Sunday, April 14, 2024

1978 – Morris Captures Race Debut

A dapper-looking Ed Otten waves the checkered flag during stock car racing action at Davenport. All of the officials wore tuxedos for the season opener.

Davenport, Iowa (April 14, 1978) – It was like a “Who’s Who,” in small track auto racing from the Midwest Friday night at Davenport’s Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds, with top stock car drivers from four states heading the field for the season opener.

In the end, nearly 4,000 fans were cheering the heated battle for the checkered flag between Rock Island’s John Simenec and West Liberty’s Mel Morris.

Morris came under the flag first after the leading the 50-lap event from nearly the start. It was Simenec who drew the biggest applause for his valiant effort as he ended up with second place money.

It was an amazing exhibition by the Rock Island firefighter who is in only his second year of late model competition. He hadn’t qualified for the 20-car field, but he got a chance to start in the 20th and last starting position when Bill Zwanziger of Waterloo had to pull out because of mechanical issues.

Morris quickly moved into the lead at the drop of the green flag after starting in the second row, but it was a different story for Simenec. He worked his way through the field against the likes of Darrell Dake, Verlin Eaker and Ken Walton of Cedar Rapids; Pleasant Valley’s Ron Weedon; Ed Sanger of Waterloo; Tom Hearst of Wilton and many other top name drivers.

Bill Martin of Council Bluffs challenged Morris on several occasions and Weedon also came close through the opening 30 laps. During this time, Simenec was moving up, taking over second place from on lap 38 when Martin retired to the pits with an overheated engine.

Simenec stayed low on the half-mile dirt oval in his attempt to overtake Morris. On a couple of occasions, Simenec pulled even with Morris on the curves, but the West Liberty veteran took advantage of his powerful machine to pull away on the straightaways.

Chasing Morris and Simenec across the finish line were Eaker, followed by Weedon and Hearst.

A total of 62 cars turned out for the season opener, marking the promotional debut of Bill Schwader of McCausland.

Mike Niffenegger of Kalona showed up with two 1978 Camaros and used them both. Driving his backup car in the third heat, he took the checkered flag in front of Joe Merryfield of Des Moines and Davenport’s Rollie Frink.

The larger-than-expected field of cars and the fact that the show started a half-hour late led to the elimination of the consolation in order to abide by the 10:30 curfew.

Results –

Heat #1 – Roger Long, Fithian, Ill.
Heat #2 – Dennis Hovinga, Pocahontas
Heat #3 – Mike Niffenegger, Kalona
Heat #4 – Mel Morris, West Liberty
Heat #5 – John Connolly, Delhi
Semi-Main – Bill Zwanziger, Waterloo
Feature –
1. Mel Morris
2. John Simenec, Rock Island, Ill.
3. Verlin Eaker, Cedar Rapids
4. Ron Weedon, Pleasant Valley
5. Tom Hearst, Wilton
6. Dennis Hovinga
7. Dave Birkhofer, Muscatine
8. Roger Bruggeman, Dubuque
9. Ron Jackson, Burlington
10.Bill Martin, Council Bluffs

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