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 car owner 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. 

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