Monday, January 25, 2016

Remembering Santa Fe Speedway & The National Clay Track Championship

by Lee Ackerman
Hinsdale, Ill. - It’s a housing development now, and like so many dirt tracks across America it has faded into a memory, but for over 40 years 91st Street and Wolf Road in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale was the site of one the most famous dirt tracks in America, Santa Fe Speedway. Actually, the history of Santa Fe Speedway goes back to 1896 when Frederick Tiedt built and operated a multi-purpose facility which included in addition to a racetrack, a dance hall, beer garden, bowling alley and other refreshment stands. The original facility was destroyed by a tornado in the 1920’s.

In 1953, Frederick’s son Howard established Santa Fe Park Enterprises, Inc and built the Santa Fe Speedway that most race fans are familiar with. There were actually two tracks, a quarter-mile track and one that was a 7/16th mile facility. From 1953 through 1995, Santa Fe Speedway would provide area fans with one of the most versatile racing programs in the county.

 In addition to stock car races, they hosted sprint car races, big car races, midget races, the AMA national motorcycle series, figure 8 racing, enduros, demolition derbies and power puffs. In 1954 the NASCAR Grand National stock cars even visited the facility. But perhaps the signature event at Santa Fe Speedway was the annual National Clay Track Championship (NCTC).

In 1953 Santa Fe hosted three 200-lap feature races, one of which was the inaugural running of the National Clay Track Championship. Midlothian, Illinois’ Fred Kasten won the first NCTC driving a Buick.  Bill Van Allen won the second NCTC in 1954 at 300 laps. Van Allen would win the NCTC a total of five times to add to his impressive list of six track championships. After several years at 300 laps the event was cut to 100 laps in 1958 before the race was changed to 200 laps (for the reminder of its existence) in 1962.
Dick Nelson (11) and Jim O'Conner (8) battle for position during the 1972 National Clay Track Championships. O'Conner would go on to win that day and become a four-time winner of the event (1972, '76, '79 and '83). - Mayer & Storm Photo

By the 70’s a new generation of drivers was moving to the forefront at Santa Fe Speedway, and they would be major factors in the NCTC race. Arnie Gardner of Batavia never won a late model championship at Santa Fe, but he was extremely tough in the NCTC winning the event four times. Kankakee’s Jim O’Connor won the track championship three times in the 70’s and added four NCTC wins. When asked about setting up his car for such a long race, O’Connor said, “We went through the whole car the night before. The day of the race we took power away from car as the track got very slick and you didn’t need as much power. We put on a different carburetor and took some gear out.”

Lastly, there was the driver who became known as “Mr. Santa Fe”, Bridgeview’s Tony Izzo. In 1977 he won the first of four straight track championships. After taking three years off from his rule, he returned in 1984 to regain the track championship and would win five straight track championships. Izzo won win the NCTC three times the last in 1978 when he lapped the entire field.

"Mr. Santa Fe" Tony Izzo, won the National Clay Track Championship three times (1974, '77 and '78) - Photo Courtesy of Al Lewis

At 200 laps they would run 100 laps then stop all the drivers on the front stretch and the crews would have 8 minutes to refuel, change tires, and make changes or fix what ever needed to be fixed on the cars. Then they would fire them up and run the second 100 laps. While the race started as a local event in the later years when it started paying $10,000 or more to win regional and national drivers started showing up.

Arnie Gardner won the third of his four NCTC titles in 1981 when he used the patented “Santa Fe Bump” to pass Brian Leslie on lap 91. A lead he never relinquished. In 1982 Leslie who had moved from Illinois to Tupelo, Mississippi, returned with a vengeance. It also didn’t hurt that he brought along a new Ray Callahan Bullitt Race Car. After setting fast time, Leslie led the entire 200 laps followed by Izzo.

"The Tall Cool One" Bob Pierce of Danville, Ill., was the 1984 winner.

1984 saw the field include a pair of Iowa hot shoes in Gary Webb and Roger Dolan. Also in the field was a down state Illinois driver who would go onto national prominence in Danville’s “Tall Cool One” Bob Pierce. Tony Izzo would set fast time with a lap of 18.467 seconds with Pierce qualifying second. Jim O’Connor and Tony Izzo would start on the front row as a result of winning preliminary 25-lap features.

O’Connor jumped to the lead until lap 9 when Izzo took over the front spot. Izzo would continue to lead until lap 63 when Pierce made the pass for the lead. On lap 75 it was Izzo back to the lead. The last 25 laps of the first segment saw positions change back and forth and at the break it was O’Connor at the point followed by Pierce. Pierce passed O’Connor on lap 113. By lap 130 John Provenzano had moved into second and would pressure Pierce the rest of the way, but “the Tall Cool One” held on for the win with Provenzano settling for second.
The NCTC race that seems to be remembered the most by race fans was in 1990. The field included pole sitter and winner of the previous nights “Silver Crown 50”, Chargin’ Charlie Swartz of Ashland, Kentucky, Bob Pierce, Ronnie Johnson of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Omaha, Nebraska’s Joe Kosiski. At the start 1990 Santa Fe point champion Bob Pohlman Jr. got the jump on Swartz and pulled away. On lap 50 Provenzano spun bringing out the yellow with only 7 cars on the lead lap. On lap 64, Provenzano experienced transmission problems and coasted to a near standstill on the back stretch. An 18-car pile-up resulted on the backstretch taking out most of the front runners and bringing out a red flag.

"The Big One" occurred at the 1990 National Clay Track Championships. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

A long delay ensued as the safety crews pulled cars apart and got things back in order. The race would resume based on the running order at the end of lap 63. The mandatory break at lap 100 would also be eliminated as the teams had plenty of time during the red flag conditions to make the necessary adjustments. Due to the lengthy delay, Provenzano was able to replace his transmission and enter the race in second place.

Swartz led a slimmed down field to the green, but it didn’t take Provenzano long and he passed Swartz for the lead. Pierce would soon get by Swartz for second and challenge Provenzano put Pierce’s car torn up from the big wreck wasn’t good enough to pass Provenzano, who picked up his third “200” win in four years. Provenzano and Pierce ended up being the only cars on the lead lap.

In 1991, arguably the best dirt late model driver of that era, Billy Moyer showed up at Santa Fe to try his hand at the 200. Track veterans Jim O’Connor and John Provenzano would share the front row with Provenzano jumping to the lead only to be passed on lap 8 by Larry Jackson. Izzo then assumed the point with Jackson reassuming the lead on lap 19. Izzo went back to front on lap 35 but the man on the move was Billy Moyer of Batesville, Arkansas. Moyer grabbed the top spot on lap 62 and would go on to pick up the win and $13,000 for his efforts. NCTS mainstay Provenzano would finish second. That year the field included Peter Parker, who finished third, Gary Webb, Joe Kosiski and Willy Kraft.

1993 saw the always tough Provenzano set a new track record with a lap of 17.174 seconds and started on the pole. But before the first lap was in the book, Westmont’s Gibby Steinhaus had the lead from his outside starting position. Steinhaus and Springfield’s Dick Taylor would swap the lead a couple of times before Taylor excited the race on lap 29. The next lap, “the Modern Day Cowboy” John Gill passed Steinhaus for the lead and never looked back. The race was cut short to 160 laps by rain.
John Gill remembers how he got the advantage early on in the race and how it was taken away during the mandatory lap 100 stop. “The track was really slick, but there was one dry spot coming high out of four where I could get traction and really fly down the front straight.” During the break he heard a “varoom” in turn four and turned to see an earth mover removing the dry spot. “I guess they thought they were evening up the odds.” Gill commented.

The 1994 race was run under threatening skies that had wiped out the previous night's Silver Crown 50 for the third year in a row. Nick Knippers Jr set fast time and led until Kevin Roderick took the top spot. Soon the race would be a battle between Roderick and Bob Pohlman Jr. By lap 70 Provenzano had joined the battle. Rain started to fall near the end of the first segment and the race was stopped for the mandatory pit stop on lap 102.

The late Kevin Roderick won the National Clay Track 200 in 1994. - Photo Courtesy of Al Lewis

During the break the rain subsided, and the race was resumed with Provenzano at the point. Tom Pauley challenged “Little John” but after a while Provenzano started to pull away and Roderick passed Pauley for second on lap 158. Then it happened, late in the race Provenzano was into the backstretch wall allowing Roderick to assume the point. Roderick would go on to win the race, with his closest call coming on the last lap when he had to swerve to miss two cars that crashed on the back stretch. For the late Palos Park driver, it would be his biggest win.

In 1995, the race was shortened to 100 laps, but it didn’t make much difference as the driver who had been as strong as anybody in the race, “Little John” Provenzano picked up his fifth NCTC crown. Sadly, it would be the last NCTC to be run at Santa Fe.

In January 1996 the famous “Dear Driver” letters were mailed out to competitors by the management of Santa Fe saying racing had been suspended for the 1996 season. In March 1999 the famous facility would fall to the wreck ball to make way for an upscale housing development.

Santa Fe Speedway and the National Clay Track Championships are now just a fading memory. But to those many die-hard Chicago dirt track racing fans there will always be a very special place in their heart for both.

A special thanks goes to two racing historians for their contribution to this story. Stan Kalwasinski and Bob Markos. Without their input this story would not have been possible.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Miller 200 (1970 - 1979)

Editor's note: This is part two covering the 200-mile USAC stock car race at the historic Milwaukee Mile. If you haven't read part one yet or need a quick refresher, here's the link to that story...

By Kyle Ealy
West Allis, Wis. – As spectacular and star-studded as the annual USAC stock car 200-miler at the Milwaukee Mile was in the 1960’s, the 70’s version of the mid-summer classic wouldn’t disappoint. The new stars of the United States Auto Club stock car division were ready to set the bar a little higher.

Backed by new sponsorship from right down the street, the Miller Brewing Company, the race was appropriately named the “Miller 200”. And for the next 10 years, USAC stock car racing at the Milwaukee Mile in July would truly be, “The High Life”…

Norm Nelson’s Chrysler-backed racing team came to State Fair Park on Sunday, July 12, 1970 to do a job. And sure enough, they did it.

Roger McCluskey #1 battles teammate and car owner Norm Nelson #41 during the Miller 200 at the Milwaukee Mile on July 12, 1970.

 “A one-two finish, that’s what we came here for,” said Roger McCluskey after the Tucson, Ariz., driver pushed his 1970 Plymouth Superbird to a 77-second victory over teammate Nelson of Racine, Wis., in a 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner. He also set fast time during Saturday’s qualifying, touring the oval at 34.349 seconds.

McCluskey’s only serious challenge came from Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, who raced him neck and neck for some 10 laps around the blistering hot one-mile asphalt ribbon. The track temperature was reported to have reached 105 degrees at race time. 

White edged into the lead at the beginning, only to lose it all when a cracked valve forced him to call it quits on the 52nd lap. “He (White) pushed it hard for a while,” said McCluskey. “I enjoy driving against him.”

“My car handled well,” said McCluskey, who picked up $10,360 of the $57,475 purse –the largest for a USAC stock car race on a one mile track that year. “We didn’t have any problems with the heat.”

McCluskey averaged 98.169 miles per hour for the 2 hour and 2 minute race, leading all but 12 laps. He finished this time - unlike the 1968 race when his feet blistered from the heat and he had to quit earlier than he wanted to.

He said his principal worry was not himself, but the tires and how they would hold up in the sweltering humidity. “We had some new type Goodyear tires, and we had no projection what they’d do,” he said. “We planned a tire change on the first pit stop for fuel because the tires wear more early in the race. The second stop, as it would turn out, was for fuel only.” Both pit stops were extremely brief.

After the second stop, Roger battled A.J. Foyt briefly, with the Texan hanging all over his back bumper for 80 laps before a problem with his transmission sent him to the garage.

Sal Tovella of Addison, Ill., who dueled Nelson most of the afternoon, finished third, giving Plymouth win, place and show on the afternoon. Butch Hartman of Zanesville, Ohio took fourth and Bobby Wawak of Villa Park, Ill., rounded out the top five, both driving 1969 Dodge Chargers. 

Norm Nelson’s two-headed monster would return to the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday, July 10, 1971 and again prove to be the kings of the mountain; in qualifying. McCluskey earned the pole position after shattering the track record (107.242 miles per hour) by more than two seconds and Nelson put forth the next best mark to share the front row for Sunday afternoon’s race. But none of it mattered when Sunday rolled around.

It would be another two-horse team that would steal the headlines come race day, as Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio and his able-bodied teammate, A.J. Foyt, would run one-two in the Miller 200.

Jack Bowsher accepts the trophy after winning the 1971 Miller 200.

“We came here to race,” Bowsher said of the difference between his team’s and Nelson’s on qualifying and race days. If you want to set a car to qualify and have a week to do it, you can set it up to do a couple of fast laps, but you can’t run 200 laps that way. We didn’t do a thing to the cars to qualify or race.”

Foyt, who qualified third, grabbed the lead away from McCluskey at the start with Bowsher taking his turn at the top spot later on. The dynamic duo led 173 of 200 laps in their 1969 Ford Torino’s and did so in convincing fashion. McCluskey would lead 21 laps in taking home the third spot.

Nelson’s team, based 40 miles from the track had spent all week testing, but it was all for naught. After the race, Nelson conceded that Bowsher and Foyt did their homework in outrunning his team, and the rest of the field for that matter.

“When it got hot and the tires got sticky, the track got oily,” Nelson said.” They were running beautifully and could get around us anytime they wanted. We were just spinning our wheels, so to speak.”

Bowsher averaged 95.763 mile per hour in winning the event, which was timed in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Bowsher collected $9,048 out of a $55,000 purse, with Foyt cashing in on an additional $6,263. Not a bad payday for what Bowsher called his “low budget operation”.

“When you talk independents, we’re as independent as you can get,” he remarked. “I ain’t kidding. I‘ve got my brother here and my kids helping out. I’ve only got one guy who really works for me.”

1972 Miller 200 winner Roger McCluskey is joined by car owner Norm Nelson in victory lane.

What’s a race without some controversy?

The end of Miller 200 on July 9, 1972 would have just that. Roger McCluskey passed defending champ Jack Bowsher with four laps left when one of Bowsher’s tires began losing air, then drove his 1970 Plymouth Superbird to what seemed to be a victory in the race at the State Fair Park one-mile track.

Bowsher, of Springfield, Ohio, had led for 119 laps in a 1971 Ford, and claimed afterwards he was leading at the finish. He told USAC officials that instead of finishing five seconds (4.7 actually) behind McCluskey, he was actually ahead by almost a lap when the checkers waved. He claimed he gained the advantage early in the race when McCluskey made two pit stops for tire changes.

USAC officials responded by saying their scoring tapes and charts, along with those kept by Bowsher’s camp, would be sent to USAC headquarters in Indianapolis for review, with a decision to be rendered in a couple of days.

McCluskey averaged 89.644 miles per hour in his “unofficial” victory, as 54 laps were run under caution flags for a series of minor accidents. He said afterwards that he was afraid he was out of the race after his two early pit stops. “When I had two tires go I thought I’d had it,” he said. “But we switched to a harder compound tire and they wore well.”

Bowsher’s tire problems ended just after the race when the tire went completely flat, and the soft tire slowed him down noticeably.

“I saw Bowsher slowing down. He slowed even more, so then I thought I’d put the heat on him,” McCluskey said. “I didn’t run as hard as I could have, but it was enough to leave him behind.”

Three days later, USAC officials upheld the decision and awarded the victory to McCluskey. 

Contrary to what Bowsher’s team claimed, McCluskey made five pit stops, all during the caution flag. “Bowsher made three pit stops, two on the green and one on the yellow,” remarked Richard Sauer, chief of timing and scoring for USAC. “Bowsher’s scorer gave him credit for a lap he didn’t complete.”

Neither 90-degree-plus heat nor brake failure could stop Larry “Butch” Hartman, after he scored one of his infrequent victories in the Miller 200 on Sunday, July 8, 1973.

Hartman, who won the USAC stock car point title in 1972 without winning a race, took the lead with 29 miles left and held it the rest of the way, averaging 90.314 miles per hour in his Dodge Charger, and earned $10,165.

Don White led from the 79th to the 130th lap before taking a pit stop. He regained the lead on lap 132 and held it until his Charger blew an engine and hit a wall on lap 165. That gave the lead to Roger McCluskey. But he had to stop because of a flat tire on lap 171. Hartman grabbed the lead at that point and breezed to victory despite having no brakes.

“My brakes started going after the first 50 miles and for the last 100 miles I didn’t have any brakes at all,” the South Zanesville, Ohio, veteran said. “I told my crew it was a hard way to do it, but the way the car handled I should leave the brakes off next time.”

Johnny Rutherford exited the race early when he was overcome by the heat and high humidity, but Hartman said it didn’t bother him. “The heat never bothers you when you’re out front,” he said. “You won’t believe the cold chills I had when I saw the white flag out.”

McCluskey finished second in a Plymouth Roadrunner, while H. B. Bailey of Houston, Tex., was third in a Pontiac Firebird. Ramo Stott was fourth in a Dodge Charger and Jack Bowsher fifth in a Ford Torino.

Hartman, called the “Cheese Champion", because he didn’t earn a single win during his title run in ’72, said the label irritated him at times. “People, don’t realize I’m finishing well and getting the points,” he snapped. “I’d rather have eight seconds than only one first.”

Ohio's Butch Hartman would successfully defend his Miller 200 title on July 14, 1974.

Hartman could have very well been labeled the “Cheese Champion” again the next year, but for a different reason. After his Miller 200 victory in ’73, Hartman couldn’t stop winning at Milwaukee, claiming three more USAC victories and he was the odds-on favorite when the Miller 200 returned on July 14, 1974.

 Hartman would go on to score his fifth straight victory at Milwaukee that Sunday afternoon, but rest assured, his win wasn’t easy. Even with a half-lap lead in the closing laps of the race, Hartman never started counting his money. “At no point was I confident,” he said afterwards. Even in those last 10 laps when I was out in front, I was nervous as hell. Nothing was certain.”

He averaged 86.884 miles per hour in winning the event. He collected $10,019 of a $54,800 total purse.

Hartman, driving a 1974 Dodge Charger, took the lead from polesitter Bobby Unser after 35 laps. Unser would eventually leave the race after breaking a valve in his ’74 Charger.

Hartman would pit and Dick Trickle of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., would inherit the top spot on lap 87 and hold it until lap 117 when Hartman took over. Trickle would remain behind Hartman until he spun his ’72 Charger on lap 143 on an oil slick caused by the blown engine of Paul Feldner of Richfield, Wis., in a ’72 Charger. Trickle’s car hit the wall, but he walked away uninjured.

Hartman’s final challenge would be from Ramo Stott who had been hampered by brake problems in his 1972 Plymouth all afternoon long but had somehow managed to stay with the leaders. “I knew he was right behind me,” Hartman said. “But I also knew he had some brake issues. It was one heck of a race he (Ramo) drove.”

Norm Nelson would finish third despite being hampered when he made a pit stop on the 50th lap, picked up a piece of metal while leaving the pit area and had to return only three laps later with a flat tire. Jack Bowsher was fourth and Bay Darnell fifth.

In the 1960’s, you could say that Don White owned the Milwaukee Mile, scoring an amazing 11 USAC stock car wins during that decade. But the 70’s had treated the Keokuk, Iowa veteran differently. He had only won twice at “The Mile” and it had been nearly three years (September 10, 1972) since his last victory.

On the other side the fence, the 70’s had been overly generous to Butch Hartman. The four-time USAC stock car national champion and two-time defending Miller 200 titlist had won seven of the last eight USAC stock car races at the famed oval and was enjoying another banner season on the USAC circuit.
A familiar face in victory lane during the 60's, Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, would score his final Milwaukee victory on July 13, 1975.

On July 13, 1975, it would be a showdown of the old guard versus the new star…

The old guard would win out as the 49-year-old White drove his 1972 Dodge Charger past Hartman on the 142nd mile of the 200-mile event, then held off both Bay Darnell and Hartman down the stretch for the victory, worth $9,518 from the record $62,600 purse.

“This has been a long time coming,” said White. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction because I build my own cars, I drive my own cars, I do it all myself.”

White had no sponsorship on his car and was so low on cash he had to qualify using year-old tires. “It gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing you can put a car together yourself and still beat the guys who have money to burn.”

Darnell was second, Hartman managed third despite losing more than a lap after an early accident, and Irv Janey was fourth. All drove 1974 Chargers, while fifth place finisher Ralph Latham piloted a 1975 Chevelle.

The 200-miler was delayed by six yellow caution flags and numerous spins and crashes, including a spectacular collision on the 85th lap. Ramo Stott’s Plymouth blew an engine and burst into flames, and then Jack Bowsher crashed into the wreckage. Neither driver was hurt, but both cars were out of the race.

Butch Hartman would come back with a vengeance the next year, overcoming both the sweltering heat and an unruly race fan to win the Miller 200 on July 11, 1976. Hartman, driving a 1976 Camaro, passed Sal Tovella to take the lead for good on the 158th circuit and ran away unscathed for the remainder of the contest. The three-time winner of the event picked up $9,734 of the $60,000 purse, the richest on the USAC stock car circuit.

Afterwards, Hartman used the ‘ol one-two combination on a fan using obscenities towards the Zanesville, Ohio speedster. “I don't like it,” he said after the scuffle, which ended with the spectator escorted away by police officers. “I don't allow words like that in my home and there’s no place for them here either. There’s no sense in language like that in front of women and little children.”

Hartman, who started on the pole for the Sunday afternoon race, finished with a winning speed of 88.115 miles per hour, outdistancing Tovella at the end by six seconds in 97 degree heat that sent the track temperature to 147. Jack Bowsher, driving a 1976 Ford Torino, finished a distant third and Larry Moore of Dayton, Ohio, in a 1974 Charger was fourth. Fifth place went to Dave Whitcomb of Valparaiso, Ind., in a 1976 Camaro.

Defending champion Don White lasted 51 laps before pulling in because of brake problems. Ramo Stott, the ‘75 USAC national champion, was knocked out of the race with a broken crank shaft pulley on the 89th lap.

Tovella, driving a 1974 Plymouth, was hampered by rear spring and right rear fender damage suffered when his car was involved in a multi-car pile-up on the 72nd lap after Paul Feldner’s 1974 Charger blew an engine. Oil from Feldner’s car spilled onto the track, and Hartman avoided the oil, but Tovella spun and crashed into Feldner's car. Four other cars hit either Feldner’s car or the wall, but no serious injuries were reported.

History was made that afternoon as well as Arlene Hiss became first woman to drive in a Milwaukee stock car race. She was lapped twice by the field in the first 16 laps and spun out in the second turn of the 29th lap. Neither she nor her car suffered any damage, and Tom Williams, owner of the car, took over the driving duties until the 72nd lap when his was the third car in the multi-car crackup.
In the early 1970’s, a young man by the name of Dave Watson started his career in short track racing. His goal was to one day, go big-time. The Beloit, Wis., driver decided to be patient, though, and wait until the time was right to pursue that dream. By 1976, the 30-year-old driver had made huge strides, winning 41 of 76 features he entered and becoming one of the top short track drivers in the nation. After the ’76 season, Watson decided it was time to move up in the ranks, or, as he put it, “I’ve kinda reached a plateau in racing. I’ve won everything there is to win in short track racing. We can’t go anywhere else but down.”

 Dave Watson is interviewed by announcer Jack Baker after winning the 1977 Miller 200. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

On Sunday, July 10, 1977, at the Milwaukee Mile, Dave Watson got his first taste of big time stock car racing. And all he did in his rookie appearance was whip everyone and win the Miller 200 with drivers of the capability of NASCAR star Bobby Allison, who finished five seconds back in second place, Indy 500 veteran Bobby Unser, who took third, and USAC champions Don White and Ramo Stott in his wake. Not bad for a debut…

But things weren't entirely easy for Watson. He was held up a lap in the pits as a penalty for passing cars in the backstretch under the yellow caution flag. After getting his lap back, he eventually made his way to the front and on lap 158 roared past Allison to take the lead. However, USAC officials had the binoculars out watching him as circled the track.

“They told us his right rear tire was chunking off and we’d have to call him in,” said Watson’s car owner Dave Deppe. Deppe, who owned a disposal company in Baraboo, Wis., convinced USAC officials that everything was just fine, they conceded and continued to let him race. The whole time, Watson wasn’t even aware of the incident and didn’t even hear about it until he was in victory lane afterwards, hoisting the trophy and collecting his winnings of nearly $10,000.

Still, almost an hour after the victory, USAC officials still weren’t satisfied and started combing Watson’s car for violations. Routinely, the top five finishers at Milwaukee were always torn down for inspection but the perusals usually didn’t go beyond a quick check of the engine and gas tank.

Deppe was called in to the impound area during the inspection and was engaged in conversation with officials for over a half hour before the car finally was cleared and the results declared official. Asked afterward what the trouble was, Deppe said, “The biggest problem was that a rookie driver and a guy that owns a garbage truck business won a race.”

The rookie driver mentioned afterwards that he wasn’t awed by who he was competing with, not even the veteran Allison. “I thought he was at as much of a disadvantage as I was,” Watson said. “He hadn’t raced here before either so I figured he and I were on equal ground.”

Allison would get his revenge the next year, July 9, 1978, but amidst a little controversy. Allison, driving an AMC Matador, was the first to cross the finish line when the checkers came out, three seconds ahead of runner-up Sal Tovella.

But, to a lot of people’s confusion, both drivers proceeded to take a victory lap…

Tovella’s crew signaled for him to head to the winner’s circle and two and a half hours of conflict followed. Tovella’s crew was under the impression that Allison was one lap behind at the end of the 200-mile race. They argued that Allison had made a series of illegal pit stops under the yellow flag during laps 131 through 134, which according to their own scoring, put him one lap back at the finish.

Neither Bobby Allison (left) or Sal Tovella (right) were willing to concede the 1978 Miller 200. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

A couple of hours later, long after fans had left and race cars had been loaded up, Bill Saxon, the USAC stock car director, said an investigation of records showed that Allison had completed the required 200 laps and was the winner. The confusion, Saxon said, developed because Allison had been credited with one long pit stop when actually he made three quick pit stops under yellow flag conditions.

The final Miller 200 of the decade would take place on July 8, 1979 with Joe Ruttman of Upland, Calif., the younger brother of racing legend Troy Ruttman, leading more than three-quarters of the way and pulling ahead for good at the Wisconsin State Fair Park track. Ruttman’s victory, his first at the Milwaukee track, came before a crowd of 21,169 and earned him the winner’s share of a $75,000 record purse

Joe Ruttman receives the celebratory kiss after winning the Miller 200 on July 8, 1979. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

Ruttman, who led 152 of the 200 laps on the paved one-mile oval, took the lead for good when he passed Terry Ryan of Davenport, Iowa going into the third turn of lap 130. Ryan, Ruttman, A.J. Foyt and defending race winner Bobby Allison had battled for the lead for the previous 20 laps. Ruttman managed to stay a second ahead of Ryan and Foyt for the next 10 laps and then began increasing his lead to as much as five seconds.

Foyt had won the pole position on Saturday with a record speed of 112.15 miles per hour. He led the first seven laps but was slowed throughout the event having to pit on seven different occasions, including one when he was called in by USAC officials for pitting too early when a yellow flag was posted. Foyt was bothered most of the day by handling and tire problems.

Ruttman averaged 96.33 miles per hour in his ’77 Pontiac Phoenix and finishing ahead of Ryan and Foyt, who both drove ’78 Camaros. Tom Sneva of Spokane, Wash., was fifth in a ’79 Ford Granada, and Jim Cushman of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was sixth in a ’78 Plymouth Volare.

Even though he won by five seconds, Ruttman didn’t feel he was the best driver on the track. “I had the better car today,” Ruttman said. “I didn't finish ahead of (A.J) Foyt because I’m a better driver than he is. I could see that he had lots of problems with his car today. I felt sorry for him, but then he’s beat me an awful lot of times, and I wanted to beat him for a change.”

The Miller 200 at the Milwaukee Mile would be USAC-sanctioned for two more years, in 1980 and 1981. Rusty Wallace, an up-and-coming star from St. Louis, Mo., would give race fans and fellow competitors a sneak preview of his driving talents by winning both races.

Rusty Wallace of St. Louis, Mo., would win the last two USAC-sanctioned Miller 200 stock car races in 1980 and 1981. - Stan Kalwasinski Photo

By 1982, however, the USAC stock car division was losing its luster and while the Miller 200 would continue at The Mile, it would be sanctioned by the American Speed Association for the race’s remaining years.

By 1984, the USAC stock car division had faded into obscurity.