By Kyle Ealy
West Liberty, Iowa – One of the most highly anticipated racing events at the beginning of each season was the Spring Championships, held at the Muscatine County Fairgrounds during mid to late April.
The idea of the Spring Championships was started by long-time promoter Dale Gegner of Brighton, Iowa, and it would prove to be popular with drivers and fans alike.
The idea of the Spring Championships was started by long-time promoter Dale Gegner of Brighton, Iowa, and it would prove to be popular with drivers and fans alike.
An all-time record crowd of 9,000 would see stock car racing at its best on April 16, 1977. The day had ideal weather, an excellent racing surface and 81 cars in the pits. Late Models and Sportsman were vying for a $5,000 purse.
Drivers from Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada were on hand for the season opener. But it was an Illinois driver, Duane Steffe from East Moline, who showed everyone the fast way around the track, winning the 25-lap feature.
Steffe started on the outside of the front row and took the lead immediately. Doing superb driving in only his second time out in a new Camaro, Steffe would fend off challenges by Steve Keppler of Marion, Iowa, and polesitter Gary Webb of Davenport, Iowa, early on in the contest. Ray Guss of Milan, Ill., and Tom Hearst of Wilton, Iowa, would soon join the battle and both would eventually get past Webb and battle Keppler for second. While those three hot shoes battled back and forth, Steffe checked out and sailed to victory. Keppler, Guss, Hearst and Ron Weedon of Pleasant Valley, Iowa, rounded out the top five.
Jim Burbridge of Delhi, Iowa, Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa, Ron Hemsted of Lone Tree, Iowa, Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa, and Don Hoffman of Des Moines were heat winners and Hemsted also won the 15-lap consolation.
The evening got off to a fast start with three drivers breaking the track record in time trials. Dike, Iowa’s Curt Hansen’s 1975 mark of 24.21 seconds would be broken first by Tom Hearst at 24.11 seconds. Ray Guss would lower it a little more, touring the half-mile in 23.98 seconds. Last but not least - Ken Walton of Viola, Iowa, would become the new track record holder with a time of 23.69 seconds.
Kenny Fenn of Washington, Iowa, and Ron Pallister of Wapello, Iowa, won their heats and then battled it out in the Sportsman main event. Pallister had the pole and led the first half of the race but it was the veteran Fenn getting by Pallister for the lead and the eventual win.
With the huge success of the event, promoter Dale Gegner knew a good thing when he saw it and was already making plans for next year’s season opener.
The second edition of the Spring Championship took place on April 15, 1978, before 6,000 race fans. Seven states represented the 54 Late Models and 26 Sportsman, with drivers competing for a whopping $10,000 purse.
The Late Model feature was made up of the 20 fastest qualifiers, with top six cars inverted. That place Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa and John Simenec of Rock Island, Ill., on the front row for the 30-lapper.
Simenec grabbed the lead at the drop of the green and held off all challengers for the first 17 circuits. On the 18th lap, however, Simenec’s “Tri-City Buggy” Camaro developed engine problems, forcing the disappointed driver to the pit area. Mike Niffenegger of Kalona, Iowa, who had been running behind Simenec for the last 10 laps, suddenly found himself in the lead.
Although he was given some tough competition from Bill Martin of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and then Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa, “The Flying Dutchman” wouldn’t relinquish the top spot and held on to collect the $1,000 first prize. Crawford would hang on for second with Martin taking third. Tom Hearst and Roger Dolan of Lisbon, Iowa, would finish fourth and fifth.
Bob Kosiski of Omaha would set fast time while Duane Steffe, Jim Burbridge, Martin, Curt Hogue of Ames, Iowa and Bill Breuer of Wapello, Iowa, were heat winners. Rom Hemsted won the semi-main.
In December of 1977, Steve Becker of Atkins, Iowa, had lost his life in an auto accident. Becker had been the ’77 Sportsman champion at West Liberty, so to honor Becker, the Sportsman race was suitably named the “The Steve Becker Memorial Race”.
Mark Keltner of Morning Sun, Iowa, would win the first annual race, leading start to finish in the 20-lap main event. Gail Brenner of Wilton took second followed by Randy Adams of Muscatine, Iowa.
The air was chilly but the racing action hot on April 14, 1979, as the third annual Spring Championship launched the season’s competition. Despite the cold weather, another hearty crowd of over 6,000 filled the stands in anticipation of the first racing of the season.
Curt Hansen would capture the 35-lap Late Model headliner and take home $1,000 for his efforts. The Dike, Iowa, hot shoe would also set fast time and win his heat. Hansen brought two cars to the party, using his Camaro to qualify and race in the feature, and driving his Olds Cutlass to victory in his heat race.
With the six fastest qualifers inverted, Hansen had a third row starting spot for the start of the feature, but by lap 5 he had wormed his way to second spot behind early leader Pete Parker of Kaukauna, Wis. When Parker's engine soured with only 10 laps scored, Hansen grabbed the top spot. From there on, it was easy sailing for Hansen as he ran unchallenged for the remaining 25 circuits.
The Late Model main was not without its casualties as a melee in front of the judge’s stand at the drop of the green caused serious damage to Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids, Gary Webb of Davenport, Iowa, Mel Morris of West Liberty and Don Hoffman of Des Moines. Who were out of action for the rest of the night.
Mike Niffenegger, last year’s champion, got mixed up with Hansen on lap 4, drifted high into the turn four wall, damaging his car to the point he was forced to retire early.
Roger Dolan, the 1978 point champion at the half-mile, tangled with Joe Merryfield of Des Moines a few laps later, went into a flip, and ended his evening early as well.
Ed Sanger, John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa, Dave Birkhofer of Muscatine, Iowa and Steve Keppler would win the war of attrition to round out the top five.
Darrell Sells of Waverly, Iowa, Gary Crawford, Hansen, and Sanger would score heat wins while Jim Burbridge of Delhi, Iowa, won the semi-main.
In Sportsman action, Tony Stewart of Washington, Iowa, won his heat and then cleaned house in the feature, winning the 25-lapper easily. George Liebfried of Rickardsville, Iowa, was second and Bryan Housely of Bettendorf, Iowa, was third.
With ideal weather, a fast track, a great crowd on hand and 70 stock car drivers hungry for action, the fourth annual Spring Championship took place on April 19, 1980. Once again, a substantial purse of over $10,000 was being offered.
A new track record would be established in time trials with Johnny Johnson turning a new time of 23.245 seconds, breaking Ken Walton’s three-year-old mark set in the inaugural race. The six fastest timers were Johnson, Mike Niffenegger, Ron Jackson of Burlington, Iowa, defending winner Curt Hansen, Gary Webb and Mel Morris, and these top six were inverted to start the feature.
This gave hometowner Mel Morris, driving the car of John Moss, the pole position. Ironically, the two fastest timers, Johnny Johnson and Mike Niffenegger, would have to start the main event in the back row, as they were driving cars other than the ones they qualified with. Both had problems with their own cars in heat action. Johnson went with his back-up car while Niffenegger borrowed a car owned by Butch Cassidy of West Branch, Iowa.
Morris would immediately jump into the lead with Ron Jackson settling in behind him. Morris would continue to set a torrid pace until he drifted high in turns one and two, allowing Jackson to slip by and claim the top spot.
From there, Jackson would never look back, leading the remaining 26 laps - taking the win and the $1,000 paycheck to accompany it. Leon Plank of Eau Claire, Wis., would be the hard charger of the evening, starting 15th and finishing second, but still well behind Jackson as the checkers flew. Curt Hansen, Roger Dolan and Gary Webb would round out the top five.
Late Model heat winners were Johnny Johnson, Bill Beuer, Dolan, Hansen and Verlin Eaker of Mechanicsville, Iowa. Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa, would claim top honors in the semi-main.
In Sportsman action, Ron Weedon pf Pleasant Valley, Iowa, driving his faithful “Old Blue”, took the lead from Ron Pallister of Wapello, Iowa, on the second lap, and sailed to victory. Mark Keltner would also get by Pallister on the next to last lap to finish second while Pallister settled for third.
More than 50 Late Models squeezed into the pit area at West Liberty Raceway on April 18, 1981, as the fifth annual Spring Championship kicked off the Iowa racing season.
Racing veteran Mike Niffenegger would become the first two-time winner of the popular event, winning the 30-lap Late Model feature and carrying home the $1,000 top prize.
Hungry for racing after a long winter, a great crowd was on hand and watched many of the top drivers from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin battle it out.
Johnny Johnson’s track record of 23.245 seconds was broken by all of the six fastest qualifiers and was now owned by Tom Hearst of Wilton, Iowa, the defending track champion. He turned the half-mile in 22.522 seconds.
The top six qualifiers were inverted with Niffenegger inheriting the pole position. As the race got underway, Niffenegger jumped into the lead and was never headed, leading all 30 circuits. He was never comfortable, though, as Curt Hansen, Hearst, Johnson and Gary Webb, who finished second, third, fourth and fifth respectively, made it a battle royal to the end.
Ray Guss Sr. of Milan, Ill., was in the third spot for most of the race, but mechanical problems towards the end of the race dropped him back in the field and he finished 12th.
Heat winners were Hearst, Dave Sidwell of Solon, Iowa, Pete Parker, now driving out of Walcott, Iowa, and Niffenegger. Keith Remley of Blue Grass, Iowa, won the semi-main.
Gail Brenner of Wilton, Iowa, won his heat and then took the win in the Sportsman 20-lapper. The feature ended none too soon for Brenner, as he climbed out of his car and was ready to accept his trophy, the radiator hose burst and steam engulfed his car.
West Liberty Raceway would experience change for the 1982 season. Larry Kemp and Johnny Johnson had taken over the promotional reigns from Dale Gegner but fortunately for drivers and fans, the Spring Championship remained.
Dick Schiltz of Waterloo, Iowa, would capture the 50-lap NASCAR Grand American Late Model feature in convincing fashion at the sixth annual Spring Championship on April 24, 1982. Schiltz started the race on the outside of the front row and dominated the event. He finished well ahead of runner-up Jim Burbridge, who started on the pole.
Roger Dolan would prove to be the stiffest competition for the low-flying Schiltz, but Dolan’s hope for glory ended midway through the contest when he slammed the turn three retaining wall hard.
Dolan started on the third row after posting fast time and the mishap occurred while he and Schiltz were working lapped traffic. Dolan’s slammed into the wall and rode it around perhaps 150 feet before coming to a stop.
That ended the race for first but the battle for second waged among Burbridge, Rollie Frink of Davenport and Steve Keppler, who finished in that order. Kenny Fenn of Washington came in fifth.
Duane Steffe, Frink, and Jim Thruman of Freeport, Ill., were heat winners.
For sheer excitement, it would be tough to beat the two-car race between Scott Sells of Waverly, Iowa, and Greg Hunter of Independence, Iowa, in the 15-lap Sportsman feature. Hunter dominated, but Sells made a move on the inside of turn one on the white flag lap and came out the winner.
Twenty-five IMCA Modifieds began the evening and the feature race went to Arlo Becker of Atkins, Iowa, in his familiar #88 AMC Gremlin. It didn’t come easy for the 1981 Cedar County Raceway champion as Mike Wilson of Rock Island, Ill., pushed Becker the whole way until the final lap when his engine expired.
Fifty-Six Late Models lined the pit area with each one of them looking for the $1,000 prize when the seventh annual Spring Championships took place on April 23, 1983. A crowd of 5,000 plus braved chilly temps and windy conditions to witness Eastern Iowa’s first race of the season.
Rick Wendling of Hazelton, Iowa, jumped from the pole position to take an early lead in the 30-lap Late Model contest. Dave Birkhofer of Muscatine, Iowa, who started on the outside of the third row, charged past four cars to settle into second place by the time the first lap was scored official.
Wendling would continue to set the pace until he and Birkhofer encountered slower traffic by lap 11. Wendling would have issues getting around a slower car as the pair exited turn four, allowing Birkhofer to slip inside as they entered turn one to take the lead.
While Birkhofer opened up a sizeable margin, a four-car battle for second place ensued between Wendling, Rollie Frink, defending champion Dick Schiltz and Roger Dolan.
A yellow flag on lap 25 bunched up the field, setting the stage for a five-lap sprint to the finish. With the track cleared, Dolan and Schiltz were able to keep Birkhofer in their sights but neither could mount a challenge as they exchanged positions between themselves.
Schiltz finished second followed by Dolan with Rick Wages of Moline, Ill., and Frink rounding out the top five.
Heat winners were Frink, Wendling, Mark Keltner of Morning Sun, Iowa, Denny Osborn of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Birkhofer. Tom Hearst won the C-feature and Ed Sanger was the B-feature winner.
Mike Schulte of Norway, Iowa, won both his heat and the 20-lap feature in the IMCA Modified division. John Brumley of Riverside, Iowa, finished second and Todd Jensen of Waterloo, Iowa, took third.
Steve Watts of Danville, Iowa, driving a brand-new Dodge Challenger was untouchable as he won the Street Stock feature.
The 1984 Spring Championship would take several weeks to get underway. Originally scheduled for April 14, rainy weather postponed the event until the following Saturday, April 21. However, snow would come into play that Saturday and the race would be re-scheduled for April 28.
The saying, “The third time’s a charm” would prove true as April 28, 1984, would see the eighth annual Spring championships come alive. A tally of 42 Late Models, 24 IMCA Modifieds and 25 Street Stocks signed in at the pit shack.
Ed Sanger would start on the outside of row one in the 35-lap Late Model feature and quickly jumped into the lead ahead of polesitter Hal Russell of Blue Grass, Iowa. The veteran waited out a couple of early cautions before opening up a lead while some of the faster qualifiers were working their way up from the fifth and sixth rows.
While Sanger checked out, the rest of the field raced for second place with fast qualifier Johnny Johnson, Bob LeKander of Burlington, Iowa and last year’s winner Dave Birkhofer doing the majority of the sparring. Each driver held down that spot at least twice before Birkhofer won the battle. LeKander would nail down third place while Johnson held on for the fourth spot. Ken Walton rounded out the top five.
Walton, Birkhofer, Ron Pallister of Wapello, Iowa and Curt Martin of Independence, Iowa, won heat races and Frank Springsteen of Morning Sun, Iowa, was the B-main winner.
Former IMCA Modified national champion Dale Fischlein of Davenport, Iowa, took the lead in the Modified main event but after five laps, his engine went up in a puff of smoke and he limped to the pit area.
Mike Cothron of Moline, Ill., inherited the lead after Fischlein’s exit and fended off Todd Jensen and then Mike Frieden of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to score the victory.
Rod Smith of Monmouth, Ill., set the pace early on in the Street Stock headliner but it was not to be, as Ron Barker of Dubuque, Iowa, slipped past him five laps from the finish to take the win.
The 1985 season would see yet another change in management at West Liberty as Al Frieden would be calling the shots. Frieden announced that there would be changes at the half-mile. Fortunately, the Spring Championship was not one of them.
More than 90 cars were in the pits and an estimated 3,000 lined the grandstands as the ninth annual Spring Championships took place on Saturday, April 20, 1985.
Tom Hearst would win the Late Model headliner, but he would need to take the lead twice to accomplish the 40-lap victory.
Ken Walton would lead the first five laps before Hearst took over on lap 6. However, on lap 16, Hearst suffered a flat tire and was forced to the sidelines during the caution period. A quick tire change in the pit area brought Hearst back on the track but to the rear of the field.
Walton took the green flag and settle comfortably into the lead while Hearst started his charge through the field. By lap 20, the Wilton, Iowa, veteran was in 15th, by lap 27 he was in 10th, and by lap 34 he was in the top five.
On lap 35, Hearst would pass both Dave Birkhofer and Rollie Frink to take over third place and a lap later, speed by Terry Gallaher of Quincy, Ill., for second. On lap 37, Hearst would power by Walton to regain the top spot. Walton would exit a lap later with a broke spindle.
Hearst would win by several car lengths over Terry Gallaher with Frink, Birkhofer and Scott Sells rounding out the top five.
Bob Hill of Story City, Iowa, Hearst, Frink and Scott Sells of Waverly, Iowa were heat winners and Curt Martin took the semi-main.
Rick Wages of Moline, Ill., led from start to finish in winning the IMCA Modified feature over Dave Hammond of Camanche, Iowa and Hershel Roberts of East Moline, Ill.
Scott Megonigle of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was dominant in the Street Stock division, winning the heat and feature.
An unofficial car count registered 26 Late Models, 56 IMCA Modifieds, 29 Street Stocks and 16 Bombers.
Davenport, Iowa, native Dale Fischlein, driving out of Independence, Iowa, went from a heat race disqualification and dead last starting position in the feature to victory lane in the Late Model 50-lapper.
Fischlein capture the third heat but was disqualified when his car failed to meet the minimum weight by 20 pounds. Because of the disqualification, Fischlein was required to start dead last in the 24-car field.
Steve Johnson of Low Moor, Iowa, led the first three laps before being passed by Jay Johnson of Wapello, Iowa, who led through lap 18. Roger Dolan would take command on lap 19 before Johnson got it back on lap 22. Johnson would lead until lap 25 before Dolan regained the top spot and led through to lap 29. Fischlein had made his way through the field and was in fifth.
Rollie Frink would get involved in the battle up front and pass Dolan on lap 30 and lead to lap 33 when Dolan took charge for the third time. However, Dolan would suffer a flat tire on a lap 34 caution period and restarted at the rear after a tire change. Fischlein had made his way to third.
On the restart, Frink would take charge with Bill Breuer and Fischlein hot on his tail. Fischlein would pass Breuer on the backstretch and on lap 37, make his move around Frink for the lead.
Two laps later, however, Fischlein would lose his spot at the front momentarily as Frink got past him on the backstretch only to see Fischlein regain the point as the pair exited turn four.
Fischlein would spend the remaining 10 circuits holding off Frink’s advances before finally taking the Johnny Oberthien’s checkers to seal the win. Frink, Breuer, Darrell Dake, and Curt Martin rounded out the top five.
The IMCA Modified feature aw a tremendous see-saw battle between Gus Hughes of Monticello, Iowa, and Steve Boley of LeClaire, Iowa. But the match race ended when Boley’s car overheated and headed for the pits. Hughes eventually was overtaken by Butch Cole of Kewaunee, Ill., who went on to win the non-stop 20-lapper.
Larry Richardson of West Liberty survived a crash-filled 15-lap Street Stock feature to post the win and Lyle Pearson of Martelle, Iowa, won the Bomber main.
The West Liberty race would continue but the name on the marquee would no longer be the “Spring Championship”. The next year, Promoter Al Frieden would have a three-day event at the three tracks he promoted, Cedar Rapids, West Liberty and Dubuque and call it the “The Weekend Spectacular”.