Drag racing has long, storied history in Q-C

Originally Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2009, 7:52 pm
Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2009, 9:13 am
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Roger Ruthhart, rruthhart@qconline.com
The O"Reilly Auto Parts World Series of Drag Racing is without dispute the granddaddy of them all. In its 56th year, it is by far the longest running major sporting event in the Quad-Cities.

And according to the man who built and nourished it, the race is also the oldest continuous drag racing event in the world — one year older than the National Hot Rod Association Nationals!

Bob Bartel of Moline was there when it all started. Bartel"s career, the storied Cordova Dragway and the World Series are forever intertwined with each other.

History also shows that Bartel"s vision, followed by that of Bob Gipson and now Scott Gardner, has been instrumental not only in the long success of the World Series, but also in helping the sport to grow and prosper.

Bartel"s interest in drag racing started in about 1954-55, he recalled, when he visited homemade drag strips near Oswego and Peoria. They were little more than trails carved out of corn fields. "One was just dirt, the other had a little gravel thrown down," he said.

A group of guys from Moon"s Car Club (most famous for moon disk hubcaps -- giant aluminum disks that covered the whole wheel) convinced him to build a race track.

"I went out to Oswego. I saw Wally Smith taking money just as fast as people could drive in the entrance. It was a $3 fee, but if you gave him five dollars you probably didn"t get change. I said ‘I can do something like that.""

There wasn"t a real pattern to follow in the early days of the sport, so he created his own. Bartel remembers his hunt for a level piece of ground for the track. "That came after I found out how much it would cost to flatten a hilly piece of ground — even back then," he said.

The land that Cordova Dragway Park sits on was part of a larger farm, but those acres were only producing about 12-13 bushels of corn an acre, with 100 bushels an acre considered decent back then.

So he, his brother, Dan, Ken Roberts from Moline Engine Service and the late Keith Cordell, a Moline policeman, each invested $10,000. "A lot of money in 1956," Bartels said.

Bob quit his job at Sears, where he had been selling heating and plumbing supplies, and took over managing the construction of the track. After it was built, he managed it for 30 years.

The track was built on very sandy soil. A Wisconsin firm brought in a giant Rototiller to cut down 24 inches into the ground. Then 16 carloads of Portland cement were worked down into the soil. They watered it as they worked it in, Bartel recalls. Road graders were brought in to level it and then it set for a week, he said as if it was yesterday. The original base from 1956 remains, although years of burnouts have taken their toll on the asphalt surface, causing it to be replaced.

The first stands held about 400 spectators and the first fence was 2-by-2 inch wooden stakes in the ground with twine strung between them. "Nobody bothered it, and if people got inside the ropes, we would just announce that we were done racing until they cleared out," Bartel said.

After that first year, he started installing chain-link fence.

"Every week we would get racers coming out from Chicago. One group was The Schlitzers mndash; the name implies (the beer) they liked," Bartel said. "I treated them all fairly, and in return they did everything they could think of to irritate me."

One rule was that weapons weren"t allowed on the grounds. "They would put the stuff in my station wagon and knew they could pick them up when the racing was done. We saw all kinds of things — swords, guns, even a machine gun. The early days were much different than today," he said.

Cordova Dragway grew quickly, and the World Series of Drag Racing was a beneficiary.

The first World Series of Drag Racing was held in 1956 in Lawrenceville, Ill., near the Indiana border. It was run by the Automobile Timing Association of America, Bartel recalled. The group quickly ran into financial problems due to the lack of any full-time staff.

Some old timing equipment and scales were given to Cordova, and the track took over the World Series in 1957, Bartel said.

In the early days of drag racing, there was no money involved. Racers ran for merchandise and maybe scholarships. The total prize package, he said, might be $500 to $1,000.

Cordova was the first track to put up good money -- $1,000 to win in a number of different classes, Bartel said proudly. It not only changed the way drag races were run, but also how they were promoted. Today, payouts can be $40,000 or $50,000, he said.

"I had a formula that I would spend as much money with the media as I had in the purse to assure I had fannies on the planks," Bartel said.

Later, he assured the success of the World Series by paying the top drivers a guaranteed minimum to make sure they were there. That had not been done before either. "That way they knew they would at least cover expenses. If they won more, they kept that too," he said.

Having the top drivers there assured that other drivers would show up to challenge them, and spectators would come to watch the show.

The World Series has prospered because it attracts good crowds, has good awards and puts on a good show, Bartel said. Over the years he was constantly improving the race track, which also helped.

"I did a lot of brown-nosing with the media and got a lot of free publicity. We would hold press parties for hundreds of news media out at The Plantation. I think they liked the martinis," Bartel chuckled.

"The first time that Don Garlits came to the World Series, he came on his own. Our publicity convinced him it was a good event, so he came up from Florida," Bartel said. "I can still remember him driving up the first time with his wife. He had an open trailer with his car, cans and tools all tied down, pulled by an old Dodge station wagon.

"He had been traveling all around the country racing but said this was the first race he had been to at a track built for drag racing," Bartel recalled. At the time, much of the organized racing happened on highways which were blocked off for a race event.

"Any big name you can think of (and he rattled off a long list of famous names), have all been through Cordova," he said proudly.

Drag racing also got a big boost when Detroit got interested in the sport, Bartel said. The V8 Chevy and the Rocket 88 Olds were among the first production engines built to go fast.

"Their engineers said that 148 to 150 miles per hour was the ultimate speed a car could reach in a quarter mile. But the kids that were racing with us didn"t know how to read a slide rule. At the first World Series, the team of Stone, Woods and Cook from California hit 150 miles per hour in a 12 to 13 second bracket, he said.

Bob Bartel operated the track until 1985 when Bob Gipson of Bettendorf bought it. Scott Gardner took over in December 1995 and Bartel gives him high marks.

"He"s a true businessman, and I"m proud of him having it. He"s doing a good job, and I hope he makes a bundle."

Bartel, now 88, expects to be around racing a bit longer. You see, back in the early days when he needed electricity or a water line put in, he grabbed a shovel and dug the trench by hand. "Some of those lines out there, (Gardner) still doesn"t know where they are."

Sneak a peak

If you are a drag-racing or ‘Big Daddy" Don Garlits fan, then consider sneaking out of work today at 2:30 p.m. Garlits and his Swamp Rat III dragster, and other professional drivers, will appear at a press conference for the World Series of Drag Racing at the i wireless Center in Moline.

While the event is for the media, I"m sure if you are polite and let them do their job, the folks from Cordova won"t kick you out.

On the tube

A special behind-the-scenes look at the sport of kart racing will be aired four times during the coming week on Mediacom Connections Channel 22.

The Go Kart Show, produced by Michael Joseph Quane and Full Circle Media in Chicago, provides a wonderful inside look at the sport and the people who compete. Much of it was filmed at the Rock Island Grand Prix kart races which the show also helps to promote. The grand prix will be Sept. 5-6 in The District of Rock Island.

Air times on Mediacom Channel 22 are 10 a.m. Monday, 7 p..m. Tuesday, 10 a.m. Wednesday, and 7 p.m. Sept. 4.

This column is compiled by Roger Ruthhart and appears each Thursday in The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. Please send items of interest to rruthhart@qconline.com . Racing results should be sent to sports@qconline.com .

If you go

* The O'Reilly Auto Parts World Series of Drag Racing

* Cordova Dragway Park, 19425 Illinois 84, Cordova (15 miles north of Interstate 80).

* Friday and Saturday. Racing throughout the day both days. Friday - Night of Thrills starring Benny the Human Bomb at 7 p.m.; Saturday - Pro Finale at 7 p.m.

* Attending will be NHRA Funny Car World Champion Cruz Pedregon, track record holder Tony Pedregon, crowd favorite and Illinois-based driver Tim Wilkerson. Also Top Fuel drivers T.J. Zizzo, IHRA World Champion Bruce Litton and many more.

* Ticket prices are: Friday: adults, $20, kids (ages 6-12), $5; Saturday: adults, $25, kids, $5; Sunday: adults, $11, kids, $5. All admissions include free parking and free pit pass. There is also a Weekend Super Pass for adults at $60 and for kids at $5. Tickets are available at the gate or in advance at O'Reilly Auto Parts stores.

* For more information see www.cordovadrag.com or call (309) 654-2110.

Author's addendum, Aug. 28, 2009: While this story accurately reports what Mr. Bartel told me, I have since come to question one point of accuracy. If the 56th World Series of Drag Racing was held in 2009, then if I had done the math I would have realized the first was in 1953 -- not 1956 as reported. I believe that the first race at Cordova was 1957, but that the 1956 event was not the first World Series, but rather the last of four run by the Automobile Timing Assn. of America. -- Roger Ruthhart


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