Monday, February 24, 2014

The IMCA Big Cars Invade the Belleville High Banks

Frank Luptow in the Bardahl Special - Don Radbruch Collection

by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - On July 1, 1951, the IMCA Big Cars invaded the Belleville High Banks for what would be the first of a decade long series of races at the famed facility. In some years during that decade the series would race the legendary high banks as many as four times.

The crowd of nearly 7,000 fans on July 1 would certainly get their monies worth as three IMCA World records would not only be broken but shattered. A fourth record would certainly have fallen if not for a serious incident in the east corner.

Frank Luptow of Tampa, Florida, the two-time and defending IMCA champion (who would run away with the 1951 title) quickly got things started in time trials when he drove his famous #9 Offenhauser around the half-time high banks turning a lap of 20.14 which broke the then existing IMCA half-mile record by an astonishing 3.4 seconds.

Luptow would then follow this up by winning the first heat and breaking the IMCA record for 7 laps (3.5 miles) by over 9 seconds. The new record did not stand for long however as Bobby Grim of Indianapolis, Indiana wheeled the soon to be legendary Hector Honore #2 around the 7 laps of heat two in an incredible time of 2 minutes 34.5 seconds shattering Luptow’s time by 14 seconds. Things were a bit slower when Art Dischinger of Independence, Missouri won the third heat in a time that was 18 seconds slower than Grim’s new record.

After Fritz Tegtmeier won the 3-lap invitational handicap, Indianapolis’ Jack Ryan set a new IMCA record for 8 laps in winning the semi-feature in 3 minutes 14.40 seconds, 8 seconds faster than the existing record for that distance.

A new track record would most likely have been set in the 20-lap feature had it not been for a fourth lap incident where Russ Beighley of Lincoln, Nebraska got into the east fence and took out a 40 foot section. Beighley was taken to the local hospital but was later released. Luptow would win the feature event with Grim second and Herschel Wagner finishing third.

On August 28 Luptow and the IMCA Big Car drivers returned to Belleville for the North Central Kansas Free Fair Races and Luptow and his famed #9 left with another IMCA record. In the 20-lap feature Luptow shattered the IMCA record that distance by over 18 seconds. Luptow would outdistance Bobby Grim and Bill Holland of Reading, Pennsylvania to win the feature event. Grim would set fast time but nearly a half second off Luptow’s 20.14 while Luptow, Grim and Edgar, Nebraska’s Gordon Shuck won heats.

Two days later the fans were back at Belleville expecting a great three-way battle between Luptow, Grim and Holland. Unfortunately, that did not happen. First, Luptow burned out a wheel bearing and did not race in the feature and then after battling Holland for 12 laps in the feature, Grim blew a tire and Holland (the 1949 Indianapolis 500 winner) drove away to the win.

Former Indy 500 winner Bill Holland had considerable success at Belleville. 

The Big Cars returned to Belleville on May 30, 1952, on what was to become an annual Memorial Day tradition at the High Banks. An estimated 5,000 fans turned out for the event. Many of the same drivers from the year before were on hand once again including Bill Holland. Holland returned behind the wheel of the Blue Crown Special and would not only win the feature for the second straight time at Belleville but also lower the 20-lap IMCA record by 8 seconds turning the distance in 7 minutes 14.26 seconds.

Holland did not win without stiff competition, however. First it was Bates City, Missouri’s Jimmy Campbell who put up a fierce battle for 12 laps before dropping out of the race with falling oil pressure. After Campbell’s demise, Kansas City’s Bob Slater behind the wheel of the #42 Heath Offy moved up to battle Holland, pulling his cream and maroon ride up beside Holland several times but failing each time to make the pass.

Slater would end up settling for second in the feature with Illinois’ Charley Irons in third. Earlier in the day, Holland, Slater and Irons had captured heat race wins. Mac McHenry of Wichita took the match race aboard the Les King Offy and Linton, Indiana’s Lowell Blume won the semi. One driver who had a disappointing afternoon was Bobby Grim who broke a crankshaft in the Honore Offy during hot laps and was forced to set out the days’ action.

A Big Car race scheduled for the High Banks on June 26 was apparently rained out.

On August 26 the Big Cars returned to Belleville for two days of racing during the Fair and Bill Holland made it three in a row taking the Blue Crown Special to victory lane once again. Holland would win the 20-lap event in 7 minutes 45.53 seconds with Bobby Grim finishing second and Herschel Wagner third. Earlier in the day Grim had set fast time with Holland a close second. Heats went to Don Branson of Urbana, Illinois, Holland and Phil Mocca of St. Louis.

Two days later the Big Cars returned for their second fair date and finally somebody put a stop to the Bill Holland win streak. Jimmy Campbell brought his Offy home in first place before another standing room crowd. As could be expected right on Campbell’s heels were Bill Holland and Bobby Grim who finished second and third in a feature that it was later determined was given the checkered flag one lap earlier eliminating any chance of a new record.

Earlier in the day Jimmy Wegescheider had won the first heat and the match race with the other heats going to Don Branson and Gordon Shuck. The semi feature was won by Phil Mocca.

During the first two years of IMCA Big Car racing at the Belleville High Banks, action had pretty much been dominated by Frank Luptow and then Bill Holland. But looming on the horizon was a crafty old mechanic, two drivers and a Black Offenhauser that was about to race themselves into racing history. From 1953 through the last IMCA Big Car race at Belleville in 1963 one word could be used to describe their performance. DOMINATION!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The 'Big-Time' Arrives at Kaukauna

Before a standing room only crowd, big-time auto racing invades Kaukauna, Wisconsin. - Bob Bergeron Collection
By Kyle Ealy
Kaukauna, Wis. – When the gates opened to KK Sports Arena on June 2, 1968, it meant the beginning of a new era of “big-time” auto racing in the Fox Valley area and, at the same time, climaxed a building program which started four years earlier – at a cost of approximately $600,000.

What started out in 1964 as 200 acres of grass, hills, and woodlands owned by a farmer became the site of a quarter-mile and figure-8 track, a half-mile track surrounding it, and a quarter-mile drag strip.

The facility’s new paved half-mile track had a surrounding 4-foot high concrete wall , 12-foot high banks, caution lights on the corners, painted lanes, and a “double-kiss” rail on the inside. The track featured 70 foot wide curves and 65 foot wide straightaways. The new model stock cars would be the showcase and speeds in the range of 110 to 120 miles per hour on the straightaway and an average 85-90 miles per hour overall were expected.

There was permanent seating for 11,000 fans in the grandstand and room for perhaps 14,000 more on surrounding hillsides for the quarter-mile and half-mile events, while the bleachers along the drag strip held around 8,500 and hillsides that could accommodate 12,000 to 15,000 overall.

Looking over the brand-new KK Sports Arena are Joe Van Daalwyk (far left), Connie DeLeeuw (pointing), Ron Leek (second from right) and USAC official Henry Banks (far right).

It was started by three men, two of whom had been long-time residents of the Fox Cities area.  The president of arena KK Sports Arena functions, and also of events at the Great Lakes Dragway at Union Grove, was 46-year-old Joe Van Daalwyk, who owned his own construction company and several land developments.

Clarence “Connie” DeLeeuw, a 39-year-old farmer, owned the land which would eventually become KK Sports Arena and also helped in building the first quarter-mile dirt track there, with the help of Clyde Schumacher of Kimberly, who was also the vice-president of the arena. 

The third key figure was 29-year-old Ron Leek, who would become the general manager and publicity director of the arena. Leek, a Michigan native who has been involved in drag racing circles since he was 4, came to KK in 1967 after working as a traveling announcer of the United Drag Racers Association.

Daalwyk was excited about the prospects of nationally known drivers coming to the Fox Cities’ area but was also apprehensive. “The local people have to know there’ll be some big time drivers here,” he said. “I hope they’re ready.”

They were ready…
Grand national late models go two and three-wide through turns one and two on June 2, 1968. - Bob Bergeron Collection
On June 2, 1968, a record crowd of more than 15,500 race fans turned out to watch Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa, the 8-time IMCA national stock car champion, driving a 1968 Dodge Charger, win a non-sanctioned 100-lap, 50-mile feature race on the newly-paved, high-banked half-mile track on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

Derr, who also had fast time for the afternoon with a blazing 23.08 seconds, garnered the pole position from a field of 29 cars entered in the feature event.

After a couple of parade laps and the drop of the green flag by Don “Mac” McDonald of Neenah, Derr roared away to a commanding lead which he held on to for the entire 100 laps. Derr completed the 50-mile affair without a pit stop, while all other cars pitted at least once.

From the field of 29 starters, 16 managed to last the grueling pace of 100 laps. Coming in behind Derr for the second spot was Gene Marmor of River View, Ill., driving a ’67 Chevrolet and finishing in third was Jim Lord of Milwaukee behind the wheel of a ‘67 Ford. Roger Regeth of Milwaukee, driving a ’67 Plymouth, took fourth while Ramo Stott of Keokuk, Iowa, grabbed fifth in his ’68 Hemi Plymouth.

Robert Kempen of Hilbert, driving a ’67 Ford, drove to victory over Joe Shear of Beloit in a ’67 Chevy in the first qualifying heat. Stott powered his way to the win in the second 15-lap qualifier over Dave Marcis of West Salem in a ’67 Chevrolet. Tony Van Dreel of West DePere, running a ’67 Grand Sport Buick, outlasted Whitey Gerkin in a ’68 Chevelle to win the consolation.

The new half-mile was deemed a success right away with positive feedback from every one. When asked his thoughts on the new track, Derr remarked, “It’s a beautiful place, and I know that it will go over big here. It seems to be very good and it’s not too hard on tires. The little zig coming out of turn three makes it interesting, but not bothersome.”

Jerry Smith of Appleton liked the track. “It’s almost like Milwaukee,” he said. “The only difference I can see (outside of being a half-mile track) is that the turns are shorter. It’s a good track to race on. It’s like the big-time tracks.”

It was billed as “Ernie Derr vs. Dick Trickle” in a grand national-type race at KK Sports Arena on August 4, 1968; Derr, the eight-time IMCA national champion against Trickle, the point’s leader at the track.

There would be a 50-lap preliminary race highlighted by the 100-lap main event. All cars entered would run in the 50-lap contest but only the 36 fastest would qualify for the 100-lapper.

Trickle took fast time with a 22.84 second timing on the half-mile track and then came from dead last in the 50-lap prelim to “win” the race only to have been detected passing while the race was being run under the caution flag. He was penalized one lap, dropping him all the way to eighth place.

Kimberly’s Clyde Schumacher driving a 1967 Ford was awarded the victory while Ramo Stott of Keokuk, Iowa was second. Tom Reffner of Rudolph third, Roger Regeth of Appleton fourth, while Ernie Derr was awarded fifth.

Stott jumped to an early lead in the 100-lap feature building up a lead as much as three-quarters of a lap at times but caution flags kept slowing the pace and tightening the field.

Schumacher and Dave Immel of Villa Park, Ill., running second and third at the time, got tangled on the front straightaway and were finished for the day. Right after the restart, Ernie Derr, who had inherited second place, blew an engine and a fiery explosion ensued, spewing hot oil all over the track. Trickle assumed the runner-up position but he didn’t fair well either, blowing a tire and putting himself out of contention with a three-lap rubber change.

Stott would go on to win easily with Gene Marmor finishing second. Dave Hirschfield was third and Roger Regeth took fourth. Trickle would bounce back through the talented field to round out the top five.
Butch Hartman sits atop the hood of his Dodge Charger at Kaukauna. Hartman would win the first USAC-sanctioned stock car race there on June 1, 1969. - Bob Bergeron Collection

On June 1, 1969, more than 12,000 race fans arrived at the KK Sports Arena to watch racing stars such as A.J. Foyt, Roger McCluskey, Dick Trickle and Don White. They stayed to cheer on Larry “Butch” Hartman that Sunday afternoon.

The South Zanesville, Ohio, parlayed his driving skill with the speed and durability of his 1969 Dodge Charger to win the first USAC-sanctioned 100-mile stock car race at the new half-mile. Hartman would win by nearly three-quarter of a lap over Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio.

The 29-year-old Hartman placed seventh in the 1968 point standings, but was not as widely known as some of the other drivers who helped make the event a red-letter day in KK’s history. Hartman won $1,300 of the total $12,000 purse for capturing the feature.

Coming in third behind Hartman and Bowsher was Appleton’s Roger Regeth. McCluskey finished fourth while Wisconsin Rapids’ Dick Trickle, the uncrowned "King of KK”, was fifth. More than 50 cars registered for the highly publicized event, but only 30 qualified for the 200-lap feature.

Foyt would give the capacity crowd numerous thrills with his heavy footed driving before being forced out prematurely on lap 79 with a damaged radiator on his ’69 Torino.

Don White, who earlier in the day had set a new KK qualifying record, going 22 seconds flat, was also forced out of the running earlier than planned. His ’69 Charger developed a damaged water pump on lap 164 while leading the race, which relinquished any thoughts of victory on the day for the Keokuk, Iowa, veteran

Hartman took over the top spot after White’s exit and admitted afterwards that he “babied” the car for the last 15 laps. “The pit crew told me I had a 15-seoond lead on Jack, and that was plenty.”

Hartman made only one pit stop (for fuel) in his No. 75, a yellow and black Charger.

The race program was delayed 1 ½ hours while drivers waited for the half-mile track to dry. The early-morning rain - which, for a time put the racing program into a "doubtful" category - and the cool, windy weather reduced the size of the anticipated crowd.

After passing Appleton’s J.J. Smith on lap 6, Foyt held the lead for the next 48 laps. It became an exciting duel between Foyt's white Torino and White's yellow Dodge Charger. White took over the lead when Foyt pitted on the 54th lap. Foyt was forced into the pits again on lap 75 and went out for good with a smoking car several circuits later. After White pitted on the 80th lap, Hartman and Trickle swapped the top spot back and forth for 30 laps until White roared back into the lead on lap 112 and held it until the mechanical mishap, yielding the point back to Hartman.

Due to the success of the June race, another was added for September 14, 1969. On a chilly Sunday afternoon, Don White, at the wheel of his sleek looking yellow 1969 Charger, would cop the 200-lap late model stock car feature, boasting him to second in the USAC stock car standings behind Roger McCluskey.

The start of the day’s events was delayed for more than an hour and a half, as the weatherman was undecided as to rain or sunshine – and eventually settled on sunshine.

White, who had started on the outside in the 11th row, wasted little time in making his presence known, for at the start of lap 29, he had worked his way through the heavy traffic and was leading the 30-car field.

The diminutive sized veteran hung on to the honor spot for the next 95 lap before making a pit stop for tires and gas. With a 25-second pit stop, White dropped only four positions, and by the time the 132nd lap appeared on the scoreboard, White was back into the lead. He hung on for the next 68 laps for the victory and the $1,300 first place money. In all, White led 163 of the scheduled 200 circuits.

White’s trek wasn’t as easy as it appeared. Although he dominated the leader board, he was pushed hard all afternoon by Jack Bowsher in a ’69 Ford and the semi-retired Norm Nelson of Racine in ’69 Plymouth Roadrunner. They would end up finishing second and third respectively.

Butch Hartman, the June winner, would have one problem after another and called it quits after only 78 laps had elapsed. Dick Trickle, of Wisconsin Rapids, always a top contender, had overheating problems early in the race and had to settle for a 14th place finish.

Roger McCluskey would demonstrate why he was the king of the nation’s stock car drivers on June 5, 1970, as the defending USAC national champion thoroughly dominated the third 100-mile USAC race at the KK Sports Arena.

The 33-year-old Tucson, Ariz., driver expertly wheeled his slightly-battered hut powerfully accelerating 1970 Plymouth Road Runner to victory in the track record time of 1 hour, 18 minutes, 36 seconds. McCluskey’s Road Runner didn’t make with the “beep, beep,” which characterized its TV namesake but proved just as hard to catch as the cartoon character.

McCluskey who lapped everyone in the field but runner-up Jack Bowsher and came within a 100 yards of lapping Bowsher, led for 180 laps. The only time he relinquished the lead after coming from his back-row start to take command was after he made his only pit stop on the 118th lap.

For several moments, it appeared that McCluskey's victory bid wouldn't get off the ground. His machine was involved in a multi-car pileup at the begin beginning of the second lap of the feature race's original start. The right side of McCluskey’s car was badly dented, but the engine was unaffected. A restart was called for, and McCluskey never slowed his relentless pace again except for a brief pit stop.

Bowsher, a member of A.J. Foyt’s racing team, would finish second in his 1969 Ford Torino for the second straight time at KK. Don White, the defending winner, took third in a 1969 Dodge Charger. Gene Marmor of River Grove, Ill., driving a ’69 GMX, finished fourth and Bruce Sparrman of Excelsior, Minn., took fifth behind the wheel of a 1970 Roadrunner. 

A crowd of nearly 11,000 saw two other Indianapolis drivers, in addition to McCluskey; compete on a perfect night for racing. Art Pollard finished sixth while Johnny Rutherford came in 13th. Rutherford was making his first stock car start since 1966.

KK Sports Arena would get a new name and two USAC-sanctioned races for the 1971 season. On May 24th, Wisconsin race fans would see one of their own, Racine’s Norm Nelson; score an upset victory at Wisconsin International Raceway. The cool, windy and threatening weather held down the crowd town to approximately 6,000.

Jack Bowsher, running six seconds ahead of Nelson with only eight laps to go, seemed certain of a second straight USAC stock car victory that would increase his 1971 national point leadership. Then it happened…he ran out of gas.

Nelson, who had led twice previously in the race took over the 193rd lap and breezed in for the 33rd victory of a long, illustrious racing career. After gassing up, Bowsher would come back to claim fifth.

Having been in semi-retirement for the past few seasons, a completely exhausted Nelson, the all-time national USAC point leader, had to take oxygen after the rugged race. “They should limit races to 10 laps,” Norm quipped.

As a result of a last-minute cancellation on Roger McCluskey, the 1969 and ’70 national stock car champion, Nelson suited up and slipped in behind the wheel of McCluskey’s ’70 Roadrunner. Nelson had planned on competing in a brand new ’71 model for “experimental purposes”, but when McCluskey, his top driver, got grounded in Milwaukee on his flight from Indianapolis, Nelson got behind the wheel of “Old No. 1”.

A bitterly disappointed Bowsher, driving again for A.J. Foyt, would have none of the “tough luck” approach. “It’s not a matter of luck,” he insisted, “We just didn’t do our job.”

Bowsher had pitted on the lap 97 and apparently his crew either miscalculated on the amount of gas needed or there was too much of a rush to get the car back into action.

Dave Whitcomb, of Valparaiso, Ind., who like Nelson and Bowsher drove a strong race, finished second in a 1970 Dodge Charger. Butch Hartman powered his ‘69 Dodge Charger to third place. Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a relatively new name on the circuit, finished fourth in a ‘69 Dodge Charger.

Four drivers dominated the race, which would turn out to be the most dramatic one in the three years that USAC had sanctioned events. Bowsher led for a total of 96 laps…Nelson held the top spot for 41 circuits…Hartman was out front for 36 laps…then Whitcomb inherited the point for 18 laps.

Bobby Unser would show the class and style of an Indianapolis 500 winner when he came from behind to win the Miller High Life 250 at Kaukauna on August 8, 1971. A crowd of 7,200 witnessed the action.

Unser qualified in the fifth position and gradually moved his way to the top spot midway through the race. The Albuquerque, N.M. native lost the lead momentarily to Verlin Eaker when he made a pit stop, but regained the lead when Eaker made an unscheduled stop.

Unser would collect $3,350 for his victory. He would finish the 125 miles (the longest race to date there) in 1 hour, 39 minutes and 24 seconds for an average speed of 74.77 miles per hour.

Eaker in a 1969 Dodge won the pole position with a qualifying speed of 81.337 miles per hour. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa driver lost the lead to Unser on the 126th lap, but then regained it when Unser went to the pits on the 140th lap. A faulty left-front tire forced Eaker into the pits for a second time on the 145th lap, which allowed Unser to take the lead once again.

From then on it was Unser’s race as Eaker was never able to get closer than a quarter lap. “The car ran very nice,” Unser smiled at the conclusion of the race.

Unser, who has been driving stock cars only part time this year, expressed a liking for the high-banked, paved half-mile. “I like any track I win on. It’s a great track, though.”

Eaker, the only driver besides Unser to complete the entire 250 laps, received $2,340 for his second place finish. Roger McCluskey finished third and won $1,885. Dave Whitcomb of Valparaiso, Ind., was fourth in a ’70 Dodge Charger and received $1,000. Only 14 of the 28 qualifiers were in the field at the race’s end.

Wisconsin native Dave Marcis, now driving out of Arden, N.C., would average 74.28 miles per hour on Sunday, May 21, 1972, to win the 100-mile USAC late model stock car race at Wisconsin International Raceway.

Marcis steered a 1972 Nova around the half-mile track, and earned $2,108 for the triumph. Verlin Eaker drove a 1970 Dodge to his second straight runner-up finish, good for $1,540, and Sal Tovella of Addison, Ill., was third in a 1972 Plymouth. Tovella earned $986.

No other drivers completed the entire 200-lap race as mechanical problems plagued the field.

Jack Bowsher led qualifiers with an average speed of 81.04 miles per hour and led the first 98 tours of the race, but unscheduled pit stops forced him to finish 18 laps of the pace. Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa, (33) and Butch Hartman (57) were the other leaders of the race, but numerous pit tops prevented them from making a serious run. 

Big-time auto racing had developed nicely in Kaukauna, Wis., over the first few years with some of the biggest stars in stock car racing making there way to put on a show. And while this would be the last appearance of the USAC stock car series at WIR, something brighter was on the horizon.
Daalwyk would conceive the idea for a late model stock car series for Wisconsin drivers. The idea became reality on June 25, 1972, when a crowd of 7,832 watched Dick Trickle win the first of three scheduled races that season. It would be called the Red, White and Blue State Championship Series.
And the rest is history…