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.

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