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.

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