Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hawkeye Downs; Big Cars and Fireworks

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By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – For numerous years, the International Motor Contests Association (IMCA) would have traditional dates on its schedule year in and year out, whether it was sprint cars or stock cars.

One of those long-established dates was the IMCA sprint cars at Hawkeye Downs on July 4th weekend. Starting in 1951 and continuing until 1968, race fans could get the best of both worlds on the holiday weekend; seeing their favorite open-wheel stars and then witnessing fireworks afterwards.

Deb Snyder would be in a class all by himself on July 4, 1951 at Hawkeye Downs as he rolled to three victories in the American Legion-sponsored big car program before 4,000 shivering fans. The handsome Kent, Ohio, veteran laid claim to three IMCA world speed records in the process, taking advantage of ideal track conditions. The only blemish on Snyder’s afternoon was when he failed to finish the first heat because forgot to take the radiator cover off and his motor and it overheated

Snyder started out by turning fast time on the half-mile oval in 23.49 seconds. The IMCA record for the distance was 23.70, set at the Minnesota State Fair track by the late Gus Schrader on Aug. 23, 1941.

Deb then lowered an Emory Collins mark when he won the 7-lap semi-main in 2 minutes and 2.90 seconds. The retired LeMars, Iowa, driver claimed that mark with a 2:04.50 effort at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 29, 1948.

Another Schrader time was eclipsed in the feature when Snyder went the 12.5 miles in 10 minutes and 37.58 seconds. Schrader had turned in an 11:51.50 time on the Hawkeye track back on May 29, 1938.

Ohio's Deb Snyder dominated the first three holiday cards at Hawkeye Downs from 1951 - 1953.

Snyder would come back on July 4, 1952, to defend his title but experience a little more difficulty in doing so. Once again Snyder turned in the fastest time, breaking the year old mark he established, with a time of 23.25 seconds.

After winning the trophy dash and first heat effortlessly, it appeared that Snyder would have another easy time of it in the 20-lap main event. But Snyder, while leading the race in the first few laps, uncharacteristically spun out, allowing his chief rivals, Pete Folse and Bert Hellmueller, to pass by him.

Snyder would right the ship, however, and make his way back to the front to challenge the leaders. By lap 10, Snyder would get by Hellmueller and on the 15th circuit, power by Folse for the top spot and eventually the win.

An Iowa farm boy turned big car pilot would come within two laps of beating the two-time defending champion at Hawkeye Downs before more than 4,500 fans on Saturday, July 4, 1953.

In a sizzling finish to the American Legion’s big car auto races, Leon DeRock led Deb Snyder for 13 blistering laps. The Mason City speedster fought off Snyder’s efforts to pass him at every turn until the two drivers started approaching slower traffic on lap 13.

As they came out of the turn in front of the grandstand, DeRock was forced to let up momentarily in the traffic and that was all Snyder needed. The defending IMCA champion buried his foot in the carburetor, swung his car wide and took over the lead. But for 13 laps it was the most torrid big car competition seen at the Downs in recent years.
Snyder winning was made all the more heroic by the fact that he was driving in misery the whole way. He had slipped a disc in his back while lifting a motor block recently. He had been hunched over and walked with a limp. He was almost unconscious when he brought his car to a stop in victory lane. First aid had to be administered and he had to be helped from the cockpit of his Offenhauser.

When the IMCA big cars rolled into town on July 4, 1954, there would be no Deb Snyder to contend with, which I’m sure brought a smile to most of the competitors signed in. Leon DeRock, who almost beat Snyder the year before, was beaming by the end of the afternoon program.

The Mason City pilot, driving a car powered by an Emory Collins Offenhauser motor, established a 20-lap record of 8 minutes and 41.54 seconds in winning the title. The old mark of 8:53.90 was set in 1952 by Snyder.

Before a crowd of 4,000, DeRock led home “Wee” Willie Thompson of Mill Valley, Calif., and Stan Calloway of Miami, Fla., in the feature race, his first career win at the half-mile in three years of big car competition. DeRock also set fast time and won his heat race.
IMCA big car drivers pose before a race in Cedar Rapids. Front row (l-r): Pete Folse, Stan Calloway and Bob Carpenter. Back row (l-r): Jim McWithey,  Cecil Greenley,  Ernie Johnson,  Harry King,  Marvin Pifer, Leon DeRock and Bert Hellmueller.

Bert Hellmueller, the grizzled dirt track veteran from Louisville, Ky., had visited the Hawkeye Downs oval many times in the last few years but always as “a bridesmaid, never a bride.”

He would thrill 4,000 big car race fans on Monday, July 4, 1955, when he tooled his new four-wheel machine past Bobby Grim of Indianapolis to take the 10-mile feature in 9 minutes and 21.35 seconds.

It was the first appearance on a racetrack of the new Hellmueller-designed machine and Bert's weather-beaten face was wreathed in smiles when fans swarmed around the machine after the race. The victory was more impressive since it was registered over Grim who had been dominating the IMCA point’s standings.

Grim started the feature in the pole position while Hellmueller was seventh in the 12-car field. It took the “Kentucky Colonel” four laps to get behind Grim. Then he rode on Grim’s bumper for another three tours before the Hellmueller Ranger, throwing dirt with every one if its four-powered wheels, edged past Grim.

Johnny Poulsen of Gardena, Calif., would parlay his ability to slip through heavy traffic into a feature victory on July 4, 1956 in the first big car ever held under the lights at Hawkeye Downs.

A crowd of 8,000 fans were on hand as Poulsen dueled with Jack Jordan of Alhambra, Calif., and Don Carr of Indianapolis for most of the 20-lap feature. In the late laps, when the lead cars began lapping slower cars in the 12-car field, Poulsen did some fancy work in the first turn and on the backstretch to wrap up the feature title.

Poulsen also had the night’s fastest time trial as he negotiated the half mile oval in 23.93 seconds. The IMCA pilots found the rebuilt Downs oval to their liking, although a slick spot in the backstretch gave the drivers some trouble. Seven of the 18 cars that timed made the grade under the 24 second bracket and five others timed in the 25 second bracket.

Vic Ellis, a former Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association driver, did an excellent job with a Dodge conversion. The Rockton, Ill., speedster qualified fourth fastest in 24.50 seconds and finished seventh in the feature.
Bobby Grim won the 1957 IMCA big car event at Cedar Rapids. - Bob Mays Collection
Bobby Grim of Indianapolis led an assault of the IMCA record book on Thursday, July 4, 1957 at Hawkeye Downs in the first big car race on the reconditioned half-mile track.

Taking full advantage of the newly banked turns, Grim rolled his Offenhauser to a new track record, an unofficial IMCA one-lap mark and a six-lap IMCA record. He probably would have set a 10-lap record too, except that an accident eliminated the time element. In addition, Vic Ellis raced to an IMCA 12-lap mark in the semi-main, and Buzz Barton of Tampa, Fla., lowered the circuit’s 10-lap record in the second heat.

Grim scored a sweep on the evening in his powerful Offenhauser, one of 12 in the field of 25 cars, taking the 25-lap feature, the six-lap dash, the first heat and the fast qualifier. Grim led most of the way in the 15-lap feature, but the track apparently had grown too slick for record-breaking at that point.

Grim turned the Downs oval in 22.03 seconds during time trials for the fastest one lap ever recorded by IMCA. However, it was calculated by a stop watch. The old track record had been 22.86 seconds, set by Joe Sostillio. An idea of the speed presented for some 5,000 fans at the Legion-sponsored event, six cars qualified in the 22-second bracket, an exclusive group in past years, and nine other cars timed in the 23-second range.

Grim’s time of 2 minutes and 21.19 seconds in the 6-lap trophy dash, however, would go down in the books, as would the records set by Ellis and Barton. Ellis won the 12-lap semi-main in the record time of 4 minutes and 52.07 seconds and Barton set an all-time IMCA mark of 4 minutes and 6.7 seconds for 10 laps in winning the second beat.

Grim would come back to defend his title on July 4, 1958, but the program would be marred by the death of an up and coming, and very popular driver.

Vic Ellis, a 31-year-old veteran of racing, was killed during the consolation event. The Rockton, Ill., driver, who had long been a favorite in Eastern Iowa racing circles, died in an ambulance en route to a hospital after his # 51 Dodge conversion flipped on the lap 7 of the race.

Ellis was running fourth when the accident occurred on the dangerous west turn. Arnie Knepper of St. Louis, who had earlier bounced off the rail on the same turn, appeared to have lost control of his Offenhauser. It went sideways in the turn and bumped the car driven by Ellis, sending the #51 car tumbling end over end.
The mangled remains of Vic Ellis' car.

Few fans or drivers were aware of Ellis' death when Grim raced to the 20-lap feature victory, leading home Al “Cotton” Farmer, Pete Folse and Jim Packard.

Just prior to the fatal accident Ellis had seen his IMCA 8-lap record of 3 minutes and 8.60 seconds eclipsed in the first heat race of the night. That was won by Farmer in the record time of 3 minutes and 6.1 seconds.
Afterwards, IMCA officials said that Ellis had been uncertain of his chances of entering the Cedar Rapids race because of damages to his car a week ago. Ellis attached a note to his pre-entry that read: “Car was smashed up some last week. Hope to get it fixed in time to make race. Vic.”

Two spectacular crashes would highlight the big car finale on July 5, 1959. On the white flag lap, Mickey McCormick of Hutchinson, Kan., hit a rut on the backstretch of the track and lost control of his car. He hurtled through the fence about 50 feet from where Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif., had crashed on the second lap of the race.

Hurtubise had earlier tangled with another car in the battle for the runner-up spot heading out of turn two. Suddenly, his car started rolling end over end through the air. His car virtually leaped over the back guard rail, spinning out of sight and into the darkness. The car came to rest on railroad tracks that parallel the Downs’ backstretch.

Both drivers were transported to a local hospital where they were reported to be in satisfactory condition.

Sidebar story: http://www.midwestracingarchives.com/2009/08/1959-frank-winkley-short-story.html

Pete Folse of Tampa, Fla., dominated the big car events as expected. The current IMCA point leader set fast time of 23.87 seconds, then won the first heat, a special 4-lap dash event and led the entire 12-lap feature. Arnie Knepper would take second; Jack Rounds of Huntington Park, Calif. took third; Ed Loetscher of St. Louis was fourth and Wayne Alsbaugh of Anderson, Ind., earned fifth.

Pete Folse accepts his trophy from Ms. Joan Burt after winning the 4th of July feature in 1959. Auto Racing Inc., starter Jake Bozony of Minneapolis completes the good-looking threesome. 

A.J. Shepherd of Gardenia, Calif., would come close to a grand slam but settle for a triple on July 3, 1959.

Before a capacity crowd of 8,000, Shepherd would set fast time (23.77), win his heat and then race home in front of an impressive field in the feature. His only miss would be the four-car trophy dash, where he would be locked in a tense duel with Harold Leep of Wichita, Kan., and eventually settled for third place.

Leep, in fact, would be the only non-Offy driver to put up a successful challenge in the Sunday night program. Driving a Chevrolet conversion, Leep won the second heat, scored the win over Shepherd and then earned a solid fourth place finish behind Shepherd, Jerry Blundy of Galesburg, Ill., and defending race winner Pete Folse in the 20-lap main.

Dick Ritchie of Cedar Rapids, a crowd favorite, wound up second in his heat, second in the trophy dash and finished eighth in the feature after starting 12th.

It would be “Jim McElreath Night” in Iowa, on July 4, 1961. An estimated crowd of 8,000 people watched McElreath wheel his #7 orange Offenhauser to first place in the feature event.

McElreath was reaping all kinds of honors on this particular July 4th. The up-and-coming driver not only swept the Hawkeye Downs main event, but he also won the main attraction on the Davenport oval earlier in the same afternoon. It was the same car that A. J. Shepherd had piloted to victory in 1960.
Jim McElreath would steer his Offy to victory on July 4, 1961. - Ken Simon Photo/Bob Mays Collection

McElreath, who had won the second heat race earlier in the night, showed his driving ability in the feature. After starting in the 12th spot on the outside, he fought his way to third after 9 laps had been concluded. On the 10th lap Buzz Barton, who had led to that point, gave way to McElreath. The whole race would change position after that.

Gordon Woolley, who had been in the running, was injured when his radiator hose blew up and the car caught fire. The drivers were given the red flag, at the end of 11 laps, and all pulled into the pits.

After a 10-minute delay, only 11 of the starting 16 cars went back on the track. At this time McElreath and Barton were still the top contenders, but Buzz Rose, who hadn't done much all evening, snatched the runner-up spot on the 12th lap and pressed McElreath all the way to the finish.

As it was, Rose wound up in the runner-up spot, two-time national champion Pete Folse was third, while Barton ended in sixth place.

At the start of the evening events it looked as if the big race would come from a couple of Tampa, Fla., drivers, Barton and Folse. The two experienced pilots finished 1-2 in the time trials. Barton was fast qualifier, speeding around the fast half-mile in 22.96 seconds while Folse notched a time of
Promoter Frank Winkley offers his congratulations to Johnny Rutherford after the young Texan won the July 4th IMCA Sprint Car feature. - IMCA Yearbook

Race fans - 7,840 of them paid – would beat the threat of rain and a young hotshot driver by the name of Johnny Rutherford upped his IMCA point lead by grabbing the feature event on July 4, 1962.

The speedy Texan walked off with most of the prize money as he grabbed the lead early in the 25-lap feature and was never headed. Rutherford, driving a Chevy conversion, had to withstand the challenges of Offenhauser drivers; Minnesota’s Jerry Richert, Pete Folse, Johnny White and Harold Leep.

Despite the rains early in the day, the track was fast. The first 20 drivers in the time trials finished within one and one-half seconds of each other. Rutherford and Johnny White of Warren, Mich., shared quick time on the day, qualifying in at 22.76 seconds.
Johnny White, the defending IMCA national champion, would out duel Gordon Woolley to win the 20-lap IMCA big car race on July 4, 1963. White’s winning time was 8 minutes and 9.73 seconds.

Quoting Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Phil Maly; “Johnny White of Warren, Mich., put on a one-man fireworks display as he electrified a Fourth of July crowd of 7,500 in winning the big car races at Hawkeye Downs.”

The competition centered around White and Woolley all night long. Woolley captured two races during the evening and White added precious points to his circuit leading total with victories in the semi-main and the feature.

Woolley looked as though he would be a triple winner on the muddy Hawkeye Downs track, but he saw his hopes fade in the ninth lap of the main attraction. The Waco, Tex. driver throttled his Diz Wilson Chevy into an early lead, which stood up until White passed him on the first turn of the 10th lap.

White didn’t stick around for any more duels, widening his margin and lapping every driver except for Woolley and Jerry “Scratch” Daniels of St. Paul, Minn. Daniels wound up third in the feature and Pete Folse, who was battling White for IMCA point leadership, wheeled his Hector Honore Offenhauser to the fourth spot.
"Old-school" Buzz Barton showed everyone else the fast way around the half-mile in 1964. - Leroy Byers Photo/Bob Mays Collection

While Chevrolet was becoming the engine of choice by the ’64 season, there were still a few owners and drivers who still couldn’t part with their “relic” Offenhausers. And on July 5, 1964, Buzz Barton would prove to Chevy owners that the Offenhauser was still a lively corpse in big car racing.

The lead-footed driver from Tampa, Fla., gunned his big Offy home ahead of the field to capture the 15-lap feature in the Auto Racing, Inc., sanctioned races. A crowd estimated at 7,200 attended the holiday spectacular.  Barton would finish five car lengths ahead of the Chevrolet conversions, led by Jerry Richert, who started on the pole position after winning the first heat race.

Jerry Daniels, also operating a Chevrolet, was a close third in the feature. He had the fastest qualifying time, turning the half-mile oval in 23.72 seconds. Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., won the second heat, Gordon Woolley grabbed the third heat and Keith Thomas of Madison, Wis., took the semi-main.

Because race officials took extra time to remedy the slippery condition of the west curve, the first race didn’t start until after 9:30 and it was after 11:00 when the feature ended.
Veteran Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., driving the Hector Honore Chevrolet-powered Bardahl Special race car, would lead from green to checker in an exciting 25-lap feature event at Hawkeye Downs to win top honors on July 4, 1965.

Although he was never headed, Woolley was never safe. Ted Ready of St. Paul, Minn., then Jim Moughan, and finally Ron Larson of Milltown, Wis., all challenged for the lead in a series of duels that delighted more than 6,000 fans.
"The Original Outlaw" Gordon Woolley, took Hector Honore's Black Deuce to victory in the 1965 tilt. - Leroy Byers Photo/Bob Mays Collection

The victory was an important one for Woolley. It moved him out front in the International Motor Contest Association's national big car point standings. Woolley took over the point lead from Jim Moughan of Springfield, Ill., who had been leading the points with his Chevrolet-powered machine.

Red Amick of Muncie, Ind., a former Indianapolis 500 pilot who was one of the pre-race favorites was the hard-luck driver for the night, and also was involved in the only two mishaps. Late in the first heat, his Chevrolet jumped out of gear heading into the main stretch. Ted Jones of Waco, Tex., who had the evening’s fast time (23.33 seconds) drove over the front left axle of Amick, bounced in the air but was able to continue on. The result was a broken axle for Amick.

Red then took over the newly-constructed Turner Chevrolet and won the second heat. He was moving up in the feature rapidly when misfortune struck again. Challenging for fourth coming out of turn three, he spun the car and was forced out of the race.

Tom Bigelow of Whitewater, Wis., also driving a Chevrolet powered machine, won the third heat. Buzz Gregory of Indianapolis, in another Chevrolet-powered car, took the consolation race.

The annual 4th of July big car races would take a break in 1966. Hawkeye Downs was in the midst of constructing a new grandstand and the project hadn’t been completed. The bleacher section, which had been serving fans for weekly racing, collapsed only weeks before the scheduled holiday program. Big cars and fireworks would have to wait a year…

Jerry Richert would win the 4th of July special at Hawkeye Downs in 1967. - Al Consoli Photo

Defending IMCA national sprint car champion Jerry Richert would celebrate the Fourth of July in fine fashion by capturing the 30-lap feature event on July 4, 1967. Surprisingly, it was the first win of the season for the three-time champion who hailed from Forest Lake, Minn.

Richert was elated over the win and confessed, “It seemed like a long time coming. It just seemed like I was in a rut.”

Richert started on the outside of the front row and whipped into the front after one lap. His # 63 wasn’t troubled the rest of the way, although there was a dandy of a battle for next three positions.

Jay Woodside of Kansas City and Karl Busson of Toledo, Ohio, traded the runner-up spot three times in the final six laps before Woodside snuck inside on the last lap to nip Busson. Tom Corbin of Carrollton, Mo., was fourth.

The world record for one lap failed to fall during time trials but two other world marks were lowered. Both records would belong to Iowans.

Popular Lee Kunzman of Guttenberg set a record on the splendidly conditioned half-mile of 3 minutes and 55.75 seconds for the 10-lap first heat. Prior to Kunzman’s feat, Mount Ayr’s Hank Smith topped the 7-lap trophy dash in a record 2 minutes and 35.81 seconds.
Jerry Blundy stands in victory lane after winning the main event in 1968.

Jerry Blundy would use the Hawkeye Downs cushion to perfection and cop the Independence Day classic on July 4, 1968 before 3,602 paying customers. The Galesburg, Ill., flash would nip Lee Kunzman for top honors in the accident-free finale.

Blundy pretty much had clear sailing after slipping inside the 24-year-old Kunzman on the ninth lap to take the lead, but Jerry gave his loyal followers some anxious moments the last five tours on the half-mile dirt track.

He repeatedly went high in the third turn, kicking up the loose dirt, and each time Kunzman closed fast. However, Jerry maintained control throughout his daring tactics and Kunzman - the IMCA sprint car rookie of the year in 1967 - was unable to overtake him.

“The track was hard and slick and I went high because that was where the cushion was,” explained Blundy. “I figured I had enough to stay in front.”

Kunzman echoed those thoughts. “Jerry just had too much horsepower for me,” said. "I tried to force him through the cushion but he's too smart to do that.”

National point leader Jerry Richert won the trophy dash but a mishap of his own doing ruined his chances of topping the 19-car field in the feature.

Richert started on the pole with Kunzman on the outside. But, on the first lap, Jerry hit the guard rail going into turn three and nearly flipped his machine. By the time he made repairs and got back onto the track, Richert was in 15th place.

However, in true “Richert style”, Jerry went to the top of the track, rode the cushion for the remainder of the feature, and finished in third place. Richert, though, was displeased with himself afterwards. “I just got into the turn too hard,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was going that fast. I was halfway over the fence before I realized it.”

Unbeknownst to drivers and fans, the ’68 contest would be the last of the annual holiday event. Frank Winkley, who’s Auto Racing, Inc., sanctioned the annual program for all of those years, would be killed in an auto accident later that same month and his widow Verna, who would take over the reigns, decided not to reschedule for 1969.

Five years later, on July 3, 1973, a Fourth of July sprint car special would be held. Earl Wagner of Pleasantville, Iowa, would pilot the Hank Smith-prepared Chevy to victory before 7,000 race fans.

With the exception of Deb Snyder’s three-year reign in the early years of the event and Bobby Grim’s two victories, the Fourth of July race at Hawkeye Downs would prove to be one of the tougher races to win on the IMCA big car circuit.

4th of July Winners -

1951 – Deb Snyder
1952 – Deb Snyder
1953 – Deb Snyder
1954 – Leon DeRock
1955 – Bert Hellmueller
1956 – Johnny Pouelson
1957 – Bobby Grim
1958 – Bobby Grim
1959 – Pete Folse
1960 – A.J. Shepherd
1961 – Jim McElreath
1962 – Johnny Rutherford
1963 – Johnny White
1964 – Buzz Barton
1965 – Gordon Woolley
1966 – No Race
1967 – Jerry Richert
1968 – Jerry Blundy
1973 – Earl Wagner

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