Tuesday, January 26, 2021

1964 – Foyt Captures Arizona Twin-50’s

Don Branson attempts to hold off a hard-charging A.J. Foyt. 

Phoenix, Ariz. (January 26, 1964) - National driver champion A.J. Foyt showed why he's the king, taking overall honors in the Western States Championships Twin-50 100-mile sprint car race at the Arizona State Fairground dirt track.

Grumpy over the way his car performed — “only hit on six cylinders in the first 50, and on seven in the second” — the Texan was happy about his $1,700 cash prize.

The chunky Texan from Houston ran second to “Grandpa” Don Branson of Champaign, Ill., in the spirited first 50, then made a runaway of the second.

Branson finished second in overall rankings. He won the first half and ran fifth in the second. Jim McElreath, Arlington, Tex., was third in overall points with fourth and second place finishes.

A sparse crowd of 6,000 saw the novel presentation, and generally liked the idea of two heats for the 100-miler because more cars ran the entire distance. But there was confusion — even among officials — about overall point standings for the two heats separated by a half-hour intermission for refueling, tire changes and tune-ups.

It was during this rest period that Foyt got an extra cylinder coughing in his 400 horsepower Chevrolet engine.

“It was the tires which won for us,” he noted, pointing to the wider tread he used. “The rubber is softer and gives us a better bite,” he explained.

Foyt is a man on the move — on and off the racetrack. He was honored at a Houston sports award dinner Saturday night, flew into Phoenix yesterday morning to drive the race, will take some test laps with the car today at the Phoenix International Raceway west of town, and then goes to Los Angeles where he plans to tear the engine apart and see if he can get it ticking properly.

A. J. ran his blue-and-white racer a nip-and-tuck second to Branson's mustard and red machine in the first 50 yesterday. He made a move to take over on the 42nd lap, but Branson outmaneuvered him in a five-car traffic jam on the backstretch and stayed ahead to the finish. Chuck Hulse ran third in this heat.

For the second heat cars still running were supplemented by slow qualifiers which replaced machines which had conked out in order to fill a field of 18 racers.

Foyt challenged Branson on the first lap, was repulsed, then took over the lead on the 10th and ran off with the show. He built his lead to 10 seconds by the 25th lap and when the field ran under the caution flag on the 36th to 39th lap because of a two-car spinout, came out with a 30-second lead.

That was the margin at the finish with Foyt first, Jim McElreath second and Tucson's Roger McCluskey third. Branson lost his place when he pitted on the 45th lap to replace a flat tire.

Time for the first 50 miles was 32:28.10, with the second half clocked in 31:57.16.

Results –

Heat #1 –

1. Don Branson
2. A.J. Foyt
3. Chuck Hulse
4. Jim McElreath
5. Gordon Woolley
6. Bob Wente
7. Sonny Helms
8. Parnelli Jones
9. Al Unser
10.Bob Hogle

Heat #2 –

1. A.J. Foyt
2. Jim McElreath
3. Roger McCluskey
4. Johnny Rutherford
5. Don Branson
6. Arnie Knepper
7. Dee Jones
8. Bob Hogle
9. Chuck Hulse
10.Benton Burns

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Governor’s Cup

Program from the 1969 Governor's Cup

By Kyle Ealy
West Allis, Wis. – During autumn, right when the leaves were at their peak color, a stock car racing tradition, The Governor’s Cup, was held at the famed Milwaukee Mile from 1965 to 1981.

Although it wasn’t called the Governor’s Cup until 1965, it’s a race steeped in history, going back as far as September 7, 1952, when Marshall Teague, driving the popular Hudson Hornet, won a 200-miler at the historical paved oval.

Following Teague, names like Jack McGrath, Jimmy Bryan, Ralph Moody and Tony Bettenhausen would go on to win the September classic.

In 1958, the event was lengthened to 250 miles and Norm Nelson, from nearby Racine, Wis., would win the race. Future NASCAR great Fred Lorenzen, from Elmhurst, Ill., would win the 1959 contest.

Stock cars were gaining popularity as a new decade began. Norm Nelson would score another win in the 250-miler on September 25, 1960. Whitey Gerkin, another popular Chicago driver, would win the 1961 race. Parnelli Jones, who had made his name with open wheel cars would win the Fall race twice in 1963 and ’64.

In 1965, the race was officially named “The Governor’s Cup” and that’s where are story begins… 

1965 Governor's Cup winner Jim Hurtubise (r) takes a victory lap with car owner Norm Nelson. - Doug Schellinger Collection

“Just make ‘em so I can hold a steering wheel,” was Jim Hurtubise’s remark to doctors after suffering serious burns at the Rex Mays Classic at the Milwaukee Mile on June 7, 1964.

Sixteen months later, with his hands surgically repaired to do just that, Jim Hurtubise of North Tonawanda, N.Y., got redemption at the track that nearly killed him, winning the 250-mile Governor’s Cup on September 19, 1965.

With 21,500 race fans roaring its approval, Hurtubise took charge early in the race and led the final 185 miles to average 93.26 miles per hour and collect $5,594 of a $26,640 total purse. He finished two miles ahead of his car owner, Norm Nelson of Racine, Wis., with Paul Goldsmith of Munster, Ind., finishing third.

Many said it was the best performance by the short, crewcut driver since he resumed racing. Hurtubise required eight months of skin grafts and hospital treatment after he was burned in an accident.

“I had some doubts myself about whether or not I’d made it back, but I had a lot going for me,” said Hurtubise. “Despite the accident, this town, in particular, has been very good to me.” 

Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, shows off the hardware after winning the 1966 Governor's Cup. - Patrick Heaney Collection

Entering the Governor’s Cup race on September 18, 1966, Don White of Keokuk, Iowa, had already had a successful year at the Milwaukee Mile. White had won the 200-mile mid-summer classic on July 10 and the Fair Stock 200 on August 18.

So, going into the 250-miler, White was an overwhelming favorite, and he didn’t disappoint, dominating the event by leading 208 laps and winning by a 22-second margin.

Before a crowd of 18,887, White would cover the distance in 2 hours, 40 minutes and 39 seconds in his 1966 Dodge Charger to take home the $5,180 winner’s share of the purse.

Billy Foster of Victoria, B.C., was second followed by Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio. Norm Nelson would grab fourth place, clinching the United States Auto Club stock car title for the second straight year. 

A.J. Foyt sped to victory in the 1967 Governor's Cup. 

A.J. Foyt of Houston, Tex., drove a record speed of 96.717 miles per hour to provide a fitting climax to the auto racing season at State Fair Park with a victory in the Governor’s Cup on Sunday, September 17, 1967.

Parnelli Jones of Palos Verdes, Calif., like Foyt, driving a 1967 Ford, was runner-up by 5 seconds over Jack Bowsher of Springfield, Ohio.

Bowsher had led most of the way for the first 129 laps on the one-mile paved oval but ran into car trouble and finished in a 1967 Ford Galaxie normally driven by Bosco Lowe of Asheville, N.C. Bowsher and Lowe shared third-place money in the race.

Foyt would take over on lap 130 and lead the rest of the way. He earned $7,462 out of a total purse of $34,344. A crowd of 22,818 watched Foyt set the new mark.

Whitey Gerken off Melrose Park, Ill., was fourth and Norm Nelson was fifth. 

Don White is interviewed in victory lane after winning his second Governor's Cup in 1968. 

Don White would capture his second Governor’s Cup on September 8, 1968. Once again, the Keokuk, Iowa, veteran showcased another fine display of driving, finishing well over a lap ahead of second-place Butch Hartman of South Zanesville, Ohio.

White took the lead on lap 113 after dueling with Hartman for 10 laps. White would secure the top spot when Hartman ran out of gas and coasted into the pits.

So dominant was White, he would make two pit stops while in the lead and still manage to stay out front the entire time.

Finishing third was the duo of Roger McCluskey and Norm Nelson, who shared a 1968 Plymouth. McCluskey took over Nelson’s ride on lap 37 after blowing an engine in his car.

A pair of Jack Bowsher-owned Ford Torino’s would round out the top-five with defending champion A.J. Foyt grabbing fourth and Jack Bowsher fifth.

A crowd of 22,085 witnessed the action. White earned $5,187 out of a total purse of $34,525. 

Don White poses with his Dodge Charger prior to the 1969 Governor's Cup. He would later score his third career win in the event. 

White would give a repeat performance on September 7, 1969, taking over the lead from Bobby Unser on lap 181 and piloting his 1969 Dodge Charger to his third Governor’s Cup victory. 

White would average over 95.987 miles per hour and finished the 250-miler in 2 hours, 36 minutes and 28.55 seconds. He received the checkered flag nearly a lap and a half ahead of Unser.

Roger McCluskey, who was the point’s leader entering the race, was leading the contest when he made was supposed to be a routine pit stop on lap 180. However, trouble with the radiator on his 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner were quickly discovered and the Tucson, Ariz., pilot would miss several laps and never be a factor for the remainder of the race.

Like the previous races, White was dominant as ever, leading 165 laps of the race. He led almost throughout, except for brief periods for three pit stops.

Al Unser, driving a 1969 Dodge Charger, took third behind his brother. Terry Nichels of Griffith, Ind., finished fourth and Bobby Wawak of Villa Park, Ill., was fifth.

The crowd of 24,367 contributed to a record purse of $40,035. White’s winning share, $6,031, was also a record. 

Program from the 1970 Governor's Cup. 


Jack Bowsher finally loosened White’s stranglehold on the event, when he would win the Governor’s Cup on September 23, 1970. Bowsher took the lead on lap 224 when the front-running White’s engine failed.

Bowsher toured the paved, one-mile State Fair Park Speedway in his 1969 Ford Torino at an average speed of 95.483 miles per hour, good for $7,170 of the $35,725 purse.

Roger McCluskey, who finished second, clinched his second consecutive United States Auto Club national championship. Norm Nelson would finish third followed by Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa, and Butch Hartman. 

Some 18,700 watched the race, which had been postponed one week because of rainy weather. 

1971 Governor's Cup winner Al Unser is joined by car owner Rudy Hoerr and crew. 

The headline in the September 13, 1971 sports section of the Wisconsin State Journal read, “Al Unser Finds Victory is a Gas”.

While Al may have found it to be funny, younger brother Bobby didn’t see the humor.

Al surrendered a 19-second lead on lap 236 to pull his 1971 Ford Torino in for an insurance shot of gas. Bobby, who had previously pitted the same time Al did around the 165th lap, decided he could make it and drove on past in his 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner.

Al rejoined the pack almost immediately and tore around the track until he was within about 10 car lengths of his brother and holding behind the pace car. When the green finally fell 11 miles from finish, Al gained slowly, but wouldn’t have caught his older brother had not Bobby sputtered down the grandstand straight with an empty gas tank on the 247th lap.

Bobby managed to get back around to the pits for a slosh of gas and back out on the track again to finish third, behind Roger McCluskey.

After the race, Unser said he didn’t think he’d run out.

“If I’d have known I was that low on fuel I would have saved some,” he said, meaning he wouldn’t have pushed his car as hard. “My mechanics told me I had plenty, so I didn’t come in.”

Unser said he was having trouble with his ’71 Plymouth Roadrunner and he and his crew attributed it to carburetor issues.

“It was probably getting to much gas,” Unser remarked. “That’s why we ran out.”

Norm Nelson finished fourth, followed by Verlin Eaker in fifth. A crowd of 20,488 watched the action.

With the help of some convenient rain, Don White won his record fourth 250-mile Governor's Cup race on Sunday, September 10, 1972.

White, driving a 1972 Charger, took the lead on the 213th lap after a long duel with Butch Hartman. When Hartman ducked into the pits for fuel, rain arrived as White reached his 229th lap, the caution flag was out until the 248th lap, and the field was unable to catch White with only two laps remaining.

White averaged a conservative 84.784 miles per hour on the one-mile oval, finishing four seconds ahead of Gordon Johncock of Hastings, Mich. Jack Bowsher would finish third while Hartman would recoup to take fourth. Roger McCluskey rounded out the top five.

“Honestly, I was hoping the race would finish on the yellow,” White said. “It was like grease out there. It was getting dangerous out there with rain falling on the spilled oil and gas.”

Dating back to 1966, Larry “Butch” Hartman had been a perennial contender at the Milwaukee Mile, but never a winner. When the 1973 season began, he changed all that…

He began by winning the Miller 200 classic on July 8 and then followed that up with wins in both the Fair Stock 150 on August 16 and Fair Stock 200 on August 19. 

Program from the 1973 Governor's Cup 

On September 9, 1973, Hartman pushed his 1973 Dodge Charger to a lopsided victory in the Governor’s Cup race before 18,204 spectators.

The victory, by a lap over runner-up Jack Bowsher and three laps over third-place Ramo Stott, gave the South Zanesville, Ohio, driver a clean sweep at State Fair Park Speedway, only the second driver ever to accomplish that feat. Parnelli Jones had won four straight during the 1964 season.

“Everything fell into place this year.” Hartman said shaking his head in wonder.

Hartman, who led for 241 laps, made it look easy. Jack Bowsher, who won the pole, led the first nine laps before Hartman passed him and everybody else for good on the 10th circuit.

“I never even intended to lead today,” he said. “You use up so much of your car when you lead. And a 250-mile race is hard on brakes. But I wasn’t even running hard.” 

Larry "Butch" Hartman was a two-time winner of the Governor's Cup. 

Hartman would duplicate his performance the following year, September 8, 1974, winning a wreck-marred final lap to capture his second consecutive Governor’s Cup.

The Ohioan held a slim lead entering the last lap and had to swerve inside to avoid a pile-up after Dave Logan spun out. Norm Nelson, running right behind Hartman, swerved inside as well, but Hartman kept the lead as the caution flag flew.

Hartman averaged 83.132 miles per hour. He won $6,969 of the $40,065 purse.

“When you’re racing against Nelson, (Don) White or even (Bay) Darnell,” Hartman said, “you just can’t afford to lay back. Right at the end, I was running as hard as ever.”

Bay Darnell of Deerfield, Ill., was third ahead of Don White. Terry Ryan of Davenport, Iowa, rounded out the top five. 

1975 Governor's Cup winner Larry Moore (l) talks with 1973 and '74 Governor's Cup winner Butch Hartman before the start of the race. - Patrick Heaney Collection

Larry Moore got his wires uncrossed then had to come from the back of the pack again when the United States Auto Club got its wires crossed on his way to victory in the Governor's Cup race on September 7, 1975.

Moore, of Dayton, Ohio, had qualified his 1974 Dodge Charger on the pole Saturday with a brilliant 33.72-second (106.762 mile per hour) clocking on the one-mile State Fair Park oval track.

But when the green flag fell for the start of the race Sunday, Moore wallowed in a dust cloud while a dozen cars flashed past him. He pulled into the pits on the fifth lap with a missing engine. The hood went up and a pair of crossed spark plug wires were rerouted to the right cylinders and Moore was back out and on his way to.

Moore charged from the back of the pack to 10th place by the 20th lap and third place 10 laps later. He inherited the lead on lap 60 when Irv Janey’s engine broke a valve spring. He easily kept the top spot until the 80th lap, when he pitted under the yellow and the second foul-up occurred.

Whoever was scoring for the 33-year-old driver evidently didn’t see him pull into the pits and didn’t credit him with the lap until the next time he came around, actually two laps later. As a result, Moore raced for about 10 more laps thinking he was the leader until the yellow flag came out on lap 94.

When the pace car picked up second-place Butch Hartman as the leader, a furor went up. Moore’s crew scurried around the official tower protesting the situation. During one lull, when the cars were on the backstretch and the main straight was quiet, one could hear a large portion of the 17,019 fans in the grandstand howling at the flagman about Moore’s being shuffled to the rear of the pack.

However, Moore made up for the goof by the USAC with a strong drive and he was back in the lead on the 170th lap. Except for a brief five laps when everyone pitted under the green, Moore easily held his lead.

Then, 26 laps from the end, Don White blew an engine and brought out the last yellow of the race. White’s blown engine left a coat of oil right in the groove and it took 12 laps to clean it up.

This left three cars; Moore, Hartman and Ramo Stott, to battle the last 15 laps. Hartman was pushing Moore when his differential went out on the main straight on lap 240 with a billowing trail of white smoke. This left Stott to catch Moore. The veteran Stott quickly caught Moore and closed to within a few feet of the leader, seemingly having the edge in handling while Moore pulled away on the straights. But Moore quickly rectified this and held Stott off to win by two car lengths.

In 1970, the United States Auto Club decided to allow smaller, compact “sporty” cars to enter competition in the stock car division. There was no scramble from established drivers to get rid of their Plymouth Roadrunner, Dodge Charger and Ford Torino’s. Labeled as “pony cars”, it would take a few years before the smaller cars would catch on.

In mid-1976, four-time USAC national stock car champion Butch Hartman made the switch, leaving his full-bodied Dodge Charger in the driveway and jumping behind the wheel of a Camaro and winning the prestigious Miller 200 at State Fair Park. As described in the July 12 edition of the Waukesha Freeman, “The lightweight Camaro led a field of 40 cars — 30 of them in the 3,800 pound heavyweight class. But the Camaro — 600 pounds lighter and powered by a 350 cubic inch engine — compared to the 427’s favored by the old reliable Plymouth, Dodge and Ford crews — ran as smoothly as a railroad conductor's timepiece.”

All of sudden, interest built…

Sure enough, when August rolled around, Ramo Stott, behind the wheel of a Volare “Kit Car” won the Fair Stock 150-miler. Four days later, Butch Hartman drove his Camaro to the the Fair Stock 200 win.

Program from the 1976 Governor's Cup

So, it came as no surprise when Roger McCluskey drove Norm Nelson’s Volare to victory in the Governor’s Cup on September 12. In fact, pony cars made it a clean sweep that Sunday afternoon with Ramo Stott (Volare), Butch Hartman (Camaro) and Dick Trickle (Camaro) taking the top four spots in the 250-miler.

“The car ran better than any race car I’ve ever driven,” McCluskey said. McCluskey said Nelson's crew has done extensive work on the kit car, which had just been built.

For all purposes, the pony cars were effectively spelling the end of the big hemi’s and other full sized cars on tracks of a mile and less on the United States Auto Club's stock car circuit.

McCluskey, who led 202 of 250 laps, finished 11 seconds ahead of Stott and nearly a lap ahead of Hartman. Attendance was down; only 15,935 fans showed, good for some tracks, but not for Milwaukee. 

Always-popular Ramo Stott won the 1977 Governor's Cup. 

Although hampered by a broken seat bracket in the early stages, Ramo Stott still managed to score a four-second victory in the Governor’s Cup on September 11, 1977. 

Driving a 1977 Volare, Stott took the lead on lap 195 when he passed up an opportunity to make a pit stop under the yellow and he made the decision pay off by staying ahead of point’s leader Paul Feldner of Richfield, Wis., the rest of the way.

Wisconsin short track stars Jim Sauter of Necedah, Wis., and Al Schill of Franklin, Wis., placed third and fourth respectively, and were the only other drivers to complete the full 250-mile distance. It was Schill’s first-ever USAC start.

Defending champion Larry Moore, who started last in the 31-car field after taking over the wheel of a 1977 Camaro qualified by Steve Drake, finished fifth.

Stott inherited the lead when race leader Don White decided to pit during the tenth and final caution of the day. Stott and Feldner held down first and second when racing resumed on lap 203, but White claimed the runner-up spot a lap later.

For a while, it appeared as though White might be able to close the gap on his fellow townsman, but he lasted only 218 miles before blowing the engine on his 1977 Dodge Aspen.

“When White fell out, that’s when my biggest worry went away,” Stott said after the race. “I had a little edge on the other top guys who were left, but not on Don.”

At the time of White’s withdrawal, Feldner was six seconds behind Stott, a margin he shaved down to about four seconds with 15 miles to go. But, that was as close as Feldner was able to come. 

Bobby Unser waves to the crowd as he takes the checkered in the 1978 Governor's Cup. - Ralph Timan Collection 

When the yellow flag came out with seven laps to go in the Governor's Cup race on September 10, 1978, Bobby Unser had a safe lead over Dave Watson.

And he coasted to an easy victory as the yellow laps continued for the rest of the race, which he had led most of the time.

The fact that he didn’t finish the race racing, just coasting, didn’t bother the Albuquerque. N M., driver. He said he got just as much out of it as winning under the green flag.

“I can't look back and wish I’d won under the green. I do feel sorry for the fans, who like to see racing right down to the wire. he said. “With the nice lead I had, I didn’t want, and I didn’t need a yellow. I could have driven the last five miles with one hand.”

The yellow came on after Rick O ‘Brien’s car blew an engine but Unser had a 14 second lead and said he wasn’t going to be caught by anyone, yellow or green.

“Actually the 14 second lead I had was a controlled 14 seconds. I could have gone faster,” he said.

He took the lead first on the 39th lap and held it through the 82nd and again lap 84 to 155 before losing it. He recaptured it on the 177th lap and never gave it up, breezing to victory in his Camaro under the yellow caution flag.

He finished with an average speed of 97.297 miles per hour and took home the top prize of $7,885 out of a record purse of $41,400.

Finishing second was Watson in a Buick Skylark, third was A.J. Foyt in another Camaro, Sal Tovella came in fourth in a Volare and Jim Sauter rounded out the top-five in an Aspen. 

Rusty Wallace celebrates his 1979 Governor's Cup victory with his crew. 

Rookie Rusty Wallace, whose driving style had drawn complaints from the regulars, overcame blown engines from front-runners Joe Ruttman and A.J. Foyt to win the Governor's Cup race on September 9, 1979.

Wallace took the lead to stay at the 199th lap after Ruttman’s Pontiac Phoenix blew an engine and hit the wall at the 106th Lap. Foyt pitted on lap 221 with engine trouble.

There was some question about how the more experienced drivers might treat the kid from Arnold, Mo. Ruttman was deprived of an apparent victory in a 150-mile Fair Stock race at the park in August when Wallace rammed him, sending him into a spin.

The 23-year-old Wallace, though, said his victory at the State Fair Park one-mile oval, his third victory in his first USAC season, had a more to do with ignoring a near-empty fuel tank.

“I don’t think there is more than a couple of quarts of fuel left in that car,” he said after his Firebird finished three seconds ahead of defending champion Ramo Stott, who drove a Camaro.

“The last time here, I went 99 miles on the 22 gallons,” he said. “I was skeptical about making it this time. I was really worried, but the car was running consistently, and I decided to stay with it.”

Wallace would continue his winning streak at the Milwaukee Mile well into 1980, winning both the Miller 200 in July and the Fair Stock 200 in August, beating Joe Ruttman both times in the process.

Not only was Ruttman frustrated at finishing second to Wallace, so was his five-year-old daughter.

“All I’d ever hear from my daughter was, ‘Daddy, don't let that little red car beat you,’” Ruttman remarked. “She kept telling me that I was slamming on the brakes and losing.” 

Joe Ruttman en route to winning the 1980 Governor's Cup. 

With his daughter's advice riding in his ear, Joe Ruttman of Upland, Calif., at last defeated Rusty Wallace’s “little red car” at State Fair Park to win the Governor’s Cup on September 7, 1980.

Ruttman set a track qualifying record of 31.90 seconds and 102.853 miles per hour that Sunday.

Then, in his determination to defeat Wallace, he preceded Wallace's Firebird under the checkered flag by 18 seconds. In fact, Wallace was the only other car still on the same lap with Ruttman.

His Pontiac Ventura averaged 97.692 miles per hour before a crowd of 10,805, the track's smallest of the season.

Sal Tovella finished third, Alan Kulwicki of Milwaukee took fourth and Bob Schact of Lombard, Ill., was fifth.

Program from the 1981 Governor's Cup

Dick Trickle, synonymous with racing in Wisconsin, would win the final Governor’s Cup on September 12, 1981. Trickle was simply too much competition for the rest of the field as he led 237 of the 250 laps.

Trickle, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., took the checkered flag a Pontiac Ventura five seconds ahead of Sal Tovella of Addison, Ill., who was piloting a Plymouth Volare. Surprisingly, it was only Trickle’s second career USAC victory, the first coming 10 years before in New Bremen, Ohio.

Trickle, who drove the same car in which Joe Ruttman drove in the Miller 200 in July, averaged 93.288 miles per hour and took home the $3,713 winner's share of the $26,650 purse. A crowd of 8,640 - down considerably from the 10,800 who watched last year's race — saw only nine cars finish the race out of the original 32-car field.

With the slow demise of the USAC stock car division, the Governor’s Cup would fade away but not die.

In 2005, the Governor’s Cup was rejuvenated, with local Wisconsin racing talent taking center stage at the Milwaukee Mile.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Spring Invitational at Sunset Speedway

by Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - After having success with the first running of the Cornhusker Hawkeye Challenge in the fall of 1972, Sunset Speedway Promoter Lyle Kline decided to have a spring special as well. The inaugural running of the Spring Invitational took place on April 14, 1973. The race program paid a $5,000 purse with $1,000 going to the winner of the 100-lap main event. 

Ed Sanger

Forty cars entered the event, many from Iowa and Minnesota. Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa, one of the best drivers in the Midwest made his first visit to Sunset Speedway a very profitable one as he led over half the laps and cruised to victory. Starting fourth, Sanger took the lead on lap 48 from Bill Zwanziger also of Waterloo and stayed out front to win over Omahan Bob Kosiski by a half a lap. A rough racing surface allowed only 11 of the 22 cars starting the feature to finish the race. Ed Morris of Omaha was third, Wally Nissen of Omaha fourth and Denny Hovinga of Laurens, Iowa, rounded out the top five.

Local hero Bob Kosiski brought the Spring Invitational trophy back to Omaha in the second year of the event as he took the lead from Bill Martin of Council Bluffs, Iowa on the 24th lap. Martin, who had led the race for the first 23 circuits then pursued Kosiski until he blew a tire forcing him to retire from the race. Kosiski raced on to win the 75-lap feature (cut from 100 laps to conserve gasoline due to the energy crisis), followed by Karl Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa, Bill Kirk of Salix, Iowa, Jack Golder of Hooper, Nebraska, and Marv Emswiler of Omaha.

A reconfigured racetrack greeted the competitors on April 26, 1975 for the third running of the Spring Invitational. The track had been made more of a true oval by shortening the straightaways and extending the corners. 

Bill Martin

It did not bother Bill Martin. The Council Bluffs ace made up for his disappointment in the previous Spring Invitational and picked up where he left off. Martin closed the Sunset season in 1974 by winning the prestigious Cornhusker –Hawkeye Challenge.

Martin started on the pole and led until lap 28, when Bob Kosiski the defending race champion passed him. Kosiski led until lap 54 when he retired with a broken axle. Martina regained the lead and held it to the end of the 75-lap affair, picking up $1,000 for his efforts. Some of the best dirt track drivers in the Midwest were in attendance including runner-up Don Hoffman of Des Moines, Karl Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa finished third, Jerry Wancewicz of Omaha fourth and Ed Morris of Council Bluffs fifth. Joe Wallace of Kansas City, Dave Knott of Minneapolis, Mike Dibben of Morris, Minnesota, Ferris Collier of Lampe, Missouri, and Chuck Bosselman of Grand Island were also on hand. Fifthy-two cars entered the event.

Competitors for the fourth annual Spring Invitational, held on April 24, 1976, were greeted by a different set of circumstances. First, sunset had a new owner in Larry Kelley, and second the Saturday night event was rained out and ran the following day under clear skies. Bob Saterdalen of Oronoco, Minnesota, may have wondered why he drove seven hours to Sunset only to get rained out, but he made up for it on Sunday by taking the 100-lap main go and pocketing $1,150.

Saterdalen took the lead with only 19 laps remaining when leader Bill Kirk of Salix, Iowa blew an engine, and wheeled his #98 Camaro to the win. Kent Tucker of Aurora, Nebraska came home second with Bill Beckman of Lisbon, Iowa, in third, Dave Chase of Council Bluffs fourth and Glen Robey of Omaha fifth as only seven of the 20 starters finished the event, held on a rough, water-logged oval. 

Joe Kosiski (left) and Bob Shryock

A new format was in store for the drivers at the 1977 version of the race. To increase spectator interest, the 100-lap feature was changed to twin-50 lap features. Estherville, Iowa’s Bob Shryock took the lead midway thru the first feature when race leader Jack McDonald of North Dakota broke a rear axle. Bill Rice of Des Moines was second, Bob Kosiski third, Kent Tucker fourth and Tim Eliason of Duluth, Minnesota fifth.

The second feature went to Joe Kosiski of Omaha followed by Tucker, Bob Kosiski, Mike Dibben of Kansas City and Eliason.

In 1978, it was Bill Martin taking the 50-lap feature followed by Joe Kosiski, Don Hoffman and Joe Merryfield of Des Moines. Heats went to Ron Tilley of Council Bluffs, Joe Kosiski, Bob Shryock and Martin. Martin took the Speed Dash and Jerry Wancewicz the consolation with a crowd estimated at 1,800 looking on.

Tom Bartholomew

The 1979 edition of the Spring Invitational was delayed a day because of weather, but Sunset Speedway promoter Larry Kelley made the best of the situation. Leon Plank of Mondovi, Wisconsin, led the opening lap but then Kalona, Iowa’s Mike Niffenegger took the point and led for 27 laps before Waterloo, Iowa’s Tom Bartholomew sped past in his new Sanger-built Camaro and drove away from the field. Bartholomew ended up winning by half a lap over Joe Merryfield, Ed Sanger, Niffenegger and Wancewicz.

Defending race winner Bill Martin overcame a hard hit with the front wall in his heat race on Saturday, and Martin and the crew worked all night to get ready for Sunday. They qualified for the feature and made a great run up through the field to finish sixth. Bartholomew, for his great run, took home $2,000 for the win.

In 1980, Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa, took advantage of Bob Kosiski hitting a soft spot in the track and went low to pass Kosiski on lap 47 to take the lead and win the 50-lap feature. Up to feature time, Kosiski had a banner weekend winning both his heat and the position race. His position race win allowed Kosiski to start on the pole and he led until Crawford’s pass. Following were Bob Shryock, Ray Lipsey of Lincoln and Ken Walton of Viola, Iowa.

Thousands of race fans were on hand for the 1981 Spring Invitational which saw ideal weather conditions making for a fast-racing surface. At the end of the two-day event, it was Des Moines’ Don Hoffman capturing the 50-lap feature and taking home the largest share of the $12,500 purse.

Bill Martin set the early pace because of winning one of the position races, but he experienced power problems and dripped out of the lead. Steve Kosiski of Omaha took over from his outside front row starting position and led until ten laps to go when Hoffman make the pass and sailed home with the win in the ninth version of the race. Steve Kosiski held on for second, Ken Walton was third and Omaha’s Al Drusedow fourth. 

Don Hoffman is joined by promoter Larry Kelley.

Joe Kosiski passed Bill Martin with just four laps to go to win the Tenth Annual Spring Invitational and with it the $3,000 first prize. Martin led the race the entire time until being passed by Kosiski. Only 11 of the 24 starters finished the 50-lap event. Steve Kosiski had challenged Martin early in the race, but that challenge ended abruptly when he took a ride over the dirt backstretch wall and went off the embankment and into the trees. Steve was uninjured but done for the night. Following Joe Kosiski and Martin to the checkers were Vic Bentlage of Jefferson City, Missouri, Al Druesdow and Bob Hill of Story City, Iowa. Forty-six late models from seven states made the journey to Sunset for the annual event.

In 1983, Joe Kosiski won the late model portion for the Spring Invitational for a second year in a row. The win was worth $3,000 to Kosiski, as he continued his hot streak which started the previous week by winning a special season opener in Kansas City.

“I finally got luck back on my side this past week, after a couple of blown engines hurt me the first two weeks out.” Kosiski said. The victory did not come easy for Kosiski, as he held off Tom Hearst of Wilton, Iowa, and his brother Steve for the win in the feature.

Kosiski led all the way except one lap, when Tom Hearst passed him with 22 laps to go. Joe passed Hearst right back and the two dueled until four laps to go when Hearst spun out. Following Joe Kosiski to the line were Steve Kosiski, Jerry Wancewicz, Bill Martin, Terry Buresh of Bellevue and Willy Kraft of Lakefield, Minnesota. A crowd estimated at 3,000 fans was on hand for the second and final night of the Spring Invitational.

In 1984, the name of the event was changed to the Spring Spectacular. It was scheduled for April 20 & 21 but was cancelled due to weather. In the years to follow, Sunset Speedway sometimes had special events in the spring, but for all practical purpose, the Spring Invitational had come to an end.