Jim Baker's Then and Now

 Jim Baker remembers Bob Bartel

Since Bob Bartel, the father of Quad Cities Dragway, later named Cordova Dragway, passed away at age 96, there have been numerous epitaphs written on one of Drag Racing’s biggest pioneers. None are better than the tribute by Bret Kepner attached by this link.

My effort is to remember the man who helped me on my trip through all aspects of drag racing. There is a lot written about the huge success during the ‘70s and ‘80s of Cordova and the ‘World Series of Drag Racing’. This column is not about that time frame. My connection with Bob dates way back to 1957 at Daytona Beach, Florida. He and Ed Otto had made a deal with Bill France to offer drag racing on the beach as part of Speed Weeks. This connection would remain in effect for several years. Because of Bob’s influence, NASCAR would sanction races for some time, into the ‘70s.


I first met Bob early one morning on the beach speed course at Daytona. We could race for top speed in those days, ala Bonneville Salt Flats. The sand was really smooth and packed at low tide, it was almost like pavement.


Bob was there promoting his drag races at nearby Flagler Beach airport. I agreed to go there that night, however I was turned away by tech for no scatter shield. Since there were seven races in a row each day, I paid $100 to a local fabrication shop to fit a shield on my Pontiac.


The races were held each night and when it became dark, Bob had a commercial flood light aimed down the track for vision. If you date back in time far enough to have experienced racing at night with a flood light, you know that shadows from your car just get bigger and bigger. About the 1,000-foot mark, the light operator decided to aim the beam up in the air. Boom, there was total darkness heading towards the Atlantic Ocean. The light returned quickly and no incident occurred. I heard later that Bartel told the light operator if he raised the light again, he was terminated! I never knew if this was true, but I always gave Bob full credit.


The Quad Cities of Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, plus Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, create a very large metropolitan area straddling the Mississippi River. Drag racing was spreading quickly across the U.S. by the mid ‘50s and the mammoth Quad Cities area had no drag strip.  Bob lived there so he got several folks together and pooled a little money to build a strip.  His choice of land was for a flat surface with no earth to move. He found that just north of the metro area on the river flood plain. By 1957 he opened Quad Cities Dragway (now Cordova International Raceway) and started the World Series of Drag Racing there on the last weekend of August.


Meanwhile, Bob established his own form of sanction for strips in the Midwest, called the National Association of Drag Strips (NADS). I am proud to say that the track I managed at Kahoka, Missouri, was sanctioned by NADS during its entire run. Bob had created a great set of rules after listening to many top racers and track operators.


In addition to track insurance, Bartel offered many perks for his sanctioned tracks. One was a connection to American Dragway Trophy Co. for our awards. Another was holding regular seminars and rules meetings with track operators. I always felt we had a ‘voice’.


As young operators, we learned a lot at Bob’s meetings. One of the best was: "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.


Much has been written about Bob’s knack for public relations, with his member tracks as well as the media. At a meeting in ’61 at Aurora, Illinois, he introduced us to Ben Christ and Jon Lundberg of US 30 Dragway in south Chicago.


Christ had a mantra which stated, “Four wheels, four bucks – c’mon in and good luck!” Bartel and most Chicagoland area tracks followed the edict. I know we did at Kahoka.


And Bob was pragmatic about his NADS organization. When he was forced into Saturday night operation due to hot summer temps, he never once asked us to change our program at Tri State Dragway. In fact, he attended our season final banquet in 1962 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Keokuk, Iowa.


The American Timing Activities Association started at Chicago and quickly grew into the largest drag racing sanction organization in the country. The first two ‘World Series of Drag Racing’ were held at a small airport near Lawrenceville, Illinois.


When the airpark no longer would allow the races, Bartel had just finished his Quad Cities Drag Racing track at Cordova. Bob contacted Jim Lamona of ATAA and made a deal for the 1958 World Series.  The race was and is the largest independent championship event in the US! This was a great move on Bartel’s part as the timing association was gobbled up by NHRA.

In the early days prior to grandstands, Bartel fashioned a simple wooden fence to keep spectators back from the track.  As Bob said, “It worked. If there was encroachment, we just stopped the races until fans got behind the fence.”

This early photo from the WSODR depicts Stan Lomelino vs a carb fed Oldsmobile. Stan really liked Cordova as it was an Illinois replacement for Half Day Dragway which caught Stan’s early attention. The arrow points to Lomelino’s dual flathead Ford machine. In the upper right is the original Cordova raceway timing tower which pioneers of the area will certainly remember.

The Tri State Dragway tent at the World Series of Drag Racing – ’61 through ’65. Every year we closed Tri State Dragway and rented a circus tent from Irwin Awning Co, in Keokuk. That sounds simple, but none of us young drag racers knew how to erect it.  But, as you can see in the photo, we did it!


Following is an excerpt from my DRO ‘Then & Now’ column back in 2011:


During the winter between 1962 & 1963, several Tri State Officials and key racers attended a track operator’s convention in Aurora, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. It was a meeting of N.A.D.S. (the National Association of Drag Strips). While nearly unheard of today, in 1962 it was thought of as a major player in the Mid-west, where ATAA had been scooped up by NHRA, and not everyone wanted to do the Wally Parks thing.


Our intention to drive to Chicago was thwarted by a Winter Storm after just 60 miles to Burlington’s airport, where Ken Chenoweth had his racing operation. (He leased a hangar.) So we decided to buy tickets on an Ozark Air Lines DC-3 and ‘fly’ to the convention.


On the way home, traffic around Chicago’s O’Hare airport was terrible and we missed the only flight we could get back to Burlington. A friendly cabbie offered to get us to Grand Central station in time for the Ak-sar-ben Zephyr for $100. However compared to flying to Chicago, it took five hours for the Burlington railroad to get us across the state of Illinois and the Mississippi River. But we made it, and the NADS association lasted for many years, under the direction of Bob Bartel, the originator of Cordova Dragway.

A lot has been written about the ‘Possum Chaser’ shown above.  Ed Bruegge, the car’s creator, was one of the racers on our plane/train trip to a NADS meeting.  That year, when Ed raced at Cordova, Bob Bartel induced the attending LIFE MAGAZINE crew to take photos of the little car. They ended up on the cover!


I could cover even more ground, but the theme is always the same. Everyone respected and liked Bob Bartel.  As a living legacy to his long and prosperous life, is present day CORDOVA INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY.

(Jeff Burk photo)


Until next time, Be On Time. 



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