Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Knoxville Fall Jamboree

by Lee Ackerman
Knoxville, Iowa - One of the biggest Dirt Late Model races of the year is the annual Knoxville Late Nationals at the historical Knoxville Raceway. The current Late Model Nationals is not the first time that Knoxville has had a big fall race for Late Models. Back in the 1970’s promoter Gail Miller held a fall Late Model race at the famed half-mile track on the Marion County Fairgrounds. The event was called the Knoxville Fall Jamboree.

The first Knoxville Fall Jamboree held on Saturday, September 13, 1975 had a bizarre ending. First of all the show was running behind schedule so Promoter Gail Miller cut the feature from its scheduled 50 laps to 30 laps because of a 12:30 am curfew. Curt Hansen of Dike took the initial lead in the feature. Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids took the lead on the 23rd lap and then it happened, a big accident that included race leader Dake. Darrell Dake’s car was totally demolished. The race was called and Dake was declared the winner and he pocketed $2,000.

Darrell Dake won the 1975 Knoxville Fall Jamboree. Promoter Gail Miller presents the checkers. 

Curt Hansen was awarded second, Ed Sanger of Waterloo third, Kent Tucker of Aurora, Nebraska fourth and Fred Horn of Marion fifth. On lap 2 Don Hoffman of Des Moines went through the fence in turn 3 and took out the light pole. Earlier Hoffman had set a new track record for Late Models in qualifying at 23.566 seconds. Hoffman then won the trophy dash with Sanger second and Verlin Eaker of Mechanicsville third.

“I remember thinking Dake got in the third turn wall and they had a 10:30 curfew and its like 10:15 I got this thing won “remembers Curt Hansen, “ They had the wrecker hooked up to the front of Darrell then the back and then they brought out another wrecker and I guess time ran out.”

Heat wins went to Galen Schaefer of Topeka, Kansas, John Connolly of Eldridge, Iowa, Ron Prymek of Des Moines and Joe Wallace of Peyton, Colorado. The consolation event went to Don Styskal of Fremont, Nebraska. In the B feature it was Dan Dickey of Packwood defeating Roger Dolan of Lisbon and Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo.

The two-day affair also included Sportsman and they had their problems as well. First on lap 12 of the feature a big 15 car melee resulted in the flag stand pole being split in to. Then on lap 14 cars out of the 36 car starting field took out two light poles on the backstretch. At this point the Sportsman feature was called complete and Dan Beaver of Tracy, Iowa, who had taken the lead from Rocky Hodges of Des Moines, was declared the winner.

The incident on the backstretch that took out the light poles created an emergency situation as far as lighting was concerned and the solution was to use the headlights of numerous automobiles to provide lighting on the backstretch. If these incidents weren’t weird enough, a person was transported to the hospital after he accidently set himself on fire trying to start a fire with some firewood to keep himself warm. Legend has it that one driver even borrowed a chainsaw to cut up wood to keep warm. 278 cars signed into the initial running of the Fall Jamboree which will always be remembered for all the strange things that went on.

Joe Wallace won the 1976 Fall Jamboree.

In 1976 Joe Wallace now racing out of Kansas City, Missouri returned to the Fall Jamboree and made up for his disappointing showing of the year before. When the smoke cleared Wallace was in victory lane with a big check for $4,000. Wallace led the entire 50 laps of the September 11 event. Steve Keppler of Marion held second throughout the event and took home $2,000 for his efforts. Don Hoffman of Des Moines started deep in the field and finished third. Joe Merryfield of Des Moines was fourth and fast qualifier Dave Srock finished fifth.

Jerry Wancewicz of Omaha, Nebraska won the B feature with Bill Martin of Council Bluffs second and John Oswaldt of Kansas City third.

The accompanying Sportsman feature saw Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa take the lead on lap six and lead the remainder of the way. Denny Osborn of Cedar Falls was second, Herb Shannon of Peoria, Illinois third, Rocky Hodges of Des Moines fourth and the legendary Ernie Derr of Keokuk fifth.

On Thursday, September 9, Dave Srock of Pennsylvania had set fast time. Joe Merryfield won the dash over Dave Chase and Bill Zwanziger. Heats were won by Ken Walton of Viola over Kent Tucker, Verlin Eaker over John Connolly and Doug Kenimer of Dahlonega, Georgia over Bill Rice of Des Moines.

On Friday night Don Hoffman had ran a flawless heat race defeating Galen Schafer by about quarter of a lap. Fred Knapp of Des Moines won the second heat and Curt Hansen of Dike the third heat.

Curt Hansen was the Fall Jamboree champion in 1977.

1977 would be the third and last of the Fall Jamborees and it was only fitting that the richest stock car race in Iowa was won by the state’s most successful driver that year. Curt Hansen of Dike would win the third Fall Jamboree. Hansen had to battle early on in the 50 lap feature with Joe Merryfield of Des Moines. Merryfield would however be taken from contention with a flat tire. Hansen would then build a comfortable lead but with 19 laps remaining a caution bunched everybody up.

On the restart Hansen had to battle a hard charging Fred Horn of Marion and Horn would give Hansen all he wanted. Several times Horn was beside Hansen only to see Hansen edge him by several car lengths at the checkers. Hansen had qualified second for the event and he would leave Knoxville with over $4,000. Following Hansen and Horn were Don Hoffman of Des Moines, Terry Bivins of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, Tom Steuding of Altoona, Wisconsin, Ron Jackson of Burlington, Don Styskal of Fremont and the defending race winner Joe Wallace of Kansas City.

Stan Stover of Reinbeck would win the B feature with Ken Davidson second, John Oswalt of Kansas City third, Mike Dibben of Kansas City fourth and Steve McGuire of Mesa, Arizona fifth. Another long distance traveler George Brazil of Albuquerque, New Mexico would finish seventh.

Odie Robertson of Littleton, Colorado won the C Feature with Dave Plumb of Waterloo second Larry Embrey of Granger third and Kevin Gundaker of St. Louis fourth.

Waterloo’s Dick Schiltz won the 35-lap Sportsman feature and took home the first place money of $2,000. Schilitz and Denny Osborn of Cedar Falls battled for the lead throughout much of the race before Osborn crashed into the second turn wall with just four laps remaining. Keokuk’s Lem Blankenship finished second and Rocky Hodges of Des Moines third.

In 2004 the Late Models would one again return to the storied half-mile in Knoxville for a fall classic, the Knoxville Late Model Nationals. That event has quickly became one of the annual Crown Jewels of Dirt Late Model racing and has provided dirt late model fans with many great moments, perhaps none more exciting than in 2008 when Darrell Lanigan passed Jimmy Owens for the win as they raced to the checkers on Friday night and then Tim McCredie duplicated that feat the following night passing Josh Richards for the win just before the flag stand.

Knoxville may be sprint car territory but over years the late models have shown they can put on a great show at the famed half-mile as well.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The R-A-C-I-N-G Scene; Jim McWithey

Jim McWithey
by Bob Speedy
Anderson, Ind. (March 13, 1971) - The city of Anderson, Indiana, can point with great pride the accomplishments of several area athletes that have participated in the professional ranks. Carl Erskine and Joe Campbell are probably recalled the quickest in the minds of our sports oriented citizens.

Jim McWithey, one of the better race drivers of the late fifties and early sixties, has also brought recognition to Anderson.

Born on July 4, 1927, this natural firecracker started his brilliant career in 1949 with the roaring roadsters of the Mutual Racing Association here in Anderson. He stayed with the MRA for three years where he ran in three “Little 500’s” finishing third in one, fifth in another and dropped out of the third race with some bent up equipment.
Jim McWithey - Don Radbruch Collection
McWithey then turned to the sprint cars as a driver for Diz Wilson on the Central States Racing Association circuit. After a successful year with this group Jim moved up to IMCA where he set several track records including tracks at Memphis, Tennessee, St. Paul, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa. After winning several features during his IMCA days Jim decided to turn to the USAC trail.

With the USAC sprint division he became one of the top competitors setting records at such tracks as Salem, Terre Haute, and Winchester in Indiana, and Reading and Williams Grove in Pennsylvania. Jim was almost unstoppable on the dirt at Langhorne.

One of Jim’s victories that stands out in this writer’s mind came at Terre Haute’s half mile dirt oval on August 16, 1959, when McWithey won the feature, beating out seven-time sprint car champion Tommy Hinnershitz. Ed Elision finished third in that event. A year earlier at the same track on June 22nd, Jim set a new track record of 24.03, a time that would be fast enough to get into any feature event today, won the first heat over Eddie Sachs and finished third in the feature behind Sachs and Hinnershitz.

During his USAC sprint car days he finished fifth in point standings in 1957 and third the next two years. Jim drove the Columbus Indiana Auto Supply car in ‘57 and wheeled the Bob Estes owned sprinter in ‘53 and ‘59. Chief mechanic for the Estes car was Jud Phillips who later turned the wrenches for Bobby Unser’s winning machine at the 1958 Indianapolis 100.

McWithey’s first championship ride came at Indianapolis in 1957. Because of the wet month that year, Jim did not get to practice enough in the Dayton Steel Foundry special so he did not qualify for the race. He came back to Indy in ‘58 and unfortunately crashed tie Federal Engineering car during qualifications.

Bill McWithey at Indianapolis behind the wheel of Ray Brady's roadster

In 1959 he joined the Ray Brady team out of Norristown, Pennsylvania with Bill Cheesman his chief mechanic. Jim qualified the roadster in 33rd, or the “bubble” as some call it, and then impressed a lot of people with a fine 13th place finish. This gained him membership in the elite 100 mile per hour club of which there are only 63 living members.

Again in 1960 Jim started on the tail of the Indy line up and completed 66 laps before a broken brake line on the beautiful orange colored Hoover Motor Express Special forced him out of the event. He ran the Hoover car on the championship trail that year and finished the season 8th in point standings.

In 1961 Jim ran a limited number of championship events and finished the year 16th in the point chase. In the fall of ’61 a bothersome thyroid condition ended his driving career. He was never injured in a race car, with his most serious accident happening at DeGraff, Ohio, when he flipped a roadster while racing with the Mutual Racing Association.

With over a hundred career wins to his credit, Jim was truly one of the best to ever strap himself into a race car.

“Of all of the drivers I ran against,” recalls Jim, “I believe A. J. Foyt was the best. Don Branson was perhaps me best sprint driver with Tommy Hinnershitz being right up there with to be best. Of today’s drivers on the sprint trail, Larry Dickson is about the best around. He proved that when he broke Branson’s record for feature wins.”

Asked to compare the drivers of his days with today’s sprint chauffeurs, Jim claims, “The drivers I ran against would all do good in today’s races. The equipment we used was much heavier and harder to handle than today’s cars. I really don’t believe the speeds on the sprint trail have increased all that much, although the cars today are much later.

His most exciting moment in auto racing?

“Qualifying for the Indy 500 is about a big a thrill a race driver can have. Being able to finish the race and gaining membership in the 100 mile per hour club is something that doesn’t happen to every one, so this was just as exciting.”