Monday, September 16, 2013

1978 – Eaker cops first Yankee Dirt Track Classic

Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Sept. 16, 1979) – Electric! That was the best way to describe the 1st Annual Yankee Dirt Track Classic at Hawkeye Downs’ half-mile semi-banked oval.

No matter where you looked that Saturday night, there was an air of electricity.

-     A jam-packed grandstand was buzzing with excitement from the first heat right through to the big 100-lap feature.

-      The pit area was electric with the task of qualifying for the feature race.

-      Finally, the sky was electric, literally, with a pending rain shower. Lightning flashed in sky overhead, not too far west of the track but everyone was hopeful the feature would be completed.

It was finished, but barely and not to the full contingent of laps.

Part of the stage for the $25,000 classic had been set the night before during time trials. Ninety late models drivers drew numbers for qualifying position and less than a handful were unable to time for one reason or another. It was ironic; perhaps, that the last qualifying number was drawn by Mike Frieden, whose father Al Frieden and Uncle Jim Brown co-promoted Hawkeye Downs.

The field was star-studded, no doubt about that – names like Sanger, Hansen, Hoffman, Dolan, Merryfield, Walton, Dake, Eaker, Horn, Rice and Gary Crawford dotting the line-up. All those drivers and 80 others took their two attempts at qualifying but the best they could do was simply not good enough.

Mike Niffenegger, veteran pilot form Kalona, Iowa, stood the crowd on its collective feet with a run of 23:497, nearly two-tenths of a second better than the track record set only a couple of months ago by Ed Sanger.

Out front all the way in the feature was another veteran, Verlin Eakers of Mechanicsville, Iowa. Eaker knows Hawkeye Downs Speedway as well or better than any driver in Iowa. He needed and used every bit of that knowledge and got a little bit of help from the weather man in the end.

Eaker had sixth fastest time the night before and consequently was guaranteed a starting position in the feature. He started on the pole as the first six fastest were inverted. He came around first after one lap and came around first on the next 88 laps of the race before rain halted things. He picked up $5,000 for winning and a sizeable chunk of lap money to boot.

But the guy who came in second – where did he come from?

Well, he came all the way from Dahlonega, Georgia, to begin with and the 12th starting position in the feature grid to end with. Doug Kenimer wasn’t much of a threat in the early going with all of the local hot shoes in pursuit of Eaker. But, one-by-one the locals began to drop out. Hansen left with problems, then Sanger, Hoffman, and Walton among others. Out of nowhere, it seemed, there was Kenimer. He passed Bill Rice, He passed Roger Dolan. He passed Fred Horn and that left him only Verlin Eaker.

Circuit after circuit they race bumper to bumper, neither giving an inch. Finally, with a grandstand full of fans standing and screaming, it began to sprinkle. Then, it began raining. The cars were stopped on the front stretch. Promoter Al Frieden walked over to Kenimer’s car, asked him about racing conditions and called the race complete.

“It was getting to slick to race,” Kenimer said, “and that’s what I told Al.” A smiling Eaker agreed. “It was pretty bad out there when it started sprinkling. It should have been stopped.”

“I knew what Verlin would say, laughed Frieden, “that’s why I asked Doug first.”

But the finish left questions unanswered. Could Eaker have held off a ferocious charge by Kenimer for 11 more laps? Could Kenimer have found enough track to get around?

No one will ever know.

Results -

  1. Verlin Eakers
  2. Doug Kenimer
  3. Fred Horn
  4. Roger Dolan
  5. Bill Rice
  6. Denny Osborn
  7. Joe Merryfield
  8. John Connolly
  9. Brent Laursen
  10. Tom Hearst
  11. Jim Curry
  12. Karl Sanger
  13. Jim Roberts
  14. Bill Zwanziger
  15. Rocky Hodges

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