Thursday, January 16, 2014

Remembering Sunset Speedway: The only place to be on Sunday Night!!

By Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - It has been over 12 years since the City of Omaha grew out to Sunset Speedway in Northwest Omaha and forever silenced the engines after 44 years of competition. The final Sunset occurred on October 8, 2000 with the last race being the Con Agra Cornhusker Classic 100 sanctioned by the NASCAR Busch All Star Tour Series.

Sunset Speedway was the creation of Albert Hadan. Al was a gear head, and motors and cars were his passion. After a stint as a driver and builder of stock cars, he decided that he wanted to build a racetrack to the specifications that the local drivers wanted. In 1954, he set this plan in motion along with his brother August and by 1956 the blue prints had been drawn up for a quarter-mile racetrack and the location was to be 2 miles west of Irvington, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha. The grandstands would face to the west providing race fans with the most beautiful sunsets.

On May 26, 1957 the first race was held at Sunset and the winner was Glenn Robey, who in 2010 is still racing at the young age of 79, the eighth decade in which he has raced. It became the place to be in the Omaha area on Sunday evenings for the next 44 years. First it was the coupes and sedans and over time those cars were replaced by the popular late model class, and various support classes.

In 1969 the track was sold to a couple of Council Bluffs businessmen named Lyle Kline and Gaylen Brotherson, who improved the facility and added several special events. In 1972 it was the Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge. Who can ever forget the 1977 Cornhusker Hawkeye ran on a Sunday afternoon because of being rained out the previous evening? It ended up being a race between two Iowa racing legends, Curt Hansen and Ed Sanger. Hansen would pass Sanger on the final turn to win the race.

In 1973 two more specials were added; the Spring Invitational and the Nebraska Triple Crown featuring Late Models, Modifieds and Super Modifieds/Sprint Cars. The Spring Invitational would be a staple at the track for many years and who else but Ed Sanger won the inaugural event. The Triple Crown lasted just five years, but we still remember the legendary Jan Opperman behind the wheel of the Speedway Motors 4x Sprint Car blitzing the field in the 1975 version.

In April, 1976 the track was sold to Larry Kelley and the track would remain in the Kelley family for the rest of its history with Larry’s wife Sharon and son Craig taking over the promotion in 1990. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Kelley’s transformed Sunset into one of the premier short tracks in the country with weekly crowds averaging 4,000 fans or more.

On April 18, 1982 the World of Outlaws made their first stop at Sunset with Steve Kinser getting the win after Doug Wolfgang was disqualified for changing a tire on the race track. On July 3, 1986 the NASCAR Busch All Star Tour made the first of many stops it would make over the years at the legendary speed plant. Fittingly, Joe Kosiski would win the race.

During the 1990’s Sharon and Craig Kelley would make the track into one of the finest facilities in the country. Running three classes of cars; Late Models, Grand National (Limited Late Models) and Pro Ams (Street Stocks), you could count on at least 30 cars in every class. If you won the late model feature one week, it wasn’t unusual for you to have to run one of two B features the next week just to make the feature.

The Kelley’s instituted a number of innovations that helped to provide for a good, timely evening of racing. They used 4WD Pickup Track Packers to prepare the track on time, without using race cars. Point average inversions produced better heat and feature races. On a yellow flag the cars were stopped, realigned and sent on their way making for faster restarts and had perhaps the best fire and safety crew, equipment and safety rules in the industry. The Kelley’s were nominated 3 different times for the national Auto Racing Promoter of the year award.

One thing seemed to never change at Sunset no matter who ran the facility. It was still a close drive from anywhere in Omaha, the Sunset Inn was famous for its broasted chicken and the grandstands were very close to the track and you could literally feel the action and look into the driver’s eyes.

Another thing that did not seem to change at Sunset was that the last name of many of the drivers never seemed to change. There always seemed to be a couple of Robeys and Tilleys, some Jorgensen’s, plenty of Zeitners, a Wyman or two and of course the ever present Kosiski clan which hauled out more track championships than anyone can count.

But it all came to an end that October day 10 years ago with that final race. It was a bitter sweet day/night. It was a great day for racing but it would be the final event ever held at the track. A week before the area racing community had lost Dwight Wrich (son of former Sunset Speedway Champion Bill Wrich) in a fiery crash in Iowa. As the sun began to set in the west fans began to feel a knot in their stomach’s, knowing it would be the final time they saw the sun set at Sunset Speedway.

Fittingly the winner of the last race at Sunset was named Kosiski; Joe Kosiski to be exact. After all, no other family had dominated the racing at Sunset the way the Kosiski family had. Taking the lead ironically on lap 53 from veteran Gary Webb, Kosiski would win the 100-lap affair with Darren Miller second and Steve "Ace" Ihm third.
”I have so many memories of Sunset.” says former track announcer Stan Cisar Jr. “Those emotional first wins by Howard Koziol and Scott Koskovich. Koskovich hitting the edge of a billboard in turn three and cutting his car in two. The epic battles between Dave Chase and the Kosiski’s, and later Kyle Berck and the Kosiski’s. The list just goes on and on.”

As long time Sunset fan Ron Meyer wrote in his 2006 Dirt Late Model Story on Sunset; “I sat in the same section at the track for years. I should have cut out the plank I sat on before they tore down the grandstands. I swear it had an impression of my butt,” recalled Meyer.

If you talk to people in the Omaha area, they all have a story about Sunset; even if they weren’t race fans at some point in their lives they went to Sunset. They remember cars going off the backstretch into the trees and usually showing up a couple of minutes later at the pit gate in turn four.

They remember Roger Hadan’s horrific crash in turn three with the car separating at the firewall. Miraculously Hadan did not suffer any injuries. “I was knocked out and when I came to there were all these flashlights shining and I thought I was gone.” remembers Hadan. “Then I saw Speedy (Hill, the longtime Sunset Safety Chief), and I said, 'What are you doing in my car.'” The car was totally separated and Hill was standing next to Hadan’s leg.

They remember Bob Parker and Bud Burdick winning in the early years, the great battles between Bob Kosiski and Jim Wyman in the early 60’s. They remember Ed Kosiski on his way to winning the Busch All Star race in the early 90’s running so high through turns three and four that they thought he would knock down the outside wall at any time.

Avid Sunset race fan Wayne Cue remembers the night Bill Martin rode down the entire length of the front stretch retaining wall with sparks flying everywhere. Recently an “I Remember Sunset Speedway” Facebook site was set up and it quickly had over 1,250 members, many sharing their memories of Sunset.

But most of all they remember that Sunset Speedway was only place to be on a Sunday night!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ernie Derr – Season by Season

The Legendary Ernie Derr - Photo Courtesy of Sal Picalo

Keokuk, Iowa - One of the greatest stock car drivers the Midwest, and perhaps the United States, Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa, passed away on January 8. This a season by season recap of Ernie Derr; a man who dominated the racing scene like no one else.

Comprised by Auto Racing Analysis

Stock car legend Ernie Derr was by far the most dominant driver in the IMCA Stock Car series from 1952 through 1971, amassing 12 IMCA national titles and posting 339 IMCA race wins as documented by Auto Racing Analysis from microfilmed IMCA records, National Speed Sport News, Illustrated Speedway News, and Speed Age. All told, from 1951 through 1975, Ernie Derr amassed a total of 358 race wins, with his 339 IMCA victories joined by 11 wins in ARCA (first known as MARC), three in USAC Stock Car series competition, and five unsanctioned non-series wins.

Derr won at least one race every year from 1951 through 1955 and from 1957 through 1975, giving him 24 total years with at least one race win and a streak of 19 consecutive years (1957-1975) with at least one race victory. Although the vast majority of his race wins came on dirt, he scored nine paved track victories as well.

Derr was a double-digit race winner (10 or more wins) in 17 seasons, won 20 or more races in a season 10 times, and won 31 races in a season twice (1959 and 1962).

Ernie Derr’s wins were achieved on 64 tracks in 18 states. Derr won 157 races driving Dodges, 137 at the wheel of Pontiacs, scored 48 wins driving Oldsmobiles, won 15 times in Plymouths, and scored one win piloting a Mercury. By corporation, he won 185 races wheeling GM products, took 172 races driving MOPAR products, and won once in a FOMOCO brand.

Derr achieved 73 win streaks during his career. He posted one astounding 15-race win streak, two eight-race win streaks, two seven-race win streaks, one six-race win streak, five five-race win streaks, eight four-race win streaks, 24 three-race win streaks, and 30 two-race win streaks.

1950 marked the beginning of Ernie Derr’s racing career; he ranked seventeenth in 1950 IMCA Stock Car points. In 1951 Derr scored his first win on July 1 in an IMCA Stock Car 250-lapper at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines driving a Mercury. The victory was to be his only triumph driving a FOMOCO product! Derr finished fifth in IMCA Stock Car points that season.

Derr won eight IMCA Stock Car races in 1952 driving an Oldsmobile, achieving his first two-race win streak and later a three-race win streak. He finished second in IMCA Stock Car point standings to champion Dom Perlick, also driving an Oldsmobile. Perlick won 16 races in 1952.

Ernie Derr won the 1953 IMCA Stock Car championship title, scoring 16 wins in the 59-race season at the wheel of his Oldsmobile. Derr achieved three two-race win streaks in 1953. Derr’s brother-in-law Don White, also driving an Oldsmobile, was runner-up for the title. White posted 17 race wins but had only one in the final 19 races of the season compared to six wins during the period for Derr.

Also in 1953, Derr made his only start in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, contesting the August 2 Davenport Speedway race in Iowa. He placed eleventh in a race won by Herb Thomas.

In 1954, Don White won the IMCA Stock Car title with Derr placing second in points. White won 28 races in the 55-race season in his Oldsmobile while Derr drove his Oldsmobile to “only” 12 wins. Derr achieved two three-race win streaks in 1954.
In 1955, Ernie Derr expanded his efforts and ran MARC (now ARCA) races in addition to IMCA. IMCA officials retaliated by stripping Derr of his points and thus he had no ranking in the IMCA Stock Car point standings that year despite the fact he won six sanctioned races driving his Oldsmobile. Derr won six MARC (ARCA) races in 1955 wheeling his Oldsmobile, taking victory at Lakewood in Atlanta, Georgia, scoring four wins in Ohio (twice at the Ohio State Fairgrounds plus single wins at Toledo Raceway Park and Dayton Speedway) and a win at Heidelberg Raceway in Pennsylvania. His final win of 1955, on August 17 at the Louisa County Fairgrounds in Columbus Junction, Iowa in IMCA competition, was the 49th of his career and his 48th and final victory behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile.

1956 produced no race victories for Derr as a mixed schedule of IMCA, MARC (ARCA) and USAC Stock Car racing saw him rank thirteenth in USAC points and thirtieth in IMCA. Derr did post some notable runner-up race finishes including seconds in the Dayton and Canfield MARC (ARCA) races and runner-up IMCA finishes at the Missouri, Minnesota, and Iowa State Fairgrounds events.

June 23, 1957 produced the 50th win of Derr’s career, the victory coming at the wheel of his new mount, a 1957 Pontiac, at the McLeod County Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, Minnesota. Derr scored five 1957 IMCA race wins, finishing the season fourth in IMCA Stock Car points behind champion Johnny Beauchamp (runner-up finisher in the 1959 Daytona 500), Bob Burdick, and Don White. Beauchamp dominated the 1957 IMCA season in his 1957 Chevrolet, taking 34 wins.

Ernie Derr returned to double-digit win status in 1958, taking 14 wins in the 59-race IMCA season. Ernie posted two three-race win streaks and won the long-distance events at Hawkeye Downs, the Minnesota Fairgrounds, and at Shreveport’s Louisiana State Fairgrounds in his Pontiac. Derr finished second in IMCA Stock Car points to champion Don White. Driving Fords, White won 25 races including eight in a row before Derr ended the streak with his own three-race win streak at season’s end.

Ernie Derr began a streak of four consecutive IMCA Stock Car championship titles in 1959 with his second title. Derr won 31 races in the 55-race IMCA season at the wheel of his Pontiac, and with his November 1, 1959 win at Shreveport’s Louisiana State Fairgrounds, his thirty-first win of 1959 ran his career total to 99 wins and his IMCA career total to 93. Derr amassed 11 win streaks in 1959 including four three-race win streaks. Dick Hutcherson, another Pontiac pilot, won five times and was the runner-up for the point title.

The 1960 IMCA Stock Car season began April 3 at Shreveport’s Louisiana State Fairgrounds and Derr scored the victory, win #100 of his career. Derr went on to wheel his Pontiac to 22 wins, amassing six win streaks during the 46-race season. Ford driver Ramo Stott was the runner-up for the title, taking 10 wins.

Ernie Derr - 1961

Ernie Derr took his third consecutive IMCA Stock Car title in 1961, driving his Pontiac to another 22 IMCA wins, this time in a 52-race season. Derr achieved four win streaks, including two three-race streaks and six consecutive wins at the conclusion of the season. Ford drivers Dick Hutcherson and Ramo Stott finished second and third in points. Stott won 12 races and Hutcherson earned eight victories as the Ford duo combined for 20 wins, two short of Derr’s 22 for Pontiac.

Derr concluded 1961 with a MARC (ARCA) victory in a 250-lapper at Birmingham International Raceway in Alabama. The win counted for the 1962 MARC season. He then won the March 4, 1962 Lakewood Speedway MARC race, giving him his first-ever win streak in MARC (ARCA) competition. On March 18, 1962 Derr scored his first paved track win, taking the MARC (ARCA) series victory at Meyer Speedway in Houston, Texas.

The 1962 IMCA Stock Car season opened April 29 at Shreveport’s Louisiana State Fairgrounds, and Derr drove his Pontiac to victory for his seventh consecutive IMCA win, and won again at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 6 to run his victory skein to eight! Derr won 28 IMCA races during the 51-race season to achieve his fourth consecutive Stock Car title. Along the way he ran his career victory total to 175 and his IMCA win total to 165. As in 1961, Dick Hutcherson finished second in 1962 points and Ramo Stott third. Ford drivers Hutcherson and Stott each achieved six race wins and their 12 wins for Ford again fell short of Derr’s 28 for Pontiac.

Derr also took victory in the October 14, 1962 ARCA race at Lakewood Speedway in Georgia in a race counting for the 1963 ARCA season. The win was his tenth in ARCA competition. Earlier in the year, Derr competed in ARCA’s April 1, 1962 Virginia International Raceway road course event, placing twelfth!

Dick Hutcherson ended Ernie Derr’s title streak at four seasons by taking the 1963 IMCA Stock Car title. Hutcherson drove his 1963 Ford to 31 race wins during the 60-race season, putting away the title with a 10 wins in 11 races stretch from August 3 through August 18. Derr, in his final year driving Pontiacs, won 11 races and ranked second in points. Derr’s 137th and final win driving a Pontiac came in the September 21, 1963 IMCA race at Hutchinson Fairgrounds in Kansas. The win was the 186th of his career and his 176th in IMCA competition.

1964 began a new era for Ernie Derr as he switched to MOPAR products. Ernie drove a 1963 Dodge in ARCA competition at Daytona, finishing fourth in his qualifying race and second in the 250-mile main event to NASCAR star Nelson Stacy’s 1964 Ford! ARCA great Iggy Katona finished third behind Derr.

Derr won the March 22, 1964 ARCA event at Meyer Speedway in Houston (his second career paved track win) driving a Dodge. Derr then won the 1964 IMCA season-opener April 19 at the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in a Dodge. Ernie then switched to 1964 Plymouth entries, scoring his first Plymouth victory in the May 17, 1964 Hawkeye 250 in Cedar Rapids. Derr won 15 IMCA races, achieving three win streaks including one four-race win skein. Ernie fell to third in IMCA points in 1964, behind champion Dick Hutcherson and runner-up Ramo Stott. Hutcherson won 30 races (including a nine-race win streak) in the 57-race 1964 season in his 1964 Ford. Stott won 12 races in a 1964 Plymouth as the Stott-Derr MOPAR combination racked up 27 wins to Hutcherson’s 30 Ford victories. Derr achieved a milestone, the 200th win of his career, with his second victory of August 16, 1964 in Mason City, Iowa, at the North Iowa Fairgrounds.

After a year of familiarization with the MOPAR products, Derr, aided by the support of fellow Auto Racing Analysis profile subject Ronney Householder, now a top racing executive with Chrysler Corporation, bounced back to win the 1965 IMCA Stock Car title, the beginning of a seven-year streak of Ernie Derr IMCA Stock Car titles driving Dodges.

Derr won 21 of the 38 IMCA Stock Car races driving 1965 Dodges. Ernie opened the season with two wins; amassed six two-race win streaks and one three-race win streak, and won the season finale. Derr ended 1965 with 223 career victories and 212 wins in IMCA competition. Ramo Stott was the runner-up for the 1965 title; Stott won 15 races in a 1965 Plymouth as MOPAR dominated the series.

Derr contested the 1966 Daytona ARCA race in a Dodge, finishing fourth behind winner Jack Bowsher, runner-up Ramo Stott, and Andy Hampton.

Ernie scored 21 IMCA wins in the 38-race season for the second consecutive year in 1966 en route to his second consecutive and seventh total IMCA title. Derr achieved a five-race win streak in July and a seven-race September-October win streak. On September 3 he scored his first IMCA paved track victory by taking the 300-lap event at the Minnesota Fairgrounds in St. Paul. He then won the September 5 Minnesota Fairgrounds 500-lap classic for his fourth career paved track win. Ramo Stott again was runner-up for the title, again winning 15 races in a Plymouth.

Ernie Derr at Des Moines - 1967 - Kyle Ealy Collection

Ernie Derr’s 1967 IMCA Stock Car title-winning season was comprised of 26 race wins in the 40-race season at the wheel of his Dodges. Derr won the season’s first three races and later achieved three-race, five-race, three-race, and six-race win streaks before winning the final three races of the season. He scored two 250-win milestones, in overall wins and in IMCA Stock Car wins, during 1967, and ended 1967 with 270 career wins and 259 IMCA Stock Car race victories. Ramo Stott was again the runner-up for the title, this time with nine wins in his Plymouth stockers.

Ernie Derr’s 1968 IMCA Stock Car title, his fourth consecutive, featured 19 race wins in a 36-race season. The season started slowly for Derr, as Ramo Stott won the season-opener at Devils Bowl with Derr taking the season’s second race before Stott won the next two events. Derr then won the season’s fifth race but Verlin Eaker then won race six and Stott race seven so that after seven races Stott had four wins to Derr’s two. Derr then won five consecutive races, from June 16 through July 21. Derr posted a four-race win streak from August 31 through September 5 and another four-race win streak from September 22 through October 20. Stott ended the season with seven wins.

Derr’s 1968 win total was augmented by two non-sanctioned Late Model wins at the Iowa Fairgrounds in Des Moines on May 4 and May 11, 1968.

Ernie Derr’s fifth consecutive IMCA Stock Car title, earned in 1969, was the result of an amazing 25 race wins in a 30-race season, or 83.33%. Derr and his Dodge racers achieved 1969 win streaks of four, seven, and 12 races as he won the final 12 races of the 1969 IMCA season. Ford pilot Fred Horn was point’s runner-up; he won only one race. The other four races of the 1969 season were won by Ole Brua (two wins), Verlin Eaker, and Marv Marzofka (winner of the August 24 Minnesota Fairgrounds 300 driving a 1967 Mercury Cyclone). Derr ended 1969 with 317 career race wins and 304 IMCA Stock Car race victories.

Derr began the 1970 season with three consecutive IMCA Stock Car race wins, running his IMCA Stock Car win streak to 15 consecutive race victories, from August 30, 1969 through May 17, 1970. Fred Horn ended the streak by winning the May 30, 1970 Mid-America Fairgrounds race in Topeka, Kansas! Derr won 20 of the 30 IMCA Stock Car races en route to his eleventh IMCA title and sixth consecutive. He achieved two four-race and one five-race 1970 IMCA Stock Car race win streaks. Ron Hutcherson took the runner-up spot in 1970 points, driving his Ford to three race victories. Fred Horn also took three wins. Freddy Fryar took four wins, all at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.

Ernie Derr’s twelfth and final IMCA Stock Car title came in 1971. Ernie won 16 races during the 31-race season. Derr achieved 1971 IMCA win streaks of four races twice, one of three races, and also posted one two-race win streak. He ended the season with 353 career race victories and 339 IMCA Stock Car race wins, the final IMCA victory coming in the 1971 season finale on October 31, the Louisiana Fairgrounds 150 in Shreveport.

Ron Hutcherson was the point runner-up for the second consecutive year in 1971 with five wins in his Fords. Ernie Derr’s son Mike scored his first IMCA victory on August 22, 1971 at the Missouri Fairgrounds in Sedalia as the torch passed to the next generation of the Derr family in IMCA Stock Car racing.

Ernie Derr broke new ground in 1972, however, taking his first USAC Stock Car win as he drove a Dodge to victory in the May 7 Missouri Fairgrounds event. Derr also won a 75-lap non-sanctioned Late Model race at Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in Springfield, Missouri on August 13.

Derr’s USAC Stock Car efforts in 1973 were more extensive, and while not producing a race win did place Derr eighth in the point standings. Notable finishes included runner-up results in races at the Missouri Fairgrounds and Hawkeye Downs and third-place finishes at Knoxville, the Indiana Fairgrounds, and Du Quoin.

Derr’s sole 1973 race win documentable by our research came in an unsanctioned September 23 race at Twin City Speedway in Champaign, Illinois in the track’s inaugural race program!

Ernie Derr’s 1974 USAC Stock Car campaign was his most extensive yet in that series and resulted in a sixth-place point ranking. Derr won the July 28 Terre Haute race in a Dodge and posted runner-up race finishes at Knoxville, the Missouri Fairgrounds (twice), Terre Haute (June 2), and the Shawano Fairgrounds.

1975 saw Ernie Derr put his final race win in the record book as he won the July 3 Iowa State Fairgrounds 150-lap USAC Stock Car race driving a Dodge. This 358th win of his career was also his third and final USAC Stock Car win. Derr ranked twenty-fourth in 1975 USAC Stock Car points.

Ernie Derr won races on 64 different tracks. He won the most races, 36, on the Louisiana State Fairgrounds in Shreveport. Twenty-seven wins were posted on the Iowa State Fairgrounds track in Des Moines. Derr won 18 races at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and won 18 races at the Minnesota Fairgrounds in St. Paul. Derr scored 16 wins at Madison Speedway in Minnesota and 16 victories at the MId-America Fairgrounds in Topeka, Kansas.