Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The USAC Stock Cars at Du Quoin (1960 – 1969)

By Kyle Ealy
Du Quoin, Ill. – It’s been a Labor Day Weekend tradition for over 60 years; stock cars competing on the “Magic Mile” dirt oval at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds in southern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 50’s stock cars raced on the historic fairgrounds under the American Automobile Association (AAA) rules and still continue to this day, racing with the sanctioning body of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA).

But we’ll focus on what many still believe were the heydays of this event, the stars and cars of the United States Auto Club (USAC).

Beginning in 1956 and ending with its demise in the early 80’s the USAC stock cars brought an exciting brand of racing to Du Quoin and with it, some legendary names.

Big-name racing stars such as Marshall Teague, Jerry Unser and Fred Lorenzen (twice) were winners of the race as the 50’s came to a close.

We’ll start our story on September 3, 1960

Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., would usher in a new decade of stock car racing at Du Quoin by winning the 100-mile event that day, dominating the race throughout and winning handily.

Nelson would win the 100-lapper in 1 hour, 11 minutes and 15 seconds, breaking the old mark of 1 hour and 16 minutes set by Lorenzen the year before. Nelson banked $2,009 of the $11,640 record purse. 

Paul Goldsmith of St. Clair Shores, Mich., would set a new track record in qualifying, touring the mile in 46.42 seconds, which would draw him the pole position for the start of the race. Goldsmith would lead the race for the first 14 laps building up a comfy half-mile lead, when his motor when kaput and he was forced to retire for the afternoon. Nelson would inherit the lead and never look back.

Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, made a strong run, progressing through the field and moving by Rodger Ward for third place on lap 30 and taking over the second spot on the 38th tour from Tony Bettenhausen. White drove a steady race the rest of the afternoon until his motor ran afoul on the white flag lap. Bettenhausen would seize the opportunity to take runner-up honors, nearly three quarters of a mile behind Nelson at the checkers. Ward would hold on to third, John Rostek of Fort Collins, Colo., was fourth and Elmer Musgrave of Niles, Ill., rounding out the top five.
Paul Goldsmith would win the Du Quoin 100-miler in 1961, '62 and '65.

Goldsmith would come back with a vengeance the next year, and on September 3, 1961, would set qualifying and race records before a crowd of more than 22,000. Goldsmith shattered his own time trial mark he set the year before, circling the track in 44.07 seconds and then win the race in 1 hour, 10 minutes and 18 seconds, beating Nelson’s mark of 1960.

The race itself would be a tremendous duel between Goldsmith and Rodger Ward, with no other driver ever in contention. Ward would take the lead from Goldsmith on lap 4 with Don White, Eddie Sachs of Cooperstown, Pa., and Len Sutton of Portland, Ore., and defending race winner Nelson right behind the front-row starting duo.

The top five raced in a snug formation for the next 18 laps until White dropped out on lap 19, followed by Nelson on lap 29 and Sachs near the midway point, lap 48. By that point, Ward, Goldsmith and Sutton had lapped nearly the entire field and the race had settled down to a two-car tussle between Ward and Goldsmith.

It seemed just a matter of time until Goldsmith would pass Ward as he dogged Ward's back bumper lap after lap. Finally, on lap 63, Goldsmith saw his opening on the north turn and sped to the lead never to be in danger gain as he gradually opened up distance on Ward.

The outcome was not unexpected as Goldsmith won easily, extending a point’s lead that would eventually propel him to his first USAC national crown, and collecting a whopping $5,000 out of a record purse of over $15,000. Ward would hold on to second after a spirited battle, Sutton would claim third, Dick Rathmann of Roselle, Ill., fourth and Bill Cheesbourg of Tucson, Ariz., in fifth.

Race fans, impressed by the ’61 contest, would turn out in record numbers on September 2, 1962. “This is the biggest crowd ever for any event at the fair,” remarked one Du Quoin official as he surveyed the huge crowd of an estimated 23,000 people who paid their way into three grandstands.

The center grandstand, which held 12,000 people, and the 6,500 capacity south stands were packed. The north stands, which seated 3,500 people, were almost overflowing. Hundreds of other fans watched free of charge from the turns, as did the usual gallery of fans who built platforms on truck beds outside the south fence.

The size of the crowd was reflected by the total purse of $20,309, which compared with a 1961 record of $15,100 and a 1960 record of $11,640. The total purse, when accessory prizes were included, set a world record for a stock car race.

Rodger Ward would draw the pole position with a qualifying time of 41.29 seconds in a 1962 Pontiac but it was defending race winner Paul Goldsmith taking the lead when Ward went high going into the north turn on the first lap. Goldsmith would never look back, winning by half a lap over the rest of the 27-car starting field. Goldsmith’s winning time was comparable to his run the year before at 1 hour, 12 minutes and 54 seconds.

Don White, driving a ’62 Ford, was the only other driver on the lead lap and finished second. Dick Rathmann would lead a trio of Illinois drivers with a strong third place showing with Herb Shannon of Peoria and Sal Tovella of Addison following behind.

Gary Bettenhausen #99 and Mario Andretti #4 lead the field to green in 1963. - Doug Dempsey Collection

On Sunday afternoon, September 2, 1963, Norm Nelson, driving a 1963 Plymouth, would nip Goldsmith by a mere .70 seconds to win his second 100-miler at Du Quoin. Nelson took the lead on lap 11 and never relinquished it, winning in a time 1 hour, 13 minutes and 19 seconds.

Goldsmith would challenge Nelson numerous times in the final 20 laps, but “The Great Dane” fought off every advance. Nelson would earn $3,824 in prize money and collect another 200 points in his march to the USAC stock car national championship (which Don White would eventually win).

NASCAR star Curtis Turner and Don White would take third and fourth, both driving ’63 Fords, while Herb Shannon of Peoria, Ill., who set a new track record the day before in qualifying (40.44 seconds), would round out the top five.

Another standing room only crowd watched Joe Leonard of San Jose, Calif., set a new qualifying mark of 39.34 seconds on Saturday and then go on to victory in the 100-mile race on Sunday, September 6, 1964.

Spectators would witness a sensational battle between A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward for the first 30 laps of the race. Foyt, driving a 1964 Dodge, and Ward, piloting a ’64 Mercury, would pass Leonard on the start and proceed to trade paint for the next 25 laps, going back and forth for the top spot.

Foyt, experiencing tire trouble early, would eventually have to pit during caution on lap 30 ending what could have been a classic tussle between two of the best. Ward would continue to lead for another 10 laps until Len Sutton of Portland, Ore., took over, who would then give way to Leonard at the midway point as the three drivers remain tightly bunched. 

Unfortunately for Ward, he would get caught up in one of those “wrong place, wrong time” sequences when Eddie Meyer of Glenview, Ill, rolled his 1964 Ford, and when Lloyd Ruby and Gary Bettenhausen swerved to avoid Meyer, they collected Ward, retiring all three for the rest of the afternoon.

After the clean-up, Leonard and Sutton, both driving ’64 Dodges, would continue to run one-two for the last 40 circuits with Leonard winning by a comfortable margin when the checkers flew. His time of 1 hour, 18 minutes and 50 second (82.1 miles per hour) was almost 3 minutes off the record pace set in 1961.

Foyt, who was not among the top 10 cars at the midway point, put on a racing clinic for the last half of the contest. The 29-year-old Texan, known for his fierce driving, passed car after car in the battle for also-rans and would finish an impressive fifth behind Leonard, Sutton, Bobby Marshman of Pottstown, Pa., in a 1964 Ford, and defending race winner Norm Nelson in a 1964 Plymouth.

The near record crowd would produce a Du Quoin State Fairgrounds record purse of $23,650, of which Leonard would cash in on $4,343 of it. That record would stand for less than 24 hours as the USAC champ car race on Labor Day would produce a $24,050 purse.

After being banned from USAC competition for competing with a rival circuit (NASCAR) in 1964, Paul Goldsmith, now driving out of Munster, Ind., was itching to reclaim his Magic Mile crown upon his return in 1965. And that’s exactly what he did…

On September 5, Goldsmith went out and simply picked up where he left off, leading the last 85 laps and leaving everyone in his rearview mirror. In winning his third 100-miler at Du Quoin, Goldsmith collected $4,303 of the $23,120 purse in a time of one hour, 16 minutes, 4 seconds, the slowest since 1959. He averaged 78.8 miles per hour in his 1965 Plymouth.

The 22,000 plus fans who bought every available seat at Du Quoin waited until 4 p.m. for the race to get started without benefit of time trials. The 27 drivers got their pole positions by a drawing while heavy trucks pounded the race course from early morning to make the race possible.

The most excitement of the race came at the starting line when Bobby Isaac, starting on the inside of row two behind polesitter Gary Bettenhausen and Mario Andretti on the front row, gunned his 1965 Dodge to the soft inside part of the track to shoot into the lead.

Isaac, Goldsmith, Jim Hurtubise, A.J. Foyt and Bettenhausen held the first five positions after 10 laps already marked by several pit stops and stalls by other cars. Isaac went to the pits after 15 laps and eventually dropped out of the race at 50 laps.

All the drivers except Goldsmith had troubles as the soft, muddy conditions took a toll on man and his machine. Through the last half of the race less than half the starters were on the track most of the time and only 10 were running at the finish.

Don White of Keokuk, Iowa had been the man to beat on the USAC stock car circuit in August of 1966 winning three straight races on three one-mile tracks. He scored a victory at the Milwaukee Mile on August 18th, the Allen Crowe Memorial at the Springfield (Ill.) Mile on August 19th and the State Century race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on August 26th. 
The crowd is arriving and the stock cars are getting ready for the 1966 race.

So, when White and 1966 Dodge Charger pulled onto the track at Du Quoin, Ill., on September 4th, there was no reason to believe that he was going to lose there either. Before another standing room only crowd of 21,000 fans on a warm Sunday afternoon, White won the pole position with a qualifying mile run of 39.45 seconds and then won the 100-mile test by leading wire to wire. Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., driving a 1966 Plymouth, finished five seconds behind White as the number one and two drivers in the USAC point’s standings lapped every other car in the race.

White’s Plymouth stable mate, Jim Hurtubise made it a three-car race early. Hurtubise ran second to White briefly but pulled into the pits after 29 laps and never got started again. He finished last in the 25-car field. Nelson had white within his sights during the whole race but was never able to get within reach to muster a charge.

White’s winning time of one hour, nine minutes, and 50.42 seconds was a new race record at Du Quoin at an average speed of 85.910 miles per hour. Paul Goldsmith had set the old record of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 18.52 seconds in 1961 in a Pontiac.

White’s victory was worth $4,337 of the $23,000 purse. Nelson got $3,000 for second; Billy Foster $2,443 for third; Sal Tovella $1,500 for fourth; and Bay Darnell $1,286 for finishing fifth.

An interesting side note to the ’66 event; there was not a single General Motors product among the 25 starters in what was strictly a Dodge-Chrysler-Ford contest.

Despite White’s Du Quoin victory and his four-race winning streak, it would be Norm Nelson in first place in the point standings and he would eventually lay claim to the 1966 USAC stock car national title, his second straight and third overall.

When the USAC boys of summer rolled into Du Quoin on September 3, 1967, it was White at the top of the point standings and he was looking to wrap up the title.

When the checkered waved, it was the ‘66 national champ, Norm Nelson, winning the race and ‘66 Du Quoin winner Don White being crowned as the 1967 USAC stock car driving champion. The real story, however, was how White clinched the championship…

White was the fastest qualifier at 39.54 seconds in his 1967 Dodge Charger but after leading only a dozen laps, he smashed into the north fence and his car was disabled. White quickly went searching throughout the pit area looking for someone who was willing to give up their car. White needed to gain more points; the money wasn’t his primary concern. He found someone who was willing to split…

“You take the money and I’ll take the points," White told Al Unser in the pits a few minutes later. So White took Unser’s 1967 Dodge Charger and finished sixth. The 80 points he gained gave him a total of 2,698 for the season and put him out of reach of second place Jack Bowsher, who had 2,064 points with only one race left.

Nelson, driving a 1967 Plymouth, never appeared on his way to victory until the last few minutes of the race when leader Parnelli Jones, driving a 1967 Ford, and A. J. Foyt, another Ford man, were both forced to the  pits on the 92nd  and 96th laps with right rear flat tires.

Nelson made his mandatory pit stop early in the race and was running well behind the leaders until they also took advantage of caution periods for pit stops. Nelson led from lap 42 until lap 58 until Jones passed him to take the lead.


Don White (1) and Al Unser (5) lead the field to green in the 1968 contest. - Doug Dempsey Collection

A record breaking crowd waited patiently Sunday, September 1, 1968 until a 4:15 p.m. starting time to see Don White win his second career USAC stock car race at Du Quoin State Fair over a slow track.

Rains which forced cancellation of Saturday’s midget races also left the track muddy early Sunday morning. Trucks - and even a helicopter - were used to dry the track for a belated start, which saw 32 entries begin the 100-mile test.

The crowd of 21,500 put up a record purse of $31,265 for the drivers to split. A slight increase in admission prices this year made it possible for the purse to jump from the previous record of $23,400 set the year before.

The time trials were much slower than usual as drivers had to exercise caution on a tracked packed on the inside and outside but fairly soft down the middle. White would win the pole position with a qualifying time of 41.49 seconds, which was well off the record time. Only seven qualifiers, however, bettered 45 seconds in qualifying times.

The race itself provided loss and less excitement the further it went and the more apparent it became that White would be the winner without much challenge.

Butch Hartman flashed to the early lead by passing White and Al Unser of Albuquerque as all three drove 1968 Dodges. Hartman’s lead lasted only three laps before he rammed Jim Perry of Indianapolis into the south inside rail. Hartman’s car was damaged and he left the race.

After the caution flag was lifted on the ninth lap, Unser took the lead with White, Foyt, Parnelli Jones in a 1967 Dodge and Roger McCluskey in a 1968 Plymouth in hot pursuit.

Unser led until he made a pit stop on the 29th lap to fall back to fourth. White and Foyt would run one-two the remainder of the race, except for one brief lead change on lap 76 when White pitted only to regain the top spot when Foyt had to stop for his mandatory stop.

The winning time of 1 hour, 18 minutes and 11 seconds was at a speed of 76.73 miles per hour, way off the marks (1:09:50/85.91 mph) set by White during the ’66 race.

Ed Hoffman of Niles, Ill., put a monkey on Roger McCluskey’s back on September 1, 1969 - and that monkey’s name was A. J. Foyt.

With McCluskey comfortably in first place and only 16 miles from a Du Quoin State Fairgrounds record payday, Hoffman stalled coming out of the south turn. The caution flag went up until Hoffman’s car could be removed. As the field circled the track under the caution, everyone in the house watched Foyt, who had been running in the second position for 33 miles, inching closer and closer to McCluskey’s rear bumper, waiting for the green flag to wave.

When the green flag waved with only 11 miles to race, Foyt was driving on McCluskey’s tail pipe. After they hit the east straightaway, Foyt’s Ford Torino was on the rail with McCluskey’s Dodge Charger beside him.

They raced head and head at full throttle at more than 100 miles per hour for a quarter of a mile until they readied the north turn. McCluskey knew that no driver goes full throttle around the turns at Du Quoin, but A.J. Foyt isn’t just any driver.

McCluskey eased up entering the turn and Foyt didn’t even let up on the gas – and that was the race. They went 10 more laps before Foyt, who won his first USAC big car championship race at Du Quoin in 1960, claimed his eighth triumph at Du Quoin. It was the first time he had won in the stock cars after six previous wins in big cars and one in sprints.

Foyt won the pole with a record qualifying time of 38.71 seconds and defending race champion Don White was almost as fast at 38.75. Both broke the race record of 39.34 by Joe Leonard in 1964. Foyt and White had provided all the early fireworks until White tagged the north wall and exited after 37 miles.

A record purse of $31,597 and a paid attendance of 19,407 brought Foyt a $5,473 payday. McCluskey earned $3,746 for his runner-up finish, Al Unser collected $2,593 for taking third, Bill “Whitey” Gerken of Villa Park, Ill., $2,017 for fourth, and Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa took home $1,729 for fifth.

The 60’s had ended with Norm Nelson, Paul Goldsmith and Don White dominating the Magic Mile. The 70’s would see a batch of new faces in victory lane at Du Quoin…

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