Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Midwest Racing Archives

Kyle Ealy

Lee Ackerman 








Thursday, December 16, 2021

The 100-Miler at Puke Hollow


Langhorne Speedway

By Kyle Ealy

Langhorne, Penn. – A.J. Foyt once said about Langhorne Speedway, “That was a track that separated the men from the boys. On the list of toughest tracks to run, you'd have to put it at #1.”

Built in 1926, all other racing courses up to that time were fairground horse tracks, but Langhorne was the first one-mile dirt track built specifically for cars. The “Horne” was shaped like a perfect circle. Known as "The Big Left Turn," Langhorne was for many years the world's fastest track of its size, despite being unpaved. The unique layout meant that drivers drifted around virtually the entire circuit, usually with the throttle wide open.

Turn two was affectionately known as “Puke Hollow”, a name coined in in the track’s first year of existence. During a race in the worst of Pennsylvania's summer heat, a driver was overcome by the combination of humidity, dust, bumps, and fumes and after exiting his car, he proceeded to lose his lunch right there. "One of the spectators yelled, 'He's throwing up there in Puke Hollow,”’ and the name stuck.

Langhorne held every race imaginable including jalopies, modifieds, stock cars and even motorcycles, but the Indy-style cars would be one of the more popular events of the season.

Starting in 1940 and continuing until 1970, the Indy-style championship cars would converge on Langhorne Speedway each June and run a 100-mile event.

Under American Auto Association (AAA) sanctioning, Duke Nalon would win the first two 100-milers, on June 16, 1940, and June 22, 1941. In 1942, however, the United States government banned all forms of auto racing due to America's involvement in World War II. As a result, Langhorne sat idle and did not host a race of any kind until 1946.

With the war over, racing was back stronger than ever and on June 30, 1946, over 50,000 spectators watched Rex Mays of Los Angeles, Calif., flash across the finish line ahead of Indianapolis 500 winner George Robson to win the 100-miler in 1 hour, 10 minutes and 28 seconds. May’s winning share of the $14,000 purse was $3,600.

A record 52,000 would see “Wild” Bill Holland of Bridgeport, Conn., win the 100-miler on June 22, 1947. Holland gunned his Offenhauser around the one-mile oval on 1 hour, 8 minutes and 23 seconds, to finish over two laps ahead of Emil Andres of Chicago.

Walt Brown of Massapequa, N.Y., would win the 100-miler on June 20, 1948. The race was appropriately named the “National Convention Sweepstakes” in honor of both the Democratic and Republican Conventions being held in nearby Philadelphia that July. Brown, who won the race in 1 hour, six minutes and 55 seconds, roared to the front after favorite Ted Horn dropped out with engine trouble after 66 laps.

The 1949 100-miler would be moved to October for one reason or another. Instead of suffering through the June heat, officials decided that race fans should freeze instead and only 10,000 showed up on October 16 to see Johnnie Parsons of Van Nuys, Calif., win the race in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 56 seconds, securing his fifth national championship.

The race would be moved back to its June slot in 1950 and on June 25, Jack McGrath of South Pasadena, Calif., won before 18,000 onlookers. McGrath gunned his racer into the lead when race leader Duke Nalon ran out of gas with only 5 miles to go. McGrath’s winning time was 1 hour, 7 minutes and 47 seconds and the up-and-coming driver earned himself $7,500.

On June 25, 1951, Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park, Ill., drove the Belanger Special to victory in the 100-miler before almost 24,000 fans. Bettenhausen won in the time of 1 hour, 4 minutes and 57 seconds, beating the one-legged Bill Schindler of Freeport, N.Y., by half a mile.

There would be no Indy cars or 100-milers in 1952 nor in 1953. This writer could find no reason for its absence those two years.

But they would return on June 20, 1954, and before 22,000 fans hungry for fast action, Jimmy Bryan would give it to them, shattering the track record in winning the 100-miler in 1 hour, 1 minute and 30 seconds. The 26-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., speed demon, who had badly burned his foot a month earlier at Indianapolis, mashed on the gas pedal and smashed the 13-year-old record previously held by Duke Nalon.

The 1955 race was split in halves; with the race originally taking the green on June 19 but after 44 laps, called because of rain. The race would pick up the following Sunday, June 26, and once again Jimmy Bryan would be the class of the field. Covering the event in 1 hour, 2 minutes and 40 seconds, Bryan finished 10 seconds ahead of Indy 500 winner Bob Sweikert.

Citing safety concerns, the American Auto Association would withdraw from auto racing at the end of 1955 and the United States Auto Club would start sanctioning events beginning with the 1956 season.

The 1956 race would see a major upset as George Amick of Los Angeles, Calif., fought a host of favorites and the usual sultry Pennsylvania humidity to win the 100-miler on June 24. Amick, who started sixth, pulled into the lead on lap 70 when accidents and pit stops started plaguing the leaders. Defending winner Jimmy Bryan, pole-sitter Bill Garrett, Bob Veith and Pat Flaherty would all fall victim to Langhorne and Amick would cop his first major Indy-car victory.

One hundred miles in less than an hour seemed almost unimaginable but Johnny Thomson of nearby Boyertown, Penn., proved it could be done when he toured “The Big Left Turn” in 59 minutes and 53 seconds on June 2, 1957. The time was not only a track record at Langhorne but an American and World record as well. Thomson’s average speed was 100.194 miles per hour, shattering Jimmy Bryan’s previous best of 97.56 mph. Over 25,000 race fans watched the dominant Thomson finish 31 seconds ahead of fellow Pennsylvanian Eddie Sachs of Allentown.

Sachs would shed the bridesmaid role the next year, June 15, 1958, as he wheeled Peter Schmidt’s Offenhauser to victory in 1 hour, 5 minutes and 26 seconds. However, the 26,000 race fans in attendance would have to wait nearly two hours for the completion of the race. Johnny Boyd of Fresno, Calif., was rounding the first turn when his car spun and caught fire. Boyd was able to escape with burns on his legs, but firefighters were unable to extinguish the blaze and after two hours, what was left of the Bowes-Seal Fast Special was towed to the pit area. When action resumed, Sachs, who started sixth, took the lead away from Jud Larson of Kansas City on lap 62 and proceed to lap the entire field en route to the win.

Van Johnson, the Bally, Penn., mechanic, not the Hollywood movie star, would have 25,000 fans roaring their approval as he upset the field on June 14, 1959. Johnson, who started 11th, drove a steady without taking any pit stops and won the 100-miler in 1 hour and 16 minutes. The car, completed the day before, had no number on it during qualifying and the crew slapped on the number “56” with duct tape moments before the green flag unfurled. Johnson took over the lead when race leader Elmer George pitted on lap 72.

Jim Hurtubise of Lenox, Calif., would win the 100-miler on June 19, 1960, but tragedy would overshadow everything else that day as Jimmy Bryan would die tragically on the first lap of the race. The 33-year-old, who had come out of semi-retirement, was attempting to pass Don Branson of Champaign, Ill., when his car suddenly skidded sideways and rolled several times. He was dead on arrival to a local hospital with head and chest injuries.

Eddie Sachs, who viewed the tragedy from behind, blamed the accident on Bryan’s “overconfidence in himself and his eagerness to return to the profession that he was so wonderful in.”

“Jimmy Bryan tried to drive a newly designed car that he wasn’t familiar with,” Sachs said. “He tried to drive it into a front running position immediately.”

“I was about 40 feet behind and could see everything. They had just dropped the green flag and the cars went into the turn. Bryan took the outside and the dust and dirt got heavy. He didn’t like what was happening, so he tried to change his strategy and cut to the inside and that was his fatal mistake.”

“He tried to drive from the outside to the inside too quickly and that put the car out of control. He made such a sharp turn that the car flipped to the inside of the track.”

After the race was restarted, Hurtubise would set a national record of 100.786 miles per hour and a time 59 minutes and 31 seconds, breaking Johnny Thomson’s mark set 1957.

A.J. Foyt, the 1961 Indianapolis 500 winner, scored the victory at Langhorne as well on June 18, 1961. “Lady Luck” who rides alongside all winners of auto races, apparently didn’t have as much to do with the race as it first appeared.

According to the scorers and the public address announcer, defending winner Jim Hurtubise was in the lead from the 33rd to the 94th lap, when his engine conked out and he was forced out of the race.

Foyt, who was running second at the time, took the lead and won the race six miles later, and the fans in the grandstand were talking only about how “Lady Luck" was working overtime in Foyt’s behalf.

When the race was over, Foyt and his pit crew complained to the officials and scorers. They argued that Foyt did not take the lead on the 94th lap but that A.J. was actually leading the pack ever since the 44th mile.

Foyt said that on the 44th lap Hurtubise took a spin into a ditch, and he passed him. Hurtubise readily admitted this after the race. It only took him 10 or 15 seconds to get back into the race but by this time, Foyt was way ahead.

However, Foyt’s scorer missed scoring him for the lap. After Foyt’s complaint, a recheck of the records showed that he was right. Either way, Foyt won, but he didn’t want to be tagged the “Lady Luck” driver.

An announcement was made over the public address system about the mistake, but by this time most of the 28,000 fans had already left.

It was a record purse as A.J. won 25% of the $22,300 ($5,575). Not bad for an hour’s drive.

A.J. Foyt would successfully defend his Langhorne title on July 2, 1962, in a race marred by the death of Hugh Randall. The race, originally slated for June 24, was postponed 15 minutes before the start because of heavy showers and moved forward one week. Starting in the third position behind pole sitter Jim Hurtubise and fellow front-row starter Don Branson, Foyt would power past both of them on the first lap and never look back, finishing 12 seconds ahead of Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif.

Randall, a 23-year-old Louisville, Ky., driver fairly new to the USAC ranks, was killed when his car hit a rut and shot about 20 feet into the air, vaulting end-over-end five or six times. It landed on its foil and turned over, pinning Randall. Randall was still alive when rescue workers freed him from the car, but Randall was dead on arrival at the local hospital.

Coincidently, the same car that killed Randall, the Vargo Special, had taken the lives of two other drivers in 1960, Dick Linder at Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and 1959 Langhorne winner Van Johnson at Williams Grove, Penn.

A.J. Foyt would continue his success at Langhorne, pulling off a “hat trick” so to speak in 1963. Foyt would not only win his third consecutive 100-mile national championship race on June 23, but also win a USAC sprint car race on April 7 and a USAC stock car race on May 5. Foyt would fight off magneto problems on his car the last third of the race and still win ahead of fellow Texan Jim McElreath by 20 seconds.

Foyt would continue his dominance and on June 21, 1964, fighting heat and power steering issues, would lead all 100 circuits to win his fourth USAC national championship 100-miler at “The Horne”.

“I can’t remember ever being so tired,” Foyt remarked afterwards.

The steering on his new Sheraton-Thompson Special went out about midway through the contest and he wrestled with the car for the remaining 50 miles. He was hard-pressed by Don Branson the entire time but still won by a straightaway.

Foyt's winning time was 58 minutes and 30 seconds, an average speed of 102.522 miles an hour. The temperatures on the surface of the track were reported to be 125 degrees.

Before the 1965 race was to take place, Langhorne promoters Irv Fried and Al Gerber had the track's layout reconfigured to a "D" shape by building a straightaway across the back stretch and paving over the uneven dirt surface with asphalt.

When the annual 100-miler took place on June 20, 1965, a throng of 39,120 spectators witnessed the “new” Langhorne Speedway and watched as 37-year-old Jim McElreath break Foyt’s four-race winning streak.

The race itself boiled down to a two-man event. The only leaders of the race were McElreath for 68 laps and the “Italian Import”, 25-year-old Mario Andretti of Nazareth, Penn., who led 32 circuits. The average speed was 89.108 miles per hour, which was slowed by numerous accidents.

Andretti broke Don Branson’s old qualifying record, with a clocking of 30.46 seconds for an average speed of 118.187 miles per hour. Branson’s record was 31.580 seconds, 113.996 miles per hour.

Foyt qualified in fifth place but retired from the race on the 29th lap after his car developed overheating problems. It was then announced afterwards that Foyt and his chief mechanic, George Bignotti, had split up. It had been rumored for some time and it finally happened following an argument in the pits that Sunday afternoon.

When the afternoon ended on June 12, 1966, Langhorne Speedway was once again the home of the world record for a mile track. Mario Andretti batted 1.000 that Sunday as 26,200 fans watched him establish a world record in the time trials and then go out and win the 100-mile National Championship Car race, leading all the way.

Andretti, piloting the Dean Van Lines Special, lowered the world qualifying mark to 29.36 seconds, touring the D-shaped oval at 122.615 miles per hour. He then led all 100 laps, winning in 1 hour and 47 seconds, in a race slowed by 30 laps run under caution. In fact, Mario took the checkers under the caution flag – the first time in the 40-year history of championship racing. Andretti’s victory earned him about $8,000 of the total purse of $27,300.

Al Unser of Albuquerque, N.M., and Lloyd Ruby of Wichita Falls, Tex., would put on a two-man show on June 18, 1967, at before 26,235 fans at “The Horne”. They each led for half of the 100-mile national championship car race.

Unfortunately for Unser, however, he led for the first half. Ruby, driving a brand-new car, took over the lead on the 53rd lap and led the rest of the way. He crossed the finish line in 52 minutes and 55.16 seconds, setting a new track record for the distance. The average speed was 113.380 miles per hour. That shattered the old marks set by Don Branson in 1962 of 57 minutes and 15 seconds (104.799 mph) when the racing surface was still dirt.

Unser himself would break Mario Andretti’s world qualifying mark for one-mile tracks when he sped around Langhorne in 29 seconds flat, averaging 124.137 miles per hour.

By 1967, offers from developers became too tempting to refuse for Fried and Gerber and it was announced that Langhorne Speedway had been sold. But the speedway did manage to hold on through five more seasons.

The USAC championship division would continue to compete at Langhorne for the next few years, but the event was changed from the traditional 100-mile race to 150 miles. Gordon Johncock of Hastings, Mich., would win the 150-miler on June 23, 1968, while Bobby Unser of Albuquerque, N.M., would win the last two USAC races, June 22, 1969, and June 14, 1970.

Friday, December 10, 2021

RIP - Al Unser (1939 - 2021)

Indianapolis, Ind. - Al Unser, one of four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, passed away at the age of 82 on December 9.

The Alburquerque, N.M., driver won 50 United States Auto Club events in his lengthy career, from between 1964 and 1987. He won the USAC national championship twice, in 1970 and 1983, and won the IndyCar championship in 1985. 

He won the Hoosier Hundred four consecutive years (1970 - 1973), the 1973 Championship Dirt Series and was also competitive behind the wheel of a stock car, winning the Governor's Cup at the Milwaukee Mile in 1971.  

He also competed on the International Motor Contest Association circuit, winning the prestigious Missouri Futurity in 1963. 

Al Unser @ Sedalia - 1963

Al Unser at Springfield Mile - 1974

Al Unser @ Sacramento - 1969

Al Unser at Sedalia - 1970

Al Unser @ Milwaukee - 1970

Al Unser at Indianapolis - 1970 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The World Dirt Racing League (Part 1)

Kyle Berck won the Alphabet Soup Race as part of the World Dirt Racing League's inaugural season. - Lance Goins Photo


By Lee Ackerman

Omaha, Neb. - For 17 years Jim Wilson was the director of NASCAR’s only touring dirt series, the Busch All Star Tour. After NASCAR announced the cancellation of the popular series at the conclusion of the 2001 season, Wilson prepared himself to work just the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series. But the racers in the region wanted another touring series to replace the Busch All Star series. That led Wilson to make a decision.

He resigned his position at NASCAR to create, promote and present the World Dirt Racing League Late Model Series (WDRL). Wilson owned and operated this central U.S. leading racing tour from 2002 through the 2009 season. In a two-part series, we take a look at the inaugural season of the World Dirt Racing League.

The WDRL became the top sanctioning body in the Midwest as Wilson had assembled a great team which included Dean Howe as flagman, technical director Mark Ludwig, media rep Phil Roberts, announcer Tom Lathen and scorer Chris Hansen. Another strong point of the team was Wilson’s wife Nancy, the chief of staff who kept things fine-tuned behind the scenes.

The inaugural World Dirt Racing League season kicked off on March 30, 2002, at the Davenport Speedway in Davenport, Iowa with 60 late models in the house. Heat races went to Joe Kosiski of Omaha, Neb., Darren Miller of Chadwick, Ill., Kyle Berck of Marquette, Neb., Shannon Babb of Moweaqua, Ill., and John Anderson of Omaha, Neb. The two consolation events were won by Steve Boley of West Liberty, Iowa, and Wayne Brau of Annawan, Ill.

Kosiski started on the pole of the 40-lap event with John Anderson starting outside. Kosiski grabbed the lead at the start of the race with Anderson sticking on his tail for the first half of the event until Anderson retired with motor problems.

Denny Eckrich of Tiffin, Iowa then picked up the chase. Starting 14th, Eckrich was up to sixth by lap six, then on the next lap he was fifth and by lap ten was in fourth. Then third place runner Babb fell out and Eckrich inherited third. When Anderson went pit side Eckrich gained the runner-up spot. Eckrich chased Kosiski through lapped traffic in the late stages of the races, but Kosiski held on for the win with Eckrich second, Berck third, Ray Guss, Jr. of Milan, Ill., fourth and Boley fifth.

“It was a great racetrack.” said Kosiski in victory lane. “They did a good job. It is the inaugural race of the series. I don’t know how much more you could expect of these people to put on a good race like they did tonight.”

On May 15, the series visited Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas and it was Springfield, Missouri’s Terry Phillips taking home the win. Todd Gehl of Solon Springs, MN. took the initial lead from his outside front row starting position, but by lap 2 it was Phillips (who started sixth) to the point.

Leslie Essary of Crane, Mo., who started fourth, took the point from Phillips on lap five and was in firm command of the race throughout most of the event. However, late in the race Phillips started closing the gap in lapped traffic and the duo ran bumper-to-bumper. In the final laps Phillips went high to take the lead and held on for the win.

Followings Phillips and Essary were Chad Lyle of Harrisonville, Mo., Alan Vaughn of Belton, Mo., and Chad Clark of Marshall, Mo. Heat race wins went to Clark, Ed Kosiski of Ralston, Neb., Gehl and Randy McGraw of Marshall, Mo.

“He never tried up high,” said Phillips of Essary after the race. “I knew it wasn’t too bad (up there), I could keep up. The longer we ran the better I got.”

On May 26, at Nebraska Raceway Park it was the inaugural Alphabet Soup Race named so by local fan Ron Meyer because the race included not only the WDRL, but the Midwest Late Model Racing Association (MLRA) and the National Championship Racing Association (NCRA). The event drew 48 late models.

Twenty-six cars started the A feature. At the drop of the green polesitter Kelly Boen got high in turn one and surrendered the lead to Terry Phillips. It took Boen several laps, but he fought back and took the lead back from Phillips. Boen was in command of the race the rest of the way until on the final turn of the last lap he drifted high allowing “the Marquette Missile” Kyle Berck to slip by and take the win.

Following Berck and Boen to the line were Joe Kosiski, Jason Bodenhamer and Phillips. Chris Smyser, John Anderson, David Turner, Steve Rushin and Berck won the heats.

Brian Birkhofer's first career WDRL win came at the Iowa State Fair Speedway in Des Moines. - Lance Goins Photo

The series did not race again until July 2 when they invaded the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Things started off with Iowa drivers taking the heat race wins as Brian Birkhofer of Muscatine, Dave Eckrich of Oxford, and Darrell DeFrance of Marshalltown winning the heat races. Blue Grass’ Gary Webb took the consolation.

Things didn’t get any easier for outstate drivers in the feature as Birkhofer led all 50 laps to take home the win. Several drivers took a shot at Birky but to no avail. First it was DeFrance, then lap 2 it was Ray Guss, Jr. and finally for the remainder of the event Terry Phillips. Phillips and Guss provided fans with a lengthy side-by-side battle for second before Phillips came out on top. At the checkers it was Birkhofer, Phillips, Guss, Jr., Kyle Berck and Dave Eckrich.

The next night, the series sponsored by Mr. Goodcents moved to the Crawford County Speedway in Denison, Iowa. Another strong field of contenders was on hand with Kyle Berck, Steve Kosiski and Denny Eckrich taking the heat race wins and Kirksville, MO’s Sonny Findling winning the consolation.

In the feature it was Steve Kosiski and Brian Birkhofer on the front row with Birkhofer getting the jump and leading the first four circuits. On lap 5, Ray Guss, Jr. took the point and held it until lap 12 when he retired from the event handing the lead back to Birkhofer.

Behind Birky, Steve Kosiski and Kyle Berck waged a see-saw battle for second with Berck winning that battle and then taking off after Birkhofer. On lap 25, Berck went to the front and held on for the remainder of the 40-lap feature. Behind Berck it was Birkhofer, Steve Kosiski, Terry Phillips, and Joe Kosiski.

Action moved to the Park Jefferson Speedway in Jefferson, South Dakota, on July 13 where a familiar face to victory lane picked up the win. Steve Kosiski took the lead on lap 16 and led the remainder of the 50-lap event to pick up the win.

WDRL point leader Kyle Berck took the lead from the pole but was forced pit side on lap 11 after cutting a tire. Berck fought his way back through the field to finish second. Several cautions marred the event including one on lap eight for Rob Moss who had a flat tire. Then on lap 9, Joe Kosiski, Brent Larson and Vic Lovejoy brought out the yellow.

At the checkers it was Steve Kosiski, Berck, Ace Ihm, John Anderson, and Gary Webb. Heat race wins went to Mike Collins of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Denny Eckrich and Steve Kosiski. Berck won the fast dash.

On July 19 at the Mid-Nebraska Speedway near Doniphan it was Kelly Boen picking up the win from his fifth row starting position in the Nebraska Late Model Nationals. Following Boen to the line were Joe Kosiski, Davey Nall, Ed Kosiski and Steve Kosiski. Heat races went to Donnie McClellan of Grant City, Mo., Boen and Jason Friesen of Sutton, Neb., with Friesen taking the dash.

Next month, we look at the remainder of the inaugural season of the World Dirt Racing League.

Jeff Aikey (77) and Sonny Findling (8) battle it out during WDRL action at Des Moines - Bruce Badgley Photo

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Jack Merrick’s Hutchinson Nationals

Merrick Auto Racing with Jack and Esther Merrick sitting in the front seat. - Larry Merrick Collection

By Kyle Ealy

Hutchinson, Kan. – On September 22, 1957, some enterprising auto racing promoters from Oklahoma City, Enid, Okla., Dodge City, Wichita, and Hutchinson, Kan., formed a partnership under the name “Grand National Jalopy Promotions.”

Led by Ray Lavely, the race promoter at Taft Stadium in Oklahoma City, they conceived the first Grand National Jalopy Championship, to be held at Taft Stadium on October 5, 1975.

The promoters were Jim Collins of Salt Hawk Speedway in Hutchinson, Kan.; Jack Merrick of McCarty Speedway in Dodge City, Kan.; O. L. Douglas of 81 Speedway in Wichita, Kan.; Eber Higgins and Verne Hamilton who were the promoters of the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Enid, Okla.

Seventy-five drivers from five different tracks would gather, with 30 starting the 100-lap main. Total purse to be $2,500. Each track - Enid, Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Taft - would send 15 drivers.

Those 15 would compete against each other in 10-lap heat races, with the top five transferring to the main to represent "their" track. A 40-lap consolation would pit the remaining cars against each other for starting positions, with the top five tagging the field.

The show ran very late, apparently, ending some time Sunday morning. Wichita's Frankie Lies took the trophy ahead of Garland Newsome and Harold Leep. Fifteen of the 27 starters finished the long-endurance grind with four completing the entire 100-lap marathon.

There hadn’t been a lot of advance notice, so attendance was a meager 4,000 spectators in a 18,000-seat venue. Needless to say, Lavely and his partners suffered significant losses.

Lavely would leave town soon after (where he would promote auto racing in the Denver, Colo., area) and the future of the Grand National Jalopy Championships was in doubt.

Jack Merrick, however, thought the concept of the Jalopy Nationals was a great idea and decided it should continue.

But where?

The pit area and parking at Taft wasn't really suited for huge fields of cars, and besides, the Taft Stadium Board didn't want to extend racing season further into their high school football season. The Oklahoma State Fairgrounds would have been ideal, but the Fairboard there decided they wanted nothing to do with it.

Instead, Merrick determined that the next site for the Grand National Jalopy Championships would be at the spacious half-mile in Hutchinson, Kan.

Inaugural Hutchinson Nationals winner Frank Lies (far right) is joined by car owner Kenny Riffel. -  Lies Family Collection

On July 27, 1958, the second annual Grand National Jalopy Championships took place before a capacity crowd of over 10,000 race fans at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.

Wichita’s Frank Lies would rocket to his second straight National Jalopy title, winning the 75-lap race in 41 minutes and 25 seconds. Will Forrest, also of Wichita, who turned in the fastest qualifying time on Saturday with a time 30.59 seconds, battled Lies for the first 20 circuits before Lies took over for good on the 21st lap.

The transmission on Forrest’s 1933 Hudson would eventually give up on lap 41 and he was forced from the chase, which left Lies having things all to himself.

Of the 45 cars that started the race, Lies was the only driver to complete all 75 laps. In fact, he had lapped the entire field in the process of annexing his second national crown.

A distant second to Lies was Forrest Coleman, also of Wichita, who actually finished in third place but was moved up when runner-up finisher Jay Moore of Pittsburg, Kan., refused a tear-down inspection.

Cliff Sealock of Hastings, Neb., winner of the 30-lap semi-final race, would start 41st in the feature and charge through the field to finish an impressive third.

Will Forrest and 1959 Hutchinson Nationals queen Pati Wilhelm. - Mike McCoy Collection

Will Forrest would get his revenge the next year, July 26, 1959, winning the Grand National Jalopy Championship before another capacity crowd of over 10,000 fans.

Cut down to a 50-lap championship feature, Forrest and two-time winner Frankie Lies would battle all race long before Forrest was finally able to secure the lead with 10 laps to go.

Lies led the first 12 laps but lost his lead as Forrest took over on the northwest corner of the 13th. Lies regained his edge in the south turn of lap 34. As the two cars blazed down the front straightaway of the 40th lap, they raced wheel to wheel.

The crowd rose to its feet as Forest edged away from the champion and maintained the lead the remainder of the 10 laps. He crossed the wire four-car lengths ahead of Lies. Harold Leep of Wichita captured third place, a quarter of a lap behind the leaders.

The Hutchinson News reported that there were 11 crack ups during the championship main, none of the drivers were hurt. There were nine holes in the wood fence surrounding the track. The hard driving pilots tore through an estimated 30 feet of fence. Poor visibility and drivers pushing their cars too hard were determining factors.

“The race, as a whole, was and, I think was better than last years,” Merrick commented afterwards. “The drivers were of much better caliber than last year and certainly gave all they had all the way.”

1960 Hutchinson winner Forrest Coleman and trophy queen Alice Sale - Lies Family Collection

Race fans would continue to see the succession of Wichita dominance when the fourth annual Grand National Jalopy Championships took place on July 31, 1960 before an estimated 15,000 spectators.

Jalopies have only one seat, and that’s for the driver, but Lady Luck found a place to ride on Forrest Coleman’s floorboards as he won, he came from his 14th starting spot to claim victory and the $750 first prize.

Coleman, holding a steady pace in his speedy racer (and flying the rebel flag), moved from 14th place in the starting field to fifth, behind Leon Spain of Manhattan, Kan., Jerry Collins of Hutchinson and perennial contender Frankie Lies. Coleman had moved up as far as he could go without help — but he got that.

After early leads by Leon Spain of Manhattan, Kan., and Jerry Collins of Hutchinson, perennial contender Frankie Lies took over the top spot on lap 15 and seemed well on his way to a third national crown. Lies held the top spot for 22 laps and enjoyed a quarter of a lap lead on the rest of the field when a rod ripped through his engine block and he limped to the pit area.

And thus, Coleman found himself in front with only 11 laps to go. It was all he could do to hold off a charging Bill Curless of Arkansas City, Kan., but he held on for the win. Curless settled for second while Reuben Loepp of Hutchinson took third. The time of the race was 23 minutes and 44 seconds.

The fifth annual Grand National Jalopy Championships took place on Saturday, July 29, 1961. However, the winner wasn’t announced until Tuesday morning, August 1.

When 15,000 fans exited the Kansas State Fairgrounds on that Saturday afternoon, they knew that one of three Wichita drivers, Harold Leep, Roy Bryant or Bill Nelson, would be declared champion.

It was Leep who caught the checkered flag first but upon review from officials, it was made aware that Leep may have been lapped by Bryant or Nelson (or possibly both).

Nelson was race leader most of the way, but he spun out on the north curve on the white flag lap. Bryant passed him there, but the possibility existed Bryant had lost a lap to Nelson earlier in the race. Many persons thought Nelson, Saturday's fast qualifier had lapped the field before the spinout.

Jack Merrick’s wife, who was the head scorekeeper, stated it would take hours to determine the winner.

“In all other years we've had a winner who was ahead of the field by a half a lap or more,” Mrs. Merrick said. “This time we had a close finish and a combination of circumstances that make a re-check necessary.”

A careful and time-consuming lap-by-lap check of cars by Merrick and officials showed that Harold Leep had indeed completed the 50 laps and was ahead of the pack on the final lap.

Bryant followed Leep to the finish line as well as J.D. Cox, also of Wichita, who had passed a spinning Nelson too. Nelson, after leading most of the contest, finished a disappointing fourth.

Probably the most disgusted driver (other than Nelson) was Pinky Mullens of Wichita. He led throughout most of the 30-lap semi-final event - only to run out of gasoline just a half lap away from the checkered flag. Mullens climbed from his car, found the gas tank empty, and threw his helmet 50 feet into the air. Less than a half pint of gasoline would have carried him across the finish. The race went to Wilbert Hecke of Franklin, Neb.

 Car owner Alden Davis, queen Glenda Abney, and 1962 Hutchinson champ Charlie Lutkie – Lies Family Collection

Another Wichitan, Charlie Lutkie, would win the sixth annual Grand National Jalopy Championships on July 29, 1962, starting on the pole position and leading all 50 laps in dominating fashion. He finished the race in record time, 21 minutes and 10 seconds.

Lutkie finished well ahead of his closest competitor, Gordon Woolley of Waco, Tex., to take home the trophy and $2,000 first-place prize. Three Wichita pilots took the next three spots - Pete Jacobs was third, Orval Beckel took fourth and Bill Bookout rounded out the top five.

The story of the program, however, was Bill Nelson of Wichita – Yes, the same Bill Nelson who led most of the ’61 race only to lose it on the last lap.

Early in the feature, third row starter Charlie Hiner of Wichita spun in the first turn in front of the remainder of the field - a tightly bunched field that was left with nowhere to go. The choices were to try to get stopped, pile into Hiner's spinning mount, turn into the outside board fence, or turn into that high mud berm that separated the track from the infield. Al Baldus chose the outside fence, hitting it and overturning.

Bill Nelson chose the infield berm and did a slow roll over, over the berm landing on his top in the infield. Instead of scrambling from his car, he waved his arms so frantically many thought he must be injured. As it turned out, all he wanted was to get his car up-righted so he could rejoin the fray. Several men turned Nelson's car back over and he sped off to a point on the back stretch where he could reenter the racetrack. He restarted the race one lap down on the back of the pack.

But what a show he would put on, tearing through the field to finish in 10th place (still one lap behind).

Wynn’s Friction Proof representative Clarence Craig (left) is shown presenting Roy Bryant a check for winning in 1963 while Hutchinson Nationals race queen Clarissa Sell looks on. – Hutchinson News Photo

Roy Bryant would carry on the Wichita line of succession, winning the seventh annual Grand National Jalopy Championship on July 28, 1963.

Bryant and his yellow #7 flat-head Ford won the Jalopy equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 before a standing room only crowd of nearly 16,000 fans at the state fairgrounds on Sunday afternoon.

The runner-up to Harold Leep in the 1961 Grand National, Bryant survived the dust and sweat to sweep across the finish line a few yards ahead of Frankie Lies, the champ in 1957 and 1958. Forrest Coleman, the 1960 champion, was third; Jay Woodside of Wichita was fourth and Ben Steadman of Sharon, Okla., was fifth.

Grady Wade of Wichita grabbed the initial lead in the 50-lap feature only to lose a clutch on lap 11. Bryant, running second at the time, inherited the top spot and ran the remaining 39 circuits ahead of Lies, who finished just a few yards behind at the finish.

Running speedily but cautiously and keeping out of trouble, Roy Bryant would successfully defend his Grand National Jalopy Championship before 12,000 fans at the Kansas State Fairgrounds half-mile on Sunday afternoon, July 26, 1964. Bryant thus became the second driver ever to win the national title two years in a row.

Bryant also extended the line of Wichita succession, as for the eighth straight year a Wichita driver took the national title. While Wichita domination of the national championship was not broken, it was at least cracked. For several years all of the top finishers had been from Wichita. This year Bryant was the only Wichitan in the top 10.

Bryant led 49 of 50 laps and picked up $500 in prize money plus $490 in lap money. He also collected $200 and a diamond stick pin from Wynn’s Friction Proofing.

Finishing behind Bryant were Joe Lehman of Denver, Colo., and they were followed by three drivers from the Oklahoma City area; Carl Ferguson, Bob Eichor and Bob Laden.

A new name for the race, the National Modified Jalopy Championship, would see a familiar face in victory lane for the ninth annual race.

Roy Bryant would win a record third time in the tragedy-marred race, Sunday at the Kansas State Fair Grounds, before a capacity crowd estimated at 15,200 fans on August 1, 1965.

A 9-year-old boy was killed, and another 9-year-old was critically injured when they were hit by a tire thrown by a racing jalopy. The tire jumped the low fence in front of the grandstand, hurtled past a truck, flew over the state fair press platform supports, and struck the youths while playing on the grass about 15 feet from the grandstand gate, opening to the infield.

Herb Copeland of Dodge City, Kan., owner of the car which threw the wheel, was unhurt when the wheel came off his car, but suffered from shock after learning the two boys had been critically injured.

Another dramatic incident came in the 50-lap National Championship race. Jay Schrock of Hutchinson apparently was unaware his gasoline tank had ruptured and caught fire. The car made a complete lap and a half with fire spurting 10 to 20 feet behind it and flaring high just inches from his back.

Given the black flag, he seemed suddenly aware of his predicament and began slowing down. He got the machine stopped in the infield and made a rolling exit from the hot box even though his clothing had not ignited. By a lucky coincidence he stopped within a few feet of a fire truck and firemen quickly put out the blaze.

Bob Reynolds of Edmond, Okla., a former IMCA competitor held the lead in the feature race for 27 laps but blew a tire and yielded the front spot to Bryant.

Bryant ran the last five laps with rubber shredded from his right front tire, but it was still inflated when he rolled - at considerably less than top speed - across the finish line.

Walt McWhorter of Wichita finished second with H.A. Ratzlaff of Dodge City, Kan., taking third. 1960 national champion Forrest Coleman was fourth and Bob Salem of Dodge City rounded out the top five.

Henry Ellington is shown here getting the checkered flag from starter Al Alexander to win the 50-lap National Championship Race in 1966. – Hutchinson News Photo

Hutchinson's Henry Ellington took advantage of Harold Leep's late-race engine trouble to win the National Modified Jalopy Championship on Sunday, July 31, 1966. In doing so, Ellington became the first non-Wichitan to win the race since the race started 10 years ago.

More than 15,000 racing fans watched Ellington speed past the faltering Leep on the northeast turn on the 48th lap of the 50-lap championship.

Ellington grabbed the lead from Ed Schauf of Wichita, who was the early leader, only to lose it when he drifted high on the southwest turn of the half-mile oval and Leep slipped under him.

It looked like Leep had the race in the bag as he built a half-lap lead over Ellington. On the next-to-last lap, however, Leep's engine suddenly quit and Ellington whizzed past to win the race.

Second place went to Dale Case of Oklahoma City, who was the only man not lapped by Ellington.

The Fairground's grandstand was packed with aisles and areas in front of the grandstand taken. More than 2,000 fans were reportedly turned away after standing-room-only tickets were sold out at 1 p.m.

They took big chances and played for big prizes in the National Modified Jalopy Championships - a sort of Russian roulette on four wheels.

Harold Leep, Jr. John Rush, a Wynn' Friction Proofing representative presenting trophy, Harold Leep, Sr. Jack Walker, LaVern Nance, and Bobby Walker - Lies Family Collection

On Sunday, July 30, 1967, before another packed crowd at the Kansas State Fairgrounds, the big luck rolled with Harold Leep as the sleek tan speedster roared through heavy traffic to capture the checkered flag after 50 grueling thrill-packed laps. It was the second national title for Leep, who had previously won in 1961.

Second was Walt McWhorter of Wichita while three-time champion Roy Bryant was third. Finishing next in order Joe Lehman of Denver, Colo., and Don Spreier of Larned, Kan.

Time for the 25-mile rage, five of which were run under the caution flag, was 24 minutes and 16 seconds.

Despite being a perennial favorite every year at the Hutchinson Nationals, two-time champion Frank Lies had been in a drought for the last 10 years of the event. Having won the title in 1957 and ’58, Lies had come close several times since then, but he hadn’t hoisted the trophy for a record third time yet.

Frank Lies of Wichita, Kansas taking the checkered flag from starter Al Alexander to win the 50-lap championship race. – Jack Coleman Photo

On July 28, 1968, Lies’ wait would be over, scoring his record third Hutchinson Nationals title. Lies would start on the pole and lead all 50 laps in a dominant performance. His winning time was 24 minutes and 15 seconds.

Ron Fowler of Chanute, Kan., was a distant second, Dale Reed and Bill Rigsby, both of Wichita, were third and fourth respectively and Herb Copeland rounded out the top five. Defending champion Harold Leep was never a factor and finished seventh.

While the main event was a ho-hummer, the 30-lap semi-main kept the crowd of over 15,000 on the edge of their seats. Wichita’ Grady Wade, starting at the rear of the 27-car field, methodically picked his way through the field and made the winning pass as the white flag waved.

Herb Copeland takes a victory lap after winning the 1969 Hutchinson Nationals. 

While the ’68 race was considered average, the 1969 event, held on July 27, would be called one of the most thrilling finishes ever produced.

In such a race as this one was; it would take a fast car, great driving skill and a few lucky breaks. Herb Copeland would have them all…

Jackie Howerton of Tulsa, Okla., who set a new track record in time trials, was the early leader in the race, and had a big lead after only three laps when he was forced to swerve to avoid hitting a car driven by Walt Whitney, of Norton. The swerve sent him directly toward Bill Smith of Lecompton, Kan. Howerton's car climbed the rear of Smith's machine and landed with a thud. Howerton was momentarily knocked out and his car badly damaged.

While the starter was waving the red flag to halt the race, Harold Leep, who had been running second, clipped the wheel of another machine, flipped backwards and skidded some 50 feet in the loose soil near the infield.

Fortunately for Leep, his car was not damaged and according to officials, the skidding came on a “no-count” lap, so he was able to maintain his position.

On the re-start it was Leep, Copeland and David Ross of Jetmore, Kan., in that order. But Ross soon maneuvered through traffic which held Copeland back, and took second place, some 100 yards behind Leep. Copeland remained close on Ross's tail

On the 35th lap, former three-time champion Roy Bryant spun into the fence in the first turn, bringing out the caution flag. And while running on the caution, Ross and Copeland, in order, got to move through the crowded field to positions directly behind Leep, setting up what was to be a spectacular finish for the 14,000 spectators in attendance.

Leep held first place until the 44th lap. He reported later his brakes (possibly damaged in the 50-yard skid) had about given out. At any rate, Ross and Copeland moved around him on the outside, and Leep was powerless to fend them off.

But Copeland didn't give up on the effort to catch Ross, and he made it on the fourth corner of the last lap. Ross, encountering lap traffic, was slowed by the field of cars, and Copeland, seeing an opening, sailed around Ross 100 yards from home, winning by a car length.

Copeland and Ross were followed by Leep, defending champion Frank Lies and Ron Fowler.

It was on that track that Copeland endured the greatest tragedy then won the greatest honor. It had been just four years ago when the wheel on his car had snapped from his car and killed the young race fan while critically injuring another.

Dale Reed won the 1970 Hutchinson Nationals. He's joined by (l-r) David Flatt, Donna Reed, Evart Isaac and Ernie McCoy. - Hutchinson Nationals Program Photo

When David Ross wheeled his #54 into its front row position for the running the 1970 National Modified Championship race, a huge roar bellowed from the 12,000 in attendance at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.

Ross was the overwhelming favorite of the fans when the 14th annual race took place on July 26. They remembered just a year ago when Herb Copeland edged him at the finish line to claim the 1969 title

Sunday was going to be Ross' Day. Already his car had been voted the best-looking car at the track — and there were over 60 to choose from. But as his car moved into the second turn during the parade lap, before the big race, Ross wheeled it to the wall and came to a halt. Ross was out of the running with a blown head gasket.

A sigh echoed from the grandstand, and Herb Copeland, who already had a large number of backers from last year’s success, had replaced Ross as the overwhelming favorite.

Frankie Lies of Wichita, who clocked the best time Saturday in the time trials, now led the way as the crowd stood to cheer the 27 drivers making the parade lap.

The official starter waved the green flag, and the 50-lap championship was under way. Lies held the lead for two laps but Jackie Howerton of Tulsa moved past Lies and took the top spot after three laps.

Copeland had remained in third place during the first three laps and hadn't attempted to pass as of yet. Going into the fourth turn on the fourth lap, Copeland swung his car toward the outside, out of the stream of traffic and into the wall. Copeland wouldn’t be defending his title.

Howerton, the Tulsa driver, was still leading after 15 laps. Lies was still in second, still pushing the leader, But, as the cars headed down the straightaway, his car began to sag and a lap later, headed to the infield. The three-time champ was out as well.

Howerton’s lead was a threat to Kansans everywhere. The Nationals’ trophy, it appeared, was headed for Sooner-land.

With Lies out, another Jayhawker, Dale Reed of Wichita, moved up to challenge the Oklahoma driver.

Howerton led after 20 laps. He was still out in front at the mid-way point, 25 laps. On the 29th lap it happened. Howerton was in trouble. Reed had taken over the lead. Howerton was out.

Now it was clear sailing for the Wichitan driving the Dodge City car owned by Evart Isaac. His nearest rival, “Tiger” Bob Williams of Kansas City, Mo., was one-half lap behind. All he had to do now was hold his car on the road. And hope that his car could hold out for 20 more laps.

It did...

Reed did more than hold his car on the road, however, before he crossed the finish line after 50 laps, he had lapped the fourth-place car, driven by Grady Wade.

Williams drove to a second-place finish, and Jim Harkness of Ness City, Kan., finished third.

Oklahoma's Emmett Hahn became the first non-Kansan to win the Hutchinson Nationals. He's joined in victory lane by mechanic Denny Moore, Ms. Hutchinson Nationals Deborah VanCampen and crew chief Herschel Goodnight. - Lies Family Collection

When the checkered flag waved on the National Modified Championships on August 1, 1971, history was made. For the first time in the 15-year history of the prestigious race, a non-Kansan was in victory lane.

Emmett Hahn of Tulsa, Okla., piloting the John Zink Special, started from the pole position, set a blistering pace in the straightaways, slid cautiously through the turns and won the race by a margin of more than 100 yards over Grady Wade, the second-place finisher.

Herb Copeland, the 1969 champion was third; Dale Reed, the defending champion was fourth; and Aaron Madden of Oklahoma City was fifth.

The Kansas State Fairgrounds grandstand was filled to capacity for the 1971 event. Fans who came to see good races, saw them. Fans who came to see accidents, saw them. And through it all there was Emmett Hahn, riding high, low, in the middle, cutting in, cutting out, but always traveling fast and always out front.

Harold Leep (far right) won his third Hutchinson Nationals in 1972. He's joined by Darrell Tuttle, Janey Cutting, Denis Lynn Glass and Hutchinson Nationals race queen Cheryl Dee Taylor making the trophy presentation. - Jerry Leep Photo

Fire took out the front-runner. Zero oil pressure and a puff of smoke took out the second leader, and Harold Leep came out of the pack to win his third National Modified Championship race championship on Sunday, July 30, 1972, at the State Fairgrounds.

Leep had won championships previously in 1961 and 1967, but this one was sort of handed to him by fate.

Ron Fowler, who had earned the pole with the fastest qualifying time on Saturday, started with the hottest machine on the track, figuratively speaking and wound up with a furnace, literally.

Fowler soon pulled away from the pack and was running about 200 yards ahead of Dale Reed, the second-place car. Leep was another 50 yards behind Reed. At least that was the arrangement for most of 47 laps.

Then things began to happen…

Reed noticed his oil pressure had dropped to zero. On the 47th lap, his car burped a big puff of smoke, and Reed new he'd had it. He fish-tailed his way into the infield.

Fowler's car started trailing a bit of smoke when he was on his 34th lap. On the 48th circuit, his powerplant was glowing red and started shooting flames. But, so close to the finish, Fowler hoped somehow to make It. He was still out front as he crossed the finish line and the white flag was waving, but the heat was becoming unbearable.

As Fowler entered the backstretch, the heat became too unbearable and the Chanute, Kan., driver pulled off the track.

Thus, Harold Leep had the honor of returning the National Modified Championship back to Kansas. Evard Humphrey of Oklahoma City, for years a leading contender but never a champ, finished second and defending champion Emmett Hahn finished third.

Jim Harkness (far right) won the Hutchinson Nationals in 1973. He's joined by Dick Preston, car owner Les Steinert, Leeanne Wedel and Hutchison National queen Doris Goertz. - Hutchinson Nationals Program Photo

Jim Harkness, a 25-year-old former Ness City, Kan., resident, driving out of Wichita, put the finishing touches on a great racing season with a victory in the 17th National Modified Championship race at the state fair oval on Sunday, July 29, 1973.

Even before the Nationals, Harkness had won a dozen main events on major racetracks of the Merrick circuit in Kansas and Oklahoma in 1973 - his best ever.

He took the $900 in first prize money, the $250 in lap money as he led every lap on the half-mile.

Larry Holman of Oklahoma City, who badly damaged his car during his heat race, made major repairs on his car, proving both his mechanical and his driving ability by finishing second. Jerry Everhart of Wichita took third.

A hole in the racetrack measuring 6 feet wide, 30 feet long, and 1½ feet deep was responsible for a few incidents during time trials on Saturday. Although maintenance workers filled it in Saturday evening, it reappeared early in Sunday’s racing.

The main event started with a 31-car field.

Cars jumping sideways after coming out of the hole, got tangled on the second turn. Gerald Hedberg of Lindsborg, Kan., wound up hitting the wall. Grady Wade and Jerry Stone of Wichita got tangled near the infield and Jerry Soderberg of Enid, Okla., almost flipped his car when it hit the pile-up. The race was restarted with 28 cars.

The suspension on Dale Reed’s car, having already been damaged on the hole, blew a tire on the fourth turn of lap 17. He swerved and George Armstrong of Tulsa swerved with him. But Reed was having steering problems and as he attempted to turn back, he smacked Armstrong's car and former three-time champ Frank Lies, coming up fast, hit them both. Several other cars behind that trio also got caught up in the melee and the whole mess smashed into the wall.

When the mess was cleaned up, only 16 cars would answer the green flag for the next re-start, and by the time the checkers waved on the 50-lapper, only eight cars were left on the track.

Afterwards, Jack Merrick said a large section of the track would have to be torn out and replaced with good clay if the State Fair is ever to have a good surface for racing. The ground under the cut was spongy, even under the weight of a man.

Larry Holman of Oklahoma City, who badly damaged his car during his heat race, made major repairs on his car, proving both his mechanical and his driving ability by finishing second. Jerry Everhart of Wichita took third.

The car of Roy Bryant (55) is visible while other cars burn beyond recognition. The helmet in the foreground belongs to Aaron Madden. - World Wide Racing Fans Collection

The 10,000 spectators who watched the National Modified Championship Races at the Fairgrounds on July 28, 1974 probably don't recall who won. Instead, they most likely have only visions of the fiery multi-car collision which abruptly ended the 50-lap event.

Fans watched in disbelief as 13 super modifieds crashed and careened into each other. When flames were finally extinguished - from fires caused by exploding fuel, the toll amounted to four drivers taken to the hospital, three with severe injuries, five cars totally demolished and almost burned to ashes, and eight other cars with varying degrees of damage.

Three drivers, Jack Petty of Wichita, and Jerry Soderberg of Dodge City and Aaron Madden of Midwest City, Okla., were transferred immediately from local hospitals to burn centers in Tulsa and Kansas City.

There were conflicting reports on the number of cars in the 50-lap feature of the race. By a reporter's count, 39 cars started the race, however, pit officials said there were 43 and another report had it at 45.

The accident occurred on the third lap as a crowded group of cars roared down the straight-away front of the grandstand. It was triggered when the car of George Armstrong of Tulsa, Okla., ran over the wheels of an adjacent car, causing his car to become airborne. Other cars then began crashing into Armstrong.

Cars belonging to Petty, Soderberg, Madden, Armstrong and Jay Woodside of Wichita were completely destroyed. Other drivers involved were Johnny Boe of Gainesville, Tex.; defending champion Jim Harkness; former champion Frank Lies; Fred Hembree of Ness City, Kan.; Dutch Ter Steege of Bethany, Okla.; Al Lemmons of Tulsa; and former champion Harold Leep.

“The only thing that saved me was I saw a driver just ahead of me put his hand out. Otherwise, I would have plowed into them full throttle,” Lemmons said afterwards.

“It was so dusty you couldn't see anything,” Lemmons continued his cockpit view description of the mishap. “But as soon as I saw that driver's hand, I cut the throttle.”

Lemmons, a 20-year veteran said he believed the excessive dust was a contributing factor to the crash.

“The thing that disturbs me is that we (the drivers) had requested that the track be watered down before the race, and we were told it would be. Well, it wasn't. I don't know why, but it wasn't.”

One racing fan who had been coming to the National Modified Championship races at the Fairgrounds for the last 16 years, shook his head in disbelief.

“All of a sudden I looked up and a car was flying through the air like it had been shot out of a gun.”

"Cars just kept going everywhere and hitting everywhere. They were all huddled up and they just kept hitting and exploding," he remarked.

Drivers, crewmen and fans alike joined in rescuing other drivers that were aflame, carefully avoiding the fire that spewed from exploding fuel tanks.

“You just never knew when the next one was going to explode,” he added.

Jim Park, who was at the track broadcasting the race for a local radio station, was one of the first on the track, and pulled Aaron Madden away from his car as he was trying to roll away.

“I've never seen anything like this,” he said. “I couldn't believe the people. I had to push through about a hundred of them to get to Aaron.”

“As burned as he was, he couldn't roll very fast, and that car could have gone up at any minute. I finally got hold of him. He was conscious. He held up his hand and said, ‘Is that my glove or skin?’ I touched it and told him it was skin. He said, ‘I guess we'd better leave it alone, then.’ He was so calm it was unbelievable,” Park said.

Firemen were hampered by an entrance gate to the racetrack that was padlocked and wouldn't open.

“They couldn't find the key, so about 10 persons shook the gate until it busted,” said one man.

Once they got to the scene, The lack of foam to put out the fires was one of the most tragic aspects of the accident.

“All they had there at the track were those puny little extinguishers like you see in all office buildings," one pit crew member said. "The fire department finally got there, but they used water — the foam could have put out those fires right away.”

A few days after things had calmed down, Merrick stated that the dusty conditions shouldn’t have been blamed for the accident.

“I just don't think dust had anything to do with it (the accident),” Merrick reiterated.

“If that had been an asphalt track the same thing would have happened,” Merrick said. “The accident occurred when someone drove up over the wheels of another car and flipped, and the cars coming in behind plowed into him.”

“Racing is a dangerous game to begin with and everyone associated with it realizes this,” Merrick said. “The fact that a mishap of this magnitude happened so close to home makes it just that much more shocking.”

Listed below is a link to a YouTube video of the fateful day...

Dale Reed (far left) won the 1975 Hutchinson Nationals, his second career victory. National's queen Belinda Austin (middle) is joined by car owner Evart Isaac and starter Forrest Cox. - Merrick Racing Program Photo

Officials of the National Modified Championship races were prepared when the 19th annual event took place on July 27, 1975. The track was kept watered down the whole afternoon and fire equipment was ready at each corner of the racing oval. A Hutchinson ambulance was stationed in the infield in case of any injuries. Fortunately, none of the safety vehicles were needed in the races that Sunday.

Dale Reed would win his second National Modified Championship in the main event. Reed, the pole sitter, would lead all 50 laps but battle Harold Leep most of the race.

Leep, who started third, would stay on Reed’s bumper for most of the race until he began to slow with only a few laps left. Leep would pull into the infield, out of gas and settle for a 13th place finish.

It was an all-Wichita contingent for the top five as Roy Bryant, Walt McWhorter, Jerry Stone and Grady Wade finished behind Reed

Jimmy Harkness, the defending champion in the National Modified Championships (1973), didn't compete in the race because his new car broke down before the race.

Jerry Stone (center) won the 1976 Hutchinson Nationals. He's joined by (l-r) car owner Shot Hampton, race queen Ann Yost, Zack Zacola and LaVern Nance. - National Championship Program Photo

Jerry Stone of Wichita would lead all 50 laps to win the 20th annual National Modified Championship Races on August 1, 1976. It was Stone’s first championship win.

Dave Frusher of Ness City, Kan., was running a strong second behind Stone until his drive line broke on the white flag lap. He would be credited with ninth place.

Jon Johnson of Utica, Kan., would take second while Terry Uehling off Ness City was third. Davie Moore of Wichita, the pole sitter, was fourth and Emmett Hahn of Tulsa was fifth.

Stone would lead the field into the first turn when the green flag dropped for the 21st annual National Modified Championship Race on July 31, 1977. Stone, starting on the front row alongside polesitter Fred Embree of Ness City, Kan., would lead the first five laps of the 50-lap contest.

But on lap 6, Emmett Hahn would get by Stone for the top spot and lead the rest of the way, continually stretching his margin as the race progressed.

For Hahn, it was his second win and he was still the only Oklahoman to win the event.

Stone would settle for second-place, almost half a lap behind Hahn at the finish. Herb Copeland, the ’69 champion, was third followed by two-time champion Dale Reed and Walt McWhorter.

Three-time champion Frank Lies, who qualified fifth, was forced to change engines between his heat race and the 50-lap feature. Hiss timing was not set right and he dropped out only a few laps into the race.

Planning for the 1978 race would come to a halt on October 25, 1977 when Jack Merrick passed away from a sudden heart attack.

Jack Merrick (right) with country singing star Marty Robbins. 

The success of the National Modified Championship Races was owed to Grove Travis "Jack" Merrick.

Merrick was a promoter who added pageantry to his events with balloons, performers and dignitaries. He had the Miss National’s Beauty Contest, one of the first of its kind in auto racing.

As one driver stated after his death, “Jack knew everything about racing and knew about the necessity of things being done right. He thought that if he started things right, it would catch on and others would follow. A lot of people followed him.”

His wife Esther added, “I guess racing was like his hobby - his only hobby. He worked as a sales representative since 1948, but racing was his way of relaxing. He could work four days a week then relax with his racing. He kept too busy, but he relaxed by being busy, and there was no way could slow him down.”

C. Ray Hall of Wichita became the successor after Merrick’s death and has remained the promoter at the Kansas State Fairgrounds to date. His first priority was to give the event a new name. In 1978 the event became known as the Hutchinson Grand Nationals.

In 1983, Hall changed the name to the Hutchinson National Auto Races. It still remains that today.

Jack Merrick's Hutchinson Nationals Winners  


Frank Lies

Wichita, Kan.


Frank Lies

Wichita, Kan.


Will Forrest

Wichita, Kan.


Forrest Coleman

Wichita, Kan.


Harold Leep

Wichita, Kan.


Charlie Lutkie

Wichita, Kan.


Roy Bryant

Wichita, Kan.


Roy Bryant

Wichita, Kan.


Roy Bryant

Wichita, Kan.


Henry Ellington

Hutchinson, Kan.


Harold Leep

Wichita, Kan.


Frank Lies

Wichita, Kan.


Herb Copeland

Dodge City, Kan.


Dale Reed

Wichita, Kan.


Emmett Hahn

Tulsa, Okla.


Harold Leep

Wichita, Kan.


Jim Harkness

Wichita, Kan.


No Winner 



Dale Reed

Wichita, Kan.


Jerry Stone

Wichita, Kan.


Emmett Hahn

Tulsa, Okla.

Editor's Note - Special thanks to Bob Lawrence and Kansas Racing History for his help. The statistics and photos from his website were a huge asset in writing this story. Also, a huge gratitude of thanks goes to historian Bob Mays in helping with this project.