Note: Following is some history of racing in the Quad-Cities area of eastern Iowa and western Illinois. I am indebted to some friends who supplied some information for it: Ken Paulsen, Jim Gerber and Roger Ruthhart.
The Quad-Cities area has been a hotbed of racing activity for many years. We have hosted many types of racing vehicles at a variety of locations.
The first stock car race in Iowa took place in Davenport at what used to be a 1-mile track.
As near as I can determine, the track was located at the One Mile Track Club Grounds outside of Davenport at what is now the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport. The track was built originally for horse racing in the 1890s and sat about where the Davenport half-mile now sits. People from Davenport got to the track’s rural location by train.
The Davenport Mile Track in 1900 hosted an exhibition race between two automobiles, which were a new invention and a rarity at the time.
Davenport’s Pete Petersen won a 1904 road race in Scott County. The drivers raced so-called speedsters or big cars from Davenport’s Vander Veer Park out Brady Street and over Blackhawk Trail to LeClaire and back. The trip took a full day because competitors had to make stops to clean spark plugs etc.
The first race of cars actually built for racing and among professional drivers on a track took place at the Davenport Mile Track in either 1904 or 1906 — I’ve seen it reported both ways — and it was won by Petersen. The 10-lap event featured just three cars and was not much of a race. One car ran out of water. Another had engine trouble. Petersen completed the 10-mile race all alone, averaging 33 mph.
Races on the mile track were held weekend afternoons up to World War I days.
Also, in 1906, the Brady Street Hill Climb in Davenport became the first of several hill climbs of race cars.
A successful speedster driver was John Gerber of Davenport, who later hired Maynard “Hungry” Clark of Milan to drive a second car. Gerber and Clark took the two cars out East to race in the 1930s.
One promoter called them the Iowa farm boys, and they played the part. They wore bib overalls and straw hats and smoked corncob pipes. They slept in a tent in the track’s infield. The promoter even arranged for them to lead a baby pig around on a leash.
They re-enacted that in 1977 in Davenport.
When World War II was over, midget auto racing was king and John and Rose Gerber promoted stock car and midget races in Davenport and elsewhere with as many as eight races a week. With others, they even bought the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds and used it as a flagship for their races.
Stock cars began to get popular in the late ‘40s and remains popular to this day.
Bert Mahoney bought some property west of Davenport for an amusement park and moved in back in 1943. He farmed the property in the beginning but, when the war ended, he formed a one-fifth mile track in a natural bowl. He named the place Mahoney’s Variety Park.
Construction and the weather delayed the opening to June 19th, 1949. On that date, midget cars staged a six-event program. The track also later hosted motorcycle races, a weekend rodeo, a thrill show and hot rods, which were highly modified passenger convertibles. Stock cars became the main attraction at the track and first appeared on July 4th, 1949.
Mahoney would often dress as a cowboy, complete with 10-gallon hat and boots. He began showing movies on Thursday nights and hired a clown named Stinky McNasty entertain the fans between races.
The track closed in 1951 due to competition from other areas speedways, and it eventually became Lake Canyada.
The competition for spectator dollars grew with the opening of the quarter-mile dirt Quad City Speedway, located in Coal Valley between Route 6 and the Rock River.
Co-owners Ray Corey and Marcel Van Acker constructed the high-banked track at a cost of $175,000.
Stock cars were the inaugural show on June 22nd, 1950, with 3,200 fans on hand.
As if the regular races weren’t enough, several novelty races were staged throughout each season. For the “Soups-On” race, drivers jumped from their cars after the first lap and consumed a cup of dry oatmeal. After the second lap they ate a box of popcorn. After the third lap it was a piece of cake and there was a quart of milk after the fourth.
Another time they ran four laps forward and one lap in reverse. One night promoters had the cars start six abreast in four rows.
Other unusual races included a donkey race. The drivers raced for three laps in their cars and then mounted a donkey for the fourth lap. Shorty Bennett was thrown 11 times trying to get that last lap in.
Powder puff races — featuring women drivers — weren’t normally very exciting except for one night in 1953.
As the race ended, two of the cars came to a stop in front of the grandstand. The ladies got out and a war of words developed into a sparring match with one of the gals losing her dress. It was then that the fans discovered that regular drivers Roy Blinstrup and Bud Benner had staged the fight.
The 1959 season was the last. A new Interstate 280 cut through the track, which was located about where the weigh stations now sit.
NASCAR’s Grand National Division, now known as the Sprint Cup Series, held a race in Davenport in 1953.
It was a 100-mile, 200-lap NASCAR Grand National Series event held on August 2nd, 1953, on the dirt, half-mile Davenport Speedway oval.
Back then, NASCAR’s top series contested races all across the country on various racing surfaces. The Davenport race was short on cars – only 14 drivers signed in.
Herb Thomas, of Olivia, N.C., driving a 1953 Hudson Hornet, won at an average speed of 62.5 mph. Thomas’ prize was $3,300.
Buck Baker of Charlotte was second and Lee Petty, of Randleman, N.C., was third. Fourth and fifth places went to Georgia drivers, Dick Rathman, of Atlanta, and Fonty Flock, of Decatur.
The leading Midwest driver was Bill Harrison of Topeka, Kansas, who finished sixth.
The quarter-mile Quad City Raceway, also once called East Moline Speedway, is called Quad City Speedway these days. It opened in mid June of 1960 at the Rock Island County Fairgrounds in East Moline. It originally had a one-fifth mile asphalt surface, but drivers could not get good traction on it. So the asphalt was broken up and covered with dirt.
The track remains in operation to this day with stock-car races on Sunday nights. In the early 1970s when figure 8 races were popular, the track hosted figure 8 events on Wednesday and Saturday nights in addition to the Sunday stock car races.
Hawkeye Raceway — also referred to over the years as Hawkeye Speedway and The Track — was located along U.S. Highway 61 four miles west of Blue Grass. It opened in 1963 as a quarter-mile dirt oval.
Many owners and promoters are part of the Hawkeye Raceway legacy. LaVerne and Kathy Schumann bought the track in early 1982 and promoted races there through 2005. They leased the facility to a former driver and his wife in 2006, then closed it. Plans to sell it were unsuccessful, so the Schumanns have started a housing subdivision at the site.
Motorcycle racing has taken place in the area for years and is still an annual attraction in September at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.
According to a May 1949 article in The Argus, an event at the Tri-City Motorcycle Club grounds in Coal Valley attracted an estimated 4,000 spectators.
Karting, where most Formula 1 and Indy Car drivers and many NASCAR drivers learned the basics of racing when they were young, has had a place in Quad-Cities racing for years.
Sprint Kart Speedway, near the Davenport Airport at Mt Joy, started out in the early 1960s as Dusters Kart Club and hosted weekend racing until the late 1980s when it transitioned to Sprint Kart Speedway with racing Friday nights. It is run by Steve “Spider” Duffy.
Ken and Candy Williams also promoted kart races on an asphalt track behind the grandstand at the Davenport Fairgrounds for several seasons.
The Rock Island Grand Prix started in 1994 — this is it’s 20th year. It annually hosts racers from coast to coast and has had competitors from eight foreign countries. It is the largest karting street race in the world.
It was begun by The Rock Island Argus newspaper and has grown and is run by its own not-for-profit corporation in conjunction with the Arts & Entertainment District. Back when it started there were quite a few street and parking lot kart races. But today, due to safety concerns and insurance regulations, only a handful that remain.
The beauty of a street race is that it transfers the action from a purpose-built track in the middle of a cornfield somewhere into a major downtown area where thousands of spectators can come and watch, providing great exposure to the sport, sponsors and participants. It also gives competitors and their teams a full weekend.
Drag racing in the area dates to the mid ‘50s. Cordova Dragway Park is an IHRA-sanctioned quarter-mile drag strip located three miles north of Cordova.
The World Series of Drag Racing is without dispute the granddaddy of them all. And Bob Bartel of Moline, the man who built and nourished it, said the race is also the oldest continuous drag racing event in the world.
Bartel was there when it all started. His interest in drag racing started in about 1954 or ‘55 when he visited primitive homemade drag strips near Oswego and Peoria.
A group of guys convinced him to build a track.
Bartel; his brother, Dan; Ken Roberts from Moline Engine Service; and the late Keith Cordell, a Moline police officer, each invested $10,000.
Bartel quit his job at Sears, where he had been selling heating and plumbing supplies, and took over managing the construction of the track. Then, after it was built, he managed it for 30 years.
Bartel operated the track until 1985 when Bob Gipson of Bettendorf bought it. Scott Gardner took over in December 1995.
There used to be a local group that was dedicated to the preservation of auto racing history. The group was called Midwest Oldtimers. It ran from 1977 through at least 1996, and perhaps longer.
The Oldtimers had a three-day event every September at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. Antique race cars of all sorts, along with their owners, who were in many cases retired drivers, were on display Saturday and had a banquet Saturday night.
On Sunday the Oldtimers held exhibition races on the Davenport half-mile.
The group earned its money from a modern midget race the prior Friday night and a demolition derby that took place on Saturday night. The group ceased operation as the old drivers began to die and organizers grew older themselves and, without young people to replace them, got burned out.
Copyright 2014 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.