Joe Merryfield of Des Moines won the 1978 Late Model Nationals at Doniphan. He’s joined by Ms. Nebraska Suzie Socher while Merryfield’s car owner looks on.
By Lee Ackerman
Omaha, Neb. - In 1973, they decided to hold a Nebraska Late Model Stock Car Championship Race at Mid-Continent Raceway near Doniphan, Nebraska. The event was held on August 11, 1973 and paid a $3,000 purse with $500 going to the winner. Many of the point leaders from the different Nebraska tracks would compete.Omaha racing legend Bob Kosiski would come away with the win. The race would gradually grow in stature. In 1974 and 1975 local star, Kent Tucker of Aurora would win the race. In 1976 Bill Martin of Council Bluffs, Iowa would win the first of his two titles, and in 1977 another Council Bluffs native, Ron Tilley would bring home the win.
In 1978, the race started to pull in drivers from further away, including drivers from Colorado, Kansas, and Central Iowa. “Injun” Joe Merryfield of Des Moines, Iowa took home the sixth version of the race defeating Bill Martin.
Des Moines’ Don Hoffman (center) won the Late Model Nationals in 1979. He’s flanked by Red Dralle of Evansdale, Iowa (left), winner of the B feature and Bill Sanders of Muskogee, Okla., (right) winner of the C feature. – Bill Haglund Photo
In 1979, the race drew even more drivers from greater distances such as Marion Smiley of Tucson, Arizona, Bill Sanders of Muskogee, Oklahoma, Steve Egersdorf of St. Paul, Minnesota and Ferris Collier of Lampe, Missouri. It also drew an even bigger contingent from Central and Eastern Iowa and they dominated the race. The first five finishers that year were all from Central and Eastern Iowa. Don Hoffman of Des Moines led the Hawkeye Express across the line followed by Bill Beckman, Gary Crawford, Roger Dolan, and Ken Walton.
The race had become the Nebraska Late Model Nationals and that would set the stage for the two biggest fields to ever contest the event, in 1980 and 1981.
The 1980 Nebraska Late Model Nationals saw representatives from at least nine states and Canada make the tow to Doniphan. The three-day affair kicked off on Thursday with local ace Clayton Petersen, Jr. of Grand Island setting fast time. Heats were won by Petersen, Bill Martin, a guy from Ohio named Swartz and Denny Selting of Huron, South Dakota. Lincoln’s Rex Nun won the consy.
On Friday night, it was Kevin Gundaker of St. Louis with quick time. Heats would go to Gundaker, Tom Helfrich of Haubstadt, Indiana, Larry Phillips of Springfield, Missouri and Decorah, Iowa’s Em Fretheim. The consy went to Lakefield, Minnesota’s Willy Kraft and a new event, the race of Champions saw Gundaker take the race with Tom Nesbitt, all they way from Thunder Bay, Ontario finishing second. That would set the stage for Saturday night’s championship events.
Two-time race winner Kent Tucker would defeat Grand Island’s Dean Ward in the C feature. Tom Nesbitt would come back to win the B feature over York, Nebraska’s Les Siebert and Waterloo, Iowa’s ace Ed Sanger. The 28-car field was now set for the 50-lap main event.
Legend has it, that a certain driver showed up at the event and was basically out of money. After winning his heat the first night, he supposedly asked for an advance against his winnings, which to that point were very small. His reply when told he didn’t have many winnings to that point was, “well I’m going to win the feature Saturday night”. Guess what, he did, and without any brakes.
Winners at the 1980 Late Model Nationals were Kent Tucker of Aurora, Neb., (C-feature winner), Tom Nesbitt of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada (B-feature winner), and main event winner Charlie Swartz, Lucasville, Ohio. They’re joined by race director Chuck Bosselman. – Bill Haglund Photo
Charlie Swartz driving out of Lucasville, Ohio and at the wheel of the C. J. Rayburn #1 house car, set sail and drove to a convincing win, taking home the $6,000 first prize out of a sizeable $42,000 purse. After the race, Swartz was quoted as saying, “I didn’t know how much of a lead I had and I didn’t know who was in second, so I felt I had to build some sort of a lead. The track got hard during the feature, but we didn’t change anything on the car, in fact the car got better, but I had to slowdown somewhat because I ran the race without brakes.”
Following Swartz to the checkers were some big-name dirt late model drivers. Larry Phillips, Tom Helfrich, Kevin Gundaker and Bill Martin. The Nebraska Late Model Nationals had truly become a national event.
If you live in Nebraska, you quickly learn that a few miles can make a big difference, weather wise that is. I remember the final night of the 1981 version of the race, leaving Hastings, 15 miles to the south of the track where the weather wasn’t bad and there was no rain but by the time we got to the track, well the skies opened up and they got a 2-inch downpour, which postponed the races until Sunday afternoon.
1981 Late Model Nationals champion Bill Martin of Council Bluffs (right) is congratulated by Gary Tigges of Durango, Iowa, the 25-lap B-feature winner. – John Vass Photo
Another great field of cars had showed up in 1981, over 100, but the Sunday afternoon race would see the grandstands only about half full and the race would end up being a financial disaster for the track. A lot of the cars that had been at the track on Thursday and Friday didn’t stay around for the Sunday show. Probably because they knew an afternoon race would be a dustbowl and it was.
Leon Plank of Eau Claire, Wisconsin won the trophy dash, and Gary Tigges of Dubuque, Iowa would take the B feature over Tucson, Arizona’s Carl Trimmer. The A feature would end up being a thriller, as Bill Martin would take the lead on the next to last lap from Leon Plank and hold on for the win. Unfortunately, after taking the checkers, Martin pulled in front of the grandstand only to be nailed by the field, who didn’t know the race was over. It would turn out to be a fitting end to a bad situation.
In 1982, the track would run a watered-down version of the race, cutting the winner’s share to $3,000. Only 40 some cars showed up to the event that saw a young, up and coming driver from Des Moines win the race. His name was Billy Moyer.
1982 would be the last year of the race for 20 years. The track was sold and sold again and eventually the race would be restarted in 2002, thanks to the efforts of current track promoter Doug Stange with the help of a big supporter in Chuck Bosselman, President of the Bosselman Companies, who has been one of the biggest supporters of the track and the race.
The new version of the race has become a fixture to the schedule of late model specials in the Midwest, and while it probably will never reach the status of its predecessor, given Doniphan’s location on the western edge of dirt late model racing, it is still an event that Midwest dirt fans look forward to every year.
But I just can’t quit thinking about what might have been, if that 1981 thunderstorm had missed the racetrack.
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