Monday, March 23, 2015

The Original Third Mile Nationals

by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - In 1968, Eagle Raceway just east of Lincoln, Nebraska started a season ending special event for Sprint Cars and called it the Third Mile Nationals.

On Monday night, September 2, 1968 it was the true outlaw himself Gordon Woolley of Waco, Texas, winning the inaugural Third Mile Nationals. Woolley charged passed Lloyd Beckman on the second lap and despite being challenged most of the race by Beckman, pulled away in the closing laps for the win. Ray Lee Goodwin was third, Roy McCain was fourth.

Beckman won the dash and his heat. Other heats went to Lonnie Jensen and John Stevenson. Kenny Gritz won the Junior Championship (B feature) with a last lap pass of Dutch Buettenbach.

In 1969, it was veteran Kansas City chauffeur Dick Sutcliffe behind the wheel of the Gary Hanna Chevy taking the lead almost immediately from his inside second row starting position and sailing to the win in the 30-lap feature before a capacity crowd to pick up the $1,250 first place money.

Little Joe Saldana set fast time of 16.26 seconds then broke a driveshaft in his car and borrowed the car of Frank Brennfoerder, started 8th and put on a great drive to finish second. Pole sitter Lloyd Beckman finished third followed by Eddie Leavitt in the Brewer Chevy and Jay Woodside.

Ed Bowes won the Junior Championship (B feature) taking the lead from Larry Upton when Upton’s engine expired. Chuck Kidwell and Glenn Robey followed. Second fast qualifier Lloyd Beckman won the dash and his heat. Lonnie Jensen and Dick Sutcliffe won the other heats and Roy McCain the B feature.

The 1970 Third Mile Nationals can be described in one word “Controversial.” Things kicked off on Sunday night with 35 cars taking time and Lincoln’s Lonnie Jensen setting fast time at 15.85 followed at 15.99 by Ed Bowes. Heats went to Kenny Parde, Jerry Everett, Roger Rager and Jim Golden. Dennis Oltman won the dash with Jan Opperman winning the B. Fast Qualifier Lonnie Jensen was the victim of a wild flip which eliminated him from further competition.

In the feature which was a total inversion, Beatrice, Nebraska’s Kenny Parde started deep in the field and drove to a win in the Junior Third Mile Nationals over Roger Rager, who also started deep in the field. Pole sitter Dan Holliman would finish third followed by Jim Golden and Frank Brennfoerder.

On Monday night heats were won by Lonnie Jensen, Jan Opperman, Ray Lee Goodwin and Denny Oltman. Ed Bowes took the dash over Ray Lee Goodwin and the "Roarin’ Rebel” Roy McCain won the B.

It was time for the 50-lap Third Mile National feature and that’s where all the controversy would come in. Lonnie Jensen would start on the pole but was passed very early on in the going by Ray Lee Goodwin. Goodwin would soon develop handling problems. The problem which turned out to be a broken torsion bar slowed Goodwin to a crawl on the backstretch and Jan Opperman looking to take the lead hooked Goodwin’s tire. This sent Goodwin into the infield and Opperman setting on the edge of the racetrack.

For whatever reason, the race was allowed to go for a lap before the yellow came out to check on Opperman, who was apparently shaken in the incident. When the race was resumed with 17 laps remaining Jensen had the lead and Opperman was sent to the tail and scored one lap down. Opperman then stormed through the field passing Jensen on the last lap for what appeared as the win.

Opperman went to victory lane and Jensen went to the pits. Then they rolled Jensen’s car back on the track and Larry Swanson, Jensen’s car owner protested giving the win to Opperman. After a long discussion officials declared Jensen the winner contending the Opperman had done nothing more than unlap himself. The ensuing argument lasted well into the morning. “I thought there was going to be a riot.” remembers long-time racing historian Bob Mays. “It was really a wild scene.

The official order of finish would be Jensen, Ed Bowes, Roger Rager, Stan Borofsky and Don Droud with Opperman being scored 8th.

In 1971, it was Topeka’s Dell Schmidt claiming the 30-lap Junior Championship on Sunday night over Lloyd Beckman, Ray Lee Goodwin, Jay Woodside and Dennis Oltman. Beckman set fast time of 15.69 seconds for fast time. Goodwin made a last lap pass of Oltman to win the dash. Beckman, Droud and J.J. Riggins won heats.

Ray Lee Goodwin held off the challenges of the persistent Jay Woodside to claim the $1,250 first prize in the 50-lap Third Mile Nationals on Monday night. Ralph Blackett, Larry Upton and Ken Parde rounded out the top five. Beckman, Jensen and Oltman all retired early in the race that saw only 9 of the 19 starters finish the race. Jensen won the dash and his heat with other heat wins going to Beckman, Woodside and Goodwin.

The 1972 Third Mile Nationals would go to an invader in California’s Jimmy Boyd who picked up a $1,500 pay check. Boyd charged from his 4th row starting position to claim the win over Beckman, Thad Dosher, Dick Sutcliffe and Gerald Bruggeman. It was the biggest win of Boyd’s up to that time and one of the major upsets in Sprint Car Racing. The race saw Don Maxwell eliminated early by a nasty flip in turn one. Don Droud set fast time at 16.29 seconds. Beckman won the dash with heats going to Bruggeman, Beckman, Boyd and Droud.

In Sunday nights’ Junior Championship, it was Lonnie Jensen taking the win over Sutcliffe, Goodwin, Upton and Boyd. Heats went to Roger Larson, Goodwin, Beckman and Upton with Gordon Woolley winning the B.

The 1973 Nationals belonged to Eddie Leavitt. First he won the Junior Nationals on Sunday night with a last lap pass of Dick Sutcliffe and on Monday night he drove away from the field to win the Third Mile Nationals.

While attempts were made to run the Third Mile Nationals after 1973, that was the last true Third Mile Nationals for many years. Memories of the Third Mile Nationals are awakened each year with the running of both the Eagle Nationals and the season ending Nebraska Cup at Eagle the week after Labor Day.

Special Thanks go to well known Sprint Car Historian Bob Mays for his help with this story.