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Short-Track On A Saturday Night

Ernie Derr of Keokuk Iowa is in the #1
A start of an IMCA Stock Car Main at the Missouri State Fairgrounds.

At the Missouri State Fair Speedway the original one mile dirt oval was built as a horse track in 1901. Cars raced here from 1914 through October 2nd, 1915, and again from August 17th, 1935 through August 23rd 1941. It reopened after WWII on August 18th, 1946, operating through 1985, and from 1989 through 1998. The 1/2 mile track was built in 1936. Cars raced on it from August 27th, 1949 through 1985, and again from 1989. A 1/8 mile dirt oval operated in the 1970s. Credited with introducing Missourians to automobiles as well as tractors and airplanes, the State Fair included auto racing in its program as early as 1913. In subsequent years the Fair hosted world class racing champions.

Photo From Rolla Speedway Program. Scanned by Mike Evans
Dave Goldsberry

After the fair, drivers would come to Rolla to run. The speedway was MASCAR sanctioned (now defunct) and we had guys like Ramo Stott, Lenny Funk and Ernie Derr show up, but nobody ran better than Trickle.

Yeah I know, a long long time ago, a 1/2 mile, high banked, asphalt racetrack opened on the fairgrounds at Rolla, Missouri. I'd go every week and watch as the Chevy boys, mainly #75 a guy by the name of Larry Phillips, along with David Goldsberry, Dean & Dale Roper and Russ Wallace (you should've seen him drive, Rusty's Dad was the only driver I ever remember leaving that track in an ambulance) would eat up everybody on the track. It wasn't as if some of the other local guys weren't trying, but a Ford just didn't stand a chance.

Until ... Dick Trickle drove in from the North in a Mustang that went anywhere on the asphalt he wanted it to go, but mostly to the front. I was a Trickle fan. Red Miller the track promoter, with the help of the local Ford dealer, contacted and paid Dick to show and that Mustang looked drivers with all those Chevy guys behind it.

Bob Frueh

While most of us feel that there isn't anything quite like a short track on a Saturday night, the old Saturday night home of the #75 at Rolla, once known as the "Fastest half mile in the Midwest" (faster than Salem, IN) still stands, but empty. Within a few years after it opened, a bunch of college professors and other assorted misfits and malcontents, who had started building homes out by the fairgrounds, got a court order to close it because of the ..duuhhhh....noise. And, of course, it didn't fit the image (it didn't help that one of the promoters ran off with the money) the local community wanted to portray.

Photo by Mike Evans
Don Kordalis road this crash

In the 70's, racers and race fans drove from all over, yeah even Wisconsin, to get there. (Remember TV coverage of all types of racing was poor.) The stands and the pits were always full and they spent a lot of money every weekend on gas, food, motel rooms, etc. There just weren't enough of us that lived in town that had sense enough to keep it. So racing left Rolla and guess what? It and the money moved down the road 50 miles to Lebanon.

Lebanon I-44 Speedway, built in 1983, and Speedway USA are 3/8th Mile Asphalt Ovals formerly promoted by Bill Don Willard and his brother Bob. On any Summer Saturday night head to Midway Speedway, formerly Lebanon I-44 Speedway, east of Lebanon at I-44 and Exit 135.

Photo by Mike Evans
Ferris Collier raced late models throughout the 70s and 80s, winning a title in the short-lived NSCA series in the early 80s. Ferris ran IMCA through the early 70s, and was a top contender whenever he ran.

Speedway USA now races Thursday nights South of Bolivar at the junction of Highway 13 and U. Bill Allen is the new track promoter at Bolivar. He has owned and operated his own dirt track for several years. He was born and raised up in the Wheatland area, moved back to Bolivar in the early 1980's after traveling the country for various jobs. Because of his deep roots and love of the area, he wanted to keep racing in Bolivar.

He decided to put his energy and enthusiasm into the Bolivar track. With the two Bills (Owner Bill Willard and promoter Bill Allen ) working hard together and bringing new divisions and by taking the track back to it's independent status, they hope to offer more local drivers the opportunity to get involved in racing, either as beginners or old timers looking for something new. Bolivar has a rich racing history and some of the best racing in the Bolivar / Sprinfgfield area.

They don't get the headlines, the fat checks, the television interviews or the clumsy stares when they walk down Main Street. They don't own helicopters and private planes to help usher them from race to race, and they don't have big-time sponsors that hire big-time public relations companies to help spread the corporate word. But don't anyone dare tell Larry Phillips or Dexter Canipe, last season's winner, they don't pour as much energy or blood into what they do as their counterparts on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, unless you want a fat lip or a lecture. For most of today's stars — please exclude Jeff Gordon, whose open-wheel background is an exception and far from the rule — it all began in a stock car on a Friday or Saturday night at the short track level. "I like it where I'm at," says Phillips. "Remember, every big-name racer started somewhere on a Saturday night. I'll take what I'm doing right now over anything."

The series gives its competitors, most of whom are part-time racers and have full-time day or night jobs, a stage to showcase their talents. "For a lot of us, it don't matter if we move up or not because we like it where we are," says Phillips. "Sure, it's a different world for us. We're all Saturday night racers and we all work our fingers to the bone during the week." While some champions and drivers view the weekly series as a springboard to moving up the stock-car ladder, others, such as Phillips, are content with where they currently reside.

My career is mostly in short-track racing. I just have a knack for getting through traffic when I start in the back. The advantage I have is I can race ahead of myself, looking a lap or two ahead and setting up the cars I have to pass.

--Larry Phillips

That's not to say a driver can't pocket a healthy paycheck at the end of the NASCAR Winston Racing Series season. Canipe's championship was worth $132,500. But no one gets rich at the sport's grassroots level. Not even Phillips or Canipe. Then again, the series wasn't founded to make poor drivers rich. "It doesn't bother me that I may have missed out on the big time," says Phillips, 56. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I like this racing. "I remember one time I was in a (NASCAR Winston Cup race in Southern California) and I ran 13th. It was the most boring race I've ever been in because all I did was ride around for 400 miles. And while I'd rather be rich instead of scrimping... No thanks."

Matthew O'Connor, NASCAR's coordinator of communications says, "Some of these drivers get into our program because they want to be the next Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon. For others, they just want to have fun. It feeds their competitive desire. Instead of going to the YMCA or playing pickup basketball in their back yard, they go to the track and bring their families to sit in the grandstands. These guys are what the sport is all about. The Dale Jarretts, the Mark Martins, the Eamhardts and the Gordons make up 10 percent of the sport. These guys on the grassroots level make up everyone else."

Tucson Raceway Park General Manager Lee Baumgarten says, "The majority of these racers take it seriously. Although there's a handful who may aspire to greater things, the majority are just happy to be racing on their home track and with an organization like NASCAR. (Track champion) Carl Trimmer knows he's likely not going to get a phone call from Dale Earnhardt. He's just there because he loves racing."

Dick Trickle, 56, was 46 before he attracted his first full-time NASCAR Winston Cup ride, proving it's never too late to get that telephone call.

Short-track racing in this country is racing from the gut. You don't have to worry about the media or being popular or satisfying all your sponsors. You just race. In some ways, that kind of racing is more fun. The lucky ones get to move up all the way to NASCAR Winston Cup. But that doesn't mean only the great racers make it. A lot of it is being lucky and marketable. But there's no question short-track racing is a great breeding ground. Sooner or later, you have to go through all these side roads before you get to the highway.

Phillips says that at one particular side road — Bolivar (Mo.) Speedway USA, where he competes — the talent is abundant. "We're just one dot on the map, but there's three young racers here that I guarantee will surpass what I've done," Phillips says. "There are thousands of drivers across this country who could do the job at the highest level if they got the opportunity. But that's the key word — opportunity. There are no helmet drivers (guys who only drive the car) in short-track racing. Along with the driving, you also work on the car. But there's nothing wrong with that. I bet if you looked at all the successful drivers in NASCAR, you'd find they work on their cars."

An example is Canipe, who hardly can fathom a more satisfying accomplishment than what he achieved. "While it's great to win races in different types of classes at different tracks, the feeling of winning a championship competing against the best short-track racers in the whole country is really incredible," Canipe says. "Winning the NASCAR Winston Racing Series national championship is probably the toughest win in racing."

Racing From The Past... photos from Kansas, Oklahoma Northern Texas, Missouri, Western Arkansas and a couple from Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico.

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