Thursday, March 22, 2012

1968 - That Was the Year of the First Cyclone 50

Lawton, Okla. – If you are a newcomer to southwest Oklahoma, you'll soon learn that calendars are only part of the method used to mark the passage of time.

There's also the matter of spring storms, summer droughts, winter blizzards - and tornadoes. Or cyclones, if you please.

For instance…

“That was the winter we had snowdrifts eight feet high”…or…”That was the year we went nearly six months without a rain”…or…”That was the same spring that we had those gigantic hailstones”…or…” And that was the year the Cyclone 50 got its name.”

The first three instances could apply to several different years among the past 50 in southwest Oklahoma. The fourth applies to 1968 and, more specifically, the Memorial Day weekend of 1968.

The Lawton Speedway had, for several years, scheduled a special racing program for the Memorial Day weekend. It included a 50-lap feature for super-modifieds. But it didn't have a special name. It was simply, the “Memorial Day 50-lap feature for super-modifieds.”

Until 1968 that is…

The setting that evening was typical for late May - warm, humid and relatively calm. The combination of high humidity and little wind made the Speedway’s racing engines sound even louder than usual to the more than 4,000 racing fans who packed the grandstand.

The calm part, though, didn’t last through the night. Anyone who was around Lawton that weekend remembers how the evening progressed. And no one has ever volunteered to take part in a replay of the events which unfolded at the Lawton Speedway and over most of the southern part of Comanche County.

Before that evening no one had even considered coming up with a special name for the Memorial Day 50-lapper. After that night, it didn’t take any great imagination to find an appropriate title. It was quickly dubbed, and still remains, the Cyclone 50.

And the 4,000-plus racing fans and the crowd of drivers and mechanics who had jammed the Speedway grandstand and pit area would unanimously confirm the circumstances leading up to the naming of the race.

The evening started the same way most May evenings at the Speedway begin. Hot laps, hot dogs, heat races, popcorn, cokes and trips to the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly a quiet night, because of the race cars. But the skies were calm, and so were the fans.

Then, late in the evening, an ominous, heavy black cloud began to build in the southwest and started competing with the races for the fans’ attention. By the time the super-modifieds began moving onto the track for the start of the 50-lapper, the bank of clouds, by now stunningly punctuated by thundering flashes of lightning, began to move in on southwest Lawton.

It arrived in stages…

The first thing the fans felt was a gusty wind, which hit the Speedway grandstand suddenly, sending popcorn boxes and race programs flying. As the wind’s velocity increased, longtime Speedway fans began checking out the situation more, carefully. Speedway facilities weren’t as well planned then, as now, and one of the immediate dangers was a series of electrical lines which carried power from the infield to the press box and directly over the heads of those fans sitting in the center section of the standings.

When the wind really began to whip the lines frequently bounced together, sending off, diminutive, copies of the electric flashes higher in the air. Even more important, they were flopping with such intensity that there was a growing danger they might break.

Then something happened which made everyone forget about the thrashing of the electric lines. One alert spectator, seated just in front of the press box, pointed toward the rapidly-approaching cloud bank. Everyone, around him, including the workers in the press box, took a look.

As the crowd’s attention concentrated on the clouds, a flash of lightning outlined what, the first fan had seen - a whirling funnel which was dropping out of the cloud. It was no more than half-dozen miles away. Maybe less…

What happened next probably, should have been expected from native Oklahomans, who have learned the importance of both, speed of action and orderly movement, when tornadoes are around. In unison, everyone gathered up their children and their seat cushions and headed for the parking lot.

Surprisingly, no one panicked. The fans moved quickly out of the stands, in orderly fashion, through the gates and into the parking lot to their cars. They carefully followed directions of traffic control officers in the parking lot, and within 15 minutes from the time the fan had pointed out the twister, only a handful of racing fans were left at the Speedway.

A few, who didn't want to take a chance on becoming part of a parking lot traffic jam, elected to find their own protection.

They took what was available, mostly mud and water filled ditches around the track and the parking tot. Later, when the danger had passed, they climbed out of their impromptu storm cellars and sloshed back into the still lighted grandstand area – covered with mud and drenched to the skin.

The tornado missed the Speedway; In fact, it veered to the south: and missed everything in Lawton; So did five others which were spotted that evening by Lawton policemen and Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers who rushed into the area to observe the clouds and report their progress.

The only permanent product of the frightening weather was the unexpected postponed 50-lap race. It was stopped, incidentally, without any official action on the part of Speedway personnel.

The drivers, who saw the same sight as the fans and at the same time, forgot all about the race. They quickly drove their cars onto their trailers in the pit area, loaded up their pickup trucks, and joined in an orderly departure from the track.

After thinking it over, track manager Lanny Edward decided he would never have a better opportunity to provide the Memorial Day 50-lap feature race for super modifieds with a special name.

So, from then on, the top super-modified cars and drivers from all over the Southwest gathered at Lawton Speedway - to compete in the Memorial Day Cyclone 50.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Black Deuce: King of the Belleville High Banks

by Lee Ackerman
Belleville, Kan. - In the mid 1950’s a young farm boy from Central Nebraska started attending the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln on an almost annual basis. The highlight of those one day trips were the IMCA Big Car races playing before a sold out grandstand of over 15,000 fans. It was here that the first seeds of a love affair with auto racing were sewn.

If you ever heard its sound you will never forget it, the sound of the Offenhauser with its one of a kind roar. It was here that a love affair with racing began. It was here that a certain car captivated the young boy’s mind as it did to so many others. Anybody who was lucky enough to attend IMCA Big Cars in the 50’s and early 60’s will never forgot the rooster tail of dirt that was propelled into those white wooden fences by those cars. But one car would standout; it was black and carried the number 2. On the side of the hood it said the Bardahl Special but to race fans it will always be remembered as the Hector Honore Offenhauser.

A couple hours southwest of Lincoln, sits one of the scariest race tracks ever built. The legendary Belleville High Banks. In the six IMCA races held at Belleville in 1951 and 1952 the Black Deuce, with Bobby Grim behind the wheel, either came up just short of a win or experienced mechanical problems.

Starting on May 30, 1953 and ending on May 30, 1963 there were 18 more IMCA Big Car events at Belleville, 14 were won by the famous Black Deuce. Actually the car won the feature at Belleville in all of its last 13 IMCA appearances at the speed plant.

On May 30, 1953 the largest crowd ever to attend a race at the High Banks, more than 6,000 race fans overflowed the facility to watch Grim and the Black Deuce steadily improve throughout the contest. Starting with a third in time trials, a second in the heat and the first feature win at Belleville in the 20-lap “Bill Holland Trophy Dash.” It does not appear that Grim returned to Belleville for fair races on September 1st.

The following May Grim was leading the feature and engaged in a wheel to wheel battle with Bob Slater when the two locked wheels sending the Black Deuce into the south turn fence. Grim suffered an injured shoulder which would keep him out of action for about a month and the Honore Offy suffered extensive damage estimated at $2,000.

For the July 1, 1954 event, Grim did not return to Belleville but the Honore Offy was back with Don Branson behind the wheel and they teamed up to win the 25-lap feature in record time. It would be the start of a big series of wins for the Black Deuce at Belleville.

Bobby Grim returned to Belleville to pilot the Honore Offy on September 1st and he must have figured out how to get rid of the gremlins at Belleville because he would not only score a clean sweep and set a new track record in the 25-lap feature, it would be the first of his six feature wins in the next 8 IMCA events at the high banks.

In 1955 Grim won both IMCA events held Belleville, first driving away from the field in the 20-lap Memorial Day event, then returning in September to sweep every event he entered finishing with a smashing win in the 25-lap feature. In 1956 it appears that Grim and Hector Honore passed on both events at Belleville most likely racing choosing to race at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on the August 30.

Bobby Grim would race the Hector Honore Offenhauser for two more years 1957 and 1958 before receiving the call to go Indy car racing. That would mean three more appearance for the team at Belleville and three more wins. At the annual Memorial Day race in 1957 Grim thrilled the 6,000 fans in attendance with a clean sweep.

The next Memorial Day Grim won only one event but it was the 25-lap feature. On August 27, 1958 Grim returned to Belleville for the final time and once again registered a clean sweep, setting fast time winning his heat with a last lap pass of Red Amick, winning the dash and the 20-lap main event. Bobby Grim had indeed overcome the gremlins of Belleville and would win the last six features that he competed in.

The year 1959 would see Bobby Grim at Indianapolis, and a veteran named Pete Folse from Tampa, Florida would sit behind the wheel of the Black Deuce. There may have been a new chauffeur in the car but the results would be the same. Six times Folse would race the now legendary Black #2 at Belleville and six times he would come away with a feature win.

Actually Folse had to battle the rain and a tough competitor by the name of Jim Hurtibuse to come out on top in the Memorial Day 1959 event. Rains the night before and in the morning delayed the start of the event by 1 hour and 15 minutes. Hurtibuse would set fast time and win his heat with Folse winning his heat and the trophy dash. Hurtibuse then actually led the race and the duel between the two until retiring from the event.

On September 3, 1959, Folse scored his second feature win at the Belleville High Banks taking the 20-lap feature event. He had to work hard for a clean sweep on May 30, 1960 edging out Barry Hays of Topeka at the line to win the trophy dash before winning the 20-lap feature.

After scoring another win on September 2, 1960, the IMCA Big Cars would not return to the High Banks until May 30, 1963 for what would be there final appearance. After 25 laps in the feature Folse and the Black Deuce were in victory lane once again.

Few cars have every dominated a racing facility in a national series as did Hector Honore and the Black Deuce. It really didn’t matter who was behind the wheel, the car and the little mechanic from Pana, Illinois named Hector Honore usually ended up in victory lane.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

1977 – Le Mars businessman ends racing career

Le Mars, Iowa (March 10, 1977) - Dick Morris, Sioux City, well known in the area as a top sprint car racer, has retired from racing and purchased the Chevrolet dealership in Le Mars.

Formerly Chuck Wood Chevrolet, Dick Morris officially became the new owner on February 25. In Sioux City, Dick sold cars for Kidder-Knoepfler for five years and owned his own used car business for six years.

In 1972, Dick and his family moved to Circle Pines, a Minneapolis suburb, where he owned and operated the Outpost Sports Center, a boat, snow mobile and motorcycle dealership.

Cars have been Dick Morris's main interest in life. He has spent 17 years in auto racing, winning trophies and setting track records in spring car racing from Phoenix to Shreve port and at the national sprint car races in Knoxville, Iowa.

Dick Morris has been described as a very safe driver, yet a hard charger. He consistently thrilled audiences by his performances.

When Morris was just 17, he began drag racing and brought home many trophies. Because the required racing age was 21, he told his mother the trophies were extras they were giving away. She believed him for years.

In 1961, Dick began racing 6-cylinder stock cars at Raceway Park in South Sioux City, Neb., and later at Collins Field in Le Mars. In 1969, he began racing eight cylinder super-modified cars at Sioux Falls.

During the summer of 1974, Morris won more main events in a row than any other driver. He was given awards for best sportsmanship and best looking car and rig. He came in second for the 1974 season for overall racing points.

Morris moved up to the sprint racing ranks in 1975 at Knoxville, where he earned rookie of the year honors in his first year based on driving ability. At the end of the season, Dick placed in the top 10 in points, which is unusual for a beginner.

At the Western Sprint Car Nationals at Phoenix that next October, Dick qualified for the main event by winning his heat race. This was rare for a rookie sprint car driver. However, during the main event he experienced tire trouble and had to pull out.

The year 1976 was busy for Dick. As an owner-driver, he was as much a professional driver as the professional, but you might say he was self-employed.

Starting the season in Shreveport, La., in March and from there, he competed at tracks in Dallas, Fairmont, Minn., Eagle, Neb., and Lincoln, Neb., Des Moines State Fairgrounds and Sioux Falls.

Morris broke track records at Belleville, Kans., and Sedalia, Mo. In all his sprint races, he placed within the top five cars. Racing every week at Knoxville, Dick became increasingly popular.

Morris had more quick times than any other car. During the season he had six feature wins. He placed in the top five all summer and placed second in overall points in the season's end, even though his final race there was August 7.

On Saturday, August 7 at the Marion County Fairgrounds, Morris won the trophy dash. In the consolation race he was fighting for first position with another car. At the checkered flag, they were neck and neck and were lapping other cars that had not yet finished.

Going at top speed, lap traffic caused Morris to move to the outside groove and he careened off the guardrail. His car went, straight up in the air, rolling many times before coming to a stop on the top.

Fellow sprint car driver Dick Sutcliffe was coming from behind, stopped his car in the middle of the track and single-handedly turned the car upright. After the car was turned over, it took 20 minutes to get him out.

He was in intensive care at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines for two days and was in serious condition for quite a while afterward. Des Moines and Sioux City neurosurgeons recommended that Dick stop racing because his next accident, no matter how minor, might kill him.

“Retiring from racing was a very hard decision to make, but my family means too much to race,” said Morris. “Racing gets in your blood. I hope I can get my mind off racing by diverting all my energies to working hard at running the Chevrolet dealership in Le Mars,” he added.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Full Race Jalopy

by Mike Bumbeck -

The American Heritage Dictionary defines jalopy as a word used to describe an old, dilapidated motor vehicle – especially an automobile. The origin of the word itself is hazy.

The Ultimate Hot Rod Dictionary goes further, suggesting the word may have come into being as a result of many dilapidated automobiles sent to the Mexican city of Jalapa. The second definition of the word is the very automobile seen here. Any rough, oftentimes crudely constructed early-vintage automobile used in circle track operations during the ’40s and ’50s.

Once driven by Benny Hofer of Rock Island, Illinois, this is not just any jalopy, but a genuine 1940 two-door Ford coupe full race jalopy.

The famous jalopy now belongs to Dennis Gerdes, who picked up the car from a barn in Indiana by way of New York state. The previous owner had restified the racer as a tribute to Benny Hofer. When Dennis took delivery of the jalopy, the flathead Ford V8 was running on three-and-a-half cylinders despite a relatively recent refresh.

A fuel cell flush and a fresh Stromberg 97 were the first steps in figuring things out, but the flathead was still not up to snuff. A compression check checked out, but that very same squeeze was pushing past two blown head gaskets and into the cooling channels – wrecking all sorts of havoc.

A new set of gaskets, some aviation gasket sealant, a retorque, a set of points and the flathead runs and sounds like a race-prepped flat-knocker should.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships

by Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – It was a unique three-race event that covered three tracks in three states in three days. Some of the best late model drivers from a four-state area gathered to compete in the Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships in late fall of 1971.

The three tracks that would play host to these races; Tri-Oval Speedway in Fountain City, Wis., Farley (Iowa) Raceway and Freeport (Ill.) Raceway were all a little different in shape and length, so drivers would have to be on top of their game not only on the track but in the set-up of the car.

One driver summed it up best when describing the three tracks, “Tri-Oval is a demanding track, primarily because of its shape but also because it forces the driver to work. This is one track where driving skill probably is more important than the car. Farley requires a big powerful machine. The most horsepower usually wins there. Freeport requires a car that handles perfectly, because there’s usually only one groove.”

An eye-popping purse of $4,000 would be shelled out at each event including a $1,500 point fund bringing the total purse to over $13,000. Points would be earned at each race and whoever accumulated the most points over the three events would be crowned champion.

The format to the race was unique. The top five point drivers at each track would be guaranteed a spot in the 30-car feature. Thus, half the field had been selected by the time the action begun. The other 15 cars wilt come as the result of time trials and heat races.

There was one catch however; the times posted by the 15 cars already guaranteed a spot in the feature would determine their starting position. “That means you’ll have to go all out,” remarked one driver. “If you want a good starting spot, you’ll have to run fast under time.”

Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin were all represented, including Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa, Bill Beckman of Monticello, Iowa, Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa, Phil Prusak of Eau Claire, Wis., Dave Noble of Blooming Prairie, Minn., Cecil Henderson of Dakota, Minn., Leroy Scharkey of Rochester, Minn., Jack Rebholz of Henry, Ill., and John Knaus of Rockford, Ill.

The ever-so tricky Tri-Oval track was the first leg of the event and on September 24th, approximately 75 drivers checked into the pit area ready to do battle. It was a chilly night, better suited for high school football than auto racing, but 2,500 braved the autumn air to watch the best in the Midwest compete.

After earning the pole position and then dominating the 50-lap feature, Ed Sanger declared that Tri-Oval would be the most challenging of the three tracks.

“I felt this was the place you had to do well if you want a shot at winning the crown,” Sanger noted after the race. “It’s the most demanding of the three tracks we’ll race this weekend. It requires more of the driver. I consider it an exceptional start for me.”

Exceptional may have been an understatement on Sanger’s part. He earned the pole position with a time of 21.47 seconds and proceeded to power out front at the drop of the green. “Fast” Eddie out dueled Tri-Oval track champion Dave Noble of Blooming Prairie, Minn., using the preferred high line throughout the contest. The only time Sanger left the groove, was to lap slower moving vehicles.

Sanger steadily crept up on the back of the pack and eventually got jammed behind four slower cars. Always the opportunist, Noble spied a small opening and crept through, into the lead. But his moment of triumph was short lived as two laps later, Sanger pushed ahead by using the inside lane while coming out of the west turn.

Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa would score the victory at Tri-Oval Speedway in Fountain City, Wis., on September 24. Sanger would go on to win the overall title a week later.

Over the final 35 laps, Sanger kept charging, and Noble’s challenge faded during the stretch run. Sanger collected $700 for the victory plus lap money and a beautiful 5-foot trophy.

Noble would settle for second, with Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa in third, John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa fourth and Cecil Henderson of Dakota, Minn., rounding out the top five.

The second leg of the race was supposed to occur at Farley the following night, Saturday, September 25th. But as it happens, when attempting to put on a special race event either early or late in the season, Mother Nature puts a sudden halt to any and all activities. The race was postponed until the following Saturday.

On Sunday, September 26th, drivers and fans converged upon the half-mile of the Stephenson County Fairgrounds in Freeport, Ill. It had rained most of Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon, but that didn’t seem to deter any of the drivers. Well over 100 cars checked in for the evening, all of them wanting a slice of the cash pie being offered.

The evening’s program was delayed 80 to 90 minutes before time trials were able to get off the ground, and surprisingly, despite all of the rain, the track was in better than average shape.

One guy who thought the track was just right was Bill Beckman of Lisbon, Iowa. Beckman, who finished a respectable sixth on at Fountain City, had things going his way on the half-mile at Freeport.

Like Ed Sanger on Friday night, Beckman set fast time in qualifying and darted off to the lead from the pole position for the 50-lap main event. Beckman was never in any serious trouble during the race and picked up the winner’s share of the purse, $750. Sanger remained hot, finishing second behind Beckman and extending his overall point’s lead for the $1,500 bonus.

Bill Beckman of Lisbon, Iowa takes a victory lap after winning the second leg of the Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships at Freeport on September 26. - Kyle Ealy Collection

In addition to Beckman winning the feature and Sanger building up his point’s lead, the biggest excitement this evening was the owner of Freeport Raceway being arrested for going past curfew and breaking the noise ordinance.

Frank Larson of Loves Park, Ill., was arrested on multiple charges by the Stephenson County Sheriff’s department, of which two of the charges included conducting auto races after 11 p.m. and refusing to stop the race when advised of a sheriff's order that the race be halted.

Freeport Raceway had been the object of many complaints of noise during the summer’s Sunday evening racing programs. Those complaints culminated in the county board’s hiring sound engineers for about $1,000 to measure the sound levels at the races.

Larson mentioned that because of the rain delay, the event was late in getting started. When the authorities showed up, Larson explained to them that the 50-lap feature had “between 5 and 10 minutes left” and asked for a little more time. Captain Gerald Hille of the Stephenson County Sheriff’s Department asked him to stop the race, right there and then, but Larson wouldn’t and didn’t comply. The checkers waved on the feature at 11:20 p.m.

As Bill Beckman was presented his trophy in victory lane, Frank Larson was getting handcuffed and escorted off the grounds in a squad car.

“Once you start a race, you’re not going to get those fellows off the track,” Larson would say later. Race drivers from as far away as New York, Colorado and Canada came for Sunday’s race, and neither drivers nor fans would have agreed to a cancellation without the possibility of a major disturbance,” Larson added.

The following Saturday, October 2nd, the third and final event of the Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships finally got underway at Farley Raceway. Owner Irv Valentine had the track in great shape and once again, the car count was excellent with close to 90 late models checking in.

As was with the first two races, the winner of the race came from the pole position and completely dominated the championship feature. A stellar crowd was on hand with fans from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin there to witness the grand finale.

Fred Horn receives the checkers and trophy after winning the third and final leg at Farley, Iowa on October 2. Track owner Irv Valentine is on the left. - Beetle Bailey Photo/Kyle Ealy Collection 

Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa, who set the evening’s fast time at 23.77 seconds, took the lead immediately and despite being threatened seriously twice in the race, maintained the top spot throughout. Ed Sanger was the first to attempt to unseat Horn but lost his footing on the track, losing two spots in the process. Darrell Dake gave Horn a good run for the money just past the midway point of the race, but again, Horn had too much motor.

Irv Janey of Cedar Rapids, Iowa would follow Horn across the start/finish line a quarter of a lap behind for runner-up honors with Dake, Bill Zwanziger and Terry Ryan of Davenport, Iowa rounding out the top five.

Sanger, after two strong runs the weekend before, would finish a disappointing seventh after experiencing engine problems. Sanger, however, would still accumulate 43 total points to take the $1,500 bonus and claim the overall title to the Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships. Noble and Zwanziger would finish tied for second place with 29 points apiece.

The 1971 Triple Crown Dirt Track Championships had a little bit of everything for everyone...

It was a three-day event that would last a little more than a week - each race had a dominating winner - one track had a race owner, whose motto was “the show must go on”, did just that and went to jail for it.

And it drew the best late model drivers from near and far to compete.