By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – When Frank Winkley took over as promoter of Hawkeye Downs on January 3, 1968, a press conference was held announcing his arrival. The veteran promoter had been hired to turn around a once-proud racing program that had struggled in the past few years. Some of the star drivers, unhappy with the officiating and rules, had packed up and gone to race elsewhere. The fans, not seeing their favorite drivers at the Downs on Friday night, were finding other activities to do.
“Really, this is quite simple to correct,” he said. “There will be drivers’ meetings before all races and the men will know what the rules are. The rules will be the same for all and we'll stick by them. We won’t change for anyone.”
“I've been promoting racing for 30 years and I think I understand drivers and fans. The drivers like to make money and race fans want to see racing at its best. We need cars to get the public and when we get the crowds, the drivers will start making money.”
Towards the end of the press conference, Wink made one more statement, “It’s all about great competition and you’ll see it week in and week out here. I guarantee it…”
Winkley was not only a great promoter, but he turned out to be one hell of a prophet. Not even Wink could have foreseen what the 1968 season would shape up to be. One of the most competitive weekly racing programs ever witnessed in the history of Hawkeye Downs. Unfortunately for Hawkeye Downs, Winkley wouldn’t be around to see how it turned out.
The season opener on Friday night, May 3, started in high gear with Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids capturing the 25-lap feature. Eaker narrowly missed being the Downs’ champion in 1967 but served advanced notice on Friday night to his counterparts that he would be tough to beat in ’68. In addition to winning the feature, Eaker made a clean sweep, scoring wins in his heat and the trophy dash on the quarter-mile oval.
In a dandy of a main event, Eaker and Red Droste of Waterloo, Iowa waged a terrific battle after Eaker took the lead on lap 9 when Bill McDonough of Cedar Rapids spun out. Every time it appeared that Droste, piloting a 1967 Chevelle, would take Eaker coming out of the turns, Eaker’s hemi-powered machine pulled away on the straightaway or backstretch. On the 21st lap, Droste’s night would come to a finish when he lost a wheel and Eaker would have clear sailing the remaining four laps.
McDonough recovered to grab second after a duel with Darrel Dake of Cedar Rapids, last year’s champion at The Downs. Curt Hansen of Dike was fourth and Harry O’ Deen of Cedar Rapids was fifth.
The following Friday night, May 10th, Droste would exact revenge, repeating Eaker’s performance from the previous weekend and sweeping the evening’s program, easily winning the STP trophy dash, heat race and the 25-lap main event before 2,556 fans.
There would be no battle this Friday night as Droste, starting on the outside of the second row, charged into the lead on the very first lap and never looked back, winning by 10 car lengths over Eaker. Lisbon’s Roger Dolan grabbed third in the feature with fourth going to Chub Liebe of Oelwein.
Friday, May 17th saw another new winner as Cal Swanson of Reinbeck, Iowa captured his 10-lap heat race then went on to score the 25-lap feature victory before 2,179 paid spectators. Swanson’s 1967 Chevelle had a “sick engine” the week before and he didn’t even qualify for the feature, but this Friday night was his for the taking.
Cal started on the pole and had clear sailing in the finale, which saw four cars eliminated in the first two laps that trimmed the field down from 14 to ten quickly. “Anybody can win when they’re out in front,” Swanson said later. “I’ll have to admit, it was nice to be away from traffic.”
Downs point leader Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids and his screaming’ 1965 Dodge hemi copped second in the feature. Eaker came all the way from the 10th starting position in an excellent bid. Droste walked off with the trophy dash honors but had to settle for fifth in the feature after he was hit and spun out on lap 8. John Webb of Independence, Iowa and Ed Sanger of Waterloo were third and fourth respectively.
An Oelwein tornado hit Hawkeye Downs on May 24th and swept away the 25-lap late model feature with comparative ease before 2,531 paying fans. Chub Liebe was the culprit, and the seasoned pro became the fourth driver in as many weeks to cop the top honors in the IMCA sanctioned program.
Chub and his 1964 Ford - the same combination which won the Independence track championship a year ago - took the lead on the 18th lap and roared across the finish line a car length ahead of Droste and two lengths in front of third place Verlin Eaker.
“We’ve been bothered by handling problems in the earlier weeks,” Liebe said, “but the car started coming around tonight.” The Downs quarter mile was slick in the early events because of too much water and many of the drivers confessed they were hesitant about passing. Liebe said, “the track was fine in the feature, though, and it actually started to dry out.”
Cal Swanson, last week’s feature winner, was a casualty in the trophy dash. Swanson’s Chevelle hit a clump of mud on the corner of the infield and the force wrenched the steering wheel in his hand. It was feared he suffered a broken wrist.
After the first rainout of the season on May 31st, Bill McDonough of Cedar Rapids captured a wild 25-lap model feature in a night of wild stock car racing on June 7th before a paid crowd of 2,820. McDonough thus became the fifth different driver in as many programs to cop the late model finale. Bill and his 1965 Impala experienced little trouble, although the feature produced plenty of heated activity.
After a restart and a yellow flag, the 17-car field roared around the quarter-mile track for five laps before Morey Willis of Van Horne, Iowa and Larry Schulte of Cedar Rapids tangled on the back chute and Willis rolled his ‘67 Ford Mercury. Willis was not injured although the car was flattened.
However, Schulte, who was involved in a collision after the first restart, had already been given the black flag when officials ruled his car was not handling properly.
Promoter Frank Winkley fined Schulte $20 to begin with. Then, following a verbal exchange with the feisty promoter, Schulte was “banned from Hawkeye Downs for “conduct unbecoming a race car driver.”
After the Willis – Schulte mishap, McDonough had clear sailing. In fact, it was merely follow the leader on the hard, slick oval, making for a rather dull finish. Cedar Rapids’ Harry O’ Deen (and his flying machine) picked up second place money while Glen Martin of Independence took third. Ed Sanger and Red Droste rounded out the top five.
With five weeks in the books and five different winners, it was shaping up to be one of the most competitive seasons ever at The Downs’.
On June 14th, Hawkeye Downs had yet another newcomer to victory lane. Stan Stover of Reinbeck, Iowa took the pole position in his 1965 Pontiac GTO and never relinquished that spot as he became the sixth different driver in as many weeks to cop the finale on the quarter-mile dirt oval. Lem Blankenship of Keokuk, Iowa followed Stover across the finish line with McDonough and Eaker in tow.
A paying crowd of 2,996 viewed eight events that were paced with thrills and, for that matter, spills, too. The most spectacular of the spills involved Red Droste and Marvin Lateare of Olin, Iowa on the first lap of the feature. Droste and Lateare locked horns coming out of the fourth turn and both cars plowed into the wall in front of the grandstands. Lateare’s car took the brunt of the impact, ripping up 40 feet of cyclone fencing. Neither driver was injured and only Droste was able to return to action.
The “Golden Gopher” started eighth in the 21-car field, but after only two laps, he had powered his 1965 Chevelle into the third spot. On the fourth lap, it was all Mert on the quarter-mile dirt oval. He was running so well be nearly lapped the entire field which had dwindled to 15 at the finish.
“I really don’t like to start up front," he admitted in victory lane. “It makes me nervous, so I just go like hell.” (Yes, that’s the word he used).
While Williams was sailing merrily along, a dandy of a battle was being waged for the runner-up spots. Roger Dolan of Lisbon held off the bid of Bill Zwanziger for second place and Ed Sanger nipped Red Droste for fourth.
Would you believe eight different winners in eight weeks of racing? That’s exactly what happened when Claus Stricker of Waterloo, Iowa came out of obscurity to take the 25-lap headliner on June 28. Stricker, in only his second appearance at the Downs in ’68, started on the pole, survived three restarts to win the feature before 2,754 paying customers.
Even though the top four cars, Stricker’s ‘67 Ford, Bob Hilmer’s ‘64 Chevelle, Verlin Eaker’s ‘65 Dodge and Mert Williams’ ‘65 Chevelle were clocking consistent laps in the high 16-second bracket, no speed records were broken due to three time-consuming cautions. The feature race took nearly 40 minutes to run and only 10 of the starting 22 cars were there at the finish.
Hilmer trailed Stricker the whole distance but was never able to get by Stricker, who kept his cool and found a groove to his liking. Eaker, Williams, and Droste all started at the rear of the field and Eaker’s third place finish was good enough to protect his point’s lead.
Mert Williams would become the first driver to become a two-time winner on Friday, July 5 and for his efforts, became $100 richer. In addition to the $285 for winning the feature, Williams also cashed in a $100 bill from promoter Frank Winkley as a bonus for becoming the first double feature winner of the season.
Cal Swanson took the initial lead and was building a head of steam when his transmission blew on lap 9, sending him to the infield. Schlemmer took over the top spot and maintained from there. Starting 12th in the field (and driving like hell), Williams had his car honking though traffic and by lap 16, was on Schlemmer’s rear bumper. Entering lapped cars two laps later, Williams swung low on Schlemmer down the backstretch and when Schlemmer got caught entering turn three, Williams was off to the races. Schlemmer would settle for second while Roger Dolan withstood Verlin Eaker for the third spot.
Lady Luck would cast its shadow over Cal Swanson on July 12. The biggest paying crowd of the season – 3,520 – watched Swanson become the Downs’ second two-time winner of the season. Wearing a cast on his right arm from a racing accident six weeks earlier, Swanson held off both John Schlemmer of Cedar Rapids and Red Droste. After dominating the race a week earlier before bowing out with transmission problems, it was Swanson playing the role of spoiler in his ’65 Chevelle.
John Schlemmer and Red Droste were battling for position with Swanson a half car length behind. Schlemmer and Droste would both tangle coming out of turn two on lap 13, allowing Swanson to squeeze by and take the lead, a lead he would hold until the end.
“It’s week late, but we got it.” Swanson smiled, “I could see there was going to be trouble. So I put on the brakes and steered clear of them.”
Steady Stan Stover would finish second and Schlemmer recovered from his altercation with Droste to take third. Droste, in prime position to overtake Verlin Eaker for the point’s lead, would suffer a bent wheel in the fracas with Schlemmer and watch the rest of the action from the pit area.
It was a wild and freakish night of racing on July 19 and when it was all over, Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids had won his second late model feature of the season. The majority of the season’s top paying crowd - 3,695 – apparently were unhappy with Eaker’s triumph in the 25-lapper on the quarter-mile dirt track.
A steady chorus of boos rained on him when he picked up the checkered flag. The big question was whether Verlin was being booed because he won or because someone else didn’t win.
John Webb of Independence seemed well on his way to winning his first feature of the year through the first 16 laps. The real race up to that point was being waged for second place with Eaker, Mert Williams, Cal Swanson and Curt Hansen battling.
Webb’s car suddenly slowed down when its rear end went out coming out of the fourth turn. Williams had just jumped into second when he plowed into Webb. Eaker was inside and Swanson right behind Williams.
Eaker slowed, but Swanson proceeded to whack the other side of Webb. The three cars involved in the collision all were sidelined - Mert’s Chevelle with its right side torn up and Cal’s Chevelle with a blown right front tire and bent A-frame. Eaker had clear sailing from the 17th lap on.
It was just a bad night all the way around for Chevelles. Red Droste was running second in points, but his 1967 model broke an axle in the trophy dash and he was through for the night. At that, Eaker wasn’t chauffeuring his usual ’65 Dodge hemi. The car wasn't repaired from a week ago, so Verlin took a ride in a ‘67 Plymouth, a car normally driven by Fred Horn of Marion.
After a couple of rough weeks when nothing seemed to be going right, Red Droste got it right, and just in time. The mid-season championships, before another huge crowd – 4, 458 – saw Droste take home the winner’s share of the hearty $3,495 purse.
Droste took the lead from point’s leader Verlin Eaker on lap eight of the 50-lap main event with Mert Williams glued to his bumper. Droste and Williams then staged a bumper-to-bumper duel to the checkered flag. The Golden Gopher from Rochester, Minn., managed to pull alongside Droste several times, but each time, found himself boxed in among slower cars and unable to get by the flying Redhead.
“You always worry when Mert is following you,” Droste told the fans. The victory also gave Droste the Downs’ point lead for the first time in what had become one of its most competitive seasons.
Verlin Eaker, who was leading in points going into the race, jumped into the lead on the first lap, but it was soon apparent that his ‘65 Dodge wasn’t running as well as Droste’s ‘67 Chevelle. The Cedar Rapids lead foot dropped out with a flat tire on the 27th lap.
Tempers flared and one driver was banned from the Downs for the balance of the season.
Lem Blankenship of Keokuk started in the rear of the 25-lap consolation and actually won the race but was penalized two positions for passing under the yellow flag. This gave the victory to Roger Kruse of Independence. Blankenship drove his car to the pits and then rushed to the judges stand to confront promoter Frank Winkley. After a quite verbal discussion, Winkley banned Blankenship from the Downs for the balance of the season for unsportsmanlike conduct, and said he would recommend to the IMCA office, that a $100 fine be placed on Blankenship.
Racing at Hawkeye Downs had reached the halfway point, and no one was more pleased with the results than Frank Winkley. The competitive brand of racing put forth by the drivers, and the rapidly increasing attendance figures, made a distinct impression on Winkley to such an extent he was considering dropping his role as a national IMCA promoter and dealing primarily with the operation in Cedar Rapids.
“The fans amaze me,” Frank said on numerous occasions. “I've never known them to be more rabid than they are here. They’re so well informed. They really know their racing.”
Unfortunately for drivers and fans alike, “Wink” wouldn’t be around to finish what he started at The Downs. On Tuesday, July 30th, while coming back from a race meet, Winkley was killed when the car he was driving went out of control on a county road west of Minneapolis. The state patrol said he was thrown from the car. Frank Winkley was 60 years old.
Al Miller, racing editor for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, wrote this column about Winkley a few days after his tragic death…
'We may still be in the embryo stage as far as race reporting is concerned, but no promoter impressed us more than the late Frank Winkley.
Tough, stern, demanding, optimistic - these were characteristics of Frank Winkley. He wasn’t always right in the many snap decisions he had to make. For the most part, however, his reasoning was sound. Either way, Winkley solely accepted the responsibilities for his action, and you had to respect him for it.
Winkley never claimed to be perfect. He confessed to us the promotion of weekly races at Hawkeye Downs this year had taught him some things he hadn’t learned in his previous 20 years as a race promoter.
Winkley was all business at the track, always nervous, always shouting instructions. He also had warmth and most people felt fortunate to see that side of the individualist. A great majority of people felt Winkley had been the salvation of racing in Cedar Rapids
The fact remains, racing at The Downs had reached its lowest ebb after last season, and it was Winkley who came in and restored it to the lofty perch it rightly deserved.
The promotion dodge had filled Wink’s pocket with thousands and busted him, temporarily, sometimes within a day’s time. He frowned when people referred to racing as “show business,” but he stuck to the show biz motto unless rain interfered.
The show will go on and we’re glad of that, although after a week’s absence we’ll notice a change. A friend of ours won’t be around. Rest in peace Wink.'
The show did go on as scheduled at The Downs on Friday, August 2, the night before Winkley’s funeral in Minneapolis. His widow, Verna, wanted it that way for an obvious reason.
“Wink would have wanted it the same way,” she said. “Our operation will remain the same in Cedar Rapids the rest of the year. It won’t change.”
The population of Lisbon, Iowa back in 1968 was around 1,300 – except for Friday nights when a good majority of the town folk would journey west to watch one of their favorite sons Roger Dolan.
It was definitely Lisbon night at the Downs on August 2, as Dolan waltzed away with the 25-lap late model feature before 3,170. Dolan started in the middle of the field and began picking his way thru the heavy traffic. It only took him eight laps to pull ahead of Walt Carney of West Branch, Iowa, who started on the pole.
From there it was Dolan all the way even though Waterloo’s Ed Sanger gave him a few anxious moments in the final two laps. Dolan finished a car length ahead of Sanger to pocket $275 for his hard work.
The race was relatively accident-free with the yellow flag coming out just once when Cal Swanson spun his Chevy on the 10th lap. Red Droste of Waterloo pulled into the infield at the same time with engine failure. Verlin Eaker’s fourth place finish in the feature was good enough to put him back in the point lead. Verlin had 2,149 points to Droste’s 2,094.
There was no doubt; Verlin Eaker was having a spectacular season. Not only was he the point leader at Cedar Rapids but at the State Fairgrounds track Des Moines as well. He was also fifth in points on the national circuit running against the likes of Ernie Derr and Ramo Stott. It was a dream season for Eaker…
That was until Bill Hitz, the secretary of the International Motor Contest Association, issued the rule on Tuesday, August 6th stating that an IMCA licensed driver could compete for either regional or national points, but not both.
The latest development by IMCA came about because regional drivers have objected to Ernie Derr and Ramo Stott, both of Keokuk, racing in regional competition. Derr and Stott were the top drivers on the national circuit.
“We (the board members) felt we had to do something so we wouldn't run into any strikes or boycotts during our fair dates,” said Hitz. “Now the drivers will have to go one way or the other. We had to draw the line some place, as we had complaints coming from both groups. We didn’t anticipate this early in the season.”
There were six regular Friday night dates left to race in Cedar Rapids and about eight at Des Moines, but the national circuit had about 25 dates remaining. Eaker indicated he would prefer finishing the year on the national tour. Verlin had to make a choice…
John Webb of Independence saw the light for the first time on Friday, August 9 at Hawkeye Downs but only after the lights went out for everybody else. Webb, the hard-luck chauffeur of a 1967 Chevelle, captured the scheduled late model feature, but he only had to drive 12 laps to earn his first such victory of the season.
Webb was out in front early in the 25-lap finale and was just beginning to be challenged for the lead by Red Droste on lap 12 when the lights actually went out. Here’s how it happened…
Bill McDonough, Roger Dolan, and Cal Swanson were battling to improve their positions on the backstretch at the same time Droste was making his move on Webb. Swanson moved high while McDonough and Dolan clashed into turn three. Then, as Cal cut sharply down through the turn, McDonough’s Impala got squirrelly, and he rammed Swanson broadside.
Swanson was plowed a few feet before McDonough caromed off and whacked the light pole in the infield on turn four. The latter collision caused the pole wires to cross face, shorting out the track lights and eliminating the public-address system. The track electrician informed Winkley that repair work would take an indefinite amount of time, so the race was ruled official after 12 laps.
Droste vaulted back into the point lead via his feature showing and a third place in the trophy dash. Previous point leader Verlin Eaker did not compete and apparently was still undecided whether he will race on the national or regional IMCA circuit.
The All-Iowa Fair was in town the next week and the PRA rodeo took over the front track on August 16th. It also gave Verlin Eaker some additional time to decide whether to race regionally at Cedar Rapids and Des Moines or compete against Derr, Stott, Funk and the other big shoes on the IMCA national circuit.
On August 22, one day before the Friday night program at the Downs, the decision was made — Eaker would finish the season on the IMCA regional circuit. After two weeks of indecision, Verlin would continue to drive his chauffeur his ‘65 Dodge Hemi on the quarter mile in Cedar Rapids.
When you put a driver on the pole, he can be difficult to beat. On Friday night Dave Bedard of LaPorte City proved that by racing to his first feature win of the season in the 25-lapper for late models, thus becoming the 11th different winner at the Downs’ oval during the ’68 season.
Bedard’s 1967 Plymouth was screaming from the start and there was little doubt that who was going to be the feature winner on this night. Bedard was out in front on the hard, slick dirt surface and he proceeded to lap everyone except the remaining top five finishers.
The battle to watch was for second place between Red Droste, Bill Zwanziger and Bill McDonough. Bumper to bumper, side to side, these three hot shoes battled for most of the feature with less than a car length separating each other at the checkers.
Droste increased his point’s lead with the second-place finish as his chief threats – Eaker and Roger Dolan – were sidelined with mechanical woes. Eaker didn’t run due to engine problems suffered at Vinton the night before and Dolan suffered a broken axle in the consolation.
A rare August rain washed out the program on Friday, August 30, leaving only two more races for drivers to pick up valuable points during the stretch run.
On September 6th, Ed Sanger, the soft-spoken car salesman from Waterloo, Iowa, took his first win of the season at The Downs, firing his 1966 Chevy around the quarter mile and making it look easy in doing so. Although, Sanger made it sound much tougher…
“The cars I was lapping gave me a little trouble,” Sanger mentioned afterwards, “but they didn’t hold me up too much. Boy, I had to stay in the high groove - there was no place else to go.”
Sanger really didn’t need any place else to go, for a change. He finally put everything together in the feature. “We just put in a new (427) engine,” Sanger smiled. “It’s really did the job for us tonight.”
The battle for the season points championship tightened up considerably when point leader Red Droste of Waterloo went out of the feature on the fifth lap when he lost a wheel. Both Verlin Eaker and Roger Dolan closed the gap with third and second place finishes, respectively. Fourth place in the feature went to Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, while John Webb of Independence grabbed fifth.
On Saturday morning, September 14, the headline in the Cedar Rapids Gazette sports section read, “The Master Shows ‘Em” – the master being none other than Luvern “Red” Droste.
Droste answered his critics with a superb driving performance, capturing the 50-lap late model season championship before 3,590 paying customers. The victory wrapped up the second season point championship in three years for the Waterloo hotshot. Droste won the title in 1966 but passed up competing at The Downs in 1967 because of personal differences with the former promoter.
That action created quite a stir and the insults were heavy in Red’s direction. “Too old to cut the mustard”, “Droste’s over the hill”, and “Red’s afraid of the competition” were a few of the barbs thrown his way during the off-season.
Droste offered only a slight smile when asked how satisfying winning the title was. “It gave me some satisfaction,” he remarked, “but nothing special.”
“There are a lot of too drivers here every Friday and it’s tough to run hard every night. I’m not ready to retire just yet – not until I’m 50. That’s eight years away.”
Droste started on the pole and wasn't even aware his 1967 Chevelle was experiencing difficulty at the mid-point mark. Sparks flew from beneath his car and after the race it was discovered that a pan broke, slowly draining the oil.
Verlin Eaker finished sixth after starting alongside Droste in the feature. Eaker was bumped off the track on the first lap and was a full lap behind at the checkered flag.
The 1968 season at The Downs will always be remembered as being filled with both triumph and tragedy. Frank Winkley took over a racing program, which had been struggling mightily over the past few years and brought it back to prominence. Sadly, he wouldn’t live to see the greatness that he had created.
Just as Frank Winkley had mentioned before the season started; good competition brings race fans, and he was true to his word. The competition on the quarter mile was the best it had seen in years with 13 different winners in 17 weeks of racing. Race fans started filtering thru the front gate and just like the days of old, Friday nights at The Downs was the place to be. It would be the beginning of some glorious years at one of the great dirt tracks in the Midwest.
The 1968 race season at Hawkeye Downs started what would be a tradition of racing excellence for years to come.