a blistering 3 minutes and 21 seconds, breaking the old mark set by the late Gus Schrader in 1938. In the 30-lap finale, White covered the field, winning in 13 minutes and 56 seconds over Gordon Woolley, Bill Horstmeyer, Jerry Richert and Dale Reed. White would collect $500 for the win.

The Hawkeye Futurity had been graced with skilled drivers, spectacular crowds and great weather for the first nine years, but it would take two years for the race to happen again. The 1964 event would be rained out and the event (for some unexplained reason) wasn’t even scheduled in ’65. In September of that year, Al Sweeney released a statement assuring everyone that in 1966, the Hawkeye Futurity would be back on the IMCA sprint car schedule.

But even the ’66 event was almost canceled…

An early morning rain on Sunday, June 5th had turned the newly refinished fairgrounds track into a muddy quagmire. Sporadic showers threatened to wash out the entire program but after a two-hour battle officials managed to get the first race off. The crowd, estimated at 5,500, was by far the lowest in the history of the event.

Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., dominated the 1966 Hawkeye Futurity, setting a new qualifying record and winning the 30-lap feature in record time. - Bob Mays Collection

Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., would race to victory through the muck and mud, collecting a $590 payday for his efforts. The 40-year-old air conditioning engineer beat Jim Moughan and Chuck Lynch, both of Springfield, Ill. Blundy, who started in the front row alongside Moughan, headed his Illinois rivals by five car lengths most of the way in an accident-free race. The remainder of the field was a quarter mile or more back from the familiar # 33 red Chevy.

Bill Puterbaugh of Roxana, Ill., was a surprise in fourth place. He qualified badly and did not place in any of the preliminary heats. But he managed to slip into the last row of the field for the 30-lap feature as the alternate.

Blundy was something of a surprise himself, turning in a dominating performance despite the track conditions. He set fast time in qualifying (27.39 seconds) and then wheeled to a track and Futurity record of 12 minutes and 53 seconds in the 30-lap main event. Since it was the first time the 15-mile feature had gone without a yellow flag, the time was well under the 14 minute and 54 second time set by Johnny White in the ’63 race.

White, was in the pits on that Sunday afternoon but as a car owner. Paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a 1964 race crash, White’s luck wasn’t much in his debut as owner. His Offenhauser-powered rig was piloted by Jay Woodside of Topeka, Kan. Woodside would make the big show but exit early with a blown piston.

The highly anticipated duel between IMCA point leader and defending national champion Jerry Richert of Forest Lake, Minn., and his rival Rollie Beale of Toledo, Ohio would never materialize as planned. Beale, the recent winner of the Little 500, went to the sidelines with his Kenny Lay-Don Harrell Chevrolet on lap 18 and Richert was forced out on the twenty-fifth lap with overheated engine as a result of a mud-clogged radiator.

The Black Deuce had more years on it that the Hawkeye Futurity did itself. The famous car was introduced in 1952 and the first Futurity took place in 1955. It was considered practically an antique among the current sprint cars competing then. Once it got ahead of a field of cars, though, there was no catching the old buggy that was the pride and joy of Hector Honore.

When Honore and his sprint car pulled into the state fairgrounds on June 4, 1967, the car had seen victory lane over 400 times in its career. Honore believed it had a few more wins left in it. He believed that Jim Moughan, the runner-up in the '66 Futurity, was the guy who could get one in the Hawkeye Futurity. Honore was correct on both accounts.

Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., took Hector Honore's Bardahl Special for one last victory lap, winning the 1967 Hawkeye Futurity. - Bob Mays Collection

Despite a broken front axle and more yellow caution lights than you’d see on an Interstate 80 detour, Moughan took the Black Deuce to a hard-fought victory in the 11th annual Hawkeye Futurity.

Moughan, a 37-year-old interior decorator, toured the 30 sunbaked laps in 15 minutes and 39 seconds. The defending champion, Jerry Blundy, was a close runner-up. Or, as Moughan put it later, “I could hear him coming. That was a lot of competition behind me.”

A crowd of 6,600 watched the program in ideal weather, which was a real switch compared to the last couple of years. Des Moines Register sportswriter Ron Maly said it best, “It had rained so much in previous Futurity races that folks were wondering if anyone would know how to drive on a dry track.”

Moughan got off to a great start, touring the half-mile in 23.95 seconds, but things turned from sweet to sour in a hurry. The Black Deuce’s front axle broke after the qualifying run and no one was quite sure if repairs could be done in time. Moughan, in fact, was so uncertain that he borrowed a car from Bill Myers of East Alton, Ill., and attempted to qualify that, which he did in the time of 24.85 seconds.

Moughan’s pit crew, headed by the tireless Honore, sprang into action when the Black Deuce limped in. The axle was replaced in about an hour and Moughan had it back in time to race in the second heat. He finished seventh in the eight-car race. The four-car match race was next for Moughan – and he managed a second place showing behind Blundy, but in the 10-lap consolation, Moughan took the win over Blundy.

Now he was ready…

Starting on the front row alongside fast qualifier Tom Custer of Rock Island, Ill., Moughan waited patiently while two first-lap spinouts delayed the feature and then shot into first place, never letting it go after that. Another spin on the thirteenth lap caused the yellow to light up again, but if anybody hoped to stop Moughan from winning by then he’d have needed a stop light and a police escort.

Ray Lee Goodwin of Kansas City, Tom Corbin of Carrollton, Mo., and Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg, Iowa would follow Moughan and Blundy across the finish line.

It was the fifth career Hawkeye Futurity victory by the Black Deuce. Pete Folse and Bobby Grim had steered it to 2 victories apiece and now Moughan grabbed one for the thumb. Honore’s car had now posted 426 feature victories, 746 heat race triumphs and has been responsible for 201 track records.

After two successful Hawkeye Futurity’s, the event would come to a standstill once again. The race, scheduled for June 9, 1968, became a dark mark on the IMCA’s calendar of events with the untimely assassination of Robert Kennedy that shocked the nation. The Futurity was cancelled, and rightly so, when newly appointed President Lyndon Johnson declared a day of mourning.

Part of a grand old lady returned to haunt the Hawkeye Futurity on Sunday, June 8, 1969.

Jan Opperman of Hayward, Calif., won the 30-lap feature before an estimated crowd of 5,500. His Chevrolet - powered sprint car had the frame of the machine the late Bob Slater drove in winning the 1954 International Motor Contest Association championship. It was also the same frame on the sprinter that he was killed in during the 1955 Hawkeye Futurity.

Opperman, 29, led all the way in the feature and pocketed $500 for winning the feature. Second place, worth $400, went to Dick Sutcliffe of Kansas City, Mo.; Jay Woodside, also of Kansas City, finished third; Roy Bryant of Wichita, Kan., was fourth, and Bill Utz of Sedalia, Mo., took fifth.

 Jan Opperman accepts his trophy from Iowa State Fair President Kenneth Fulk after winning the 1969 Hawkeye Futurity. Car owner Bill "Speedy" Smith looks on with approval. 

Still, Opperman was never in danger of being passed. He mentioned after the race that the softer tires gave him a better bite than the regular tires.

There were few changes in the 30-lap feature until the last five laps. Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., Earl Wagner of Pleasantville, Iowa and Kenny Gritz of Lincoln, Neb., all saw their chances to finish in the top five end within that brief period. Blundy was running fifth and Wagner was fourth when Blundy tried to pass going into the third turn on lap 28. Blundy apparently lost control and hit Wagner. Blundy rammed into the wall and both cars were eliminated.

Gritz was a surprise performer. He qualified fourth fastest, finished second in the match race for the six fastest cars, and started the feature in the second row. He was in second place until Sutcliffe and Woodside passed him on the twelfth lap. He was still in fourth place when he spun out on the twenty-fifth lap.

Unfortunately for Gritz, it would be the last Hawkeye Futurity he would ever compete in. Two months later, Gritz would win the Knoxville Super-Modified National Championships at the Marion County Fairgrounds, then a couple of weeks later, lose his life in a race-related accident at the Nebraska State Championships in Lincoln.

Jerry Richert of Forest Lake, Minn., erected a one-half lap lead in the early stages of the Hawkeye Futurity sprint-car feature on June 7, 1970, and it would turn out to be a good thing.

Just after he took the white flag, Richert’s engine went sour and to the estimated 5,200 fans in attendance, it appeared he wouldn’t make the checkered flag. But Jerry nursed the Chevrolet-powered racer along and won the 30-lap event by approximately 150 yards over Dick Sutcliffe.

The victory was worth $500 for Richert, who missed most of last season while recuperating from chest surgery and to that point in the ’70 season, had won only one other feature: at the Florida State Fair in February.

After years of trying, Minnesota's Jerry Richert would finally win the Hawkeye Futurity in 1970. - Bob Mays Collection

Richert, the four-time International Motor Contest Association champion was in tears as his family gathered around to congratulate him. The kisses from his wife and two young daughters were probably more appreciative to Richert than that of the speed queen in victory lane.

Richert also received $100 for his qualifying run, $50 for winning his heat and $15 for the trophy dash position. Sutcliffe was paid $400 in the feature, third-place finisher Jay Woodside took home $300, Jerry Blundy $200, and Eddie Leavitt $150.

Blundy made several attempts to pass Woodside for second place, who was driving a car owned by Hank Smith of Mount Ayr, Iowa but the IMCA point leader was unable to accomplish the feat.

Richert, who had things his going his way most of the afternoon, said he didn’t know what happened to the engine. “The temperature started rising about midway in the race,” he said. “Then, just after I took the white flag, it started missing. It may have been the magneto.”

Richert was the fastest qualifier with a 24.12 second clocking around the half-mile. He easily won his 10-lapheat race after starting last in the field He also started last in the five-lap trophy dash, an event for the six fastest cars, and finished second. He started in the third row of the feature.

The track condition was dry-slick and under those circumstances, there was little passing and few changes in the top five after the first lap. However, Dave Ross of Jetmore, Kan., was not content to sit back. He put on an excellent driving performance, starting back in the eighth row and finishing in sixth place.

The last hurrah for Hawkeye Futurity would come on Sunday evening, May 30, 1971. The grand race, however, would not be at the historic State Fairgrounds this year but two hours East at Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

And while the crowd was a disappointing (2,299 paid) for the sprint car classic, few could have been disappointed in the racing itself.

Earl Wagner, the “Pleasantville Plumber”, and Jerry Blundy, the defending IMCA national champion, had everybody on their feet as they raced wheel to wheel in a fierce duel for the final 10 laps on the half-mile dirt oval.

Wagner, piloting a new Chevrolet-powered sprint, won by a car length and in the process established an IMCA world record of 11 minutes and 46 seconds over the 15-mile distance. The old mark of 12 minutes and 25 seconds was set by Pete Folse and his Offenhauser at Kansas City in 1961.

Earl led all the way, but by the 15th tour it was a three-car battle including Dick Sutcliffe of Kansas City and Blundy of Galesburg, Ill. Sutcliffe was forced to drop back on the 18th lap after peeling a right rear tire. Then Wagner and Blundy went at it.

Several times Blundy went low going into the first turn and actually was even with Wagner coming out of two, but Earl had the groove and couldn’t be pulled from it.

“Yes, I'm a full-time plumber; I just have to take time to go racing," remarked Earl Wagner after winning the very last Hawkeye Futurity in 1971 at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. - Bob Mays Collection

“That Jerry sure was pushing me,” drawled Wagner, “and I want to tell you I was getting super tired.” 

“I've only been in the car four or five times, and I've had trouble getting used to it. It just didn’t fit me. They’ve really worked hard on it and tonight it was great.”

“It’s not that the car was bad before - it just didn’t feel good to me. So tonight, we changed the rear shocks and jacked some weight around and that did the job.”

Wagner, who also won the second heat, pocketed $500 for his efforts in the feature, while Blundy earned $400. Sutcliffe had to settle for eighth in the feature. But he did win the trophy dash and the third heat and set fast time in qualifying with a 22.26 second clocking.

Dick Forbrook of Morgan, Minn., won the first heat and Dick Jones of Whitewater, Wis., topped the consolation. The seven-event program was accident free.

The Iowa State Fairgrounds was the stage; names like Larson, Grim, Folse, Blundy, Opperman and Richert were the artists. For 15 years they created excitement, drama, tragedy, thrills, and sheer brilliance. The Hawkeye Futurity was an act like no other.


Special thanks to Bob Mays and Lee Ackerman in writing this story - Kyle Ealy

1 comment:

  1. Hi my name is Bill Chadbourne, i am one the owners of the 4x car that Jan Opperman won the 1969 Hawkeye Futurity in. The car was not owned by Bill Smith, he sponsered us and we ran his number. We put the car you have pictured together later for Smith it was a 1969 Beck. If you would like a picture of the winning car i can email it to you, your pic. is the besk car. If interested contact me at and i will email you correct pecture. Thanks Bill