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.

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