Legendary Keokuk, Iowa, race driver Ernie Derr has died at age 92. Like the World War II veterans, one by one we’re losing all of the old-time race drivers.
I first saw Ernie, whose obituary follows, race when I was a teen and he’d occasionally bring his Dodge to Davenport Speedway. Homer Melton was the promoter. I have always suspected Homer paid Ernie to show up to spice up the field of Late Model entries, but I don’t know if that’s true. Ernie did, though, add to the excitement.
I met Ernie in about 1974 at a news conference at the Iowa State Fair Speedway in Des Moines regarding an upcoming USAC stock car race (the Bulldog 150, promoted by Jack Housby of Housby Mack trucks) in Des Moines. I had a radio program called “Around the Track” and likely recorded an interview with Ernie, who was one of several drivers who attended the news conference. I’ll be looking that up. Unlike the others there that day, Ernie brought his race car, a red and white Dodge, number 1.
(Some of my photos from that news conference appear above along with a couple from the funeral home.)
As the news conference concluded, another reporter I climbed into Ernie’s car at his urging for a trip around the track. I foolishly assumed it would be at a slow speed. Another reporter step aside Ernie upfront; I climbed in behind them. That’s when the cockpits of cars were open and not covered with sheet metal. I sent a photo, then went for the ride of my life.
You see, Ernie drove us around the track a lot faster than I would’ve preferred with no seat belts, helmets etc. right up next to the concrete retaining wall. He said it was so to hear the pipes “fry.”
The exhaust pipes exited the right side of the car, and the exhaust sound echoed off the concrete wall as he ran just inches from it.
“Can you hear the pipes fry?” he asked. “Yes, yes,” we answered, hoping he’d then slow down. He had a big smile on his face, and I know he was enjoying scaring the crap out of both of us.
I’ve tried to interview Ernie a couple of times in recent years but was unsuccessful. I would’ve done it by phone or I would’ve driven to Keokuk and met him in person had he permitted that. But his wife fielded his calls, and when she found out I was a writer, Ernie suddenly was “not at home.”
It was a disappointment; I’m sure he had some stories to tell.
Comments from two of his sons in an article in the Keokuk paper (http://www.dailygate.com/article_b18791cf-7611-5d76-ac29-dafd3e478015.html) explain Ernie’s attitude.
“He didn’t like talking about himself,” Russ said. “He didn’t like to visit. He liked racing, but when he quit, he didn’t go watch races in person. He would watch on TV, but he wasn’t necessarily a fan. It was a business to him. It was a profession.”
“The one time at the (Keokuk drivers’) reunion they wanted to interview him,” Randy said. “He went over and started his race car. That was his talking.”
Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.
Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2014 12:00 pm
Ernest “Ernie” Virgil Derr, 92, of Keokuk died Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, at his home in Keokuk.
He was born Oct. 29, 1921, near Donnellson, the son of Virgil Emery and Alice Marie Frueh Derr.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Marianna Lewis Derr of Keokuk; and his children, Nancy Ann (Steve) Smith, James Michael (Barbara) Derr, Steven Wayne (Carolyn) Derr, Russell Lewis (Judith) Derr, Randy Eugene (Nancy Jo) Derr, Danny Joe (Celley) Derr, Karen Garland (Floriday) Derr Anderson, all of Keokuk; 15 grandchildren, Jeff Bennett, Beth Guy, Dannette Sargent, Ashley Haney, Stephanie Ragar, Angie Miller, Bruce, Ryan, Jacob, Alex, Zachary, Austin and Aiden Derr, and David and Douglas Anderson; 11 great-grandchildren, Makenzie, Taylor and Madelyn Guy, Bronson and Irelynd Sargent, Hayden Derr, Charli and Josi Haney, Ava Rae and Lincoln Derr, and Mia Miller; and two siblings, Verna (Don) White and Virginia LeMatty.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Virgil and Alice Derr; mother and father-in-law, Isaac Newton and Cora Christy Lewis; maternal grandparents, John and Mary Frueh Derr; paternal grandparents, Screno and Arvilla Allan Derr; his only brother, Guy Derr, who was killed in action in Auchen, Germany, while serving as a private in the U.S. Army during World War II; sister, Mabel Leeper; two brothers-in-law, Harry LeMatty and Raymond Leeper; nieces, Lori Leeper and Gina and Harriet LeMatty; nephews, Rocky, Thad and Thomas LeMatty and Gary White; and great-nephew, Kelly Stenson.
From the time Ernie was old enough to work, he helped his father in the farm fields. As he got older, he worked as a farm hand for neighbors for one dollar a day and his dinner. Then as a young man, he got a job working in the Marshall Auto Store in Keokuk.
In 1941, he married Urbina Gardner. They had one daughter, Karen. They were later divorced.
In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the European Theater. He was in the 6th Armored Division and drove a weasel and went ahead of his company and laid wire for communications. He earned the rank of corporal and received the bronze star and other commendations. He was proud to have served his country.
He was honorably discharged in 1945 and returned home and went back to work at the Marshall Auto Store. He eventually transferred to the Fort Madison store and became the manager for a few years. In 1946, he met and married Marianna Lewis.
In 1950, he began his stock car racing career in the I.M.C.A. circuit. In 1952, he quit working at the Marshall Auto Store, moved back to Keokuk permanently and made racing his life career. He worked many long hard hours to prepare the best race car possible. His dedication and perseverance allowed him to win a great number of races and he was a 12 time I.M.C.A. champion. He raced for 26-plus years and in 21 states, plus Canada. He was honored as a member of several racing sports halls of fame.
Visitation will be Sunday and services Monday, with times to be announced.
Burial will be in Keokuk National Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to Wounded Warriors.
DeJong-Greaves Celebration of Life Centers is in charge of arrangements, and tributes and condolences may be entered at www.dejongsfuneralhome.com