Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Battle at Du Quoin; the USAC Stock Cars (1970 – 1981)

By Kyle Ealy
Du Quoin, Ill. – During the 1960’s the USAC stock cars at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds provided thousands of fans with many memorable races. The 1970’s, however, provided their version of what made this annual Labor Day Weekend event so special.

Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., who at age 47 was trying to quit driving but would get behind the steering wheel when his driver, Roger McCluskey, was not available, would win his record fourth Du Quoin 100-mile stock car championship on September 7, 1970.

Nelson had also won at Du Quoin in 1960, 1963 and 1967 and thus became the first four-time champion at Du Quoin. Nelson, driving car #1, a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner; Jack Bowsher in # 2, a 1970 Ford Torino; and Don White in # 3, a 1969 Dodge Charger, dominated the early stages of the race.

Nelson led for the first 29 laps until White collared him on the east straightaway and took the lead.

On the 46th lap J. C. Klotz flipped in the south turn and made a sensational upright landing atop the guard rail. Several cars took advantage of the yellow flag caution period to make pit stops and Nelson emerged in front again at lap No. 47. He was never headed, again.

The race produced two Du Quoin race records of $31,930 in total purse and 19,948 in paid attendance. Nelson collected $6,066 for his victory and added 200 points to his total in his quest for a national title. The winning time of 1 hour, 21 minutes and 3.4 seconds (84.438 miles per hour) could not match the 1:09:50.42 clocking for Don White in 1966, however, as 23 laps were run under the caution flag.

Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would be the surprise winner at Du Quoin in 1971.

A near capacity crowd of 17,500 stock car race fans sat quietly through almost 90 laps on Sunday afternoon, September 6, 1971, then rose to its feet for a roaring finish in which nobody knew who the winner was.

Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, driving a 1971 Plymouth, was announced as the winner even though he finished third behind Don White and Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa.

Confusion at the finish had been caused by three caution slowdowns of about five laps each on the 25th, 71st and 82nd laps. Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio, driving a 1971 Ford, had led throughout the race and had pulled away more than half a lap in front.

After the third caution period, both White and Blankenship again were running almost on Bowsher’s tailpipe. On the 90th lap, White passed Bowsher to take the lead. Two laps later White went wide in the north turn and Bowsher and Blankenship both passed him.

Hitting the north turn on the next lap, leader Bowsher blew his right rear tire and was forced to go to the pits. White led until Blankenship passed him on the 98th lap only to have White speed by Blankenship on the north turn of the last lap and cross the finish line first.


After some conversation, USAC officials ruled Eaker was the first driver to make his mandatory pit stop during the first caution period. He then apparently had gained a lap on the rest of the field in subsequent pit stops by other drivers. Thus, he was the first to complete 100 miles even though he running third at the time.

Eaker, who had claimed the pole with a qualifying time of 39.24 seconds (91.743 miles per hour), earned $5,821 out of the total purse of $30,642. White got $3,983 for second and Blankenship grabbed $2,757 for third. Eaker’s winning time of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 56 seconds was good for an average speed of 84.586 miles per hour.

A disappointed Bowsher was credited with seventh but long after the crowd had filed out, he was dropped to 30th and last position. It was reported that his crew had made an illegal tire change after time trials.

There would be no confusion, no discrepancies or discussion when the checkers flew at Du Quoin on September 4, 1972. Jack Bowsher made sure of that…

Bowsher would set a new qualifying record in the time trials then easily won the caution-free 100-mile stock car race on Sunday afternoon before 15,721 racing fans.

Jack Bowsher (21) leads Butch Hartman (75) during the 1972 Du Quoin 100-miler.

Bowsher piloted his Ford Torino to a 36.41 second clocking for a new USAC dirt track record of 98.874 miles per hour to claim the pole. Then in the race he seized the lead and held it comfortably for 30 laps before making the one mandatory pit stop required in the race.

The pit stop allowed Butch Hartman of Zanesville, Ohio, driving a Dodge, to take the lead and hold it until the 76th lap. Hartman had previously made his mandatory earlier and then had to make an unplanned second stop on the same circuit to change his right rear tire.

That second stop cost Hartman the lead as Bowsher zoomed back in front. The Springfield, Ohio, veteran had lapped the whole field except for Hartman and there was no doubt about the winner.

Bowsher’s time of 1 hour, 52 minutes and 34 seconds set a new track record (95.432 miles per hour) for a 100-mile race at Du Quoin. Bowsher collected $5,522 of the $29,065 purse. Hartman would settle for second and a payday of $3,778. The all-Iowa trio of Don White, Ramo Stott, and defending race winner Verlin Eaker would round out the top five.

Editor’s note: The field of 28 starters included eight Dodges, seven each of Plymouth and Ford, and six Chevrolets.

The 1973 event would start three consecutive years of domination by one driver; Larry “Butch” Hartman.

Hartman would beat 49-year-old Norm Nelson for the win on Sunday, September 3, leading 98 of the 100 laps. Pole winner Jack Bowsher (lap 1) and Nelson (lap 76) were the only drivers credited with leading a circuit.

Hartman, driving a 1973 Dodge, ran the 100 miles in 1 hour, 8 minute and 4.65 seconds. He averaged 88.156 miles per hour and beat Nelson by only three seconds. Hartman earned $5,077 for his win while Nelson claimed $3,662.

Following Hartman and Nelson across the finish line were Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa, in a ’72 Dodge, Derr’s brother-in-law, Don White, in a ‘73 Dodge and Ramo Stott in a ‘73 Charger. A total of 13 of the 30 starters finished the race.

The defending winner, Bowsher, left the race on the 21st lap when he hit the fence in the backstretch. He was credited with 21st in the race.
Hartman would give a repeat performance on September 1, 1974, and so would Norm Nelson. Hartman would pass Nelson on the 96th lap to win the 100-mile USAC stock car race at Du Quoin. Hartman averaged 90.248 miles per hour in his 1974 Dodge. The race was run in 1 hour, six minutes and 29 seconds.

Nelson, the now 50-year-old grandfather, would settle for the runner-up role once again driving a Plymouth. He was followed by Davenport, Iowa’s Terry Ryan in a Chevrolet, Ernie Derr in a Dodge and Irv Janey of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in a Dodge.

Ryan, the fast qualifier of the day, led the first 11 laps. Nelson led laps 12 to 69. Ryan led on lap 70 and Nelson regained the lead and held on until lap 96 when he was overtaken by Hartman.

Butch Hartman would dominate the USAC stock car scene at Du Quoin from 1973 to 1975.


Hartman had a dream the night before winning his third straight Du Quoin race on August 23, 1975.

“Just recently my son died of diabetes, my father of a heart attack and a very close friend in an auto accident. I got to thinking about that saying that things happen in threes.”

“Then I got to thinking about having won the 100-mile stock car race at Du Quoin the last two years. Why not make, it three, I dreamed,” said the mud-spattered Hartman after his victory before a slim 8,137 crowd on Saturday.

The leading stock car driver of the 1975 USAC circuit dreamed well as he won the 100-mile event in the slow time of 1 hour, 11 minutes and 13 seconds for a speed of 84.250 miles per hour.

Only 15 of the 30 starters were running at the finish and Du Quoin State Fair officials were happy so many ran so long. Dust had erased the 50-mile midget event Friday and threatened to do the same to the stock cars on Saturday.

“I never saw the track until I saw the checkered flag,” quipped Hartman of the race run in a dust fog.

While Hartman dreamed of threes, Du Quoin State Fair president Bill Hayes and track superintendent Bob Green dreamed of twos.

“We can’t have two straight races stopped by dust,” pondered Hayes during the time trials when dust did appear to be heavy in the straightaway leaving the north turn.

“I was up all night putting water on the track,” said Green. “I don’t have much pep left.”

The heavy dust threatened to stop the race at the start as the USAC officials whipped out the caution flag on the very first lap. They were back on the green flag at the fourth lap

Jack Bowsher, who won the pole in his Ford with a time of 38.36 seconds, led for 13 laps until Hartman took the lead with Irv Janey passing Bowsher for second position on the 17th lap.

A caution flag on lap 30 sent Hartman to the pits for the one mandatory pit stop. Ramo Stott, Jim Scott, and Don White kept up front for several laps until Stott went high in the north turn on lap 49 as Hartman forged ahead. Hartman led the race to the finish as Sal Tovella finished second in what could have been a surprise ending.

The race went smoothly until the 98th lap when Mark Dinsmore, the slowest of the 30 qualifiers who started the race, spun into the rail on the east side of the track to bring a caution flag.

The caution period gave runner-up Tovella time to get on Hartman’s bumper before the last lap but Hartman held his lead to win by 20 yards.

Bay Darnell of Deerfield, Ill., would break the Hartman stranglehold on the August 28, 1976, as he took the first prize of $3,711.

Darnell took the lead on the 79th lap and held on to win in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 58 seconds.  A total of 27 cars started the race and 14 finished.

Five different drivers held the lead at one time or another. Pole sitter Jack Bowsher led the first 16 laps before the day’s lone caution occurred. Bowsher would use the slowdown and bring his car into the pits, giving the top spot to Butch Hartman, who had started seventh.

Action resumed on lap 20 and Hartman continued to lead the way until the 46th mile when Darnell took over for two circuits. Hartman regained control only to have Darnel take over again on lap 52.

Hartman took the upper hand on the 68th mile, but his lead was short-lived as Steve Drake of Bloomington, Ill., took charge on the very next lap. Two miles later, Terry Ryan of Davenport, Iowa, became the fifth driver to lead the event.

However, Darnell would take over for good one mile later and went on to take his second career USAC stock car victory. Don White would finish second, followed by Paul Feldner of Richfield, Wis., Hartman, and Ken Rowley of El Paso, Ill.

Paul Feldner waves to the crowd during his victory lap at Du Quoin in 1977.

Paul Feldner couldn’t have picked a better place for his first USAC Stock car win, when he would win the 100-miler at Du Quoin on August 27, 1977.  Feldner averaged 73.968 miles per hour which took 1 hour and 21 minutes to complete. Feldner earned $4,100 of the $23,000 purse.

Feldner, piloting a Dodge, started on the front row, but the opening stages were dominated by a pair of Volare’s, driven by Ramo Stott and Ken Rowley. Stott grabbed the initial lead but gave up the top spot to Rowley on lap 15. Stott would regain the point a lap later and stay in front until the 28th mile when he crashed into the turn one wall, ending his day. A broken A-frame was later determined to be the cause of Stott’s misfortune.

Feldner inherited the top spot but had little time to establish any kind of advantage when another caution slowed the field on lap 37. Feldner elected to make a pit stop during the yellow flag and Rowley took over first place when the green was waved on lap 40.

Rowley’s afternoon would end when he spun his car on lap 53 and tagged the turn three wall. Kevin Housby, running behind Rowley, one lap down, slammed into Rowley’s machine, thus ending both drivers’ day.

Rowley’s departure handed first place to Charlie Glotzbach of Sellersburg, Ind., who brought his Charger into the pits while still under yellow, turning the lead back over to Feldner as they went green on lap 55.

Feldner, his Charger running to perfection, opened up a comfortable advantage, and despite a couple more cautions, would stretch his lead to half a straightaway when the checkers waved. Sal Tovella, who started 17th in the 28-car field, finished an impressive second, while Jim Hurlbert of Mahomet, Ill., took third.

Don White is interviewed in victory lane by Mike Lee after winning at Du Quoin in 1978.

Bay Darnell would be the first to cross the finish line at Du Quoin but it was Don White who would be in victory lane following the 100-miler on August 26, 1978,

Gary Bowsher’s spin on lap 97 necessitated a yellow flag. With the green scheduled to return for the final lap, Darnell charged ahead of White as the two frontrunners brought the field around for the start of the 100th mile.

Darnell’s actions didn’t go unnoticed by USAC officials and although the Deerfield, Ill., chauffeur took the checkers first, he was penalized one position for passing the leader prior to the green flag, giving the White the win.

Ramo Stott had dominated the early part of the program, touring the mile in 37.24 seconds (96.670 miles per hour) during qualifying to grab the pole. He would lead the first 29 miles before pitting, allowing Joe Ruttman to take over.

Sal Tovella would replace Ruttman in the top spot on lap 32 and hold that lead until lap 41 when Stott crashed into the outside guardrail bringing out the yellow. Tovella would pit during the yellow flag allowing Darnell, who had started second, to claim first place on lap 43.  On lap 47, White accounted for the final lead change when he sped around Darnell.

White’s victory was the first of the year for the Keokuk, Iowa, veteran and increased his career total to 53. Darnell was credited with second, ahead of Terry Ryan, Tom Bigelow (who started 21st) and Tovella.

Rusty Wallace of St. Louis, Mo., would win the 1979 contest at Du Quoin.

It was “A.J. Foyt Day” in Du Quoin, Ill., on August 25, 1979, but the day really belonged to Rusty Wallace of St. Louis, Mo., as the 23-year-old driving star bested Foyt and a field of 22 other USAC stock cars to win the annual 100-miler.

The victory was the first for Wallace on the USAC circuit and paid $4,629 from a total purse of $27,069.

Foyt, who was honored by Du Quoin area merchants prior to the day’s racing, set fast time, touring the well-groomed mile in 37.13 seconds, earning the pole position.  

It was Bay Darnell, who started alongside Foyt, darting into the lead at the start of the contest and built himself a straightaway advantage by the midpoint of the race. Darnell would pit during a lap 49 caution allowing Don White to take over the top spot on the 50th round.

White would hold the lead for only a couple of laps when Joe Ruttman spun in turn one bringing out another caution on lap 54. On lap 57, Wallace would blast past White on the restart to take the lead.

With his 1979 Firebird performing better than earlier in the day and no more cautions to slow his pace, Wallace led the rest of the way to pick up the win. Don White would settle for second, Bay Darnell would take third, Foyt would grab fourth and Sal Tovella would round out the top five.

Sal Tovella would win at Du Quoin in 1980. - Todd Healy Photo

It would require 101 laps, but Sal Tovella would finally score his first ever Du Quoin victory on August 23, 1980.

The reason for the extra lap in the scheduled 100-mile race was an Alan Kulwicki crash on lap 98, which brought out the red flag. Since the race was restarted under the yellow, its distance was increased to 101 laps because of USAC rules stating the last two laps of any race had to be under green.

Tovella took home $4,946 out of a total purse of $26,929. Joe Ruttman, the fastest qualifier, finished second followed by Terry Ryan. Those three drivers were the only ones to finish on the lead lap.

Dean Roper would grab the lead from his outside front row position until Ruttman took over on the sixth mile. Rusty Wallace would take charge on lap 19 until Ryan became the fourth different frontrunner on the 22nd mile.

Wallace would account for the race’s first caution when he slammed his Firebird into the turn three wall on lap 25. Pit stops under the yellow resulted in Kulwicki leading laps 26 and 27 before Tovella took over on 28th try around the mile dirt oval.

The lead would never change hands again as Tovella demonstrated his superiority, dominating the race despite another five additional cautions.

Dean Roper would win the 1981 Du Quoin 100-miler.

Dean Roper of Fair Grove, Mo., would win the USAC stock car race at Du Quoin on August 29, 1981, much the same way as Tovella did; having to go a few extra laps.

The event was slated for 75 miles but was extended to 79 when a late caution enforced the rule that the field had to run the last three circuits under green.

For Roper, it was his third USAC win of the season, all run on mile ovals, all three on dirt surfaces. Sal Tovella, the defending race winner, took second and was followed by Kevin Gundaker of St. Louis and Steve Drake. They were the only drivers to finish on the lead lap.

Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa, who won the first qualifying heat to earn the pole position, led the first 13 laps of main event before fellow townsman Don White guided his Aspen into the top spot. White continued to pace the field at the halfway point until a caution came out on lap 50 for a spin by Herb Shannon of Peoria, Ill.

White would continue to pace the field after all out action resumed, but would eventually join Ken Schrader, Rick O’ Brien, Rick Hanley and Tony Emralino in a multi-car accident on the 62nd circuit. The wreck retired the front-running White and second place Schrader giving Roper command of the top spot.

The event’s final yellow came on lap 71 when Blankenship, Dave Bruggink and Ken Rowley tangled in turn three. It took until lap 77 before action could resume under green and Roper warded off Tovella for the win.

Rick O'Brien would win his first career USAC-sanctioned stock car event at Du Quoin in 1982.

Rick O’Brien of Peoria, Ill., would score his first USAC stock car victory at Du Quoin on September 5, 1982. O’Brien took the top spot on lap 96 when Ramo Stott drifted high and wide as the pair negotiated turns three and fur running side by side.

Driving a Buick Regal, O’Brien led the remaining three laps to score the triumph and earn $5,808 from a total purse of $33,000. Stott would settle for second while Joe Wallace of Kansas City took third, giving Regal pilots a clean sweep of the top three positions. Dean Roper (Grand Prix) and Marv Smith (Regal) of Newark, Ohio, were fourth and fifth.

Bay Darnell was the fastest qualifier at 96.850 miles per hour ad led the first 11 laps from his pole position. Butch Garner of Forsyth, Ill., would pass Darnell and rule the next dozen laps before Roper took charge on lap 24.

Stott moved in front on the 30th mile except for lap 58, which was paced by Darnell, stayed in front until O’ Brien got the upper hand in the waning laps.

The USAC stock car division had been slowly losing its luster over the past few years with the ’82 event only able to field 21 cars. The once-popular division was on its last legs but wanted to keep its flailing division going at Du Quoin as long as they could. In 1983 and ‘84, they would partner with ARCA in order to attract more cars.

At the end of the ’84 season, USAC folded the stock car division forever, allowing ARCA to take full reigns of the Labor Day Weekend race at Du Quoin, an event they still hold today.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bill Wrich; One of a Kind

Bill Wrich of Kennard, Neb., poses next to his GOTRA car - Photo courtesy of Lee Ackerman


by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - In 1954, they built a 1/5th-mile track in Arlington, Nebraska near the Washington County Fairgrounds. As the track was nearing completion, a 16-year-old farm boy was helping his dad on the farm and asked his dad if it was all right if he raced at the new track. His dad said, “I really don’t care because, I don’t think you will like it.

The farm boy raced at the new track on June 20, 1954, winning his heat race and the trophy dash before retiring from the feature with mechanical issues. In 1995, that same farm boy was still racing winning the Grand National Late Model Championship at Sunset Speedway in Omaha. In between, Bill Wrich put a lot of miles on going to racetracks around the Midwest, and he won a lot of races.
Bill finished fourth in the points that first year at Arlington, and twice scored clean sweeps winning his heat, the trophy dash and the feature. In 1956, Bill and wife Joyce even planned their marriage so they wouldn’t miss a race at Arlington. They got married on a Tuesday, took a quick honeymoon to Colorado and were back in time for the races at Arlington on Sunday night.

Bill Wrich in the early days of his racing career. - Photo courtesy of Lee Ackerman
In 1957, Bill won the track championship at Arlington. In 1958 while leading the point race by a large margin, he decided to switch tracks and run at Onawa, Iowa, he still finished second in points at Arlington without running the last several races.
In 1961, he dominated racing in the Omaha area winning the track championship at Playland Park in Council Bluffs, Iowa and sharing the track championship at Sunset Speedway in Omaha with Bud Burdick. On Labor Day Weekend 1962, Skylark Raceway in Columbus (then a hot-bed of coupe racing) held the “Five State Mid-States Championship.” Fifty-Three cars from five states competed in the race and Bill, without ever racing at the track before, come away with the victory.
In 1964 driving No. 8-Ball car, Bill decided to try out the competition at a new track in Sioux City called Soos Speedway, built over a ballpark. After winning several weeks in a row, he was encouraged by the locals to find somewhere else to race. He also continued to race occasionally at Sunset Speedway during this time.
In 1966, Al Hadan, owner of Sunset Speedway built a 1934 Willy’s to race. “It was an interesting car.” remembered Bill. “We found a Willy’s frame along the banks of the Platte River and dug it out. The first night out we won both features, after that the frame seemed to get weaker and it just never raced well.“ said Wrich.
In 1968, Bill teamed with legendary Harlan, Iowa mechanical whiz, Dale Swanson and the results were nothing short of spectacular. Driving the legendary No. 55 Swanson Chevy, they won almost every feature at Denison, Iowa that year and ran away with the track championship. They also won several races at Harlan and took the track championship there as well.
In 1969, driving the No. 180 car for Tom Gawley, Bill continued his winning ways and finished second at Harlan and was named the track’s top driver. The pair also won a number of events at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, including a last lap pass to claim the bounty put on local star Don Hoffman. In 1969, Bill also claimed his second track championship at Sunset Speedway.
1969 was also the year of Bill’s most memorable win, that coming at the Shelby County Speedway in Harlan, Iowa. Bill was cruising along when his left front wheel came off. Instead of dropping out of the race though, Bill just kept going. Bill backed off the gas and limped around the turns, then as he was coming off the turn, he’d hit the gas enough to keep the front wheel-less left front hub just a few inches off the ground until he got into the next corner. He did that for three laps and WON!
In 1970, Bill won the “Speedway Invitational” at Sunset in his back-up car. He raced at Harlan on Friday nights, Des Moines on Saturday night and Sunset on Sunday night. In 1971, due to the success he was having, he was in the running for a ride in a Junior Johnson car, but things didn’t work out and the ride went to a driver from South Carolina named Cale Yarborough, who went on to win three NASCAR Cup Championships in the ride.
The 70’s saw Bill spending time campaigning in the IMCA fair circuit and with USAC. Bill won IMCA Stock Car events at the Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa in 1973 and 1977 as well as a couple of other events at Spencer. He finished fourth in IMCA Stock Car points in 1976 and third in 1977.
On September 10, 1977, his win at Spencer was the last race every held in the old IMCA Stock Car circuit. Bill also tried racing for a time at the I-70 Speedway near Odessa, Missouri on the asphalt. Bill said, “the first time I went down there we won our heat and ran second in the feature. But that was before the interstate was finished and we had a devil of a time just getting there.”

Bill Wrich poses in his stock car, 1974 - Kyle Ealy Collection
Bill also campaigned in 1974 and 1975 in several USAC events. He brought home two top-10’s including a fifth at the Terre Haute Action Track in Indiana. In looking back, Bill says, “I built my own cars, because I wanted to race Chevrolets. I should have gone down and bought one from Bobby Allison, I would have probably been better off.”
He also raced the red No. 54 for Larry Skalberg during this era, mostly in special events. He won the late model portion of the “Sunset Classic” called the Triple Crown event, in 1973 and again in 1977.
Being a farmer, Bill said there were times I was too busy or didn’t have the money to race. “When the cattle market was good, I was back racing again.” recalled Wrich. In 1995, Sunset Speedway added the Grand National Late Model class, and it’s first point champion was an old farmer from Kennard named Bill Wrich. Bill raced the series through 1998 before retiring from the series.
His last race was at the 2000 “Tiny Lund Memorial” in Harlan, which was won by his son Dwight in a car prepared by Bill. One thing about Bill Wrich prepared cars, they usually were very well balanced. Tragically, two weeks after winning the “Tiny Lund”, Bill’s son Dwight lost his life in a fiery crash at Denison.
Bill raced one more time, at the legends race at I-80 Speedway in 2005. He started in the sixth row and took the lead on the last lap to win the race.
Bill was born on July 30, 1956 on a family farm south of Kennard where he still lives with is wife, Joyce. Their children include; Debbie Kerber of Blair, Jacque Salerno of Omaha, Gayle Russell of Arlington and their late son Dwight. The Wrich’s also raised nephews Randy Larsen, who lives in Arizona and Ricky Larsen of Omaha.
While his racing career is over, and having recently had heart surgery, I wouldn’t look for him to give up farming to soon. On the other hand, I do know that that old 1958 Ford hauler that Bill used to haul race cars to the tracks with since the late 60’s, is still setting in a shed on the family farm, so who knows.

Writer's note: The above was a story I wrote about Bill Wrich for Hawkeye Racing News maybe eight or nine years ago. We just lost Bill and he will be greatly missed by family, friends and the entire racing community. Bill was one of a kind, no doubt about that.
To update this story, Bill stayed on the farm and eventually that old Ford Hauler came out of the shed and carried a beautiful powder blue no. 16 GOTRA car to races across the area as he raced with the Good Ole Time Racing Association. This past summer (64 years after his dad told him he didn’t think he’d like racing) he was still behind the wheel. You know the saying, once a racer always a racer, and Bill Wrich fit that description to the letter.
I can't speak for anyone else, but next year when GOTRA rolls into a town that I happen to be at, I'm going to miss seeing that old hauler, and the gruff old guy with a jolly laugh that just made you feel better about life
Bill Wrich was truly one of a kind.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Original Third Mile Nationals at Eagle Raceway

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 past 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 followed by Roy McCain in fourth.

Gordon Woolley won the inaugural Third Mile Nationals - Leroy Byers Photo

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.
Dick Sutcliffe was the 1969 winner at Eagle
'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.
Kansas City's Ray Lee Goodwin won the 1971 Third Mile Nationals. - Kyle Ealy Collection

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.
Eddie Leavitt would be the last Third Mile Nationals champion in 1973. - Al Major Photo

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.