Iowa – 94 Years Of Open-Wheel History

By Tom Gahr

Note From George: As I have mentioned, we will occasionally open up for guest-bloggers. One of our original followers, Tom Gahr, requested the opportunity to write an article for this weekend’s race in Iowa. Tom is a 41 year old husband and father of 2 living in Minnesota, with a passion for history. He grew up in Upstate N.Y., not far from Watkins Glen, but his formative memories of IndyCar racing are from watching the racing on ABC with his Dad. After drifting from the sport during college and young adulthood, he has taken up a renewed interest in it, and enjoys sharing his appreciation for it with his 8 year old son. However, his wife and daughter are still perplexed by this male fascination with things that go “vroom”.

 As the IndyCar Series turns its sights to Newton, Iowa it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the 94-year tradition of open wheel racing in the Hawkeye State. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of Championship Auto racing in Iowa before 2007? Why come on up to the front porch, pull up a rocking chair, and let me tell you a story…

The history of auto racing in Iowa began on July 9th, 1915 withBob Burman a AAA sanctioned Championship auto race on a half mile dirt track at Tri-State Fairgrounds in Burlington, Iowa. Seven cars were entered in the race, and four finished, with Bob Burman in his Peugeot leading home the three Duesenbergs of Billy Chandler, Eddie O’Donnell and Tom Alley. While auto racing was still in its infancy, it was not without technical innovations, as described in this quote from the Burlington Gazette:

“Eddie O’Donnell has one of the cleverest arrangements in his car for drinking on the run that could be imagined. Eddie has a hollow steering post in his car and down the hole in the center of the post he runs a small hollow rubber tube. The rubber tube runs into a vacuum bottle containing a liberal supply of ice-cold lemonade. The driver is thus able to sip the lemonade without removing his hand from the steering wheel of his car and is given the benefit of a cold drink without stopping to get it.”

While that first race is noteworthy from a historical perspective, and Burman was among the leading names in racing in 1915, the big time racing really began just one month later on theChicago Speedway 1915 boards of the Des Moines Speedway. It is hard to believe today, but between 1910 and the late 1920’s Championship Auto races were contested on wooden oval speedways, constructed of 2×4’s laid on edge. The first board track was built in Playa Del Rey, California. While roads at the time were rutted affairs, more suited to buggies than autos, the board tracks offered smooth, high-banked surfaces where cars could exceed 100 miles per hour. Some of the larger tracks, like Culver City in Los Angeles, and Sheepshead Bay in New York, could accommodate crowds in excess of 50,000 people.

The construction of the Des Moines Speedway began in Valley Junction, Iowa on June 1st, 1915, with John L. (Jack) Prince overseeing construction. Prince was widely recognized as the master builder of board tracks in the U.S. at the time, having started out building wooden velodromes for bicycle racing. Ninety-seven cars of lumber and forty tons of nails were used in the construction of the one-mile oval speedway, as well as the grandstand, garages, pits, and other accessories. The straightaways were pitched 10 degrees, with 45 degree banking in the curves. Construction took just under two months, and the track was completed in time to see the legendary Barney Oldfield set an unofficial world record for 5 miles in his Fiat with a time of 3:01.8 in front of an exhibition crowd of 7,000 people.

The first race on the Des Moines boards was held on August 7, 1915 in front of 10,000 spectators. It was a 300-mile affair with a field limited to 12 cars. Ralph De Palma, the winner of the Indy 500 just two months prior, took the pole with a qualifying speed of 97.8 mph. General admission to the race was a princely $3, quite a bit less than the current asking price at Iowa Speedway.

That first race was marred by disaster, and controversy. On lap 37, as Joe Cooper in his Sebring Special was challenging Eddie O’Donnell for the lead, he lost a tire coming out of turn four, and crashed in front of the grand stand. As the car broke though the railing at the top of the speedway, pieces of railing planks and splinters flew in every direction. The riding mechanic, Louis Peio, was thrown clear as the car tumbled 15 ft to the ground below, but Cooper was caught, and crushed under the car, his neck and back broken.

The second fatality occurred late in the race on lap 237, when Billy Chandler lost control in the south turn and crashed into the infield. The accident was described by an eyewitness in the Des Moines Register & Leader:

"Suddenly we saw a tire twist. The car swerved, striking the dirt at the edge of the track. Chandler made desperate efforts to bring it back but it turned a clean cut somersault, the two right wheels being crushed.

The driver and mechanic both were hurled from the car, landing in the open about ten feet further and then bounding at least ten feet further. In their path the earth was torn up as though it had been dug with a pick.

The distance from the grandstand was so great that few persons there knew what had happened and it was some time before we could attract attention."

Chandler sustained a broken back, and hip. His riding mechanic, Morris Keeler, was mortally wounded. The race continued, and was won by DePalma. However, after reviewing the results of the timing and scoring, at 2:30 am the next morning A.A.A. officials declared Ralph Mulford, the winner with a time of 3 hours, 27 minutes and 5.35 seconds, for an average of 86.91 miles an hour.

DePalma was awarded second place, but would return to claim Ralph DePalma 1916 Chicago Speedway Park his revenge in 1916, by winning a 150 mile points race on June 23rd, and setting a world record for the mile of 35.2 seconds in his Mercedes. Unfortunately, 1916 would prove to be the final year of racing at the speedway. The entry of the U.S. into the World War, led to a decline in attendance. Financial problems surfaced, and in 1917 the track was dismantled and the wood was sold throughout central Iowa to satisfy creditors. It’s rumored that many of the barns and other wooden buildings in the area were built with timber from the old board raceway.

Racing was a wild, dangerous, barn storming sport back then, and it seems strange from our modern perspective. With the exception of the Indianapolis 500 mile race, sometimes we forget just how far back our racing traditions go. And yet despite 100 years of history and innovation, today’s drivers still risk their lives every time they take to the track in pursuit of speed. So, if you are heading out to the race in Newton next Sunday, I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the long and proud tradition of open wheel racing in the heartland. And the next time you hear someone complaining that IndyCars don’t belong on 7/8 mile ovals, I hope you will set them straight with a history lesson.

And finally, when you bow your heads for the invocation this weekend, be sure to offer up a prayer for Joe Cooper and Morris Keeler, and ask them to keep an eye out for Helio, Graham, Tony, Danica, and all their descendants. I know I will.

(The author would like to acknowledge Larry Ball Jr., sprint car racer, historian, and creator of the definitive website for history of the Des Moines Speedway.)

Photo Credits –

Image #1 – Bob Burman – From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) –Call Number: LC-B2- 2202-4[P&P]

Image #2 – Louis Chevrolet in his #12 Delage Leading at the Chicago Speedway June 26, 1915 – SDN-060343 Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

Image #3 – Ralph De Palma in his #10 Mercedes at the Chicago Speedway June 11, 1916 – SDN-060850, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

16 Responses to “Iowa – 94 Years Of Open-Wheel History”

  1. John McLallen Says:

    I think that I enjoy that the history of this sport as well as the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is such a huge part of For those that share this same enthusiasm that I find here, then I recommend reading Wilbur Shaw’s book, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.”

  2. Travis R Says:

    Thanks for sharing this great story! Oilpressure has become my favorite IRL blog. Keep up the great work, George and Tom!

    Just to add my 2 cents: If you like motorsports history and are going to Iowa Speedway this weekend, do yourself a favor – head down to Knoxville Raceway for some Saturday night sprint car racing and visit the Sprint Car Hall of Fame ( It’s worth the trip!

  3. redd carr Says:

    great story, tom. you’re setting a high standard, oilpressure. keep up the good work.

  4. bickelmom Says:

    What a great article! I love getting the history of different places. As an Indy resident, I hear a lot of IMS history, but I rarely see stories of other places. Thanks, Tom (and George for the continually awesome blog).

  5. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words guys. And a big thanks to George for sharing his platform with me for a day.

  6. I enjoyed reading the article, but the first race in Iowa occurred in 1902 at an old mile horse track in Davenport. Also, AAA ran a race in 1904 in Red Oak, Iowa, and it was Eddie Rickenbacker’s first race. AAA made a number of other stops in Iowa and ran a 100-mile race at a mile track north of Sioux City on July 4, 1914, won by Eddie Rickenbacker. I have all the black and white photos of that race. There were a number of other AAA events between those two races. Also, the International Motor Contest Association was formed in 1911 and ran many open wheel events in Iowa prior to the 1915 race.

  7. I’m looking for information about the 1965 Iowa Fair IMCA sprint car race held August 2, 1965. In particular, I am looking for the starting line-up of the heat or consolation races, or time trials, in which Mac (Mack) Terry, from Torrance, CA, participated. Any information would be greatly appreciated!!!

    Thanks in advance.

  8. James Sheets Says:

    I am haveing trouble finding a history of auto racing i Des Moines in the 50’s 60’s.I used to go to Pioneer race track to watch my dad and uncle race there cars.Drivers like Lou Jenkins,Wayne Chadwick,Paul Dant,Sonny Helms.Akk these drivers raced in Des Moines and central Iowa.I would like to find histories and photos.Can you help me???? JIM

    • Fred Johnson Says:

      Jim, I too, was at the old Pioneer raceway. The car was 71, a 34 Chevy coupe, white, and running a jimmy six. Driven by Ben Tyler, who toward the end of the season of 53 died in a crash, I remember Al deCarlo, Lou Jenkins, or in the book Fever Heat Jennings. And, yes, the names you mentioned. And, yes, they were cars and men, It was somewhat primitive, But oh, what excitement. Remember the hours during the week putting the cars back together, the tuning?

      In ’53 the autjhor Henry Felsen was there in the pits and researching the novel, Fever Heat. Great book, “B” movie with Nick Adams. By the way, Felsen gave Al decarlo the name Al demarco, Jenkins as Jennings, Ben Tyler as Bob Towner..
      I was 18 and drove the car around the track after the water truck made its oval. In addition, in ’57 dad had another driver killed, and again in the fall. Ben Tyler in 53 and Les Turner in 57,. Dad, Andy Johnson, loved racing and drove and built midgets in the 30s and 40s– excluding WWII– What gusto and simplicity to
      bring guts to the track with the love of competition, fine tuning, and cars never again to be seen.

      What’s the track in southern Iowa for the Nationals? He managed Pioneer and went south to build an icon. When the law was 21 years in the pits at Pioneer, he let me there at just 18.

      What the new breed miss is: Down in the pits, is up in heaven.
      flathead forever!! California at 80 years.

      • Ken Elliott Says:

        Pioneer Raceway was located on the southeast corner of S.E. 14TH Street and Hartford Av. We lived about two miles from Pioneer and could here the announcer, Doc Lemon, and the roar of the old flathead jalopies on race night. The track was originally called Kessel’s Speedway in the early 50’s. Marion Robinson was the track promoter and later went on to manage the Marion County Fairgrounds raceway in Knoxville, Iowa, and started the Knoxville Supermodified Nationals in 1961, known today as the Knoxville Sprintcar Nationals. My dad was a welder and knew a couple of drivers at Pioneer, Keith Thompson #32, and Leonard Yaw. Art Moose drove the #81 sedan jalopy and there was an 81jr coupe but I don’t recall the driver. Pioneer Raceway closed in 1959 and the Pioneer Drive-In Theater was built on the property. The corner of the land where the track was located is still vacant, and on quiet summer nights, if you listen closely, you can still hear the roar of those flathead V8’s churning up the dirt around that little quarter mile race track. I would also like to hear from those who remember the Pioneer races and the drivers and any old photos out there. Hope someone is able to help Bob Wilson with his book on Knoxville.

  9. Have begun research on the 35 year history of Tunis Speedway in Waterloo, Iowa, at the time the longest operating dirt track in the state and home to quite a number of competitive drivers. Any additional information anyone has of this track and its history would be greatly appreciated. Below is link to a specific Facebook link page where quite a bit of information has already been posted.

  10. Coann Kelly Says:

    James Sheets-I am Wayne Chadwicks daughter and I would love to read more about Pioneer Speedway also. I have some articles from Dad on the races and he has told us about it . Most of the guys from back then are gone now and I think its important to remember the great racing around Iowa and the men that competed. I grew up with them and their families. These also is Jerry Talley, Ed Shinstein, Jack Housby and Tiny Lund.

    • Coanne, did you ever receive any information from your request about Pioneer Raceway? I am currently writing a book about Knoxville Raceway and would like to include some information about Pioneer (aka Kessel).
      Bob Wilson

  11. Reblogged this on grammyprof and commented:
    We were little girls growing up near Kessel’s Speedway in the 50’s. The morning after the race we would sneak in and scrounge for whatever we could find under the bleachers. We didn’t find much. Our big brothers got there first and found money and bags of half eaten popcorn. We were hungry kids.

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