Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Milwaukee 200; 1960 - 1969

Photo courtesy of Doug Abry

By Kyle Ealy
West Allis, Wis. – From 1960 to 1980, it was one of the premier events on the United States Auto Club stock car circuit. Considered by many as one of the crown jewels of USAC stock car racing, it annually attracted the biggest names in auto racing at one of the most famous racing venues in the United States, the legendary Milwaukee Mile.

The 200-lap, 200-mile stock car event, known later on as the Miller 200, was a mid-summer tradition for 21 years. Each man who went on to win the race would forever have his name etched in stock car history.

Our story starts on July 24, 1960

Veteran Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park, Ill., would win the inaugural event by averaging 87.32 miles per hour in the 200-mile national championship event at State Fair Park before 24,800 fans. Bettenhausen would lead the final 140 laps on the paved oval; his margin of victory over Rodger Ward of Indianapolis was nearly a full lap when the checkers flew. His winning time was 1 hour, 47 minutes and 1 second.

Ironically, Bettenhausen’s car, a 1953 Ford, was owned by Ward. Because of that, it was Ward who stood to be the big financial winner that day. As the owner, he received 60 percent of the winner’s earnings ($3,560) plus his own for being runner-up ($3,191). However, during post-race inspection, Ward was disqualified after the race for having an under sized left front wheel. The disqualification was lifted after an appeal, and Ward was fined 10 percent of his winnings instead.

Gene Marmor of Northlake, Ill., would finish third, followed by Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., and Bob Pronger of Blue Island, Ill. Paul Goldsmith of Munster, Indiana was fast qualifier with a time 39.04 seconds but he exited on lap 60 with engine failure.

A happy Eddie Sachs in victory lane after winning in 1961.

A familiar name would win the 200-mile event on July 16, 1961. But the winning driver was more familiar to open-wheel racing than a piloting a car with fenders on it. Eddie Sachs of Coopersburg, Pa., in only his second time behind the wheel of a stock car, took the lead on the 119th lap and led the rest of the way in his 1961 Zecol-Lubaid Ford.

Sachs averaged 87.37 miles an hour in winning $4,533 as his share of a $23,210 purse. His teammate, Dick Rathmann of Roselle, Ill., finished second, also with a 1961 Ford. Rathmann was also the quickest in qualifying, touring the mile in 38.547 seconds.

Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., the defending USAC national stock car champion, finished third and was followed to the finish by Elmer Musgrave of Niles, Ill., and William “Whitey” Gerken of Chicago. Attendance on the beautiful Sunday afternoon was 28,930.

Rodger Ward, who had finished second the year before, narrowly escaped serious injury on the 55th lap of the race when the driveshaft of another car dropped to the pavement and bounced through the windshield of Ward’s car. It landed just a foot away from the driver. Ward left the race five laps later after going into a spin.

Minor accidents and rain cut down the winners’ time (2 hours, 17 minutes and 20 seconds) with 35 of the 200 laps run at reduced speeds under the caution flag.

It was a tough break for Norm Nelson but sweet revenge for Don White of Keokuk, Iowa. Nelson, the national champion in 1960 and runner-up in ’61, was leading by a whopping 23 seconds with only three laps to go in the 200-miler on July 15, 1962. Then, he ran out of gas…

White would take advantage of Nelson’s misfortune and took the lead before “The Great Dane” could refuel his ’62 Ford. Moments later, White would take the checkered flag in his sleek ’62 Zecol-Lubaid Ford, while a disappointed Nelson would have to settle for second.

White knew exactly how Nelson felt. During a 150-mile race in Milwaukee the year before, White was leading a race with only laps to go when he ran out of fuel and Nelson scooted by him for the victory.

White set a pair of records in the event, lowering the old qualifying mark with a time of 37.82 seconds, which erased the old mark (37.90) he set himself in 1961. His average speed 89.13 miles per hour bettered the mark of 88.34 mph set by Nelson in 1960.

A.J. Foyt of Houston, Tex., would finish third, piloting a ’62 Pontiac, while the top five was rounded out by Dick Rathmann behind the wheel of a ’62 Ford, and the defending USAC national champion, Paul Goldsmith, driving a ’62 Pontiac.

A couple of accidents first brought the crowd of 27,270 to their feet and then drew a sigh of relief when there were over. Bob Slensby of Pewaukee, Wis., would lose a tire going into the northeast turn. When the tire came off, so did the brake drum, which was promptly ran over by another car’s wheel and slung at the windshield of Rodger Ward’s car. The drum narrowly missed Ward’s face but the sudden impact caused Ward to spin, sending him crashing into the retaining wall. Ward was more shaken than injured.

The other accident happened almost 100 laps later when Ted Hanes of Chicago went into a corner a little too fast, lost control and stuck the concrete wall. Neil Houston of Des Plaines, Ill., steered sharply, managing to avoid the out of control Hanes. However, as Houston was trying to swerve and miss, Tom Cox of Villa Park, Ill, who was right behind the melee, lost control of his ride, slid sideways into the retaining wall, left the ground and struck two trees directly on the other side of the wall. His car ricocheted off the tree and back on the track, landing on its roof and spilling fuel everywhere. As emergency personnel were tipping the car back on its wheels, a spark ignited the fuel spewed on the asphalt. Fast work by the fire safety crew prevented a major blaze. Fortunately, all of the drivers involved were a bit dazed but uninjured.  

Don White successfully defended his Milwaukee 200 title in 1963.

Defending champion Don White would return to Milwaukee on July 14, 1963, and successfully defend his title, taking the lead on the 120th lap and piloting his 1963 Zecol-Lubaid Ford to victory in the Sunday afternoon matinee.

White, averaging 89.74 miles per hour, put a whipping on the rest of the field, finishing 23 seconds ahead of runner-up Jim McElreath, Arlington, Tex., in the 200-lap race before an announced crowd of 32,659.

Norm Nelson was awarded third place after officials ruled later that A.J. Foyt, the original third place finisher, had been given a shove on the backstretch late in the race. Officials ruled that Foyt, the point’s leader in the USAC national standings and fast qualifier (37.38 seconds) on the day, had been pushed by crewmember Milt Curcio when Foyt’s engine had suddenly stalled. Foyt, driving one of Nelson’s two 1963 Plymouths, was awarded fourth place instead, ahead of Rodger Ward, who drove a 1963 Mercury.

Jim Hurtubise of North Tonawanda, N. Y., was forced out of the race with a burned out piston on the 128th lap. Hurtubise, who had led in his 1963 Ford from the 13th to the 36th lap and again from the 53rd to the 74th, was running second to White when forced out. It was Hurtubise’s first race ever in a late model stock car.

Paul Goldsmith, the defending USAC national champion, and Len Sutton of Portland, Ore., didn’t even get the opportunity to race in the 200-miler. They had been scheduled to drive 1963 Pontiacs for renowned car builder Ray Nichels of Highland, Ind., but two days ago before the big race his agreement with Pontiac had been terminated. He had signed a new agreement with Chrysler but the new cars did not arrive in time.

Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif., the ‘63 Indianapolis 500 winner, finished 27th in the 41-car field after becoming involved in a multi-car pileup. Jones had to make a pit stop and have his front fender sheared and was never a factor.

While the mid-summer 200-mile classic had not been kind to Jones, the rest of the events at Milwaukee during the ’63 season treated him just fine. A 150-mile victory on August 11 would be followed by a 200-mile score four days later during the Wisconsin State Fair. That would set up a 250-mile win in the middle of September. Jones would take that momentum into the 1964 event. 

On July 12th, Jones would run his Milwaukee string to four consecutive victories, edging out teammate Rodger Ward by a mere one second in winning the 200-miler. Jones would win from the pole position after setting a one-lap record in qualifying, touring the famous mile at 100.06 mile per hour (35.97 seconds).

Driving one of the two 1964 Mercury Marauder’s entered by Bill Stroppe of Los Angeles, Calif., Jones averaged 93 mile per hour in winning the event. His earnings were $3,427 from a total purse of $27,750 contributed by a huge crowd of 33,103.  So dominate were the Stroppe cars, that either Jones or Ward led all but seven laps of the event. 

Norm Nelson would finish third, followed by defending race winner Don White (who would lead the other 7 laps of the race) and Whitey Gerken of Melrose Park, Ill. Nelson drove a 1964 Plymouth while White and Gerken wheeled ’64 Ford Galaxy 500’s. The ’64 Indianapolis 500 winner, A. J. Foyt, a prerace favorite at Milwaukee, was forced out when his 1964 Dodge broke an axle on lap 138.

The race, with 33 starters, was halted for 20 minutes after five cars piled up on the 38th lap. The crash sent Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth, Tex., to a hospital for a checkup after he complained of chest pains. The drivers who escaped injury in the accident were Bobby Marshman of Pottstown, Pa.; Lloyd Ruby of Wichita Falls, Tex.; Ralph Baker of Holland, Mich., and Gordon Gorman of Libertyville, Ill.

Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., had always experienced success on his “home track” but a victory in the July classic had always eluded him for one reason or another. That all changed on July 11, 1965.

Nelson, who had experienced heartbreak with only a few laps left in the ’62 event, watched his teammate suffer the same fate, as failing brakes robbed Jim Hurtubise of victory with only one lap left, opening the door for Nelson.

Bobby Isaacs of Catawba, N.C. took starter Duane Sweeney’s green flag and jumped to the lead and held it firmly until lap 62. When Isaacs pitted, Herb Shannon of Peoria, Ill., took over the top spot until he stopped for gas four laps later. Hurtubise took over after that and looked to be in the driver’s seat.

Hurtubise, who had suffered severe burns in an Indy car race at the same track in ’64, could almost smell victory lane, cruising with a comfortable lead and only 10 laps left. But the inevitable would happen, Hurtubise’s brakes would fail a lap later and his tires started wearing quickly thereafter. As much as he tried, Hurtubise was a sitting duck and Nelson’s crew, sensing something wrong with “Herk’s” unstable car, encouraged Nelson to push his ’65 Plymouth; and that’s exactly what he did.

Norm Nelson accepts his trophy after winning the 1965 event.

Nelson caught Hurtubise on the white flag lap, passed him on the backstretch and beat Hurtubise by two seconds to win the 200-mile classic in the time of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 57 seconds. Nelson collected $5,053 in winning Sunday’s race before a crowd of 27,944. Nelson averaged 90.25 miles per hour as the caution flag was raised eight times for a total of 35 miles because of minor accidents.

A.J. Foyt was third in a 1965 Ford and was followed across the finish line by three ‘65 Dodges. They were driven by initial leader Bobby Isaacs; rising star David Pearson of Spartanburg, S.C., and Herb Shannon.

The announcement of the winner drew mixed cheers and boos from the crowd. Nelson, leading the USAC circuit, said, “I’ve never had this many boos for winning but I’m very glad that Plymouth finished one-two.” Hurtubise was gracious in defeat, “My brakes went out and then had I tire trouble. There wasn’t anything I could do but hold on and hope for the best.”

Parnelli Jones, seeking his eighth straight victory in late model stock car racing at State Fair Park, did not finish. His Mercury was disabled in a collision in the 20th lap.

It had been two years since Don White had graced victory lane at Milwaukee and for the Keokuk, Iowa veteran that was plenty long enough. So on July 10, 1966, White let it be known that he still had what it took by winning the 200-mile race in convincing fashion.

White, driving a 1966 Ray Nichels Dodge, was the fastest qualifier among 38 cars at 98.76 miles per hour and then led most of the distance (159 laps) in a winning time of two hours, eight minutes, with a 25-second margin Nelson when the checkers flew.

Nelson had been dominant during the 1966 season having won five consecutive races up to that point. In fact, it was the first victory on the USAC stock car circuit for someone other than Nelson.

White led through the first five laps, regained the lead on the 50th and stayed in front the rest of the way on the mile track collecting a rather nice paycheck at the end ($5,683). 

Nelson, driving a ’66 Plymouth Belvedere, finished second with teammate Jim Hurtubise, also driving a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere, taking third. Hurtubise was the only other driver to spend some time up front, leading 37 laps in the early stages. Canada’s Billy Foster, driving Rudy Hoerr’s ’65 Dodge took fourth and Roger Regeth of Kimberly, Wis., rounded out the top five, piloting a ’66 Ford. 

Don White wasn’t one to hold a grudge, particularly after defending his title at Milwaukee with a split-second victory over Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio in the 200-mile late model stock car race on July 9, 1967. White, however, was irate at Bowsher for what he described as “rough house tactics” during the final few laps of the race.

“He just kept bumping me, said White afterwards, while collecting his $7,075 paycheck. “He shouldn’t race that way. It’s not sportsmanlike. He started chopping on me, banging on me. Maybe he would have won the race, if he had used his head instead of his car.”

The 41-year-old White finished in a State Fair Park record time of two hours, seven minutes and 17 seconds, wheeling his ’67 Dodge Charger home less than a second before Bowsher to end what was called a steel-nerved duel” that began on the 184th lap. The lead changed hands five times in the last 16 miles as the two drivers fought for position on every turn. The Keokuk, Iowa, driver’s average speed was 94.268 miles per hour - a new track record for the 200 miles.

Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., a winner at Soldier Field in Chicago over White with his Plymouth the night before, was third. Mario Andretti, Nazareth, Pa., whose Holman-Moody Ford survived a chilling spinout in the second lap, came back to finish fourth. Al Unser of Albuquerque, N.M. drove Rudy Hoerr’s ’67 Dodge Charger to a sold fifth place showing.

A. J. Foyt dropped out of the race with engine troubles after 16 laps. Parnelli Jones remained in contention through 105 laps before engine troubles sent him into the pits.

The only thing hotter than the weather on Sunday, July 14, 1968 at State Fair Park was A. J. Foyt in his 1968 Ford Torino. The Houston, Texas native stayed cool and drove to an easy win on a hot and humid day.

The temperature at race time was a sizzling 94 degrees, but the thermometer on the track read a scorching 140 degrees and this intense heat took its toll. When Foyt completed his 200 trips around the one-mile oval, only 19 of the starting field of 41 were still running.

“This was the hottest I’ve ever been,” said Foyt, who had blisters on his hands to attest the statement. “When I came in for a pit stop they poured water on me, but it would last about five laps and that was all.”

At the finish Foyt was so far in front it appeared to the casual observer it was a close finish. Because of unexpected pit stops for most of the field, Foyt was better than two laps ahead of the rest of the pack.

Second place finisher Al Unser moved up a notch from third when defending USAC stock car champ Don White blew his engine on the 173rd lap. At the time, White, the defending race champion, was only seconds back of Foyt and the only driver with a shot at catching him.

Foyt’s car was owned by Jack Bowsher, who drove his other Torino to a third place finish. “Bowsher has established himself as a great driver, but he is an even better car builder, said Foyt.

The team of Norm Nelson, Roger McCluskey and Butch Hartman, after McCluskey became overcome by the heat, finished in the fourth and fifth positions. Hartman, the fast qualifier during Saturday’s time trials, gave Foyt a real battle until his car gave out on the 59th lap. At that point, Hartman was leading and had held that position from the opening lap. He then took over in relief of McCluskey on lap 132.

1969 Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser would add a Milwaukee stock car trophy to his mantle.

The final 200-miler of the 1960’s would see a first-time winner in victory lane as Bobby Unser of Albuquerque, N.M., fresh off his Indianapolis 500 win on Memorial Day, would score his first career USAC stock win the easy way and take home the $7,526 top prize.

Unser shot his ‘69 Holman-Moody Ford Torino into the lead with seven laps remaining on the one-mile oval when Jack Bowsher, who had a 26-second lead at the time, stopped to gas his ‘69 Torino when the yellow flag went up. All but the last two of the remaining laps, however, were run under the caution flag and Bowsher had no chance to make up the lost time. He would finish third.

The yellow flag came out for Paul Bauer of Garden Homes, Ill., who blew an engine and then spun into the wall in front of the main grandstand. Don White, driving a ‘69 Nichels Dodge Charger, barely missed Bauer and went on to finish second, two seconds behind Unser. Norm Nelson finished fourth and Bruce Sparrman of Excelsior, Minn., came in fifth. Both were piloting ’69 Plymouth Roadrunners.

Unser, in his very first year of USAC stock car competition, had difficulty himself earlier on the 55th lap. Al Unser, his younger brother driving a ’69 Charger, blew his engine and dumped oil on the south turn. Bobby spun in it and nearly hit the wall, but managed to save it. Roger McCluskey, the USAC point’s leader going into the race, also spun in the black gold, hit the wall in his ‘69 Plymouth Roadrunner and was done for the afternoon.

Larry “Butch” Hartman of Zanesville, Ohio, looked like he was heading for victory when he took the lead on the 133rd lap. He was running strong until the engine on ’69 Dodge Charger blew at the 167 mile mark.

The race was completed by Unser in two hours and seven minutes at an average speed of 94.27 miles per hour. Attendance was 31,774 and the purse was $52,275.

As good as the 200-mile classic was in the 1960’s, the 70’s version would be even better. A new batch of young drivers were waiting and willing to leave their mark on USAC stock car racing and especially the Milwaukee Mile.

But that story will have to wait another day…


  1. I have a picture of a driver sitting in car #64 with what must be his pit crew behind him. The picture was inside of a 1964 Tony Bennenhausen Championship Race program, from Milwaukee, Wi. The program is dated August 23, 1964. The picture is signed: Best Wishes Judy(and can't make out the name of the signature). First name seems to start with an "A" or "N" and end with "io". The last name seems to start with a "D". Could this be a signature of one of the drivers pit crew? And bigger question who is the driver in car #64? Please help!

  2. Bob Christie was in car #64 that day (see link below). I wonder if the signature was of Mario Andretti as he was there racing that day as well.

  3. For the sake of accuracy: In the 1965 race, Parnelli drove a '65 Holman Moody Ford (#40), not a Mercury. In the other races at State Fair Park that season, he drove the #1 H/M Ford.

  4. Look after the precious Milwaukee Race track . It will be great again.

  5. Ahhh, I attended the 61, 62 , 65 and 66 races. And a few days after that first race I headed down to the Zecol Lubaid shop off of Oklahoma Ave and rummaged through their trash pile for damaged parts. As I was looking through the mess of jagged parts, a mechanic came out and handed me a bent up piece of metal and said: here ya go kid; here’s a nice sooo-ve-neeeeer for ya! For many year I treasured that bent up door skin off a Zecol Lubaid 61 Ford. It hung with pride on the garage wall for many years. When we moved my dad put it on top of the “trash box” but it disappeared before trash day. I’ve always wondered who was that next kid who found that racing treasure. Great article. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.