By Kyle Ealy
Davenport, Iowa – From 1969 to 1977, the National Dirt Track Championships was considered one of the biggest late model stock car contests in the area. Sanctioned by the Mid-Continent Racing Association and held annually during the chilly months of September and October, the contest was noted for being one of the final stops of the Midwest racing season.
The rich-paying program attracted drivers from Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in search of that one last payday before putting the equipment away for the winter months. Any money collected would be well-earned; drivers battled on the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds’ big half-mile; it would be the final test of man and machine.
The first such contest would be held on Sunday afternoon, October 5, 1969. Thirty cars lined up for the 50-mile grind and it would turn out to be a competitive feature with an exciting finish.
Don Bohlander of Glasford, Ill., held the top spot throughout most of the feature and it appeared that an easy payday awaited him, but on the 97th tour, Bohlander’s car suddenly pushed high on to the track, going over the edge and allowing Lem Blankenship to slip past him into the lead. Blankenship would comfortably lead the final two laps and take the victory.
An overheated rear wheel bearing on Bohlander’s car was the reason for his unscheduled exit from the track.
While Bohlander had spent much of his afternoon out in front, Blankenship had to work for his dinner. The Keokuk, Iowa youngster started 23rd in the 28-car field and on a dry, slick racing surface, methodically made his way to the front to put himself in position to win. It paid off…
John Connolly of Delhi, Iowa would claim runner-up honors, Dean Montgomery of Milan, Ill., would take third, Karl Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa earned fourth and Jim Gerber of Mt. Joy, Iowa rounded out the top five.
Curt Hansen of Dike, Iowa would set fast time on the day with a time of 26.35 seconds. Heat races were won by Jim Havill, Herb Shannon, Bob Helm, and Roger Dolan. Ernie Speth won the 20-lap consolation and Bohlander would win a special 10-car, 25-lap Race of Champions, which included Curt Hansen, Ed Sanger, Roger Dolan, Joe Schaefer, Ron Weedon, Bill McDonough, John Connolly, Paul Fitzpatrick, and Jim Havill.
The second annual event, held on Saturday, October 17, 1970, would prove to have a similar outcome to the first, with a long-time leader giving up the top spot and victory to someone from Keokuk, Iowa.
Bill Beckman of Lisbon, Iowa, set fast time (27.02 seconds), started on the pole and was off to the races at the start. Comfortably lead through most of the feature, it appeared that the young hot shoe would be collecting a big check, a tall trophy, and a kiss in victory lane.
But as history has always told us, if Ernie Derr of Keokuk, Iowa is entered in the race, it’s over when Ernie Derr says it’s over. With 30 laps left, the Ol’ Fox started his move to the front and with 20 circuits to go, he was all over Beckman’s rear bumper. On lap 88, Derr maneuvered his hemi-powered Dodge past a helpless Beckman and ran untouched the remaining 12 laps to victory lane.
A disappointed Beckman settled for second while Ed Sanger of Waterloo, Iowa took third, Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids, Iowa fourth and Dean Montgomery grabbed fifth.
Bob Helm of Rochester, Iowa, won the trophy dash, Ray Guss, Mel Morris, Helm and Beckman were heat winners and John Connolly won the consolation. Ernie Derr easily won the Race of Champions, which also included Darrell Dake, Dean Montgomery, Don Bohlander, Beckman, Jim Gerber, Mel Morris, Stan Stover of Reinbeck, Iowa, Larry Fabris of Sycamore, Ill. and Tom Hughes of Monticello, Iowa.
The feature started out with Dean Montgomery leading the race for the first 42 circuits. Waterloo, Iowa’s Ed Sanger muscled past Montgomery on the following lap and led all the way until the 91st lap when a pile up in turns three and four brought out the yellow flag….and that is where the controversy started.
Sanger, in trying to avoid the messy situation, brought his car to a complete stop as did Verlin Eaker and Fred Horn, who were running in second and third at the time. Ernie Derr, who was running fourth, swerved around all three drivers and assumed the front position. Despite pleas from Sanger, Eaker, Horn that Derr had passed all of them after the yellow flag was waved, track officials gave Derr the front spot when the race was restarted. The officials in charge based their reasoning on a pre-race meeting stating that the race would not be stopped for any reason.
Derr would lead the last 9 laps of the race and was awarded the win by promoter Homer Melton despite the post-race protests of several drivers and the angry mob of fans that had converged on them after the feature. Sanger was so irate after the race, he was asked, then told to leave the fairgrounds by Melton and his officials.
Sanger, Eaker, Horn and John Connolly were scored as the rest of the top five finishers behind Derr in the race. Bob Current, Larry Fabris, Jerry Reeder of Peoria, Ill., and Eaker scored heat race wins and Fabris won the consolation. Montgomery was fast qualifier on the day.
Sixty-nine of the best late model stock cars checked in for the 4th annual National Dirt Track Championships on September 23, 1972. There was no controversy this time out, just total domination. Verlin Eaker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, driving a Dale Snyder prepared Chevy Nova, started on the outside of the front row, and put on a masterful performance as he led all 50 laps (the race had been cut in half) to score top honors and cash in on the $1,000 payday. Fred Horn of Marion, Iowa finished second, nearly a half lap behind Eaker. Steve Lance of Peoria, Ill., would finish third followed by Ray Guss of Milan, Ill., and Bill McDonough of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Joe Schaefer of Waterloo, Iowa, Ed Sanger, Pokey West of West Chester, Iowa and Ron Weedon of Pleasant Valley, Iowa took heat wins, which was quite the accomplishment itself, considering each heat had anywhere from 16 to 18 cars racing (a feature in itself). In the 20-lap consolation, Sanger would have the most impressive run of all, passing an amazing 25 cars to score the victory. Larry Fabris was fast qualifier on the day with a time of 26.69 seconds around the massive half-mile.
The 1973 National Dirt Track Championships seemed like it would never get off the ground. Originally scheduled for September 21, it got rained out and postponed until the following week, September 28. Mother Nature was not kind that weekend either and it was again postponed.
The third time was the charm and despite chilly, wet weather, the event finally took place on Friday night, October 5, with Curt Hansen of Dike capturing one of the biggest wins of his career to date.
“It was my first big win in racing,” Hanson recalled. “The car I drove that year was called the “Chevorino,” because in the middle of the season Ford dropped out of racing so I converted my Ford Torino into a Chevy by putting a Chevelle body and a 454-cubic inch Chevrolet engine in my Torino. I finished out the season with that setup which was immediately banned the next season. That car was extremely strong and easy to drive. Our Ford chassis and Chevy power was a good combination for us.”
Hansen had to fend off the both of the Sanger boys, Ed, and Karl, to capture the 50-lap main event and collect the $1,000 payday. John Connolly finished fourth and Bill McDonough was fifth.
Gary Oliver of Moline, Ill., Jim Burbridge of Delhi, Bob Stogdell of Silvis, Ill., and Bill McDonough were heat winners and Burbridge also won the consolation.
After years of seeing an Iowan in victory lane, a driver from the Land of Lincoln would finally grace victory lane in the National Dirt Track Championships. Ray Guss of Milan, Ill., would win the 50-lap championship feature on September 27, 1974. Guss, driving a car owned by fellow competitor Ronnie Weedon, set fast time of 26.82 seconds, and then starting from the fourth starting position, grabbed the lead early and went untouched from there to collect a $1,200 check.
A photo finish as the checkers waved between Roger Dolan of Lisbon, Iowa and Curt Hansen resulted in second place money being split evenly between the two hot shoes with Ed Sanger taking fourth and Ernie Derr rounding out the top five.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, the sponsors of the event, paid out $100 to heat winners Mike McGrew, Mike Bardoel, Jerry Wollen and Mike Niffenegger of Kalona, Iowa. The semi-main was won by Russ Hughes of Monticello, Iowa.
The Illinois stronghold on the title would last only one year as Darrell Dake of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would grab the win on September 26, 1975. The sixth annual event would see the long-time racing veteran win a beautiful trophy and a check for $1,000 for the hard-fought 50-lap victory.
Dake, who started on the outside of the second row, quickly move up to the second spot behind leader Curt Hansen. Hansen’s title hopes went out of the window when the rear end of his car broke down on lap 14, giving Dake the opportunity to snatch the top spot. Dake, despite multiple caution flags and a late challenge from Roger Dolan, held on for the win.
Dolan had no challengers in taking runner-up honors, while Joe Merryfield of Des Moines, Bill McArdle of Shullsburg, Wis., and Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo, Iowa rounded out the top five finishers.
Hansen would break the track record in qualifying with a time of 25.78 seconds while Em Fretheim of Decorah, Iowa, McArdle, Don Hoffman of Des Moines, and defending champion Ray Guss collected heat wins. Dick Schiltz of Waterloo, Iowa would win the 20-lap consolation.
Don Hoffman would win the 7th annual National Dirt Track Championships on October 1, 1976, that saw the Des Moines driver battle Joe Merryfield, also of Des Moines, early on and then fight off Duane Steffe at the end to secure the top prize.
Hoffman would start on the pole by virtue of setting fast time in qualifying, pacing the half-mile in 26.02 seconds. A 28-car field would take the green with Hoffman shooting out to the lead and for the first half of the 50-lap feature, leading comfortably.
Merryfield, who started on the fourth row, methodically moved up through the pack and with 20 laps left, was knocking on Hoffman’s door. Merryfield gave Hoffman everything he had and a little more but couldn’t make the pass. Merryfield made one last effort to squeeze past Hoffman, but spun slightly and was unable to recover, losing several positions.
Duane Steffe of Moline, Ill., would pick up where Merryfield left off and give chase. Steffe hung to Hoffman’s bumper for the last few laps but was unable to get by.
Hoffman hung on for the victory and the $1,000 check. Steffe would have to settle for second while Ronnie Weedon took third. Roger Dolan outlasted Tom Stueding of Altoona, Wis., for the fourth spot.
Gail Brenner, Jim Livingston, Weedon and Mike Niffenegger won heat races and Gary Crawford of Independence, Iowa was victorious in the semi-main over Brenner.
On Saturday night, October 15, 1977, at the close of the two-day National Dirt Track Championships, Don Hoffman of Des Moines would successfully defend his title, taking the checkered flag in the feature event, which had one of the most spectacular finishes witnessed at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in many years.
Bill Rice, also of Des Moines, fought Hoffman nearly even through the final 10 laps. Meanwhile, Roger Dolan of Lisbon, Iowa, was hot on their heels and John Simenec, the Rock Island, Ill., firefighter, followed them closely behind.
Coming out of the fourth turn on the last lap, Rice and Dolan got tangled up and both momentarily spun out, giving rookie driver Simenec his chance to go across the finish line in second place, only a couple of feet behind Hoffman.
Rice's car came to a stop sideways on the track just across the finish line and then was hit twice broadside by trailing cars. Fortunately, he got out of the mishap unhurt, although his racer was severely damaged.
Tom Hearst of Wilton was in contention for the checkered flag until he spun on lap 35. He was never able to recover after that.
Less than 2,000 fans, all wearing heavy coats in order to combat the near-freezing temperatures, were in attendance.