Sunday, November 17, 2013

Skylark was hotbed for racing in 1960’s

Willie Hecke in John Davidson #1 Mighty Mouse was King of outstate Nebraska racing in the 60's. - Bob Mays Collection

By Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. – There were a couple of us racing fans from Kearney, Neb., who would make the two-hour-plus trek on Sunday nights down U.S. Highway 30 a couple of times a year to Columbus to visit arguably the most successful outstate Nebraska track of its day: Skylark Raceway.

Opened in 1961, the quarter-mile racing facility on the east side of Columbus soon became a hotbed of Nebraska racing. When Kearney reopened its fairgrounds track in 1962, racing every other Sunday afternoon, it would usually run the Modified feature (couples and sedans) before the jalopy feature. This enabled Modified drivers like Willie Hecke, Wendell Cummings, Harry Hoff and others to take off to Columbus for Skylark’s Sunday night show.

In 1962, Omaha’s Sunset Speedway and Skylark teamed up to run the Omaha vs. Columbus Challenge, or Midwest Championship. That first race at Skylark on September 1, 1962, saw Sunset veteran Bill Wrich defeat a 50-plus car field representing five states.

The next attempt at Skylark was apparently rained out, but after two races at Sunset won by Jim Wyman (representing Sunset) in 1964 and Lyle Roucka (representing Skylark) in 1967, the series made its final appearance at Skylark on Sept. 16, 1967, with Omaha’s Dave Milbourne picking up the win.

Racing in the Purple and White No. 1 Mighty Mouse car, right, Willie Hecke was the man to beat at Columbus’ Skylark Raceway during the 1960s.- Bob Mays Collection

While Dick Small of Columbus won the first track championship in 1961, the man to beat at Skylark was always Hecke, then racing out of Holdrege. Hecke, behind the wheel of the legendary Purple and White No. 1 Mighty Mouse owned by John Davisson, was the leader for years at Skylark and every other track he raced at in Nebraska.

Other Skylark champions who come to mind are Tom Topil of Rising City, Russ Brahmer of Wisner and Cummings of Hastings. Other Skylark drivers from those days included Gerald Bruggeman, Gene Brudigan, Stan Haack, Milo Stodola, Jim Stewart, Eddie Walther, Red Westerman and Don Smith.

When I returned from the Marines in 1970, I went back to the track (then called Platte Valley Speedway) but it wasn’t the same. The crowd was smaller and so was the car count. It closed in 1973, with the site eventually turned into a feed mill. But in its day Skylark Raceway was the place to be in central Nebraska on Sunday nights.

In 2001, Skylark veteran driver Abe Lincoln built the US30 Speedway and once again Columbus-area drivers had a place to race. After Lincoln’s death, his family has continued the tradition. So while Skylark Raceway may be a ghost track of the past, its legacy lives on in the US30 Speedway.


Friday, November 1, 2013

The All-American 400; In the Beginning

by Kyle Ealy
Nashville, Tenn. - In 1981, All Pro Racing President Bob Harmon and ASA Racing President Rex Robbins met to discuss the possibility of an event which could rightfully be labeled as a “Super Bowl” for the nation’s top short track drivers.

The event would pit the best of the North, representing the American Speed Association, and the best of the South, representing the All-Pro Racing Association. The Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville would provide the setting. 

The event would quickly earn the moniker, “The Civil War on Wheels”… 

The first All-American 400, held on November 1, 1981, was won by a “Southern jockey on a Northern horse” giving both the north and south bragging rights for the inaugural event.
Butch Lindley
Butch Lindley, of Greenville, S.C., won the contest, driving a Dillon GT Racing Camaro out of North Liberty, Ind. Lindley banked $14,625 out of a total purse of $74,000. The two-time NASCAR sportsman champion crossed the finish line 5.5 seconds ahead of polesitter Mark Martin of North Liberty, Ind., at the Nashville International Speedway.

Lindley would lead 204 of the 400 laps. Following Lindley and Martin were Dick Trickle of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., Joe Shear of Twin Lakes, Wis., and Don Sprouse of Greer, S.C. In fact, seven of the top 10 finishers hailed from the north.

Lindley led all but 15 of the last 154 laps, falling behind only when he pitted for a fresh set of tires. Martin did not change tires for the final 270 laps and slowed towards the end of the contest.
Bob Senneker - Photo Courtesy of Len Hayden

Bob Senneker of Dorr, Mich., would lead a Yankee invasion on October 31, 1982, winning the second annual All-American 400 and giving the Northern drivers a 1 – 1 tie with their Southern counterparts. The “Blue Bird” would pocket $13,435 from the posted $80,875 purse.

The weekend activities were spiced by spirited battles for both the ASA and All Pro point championships. Mike Eddy of Midland, Mich., led the ASA standings by one point over Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle by two. Eddy would parlay a fifth place finish into an unprecedented fourth series title.

Meanwhile, defending All-Pro champion Randy Couch held a 20-point advantage over Gary Adams in their battle for the series crown, which would be claimed by Couch after a consistent drive netted him a 11th place finish.

Starting seventh, Senneker ran with the lead pack for the first half of the 400-lapper before making his move following a lap 269 caution, during which all of the frontrunners pitted for fuel and fresh rubber.

Eddy would lead the charge at the green on lap 273 with Butch Miller and Senneker tucked behind. The trio ran bumper-to-bumper around the .596-mile paved oval until Senneker successfully executed an outside pass to get around Miller on lap 281. Senneker then found the rear bumper of Eddy’s ’82 Firebird and four laps later overtook his fellow Wolverine State competitor to take the lead.

Senneker would blister the semi-banked oval for 75 laps until a caution appeared on lap 361 and the top four, Senneker, Freddy Fryar, Butch Miller and Dick Trickle, all ducked into the pit area for service. Senneker would emerge first, followed by Trickle, Miller and Fryar.

Senneker and Trickle would quickly become a two-car tussle as the talented duo ran side-by-side with Senneker on the high side and Trickle down low, much to the delight of the partisan Northern crowd. Senneker led by a scant one-foot margin on lap 372 but managed to open up a two-car length interval by lap 377.

Trickle’s chance for victory and the ASA title came to a premature end on lap 381 when Don Gregory lost the rear tire from his Camaro and darted to the high side of the oval. Senneker narrowly missed the sliding Gregory but Trickle clipped the right rear section of Gregory’s machine and the impact threw Trickle’s car into the turn four retaining wall.

Senneker would gradually build a comfortable margin in the remaining circuits and cross under starter Johnny Pott’s double checkered flags, seven seconds ahead of Butch Miller and Freddy Fryar. Wisconsin’s Jim Sauter who lost a lap early in the race, recovered to take fourth and Mike Eddy would finish fifth.
Jim Sauter in victory lane at Nashville in 1983 - Steve Zimmerman Photo

Jim Sauter would give the Yankees a 2 to 1 advantage in the series after winning the third annual All-American 400 on October 30, 1983. Sauter would out duel fellow cheese head Dick Trickle and defending champion Bob Senneker before a record crowd of 14,000.

Sauter began dogging the front-running Trickle with about 40 circuits remaining in the 400-lap contest. During their battle, the pair frequently ran side-by-side, while protecting their flanks from the charges of Senneker, who tried every possible route in an effort to take the top spot.

Sauter finally inched ahead of Trickle for the lead on lap 395 but a spinout by a backmarker necessitated a caution a lap later. Since All Pro and ASA rules stated that the final five laps must be run under green flag conditions, a scoring hold was placed on the field.

When the green flag finally did wave, Sauter managed to hold off Trickle and win by two car lengths at the checkers with Senneker settling for third. Gary Balough and Butch Miller would finish on the lead lap and round out the top five.

Sauter’s win was his second of the season and netted the father of 11 from Necedah, Wis., $12,200 from an $82,000 in posted rewards.

For Trickle, there was double pressure, as he not only wanted to win, but put as many positions between himself and ASA point leader Rusty Wallace, in hopes of winning the series’ title. Wallace started the event with a 71-point lead over Trickle in their battle for the championship.

After leading the first 58 laps, Wallace slowed when his right rear tire stated losing air. When Wallace was finally forced to pit on lap 83, the virtually flat tire caused him to skid into pit wall, damaging the front nose of his Camaro, which resulted in him falling 7 laps off the pace. Needing to finish no more than 16 positions behind Trickle to clinch the title, Wallace ran all out the remainder of the race and came home 11th to claim the ASA crown.
Gary Balough - Photo Courtesy of Len Hayden

Gary “Hot Shoes” Balough would help the South win the war and even the score, taking the All-American 400 on October 14, 1984. Balough, the fast qualifier for the weekend, was one of six southern drivers to place in the top 10.

Jody Ridley of Chatsworth, Ga., Mark Martin of Batesville, Ark., Mike Alexander of Franklin, Tenn., Steve Grissom of Gadsden, Ala., Darrell Brown of Birmingham, Ala., and Alton Jones of Pleasant Grove, Ala., led a strong Dixie contingent.

Dick Trickle of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., would finish five laps off the pace and couldn’t have been happier. With his ninth place showing, Trickle edged out Bob Senneker by a mere 23 points to claim the ASA national title.

Trickle entered the event 29 markers behind Senneker and needed to finish at least seven positions in front of the “Michigan Bluebird” to pass him in the point’s race. The break Trickle need happened on lap 110 when two cars tangled in front of Senneker ad Mike Eddy. “I was slowing to miss the accident and Eddy hit me from behind,” a disappointed Senneker stated after the race. Senneker would spend 35 laps in the pits with his crew before returning.

Trickle was made aware of Senneker’s misfortune and after analyzing the situation with his crew, decided to use the conservative approach. Trickle would run steady and consistent the remainder of the long-endurance race and would end 11 spots ahead of Senneker to claim he ASA crown.

For Balough, the $13,320 victory was the result of a superb handling car. “The car did anything I wanted it to and we ran strong all day long,” the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., pilot remarked.
Rusty Wallace - Photo Courtesy of Len Hayden

Missouri’s Rusty Wallace and defending race winner Gary Balough would battle it out on a Sunday afternoon before Wallace prevailed in the ASA-All Pro sanctioned All-American 400 on October 13, 1985. Before another record crowd of 16,387, Wallace would edge Balough by 2.5 seconds at the stripe. He earned $11,900 from a nearly $110,000 purse.

Just two seconds behind that pair, the 1985 ASA championship was being decided between defending ASA champion Dick Trickle and his chief rival, Butch Miller. The two veterans came into the race tied for the point’s lead and finding that whoever crossed the line first would be declared the champion.

Trickle would be the first, just one car length ahead of Miller to clinch his second consecutive title. Trickle ended the season with 2,303 points while Miller notched 2,295 markers. Alan Kulwicki, who would finish fifth in the race, placed a distant third in the standings with 2,059 points.

Polesitter and local favorite Mike Alexander commanded the first 11 laps before Balough roared by to take the lead. Balough would preside for nearly 90 laps as the race ran caution free until the first yellow on lap 105.

After the long period of green flag racing, cautions seemed to punctuate the rest of the contest at the rate of every 20 laps, with a total of 16 yellows to occupy 88 laps. Despite the speed up/slow down process, Wallace and Balough were the two strongest teams on the track by far.

Balough would cut a tire and spin on lap 353. Although he would lose a lap to Wallace, he would charge back to pass the leader on the subsequent restart then managed to catch a caution flag on lap 365. Balough then made is way back through the field, rocketed by Kulwicki, Miller and Trickle to claim second pace at the finish.

The race lived up to it’s billing as the “Super Bowl of Short Track Racing.” The event drew 72 entrants, all competing for a spot in the 40-car field. All 40 starters were within one second of each other in qualifying. During the 400 lapper, there were 15 lead changes among seven different drivers.

Gary Balough and Mark Martin would both have reason to celebrate on after the All-American 400 on November 9, 1986. Balough would become the first two-time winner of the prestigious event and Martin would claim his fourth ASA national championship.

The “400” had been originally set for October 12 but was rained out and reset for October 18, which was also rained out. Rescheduled for November 8, it too was rained out but the cooperation from the weather allowed it to be run on the next day.

Both Balough and Martin experienced challenges along the way, with Bobby Dotter giving Balough all he could handle in the race and Martin battling his own car in able to secure enough points for the series’ title.

Dotter, a second generation racer, would hound Balough for the last 100 circuits of the race but was never able to muster enough steam to get by the Florida veteran. During the last 10 laps, Balough expertly used lapped traffic to take away the inside groove from Dotter. With the victory, it allowed Balough to clinch the All-Pro Series point’s title for ’86.

Martin, meanwhile, had been running a steady race hovering in the top five all day when a dead battery in his motor slowed his pace on lap 364. With lost power, he lost 2 laps to the leaders but hung on gamely to finish ninth. That was enough to win the ASA Series’ crown over Dick Trickle. Trickle was 69 markers behind Martin entering the race and needed to finish at least 12 spots in front of the Batesville, Ark., driver. As it was, Trickle’s fifth place finish wouldn’t be enough.

In the closing laps of the seventh annual All-American 400 on October 18, 1987, Mark Martin was in first place. In third place was a driver who was no stranger to the Nashville oval, Darrell Waltrip. With only a few laps to go, there were several other cars between Waltrip and first place.

“I looked up and there were 6 laps left and eight cars between (including second place Randy Crouch) between me and Martin,” Waltrip recalled. “I said to myself, ‘there ain’t no way.’”

One-caution producing crash, a quick tire change and 5 green laps later, Waltrip was basking in victory lane and Martin was wondering what had happened.

The improbable conclusion was set up by a multi-car accident on the front stretch on lap 395. Since rules mandated that the last 5 circuits be run under green, scoring was put to a halt. Crouch and Waltrip would come in for tires during the caution, with Waltrip emerging ahead of his rival to take second place, behind Martin, for the ensuing start.

The new tires enabled Waltrip to get a jump on the lapped cars of Dick Trickle and Butch Miller when the green flag waved and helped the home state pilot pass Martin as they both took the white flag. Waltrip would out sprint Martin to take the $12,265 first place money by one-tenth of a second. Crouch would settle for third to round out the list of lead lap finishers.
Butch Miller

After six top-five finishes in the All-American 400, but no wins to show for it, Butch Miller would finally shed the bridesmaid role in winning the classic on October 16, 1988. Miller would better the 40-car field of ASA, All Pro and ACT (American-Canadian Tour) drivers by leading the last 106 tours and winning by 1.47 seconds over Harold Fair and Scott Hansen to capture $13,350 in prize money. All Pro’s Darrell Brown and ACT’s Junior Hanley trailed the ASA 1-2-3 finish.

Miller, the defending ASA national champion became the seventh different winner of the race and covered the 400 laps in a record 2 hours, 41 minutes and 48 seconds. Ten different drivers swapped the lead 16 times in one of the hardest fought AA 400’s in it’s eight –year history. Miller led the scoring parade with 196 laps led, followed by Dick Trickle (47) and Harold Fair (40. Miller took the top spot for good by passing Fair on lap 295 and later pitted under yellow for two fresh tires with only 48 laps remaining.

Fair took over second only 30 laps from the finish despite a broken air wrench, a flat tire and a broken A-frame. Hansen was hampered the whole afternoon as he could only take on right side tires only because his left side lug nuts had been stripped.

Mid-morning showers would delay the “North – South” shootout by more than two hours. The starting field consisted of 18 ASA drivers, 13 from All Pro and nine from ACT. Harold Fair would start on the pole after setting quick time (19.30 seconds) and Bob Senneker would be hard charger on the day, starting 32nd and finishing an impressive eighth.

Miller would successfully defend his All-American 400 title on October 15, 1989, but would have to jump through hoops to get to victory lane.

Miller would be one of several drivers who had their qualifying times erased following a post-qualifying inspection. Penalized for a rear spoiler being a half-inch too big, Miller would have to start at the rear of the 50-lap qualifying field. The Coopersville, Mich., driver would battle his way to the front of the field and finish fourth, earning him a seventh starting spot in the 400-lap classic.

Miller would remain with the leaders throughout the long-endurance contest, but never lead the event until taking the top spot after a late-race caution. He would lead the final 5 circuits and pocket $12,150 for second straight AA 400 victory. There were 18 lead changes amongst 12 drivers. Miller averaged 78.122 miles per hour in the victory and won by comfortable 4.26 seconds at the checkered flag.

Glenn Allen Jr. of Cincinnati, Ohio and Scott Hansen of Green Bay, Wis., would finish second and third respectively for another ASA top-three sweep of the event. All Pro’s Jody Ridley of Chatsworth, Ga., took fourth and Rich Bickle Jr. of Edgerton, Wis., was fifth. The event, which boasted a purse of $146,078, drew a field of 52 cars.

With an ever-tightening accordion of cars gunning for the lead with less than 10 laps to go, frontrunners Bobby Dotter and Jody Ridley collided in the third turn, also gathering the cars driven by Harold Fair and Kenny Wallace. Miller would slither to the bottom of the track to avoid the mishap, inherit the lead on the lap 396 restart and cruise to the win. 

Gary St. Amant 

Gary St. Amant of Columbus, Ohio, would gamely fight off several late-race charges by Ted Musgrave of Grand Marsh, Wis., to win the 10th annual All-American 400 on October 14, 1990. It would be a 1-2-3 finish for the Chevrolet V-6 and the American Speed Association as newly-crowned series’ champion Bob Senneker finish third.

The top three were followed by All Pro point leader Jody Ridley, home-state hero David Green of Goodlettsville, Junior Hanley, and ASA rookie Tim Steele of Marne, Mich. They all went the full 400-lap distance.

St. Amant, who became the eighth different winner of the event, collected $11,430 out of a total purse of $150,000. His victory touched off a boisterous celebration in front of more than 19,000 fans. “This is my biggest win ever,” St. Amant said. “I didn’t think we could do it. I was worried every lap.”

Eight drivers swapped the lead for a near-record 16 lead changes. St. Amant spun on lap 275 but preserved his winning chances by narrowly avoiding being lapped by Musgrave, who led for 65 circuits.

Two-time and defending winner Butch Miller encountered a collapsed jack on an early pit stop and later recovered from a black flag penalty for using two jacks before suspension failure ended his day on lap 306.

After the 1990 All-American 400, a big change was in store for the race. No longer would the prestigious event be sanctioned by the ASA and All-Pro Racing.

The NASCAR All-Pro Series would take over sanctioning duties and continue until 2006 when ASA and CRA (Central Racing Association) regained control.

Still today, the All-American 400 is considered one of the premier short track events in the nation.