Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The IMCA Stock Cars at the North Iowa Fair

By Kyle Ealy
Mason City, Iowa – County fairs and the International Motor Contest Association.

Back in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, one of the main attractions of many county fairs in the Midwest was a visit from the IMCA stock cars or sprint cars.

You made darn sure you got there early on the day of the race to grab a good seat; because this was the only opportunity you’d get to see the stars and cars of IMCA. People came from near and far to see the big boys of auto racing competing at their hometown track.

One of the traditional stops for the IMCA stock cars was the North Iowa Fair in Mason City. Starting in 1951 and continuing until 1964, the half-mile provided plenty of chills and thrills for speed hungry spectators.

Art Combs would win at Mason City on August 19, 1951.

On August 19, 1951, Art Combs, a 29-year-old farmer from Emporia, Kan., driving a 1950 Oldsmobile, waged a terrific battle with Dudley Froy and Chuck Magnison for the last 80 circuits of the scheduled 200-lap race before emerging as the winner.

For the last 40 miles, it was Combs, Froy, an Englishman from Tucson, Ariz., and Magnison, a Minneapolis pilot, electrifying a crowd of 6,000 plus as they ran bumper to bumper, exchanging the lead numerous times. With about 10 laps remaining Magnison, driving a 1951 Hudson, fell behind the other two and Combs appeared a certain winner when, with several laps left, Froy blew out a tire on his ‘49 Plymouth.

However Magnison seemed to come from nowhere and pulled up on the leader to make a final bid on the last turn. Riding high, he pushed the throttle in a desperate attempt to overtake Combs, but scraped the fence and momentarily lost control of his car and finished second. Only 11 of the 21 starters finished the grueling 100-miler.

Wally Dahl of Minneapolis, driving a 1951 Hudson, would take top honors in the 100-mile stock car endurance on August 17, 1952. Dahl, in winning, set a new track record for the event as he covered the 200-laps in 1 hour and 52 minutes, nearly 8 minutes faster than the previous record.

Dahl drove his battered Hudson to the triumph, but it might be added that he had a new motor put into the car only days before Dahl was never worse than second place in the race and didn't make any pit stops in taking the event in record time. His victory was worth $500, a quarter of the total prize pot of $2,000.

Ralph Dyer of Shreveport, La., finished in second place, good for $400 in prize money. His finish was on the spectacular side. Completing lap 199 and entering turns one and two, his front right tire blew out but he three-wheeled his car around for the final three-quarters of the lap and hung on for second.
Shorty Perlick

Shorty Perlick, also of Minneapolis, was the tough luck driver of the day. Perlick led the event for 58 miles and appeared to be in command when he lost a front wheel coming down the homestretch and skidded into the pit area. He didn’t get back into action until 29 laps later and eventually withdrew when he saw no chance to finish in the money. 

As the 1953 season was winding down, Ernie Derr of Fort Madison was at the top of the IMCA stock car national point’s standings. He would solidify that spot after winning at the North Iowa Fairgrounds on August 15.

Ernie Derr beat out his brother-in-law, Don White, by just about a car length in the 100-mile race Saturday afternoon before an estimated 3,500 spectators. Derr drove a1952 Olds to beat out White, who wheeled a 1953 Olds.

Each was going hard for the first place money of $500 and as the race moved along they kept going faster and faster while lapping other cars in the field. Their speed was such that during the last half of the race they each were weaving through the field and covering each lap of the track in less time than the best qualifying time posted prior to the grueling race.

When the program started, it appeared it would be a bad day for racing. The track was wet and slippery and the cars could get no traction for about the first 25 miles during the light drizzle of rain. The field of 19 drivers eventually packed the wet stuff and it was a lightning quick surface the remainder of the way. Halfway through the race Derr held first spot and White was second with Herschel Buchanan of Shreveport, La., the only serious challenger. Buchanan placed third at the final flag in his 1953 Nash.

Johnny Beauchamp of Anita, Iowa, a relative newcomer to stock car racing, finished fourth in the race. However, a protest was raised that he did not have a regular stock engine in his 1952 Hudson. He refused to submit to a tear down of his motor and therefore forfeited his place in the race with all other finishers moving up a notch. Bill Bailey of Encino, Calif., driving a 1952 Hudson, inherited Beauchamp’s fourth place money.

Unfortunately, their were no newspaper accounts of the 1954 race at Mason City, which prevents me from getting into details of the race. Thanks to Lee Ackerman, I discovered that Don White would earn the victory in the 200-lap, 100-mile endurance test on August 14.
Herschel Buchanan

The 1955 race was billed just like the previous affairs before; 200 laps and 100 miles. But it would finally be called after 101 circuits on August 13. Numerous accidents, terrible track conditions and lack of light curtailed the event and the end couldn’t come soon enough for the 4,500 fans in attendance.

Herschel Buchanan of Shreveport, La., was flagged the winner of the event but his share of the purse was withheld because of a protest. Buchanan, driving a ’59 Thunderbird, had been locked in a duel with Bob Potter of Duluth, Minn., driving a 1955 V-8 Chevrolet.

Potter got the jump to lead at the beginning of the marathon and Buchanan would challenge Potter throughout, his front bumper never straying too far from Potter’s rear fender. On lap 66, Potter suddenly shot into the fence on the northeast curve of the half-mile oval.

Buchanan inherited the lead and was out front when the checkers dropped a lap after the midway point. Tiny Lund of Harlan, in a ’55 Chevrolet, was scored in second, Bill Harrison of Topeka, Kan., grabbed third in a ’54 Dodge, Roxy Dancy of Shreveport, La., in a ’54 Hudson took fourth and local favorite Ted Zieman, driving a ’55 Chevrolet, rounded out the top five.

But hold on a minute…

Potter would enter a protest that Buchanan was the cause for him going through the fence, bumping him from behind. Observers from the infield by the northeast turn backed up Potter’s omission, saying they witnessed Buchanan giving Potter a shove with the use of his front bumper. After some heated discussion, officials from IMCA would still declare Buchanan the winner of the race, despite adamant protests from Potter and others.

The program got off to a sour start and it would go downhill from there. A seven car pile-up ensued shortly after the green flag dropped in the feature, taking out notable such as Newt Bartholomew of Carlisle, Iowa, Dick Houdek of Wichita, Kan., and Bob Hilmer of Dysart. There was nearly an hour delay while crews repaired the fence and re-graded the racing surface. The yellow flag would wave eight more times before the race finally came to a finish.

Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan showed why he was the leader in the IMCA stock car national point standings earning his 19th feature win of the season on August 12, 1956.The “Flying Frenchman” dominated the 200-lap contest and won by nearly two laps over his nearest competitor, Lennie Funk of Otis. Kan.

An overflow North Iowa Fair crowd of between 4,000 and 5,000 with hundreds more watching the 100-mile race from the infield after all space was taken in the grandstand and bleachers.

Beauchamp was driving a 1956 Chevrolet while Funk was behind the wheel of a ’56 Dodge. Beauchamp’s winning time was 1 hour, 51 minutes and 20 seconds, which established a new record previously owned by Wally Dahl in the ’52 race. Even a multi-car pileup on the west turn early on in the feature couldn’t slow down the record-breaking effort.

The accident claimed four top contenders and certainly made Beauchamp’s march to victory lane that much easier. Knocked out of the running were; Chub Liebe of Oelwein, Bernie Hentges of Anoka, Minn., Don White of Keokuk, and Ted Zieman of Mason City. They had four of the five fastest times in qualifying, with Beauchamp no better than fourth in the group. White had won the night before in Burlington and Liebe was well in command of the race that day when the mishap occurred.

After that, Beauchamp and Funk were well ahead of the rest of the pack. To show how dominate Beauchamp was in the race; the last five laps he ran in the race were actually faster than his qualifying laps in time trials.

The Mason City Globe Gazette reported that the field of cars was not as big as expected and the program was delayed an hour. “That was probably due to the fact that many of the drivers were detained in their trip by the highway patrol. Many drivers were pulled over and ticketed for illegal towing of their race cars. One of the drivers had to pay a wrecker $25 to pull him from Iowa Falls in order to compete. At least eight others didn’t arrive in time even with the late start.” 

Beauchamp would give a repeat performance on August 10, 1957, not only winning the race, but regaining the lead at the top of the IMCA stock car standings. Beauchamp took advantage of early race mishap by Bob Burdick to claim his second straight North Iowa Fair victory.

Burdick, driving out of Omaha and the national point’s leader entering the program, was the victim of an early accident, which took him out of action. As he wheeled through the thick dust into the west turn on lap 9, Burdick piled into Don Lewis of King, Wis., and damaged his 1957 Ford so badly, he was unable to continue.  

Despite the dust, another record crowd of 5,200 saw the Saturday afternoon race, making it one of the larger crowds to witness a sports event in Mason City.

Promoter Al Sweeney called the scheduled 200-lap race at 101 circuits, citing the racing surface was too dusty and too dangerous to continue. Beauchamp’s winning time for the 50.5 miles completed was outstanding; 55 minutes and 11 seconds.  

Taking second in the race was Lennie Funk of Otis, Kan., who like Beauchamp was driving a 1957 Chevrolet. Funk was lapped by Beauchamp on the 100th turn of the race. Close behind and taking third and fourth in covering 99 laps were Don White of Keokuk and Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids. White and Dake both drove Fords.

Anyone of the estimated 4,000 racing fans who saw the 100-mile MCA stock car race at the North Iowa Fair on August 9, 1958, had something to brag about afterwards. They could have boasted they witnessed the fastest 100-miler in the history of the International Motor Contest Association (up to 1958). That covered lot of territory back then - from Florida to Canada.

The man who performed the act was Don White, the IMCA national stock car point leader. He smashed the listed mark by nearly a minute - a little more than 50 seconds to be exact. The Keokuk speedster was driving a 1958 Ford.

White whizzed the 200 laps at better than a 60 mile per hour clip on the fast track as he went inside, outside and up the middle in easily whipping all but two other drivers. His time was 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 3 seconds. The old mark, set at the Minnesota State Fair in 1956, was 1 hour, 38 minutes, and 53 seconds set by Johnny Beauchamp of Harlan.

White was so dominant, he took a 30-second pit stop to take on more gasoline and didn’t even miss his place in line. But at the time he held a 2-lap lead over his brother-in-law Ernie Derr and Bob Burdick of Omaha.

Derr and Burdick finished second and third respectively, each covering 199 laps. In the fourth position was Scott Cain, a newcomer from Santa Monica, Calif., and he covered 192 laps of the half-mile dirt oval.

White also set a local record in the half-mile qualifying with a mark of 28.56 seconds. The old mark was held by Beauchamp last year at 29.81 seconds.

Another record of sorts was set as well that afternoon. According to promoter Al Sweeney of National Speedways, Inc., no caution flags flied that afternoon, the first time that had ever (or never) happened in a 100-mile race, Sweeney remarked.

Again, for a lack of information, I don’t have much in the way of details for the race that occurred on August 15, 1959. Ernie Derr won the 200-lapper with a fast improving Bob Kosiski of Omaha earning second and a rising star by the name of Dick Hutcherson taking third. Thanks again to Lee Ackerman for the that information.

There would be no IMCA stock car races at the fair in 1960. Modified stock cars (rained out) and Aut Swenson’s Thrillcade would be the feature auto attractions that year.

The IMCA stock cars would return to Mason City in 1961. On Saturday, August 19, Ernie Derr would solidify his bid for a fourth national championship. The talented driver with the good handling car (a 1961 Pontiac) doubled down, winning the 25-lap feature in the afternoon and then scoring the victory in the 100-lap nightcap.

A crowd estimated at 2,000 saw the afternoon sprint show. The evening affair, which was under the lights at the Mason City fairgrounds for the first time, drew an estimated 4,500 racing enthusiasts.

In the 50-mile nighttime finale, the fans almost witnessed an upset. Derr posted quick time in qualifying (28.48) and the Keokuk star proceeded to take the early lead. Chub Liebe would press Derr and on lap 25, the Oelwein veteran nudged ahead of Derr and was off to the races.

Liebe had his car hooked up on this day, building up a commanding lead on Derr and the rest of the field. Unfortunately, Liebe’s bid for first prize would fall 8 laps short. The rear end on his car would break, slowing Liebe to a snail’s pace and allowing Derr and the rest of the field to catch up. Derr would pass Liebe as he pulled into the infield.

Derr collected $415 for the victory, his eighth of the ’61 season. Bob Reynolds of Edmonds, Okla., took second, Mert Williams of Rochester, Minn., grabbed third, Eddie Harrow of Corpus Christi, Tex., finished fourth and Buzz McCann of St. Paul, Minn., rounded out the top five.

Derr set a track record for the 50-mile race of 46 minutes and 6 seconds, more than five minutes under his own mark set in May of this year of 51 minutes and 19 seconds. Derr also set a qualifying time of 28.48 seconds to start the afternoon. To show how fast they were going at night, Liebe actually turned one lap in the 50-mile race of 26.91 seconds. The Friday night rains helped the track and it was in near perfect shape by Saturday night.

For any of you old-timers out there who were fortunate enough to follow the IMCA stock car series back in the 50’s and 60’s, you know as well as anyone it was big news across the Midwest when someone from Keokuk, Iowa, DIDN’T win a race. It was that rare…

So, on Sunday evening, August 12, 1962, some major news was produced when the “Big Three”, Ernie Derr, Ramo Stott and Dick Hutcherson, all showed up at the North Iowa Fair, raced their cars that evening, and none of them were in victory lane at the conclusion of the race.

The winner of the feature race of the day’s doubleheader was Mert Williams of Rochester Minn., a five-year veteran on the circuit who always did well but not enough to dent the monopoly held by the Keokuk trio.

It appeared that it would be another typical “Big Three” day. Derr was the winner in a 25-lap sprint affair during the afternoon. In the evening, he won a 10-1ap preliminary race in the record time of 4 minutes and 43 seconds to snap a mark he had set a year ago. And Stott, in the afternoon, had set a new qualifying mark of 28.15 seconds for the half-mile oval.

Under the lights, Stott led the 100-lap, 50-mile feature until the 36th lap when mechanical failure forced him from the race. Chub Liebe, who almost won the year before, also dropped out. That left Derr alone – almost - with the lead and Williams close behind.

Like Liebe the year before, Derr looked like he had the race in the bag. Although Williams was still in his rear-view mirror, the always smooth driving Derr looked to be in total command. But on the 94th lap, Ernie would start to slow with differential trouble. To the delight of the race fans, Williams sped his 1962 Pontiac by the ailing Derr and a few laps later, was in victory lane. Williams, no stranger to the Mason City track, was the toast of the town.

Gil Haugen of Sioux Falls, S.D., in a 1961 Plymouth was second and Eddie Harrow, the Texas champ from Corpus Christi in a 1962 Ford, was third, Jerry McCredie of Keokuk, took fourth and Derr managed to limp home in fifth.

There would be no IMCA stock cars for the 1963 North Iowa Fair and unbeknownst to everyone at the time, when the popular series rolled into Mason City on August 16, 1964, it would be for the last time.

It would be only fitting that the most dominant driver in IMCA stock car series history win the very last North Iowa Fair race. And Ernie Derr would go out with a bang…

The “Keokuk Komet” would have another field day that Sunday and when he had finished his afternoon and evening series of wins and record smashing, Derr loaded his 1964 Plymouth on his truck and banked $870 in prize money from promoter Frank Winkley.

It was your typical Ernie Derr day at the office; in the afternoon he led off by setting a new qualifying record of 26.03 seconds. This was well under the mark of 26.8l set by Dick Hutcherson. Hutcherson, the point leader on the IMCA circuit, did not compete in the Mason City races.

Also on the afternoon program, Derr set a pair of dash records in winning. The first came over five laps at 2 minutes and 21.85 seconds and the next when he took the 25-lap feature in 11 minutes and 33.87 seconds.

But his day wasn’t finished. During the evening show, before about 3,200 racing fans, Derr copped a 10-lap heat event to get loosened up for the big 100-lap feature race. Then the record smasher went out and took the windup in 44 minutes and 40 seconds, not a record but still an excellent performance.

Lennie Funk, the Otis, Kan., farmer, gave Derr a good run. He was second to Derr in the qualifying, won a heal race and placed second to Derr in the feature in the afternoon. He was set to challenge Derr in the 50-miler.

And that’s what Funk did – for a while. Derr, starting on the pole position, led for 19 laps with Funk right on his tail. Derr hit loose dirt high on the southwest corner of the track and Funk shot in front.

Driving a 1964 Ford, he held the lead until the 44th lap when he got into some loose dirt himself on the northeast corner and Derr recaptured the lead. It was Derr all the way from that point and Funk had to go to the pits on the 83rd lap because of low oil, lost three laps and finished seventh.

Ole Brua of Albert Lea, Minn., took second in the 50-miler and actually gave Derr a run for his money in the last 10 laps. Bob Jusola of Mound, Minn., finished third, Dick Steffens of Minneapolis took fourth and Jim Washburn of Keokuk rounded out the top five.

Even though the modifieds and hobby stocks would be the headliner at the North Iowa Fair starting in 1965 and for years to come, the IMCA stock cars would always be remembered for bringing star power to the half-mile in Mason City.


  1. Great write-up, Kyle! Gotta love local favorite, Mert Williams, stunning the Keokuk boys in 1962.