McDowell, Merryfield among Hall's 2017 Class
By Todd TurnerDirtonDirt.com managing editor
Three winners of major Eldora races and two Midwestern drivers are among the Class of 2017 for the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame along with a long-time series director, sport-changing Louisiana team owner and veteran Ohio engine builders.
World 100 winners Dale McDowell of Chickamauga, Ga., and Joe Merryfield of Des Moines, Iowa, are heading to the Hall of Fame along with Eldora Dream winner Rick Eckert of York, Pa., Roger Dolan of Lisbon, Iowa, and the late Kenny Simpson of Bedford, Ind., among driver selections.
The contributors' list is made up of World Dirt Racing League founder Jim Wilson, the Missourian who also operated the NASCAR Busch All-Star Tour and won the World 100 as a car owner, along with GVS Racing team owner Joel Hedrick of Baton Rouge, La., and brothers David and John Draime of Draime Racing Engines.
The 2017 class was revealed Saturday at Portsmouth (Ohio) Raceway Park preceding the 36th annual Rhino Ag Dirt Track World Championship presented by Optima. The eight honorees will be inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame next August at Florence Speedway in Union, Ky., before the Sunoco Race Fuels North-South 100. A closer look at inductees:
Roger Dolan, Lisbon, Iowa: The 1987 NASCAR Weekly Racing Series champion racked up 33 victories during on his best season of a career that included more than 400 victories. Dolan was also a seven-time winner on the NASCAR Busch All-Star Tour and captured the tour’s inaugural 1985 championship. More than 100 of his victories came in the famed No. 50 for Hall of Fame car owners Larry and Penny Eckrich, including two Miller 100 victories at Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Other victories included the 1970 Freeport (Ill.) Invitational and the 1975 Illinois State Championship on the Springfield Mile. He was the All-Iowa points champion in 1985 and ’87 and won 11 track championships among five Iowa tracks: Hawkeye Downs, Farley, Dubuque, West Liberty and Eldon. The 80-year-old’s NASCAR Weekly title came at the age of 50.
Rick Eckert, York, Pa.: The 1999 Dream winner at Eldora is also a three-time national touring champion, capturing back-to-back Xtreme DirtCar Series titles in 2001-’02 along with the World of Outlaws Late Model Series championship in 2011. The driver nickname “Scrub” is among the all-time most successful national touring stars with 35 WoO victories (fifth on the all-time list) and 18 Hav-A-Tampa/Xtreme victories (seventh). He also notched 10 STARS victories on the tour he began shortly after extensive local success at Lincoln and Bedford Speedways. Among other major victories was 2015’s Firecracker 100 at Lernerville Speedway, 2004’s DTWC, 2002’s USA Nationals at Cedar Lake Speedway and three National 100 victories at East Alabama. Still competing, Eckert also has 10 career Florida Speedweeks triumphs.
Joe Merryfield, Des Moines, Iowa: One of Iowa’s winningest drivers in the 1970s, retired “Injun” Joe Merryfield was the Hawkeye State’s third World 100-winning driver in the first five years of Eldora’s premier event. He led the final 56 laps in 1975 to outrun fellow Iowans and previous race winners Ed Sanger and Verlin Eaker in Rossburg, Ohio. While that was his lone World 100 start, Merryfield’s other major victories including the 1971 and ’72 Grand National at Boone (Iowa) Speedway along with 1978 victories at 1978’s the Nebraska Late Model Nationals in Doniphan, Neb., the North Dakota Championships and the Cornhusker-Hawkeye Challenge Cup. Merryfield also won 1981’s inaugural National Outlaw Stock Car Association event in Branson, Mo., and later that season captured the Tombstone Rally at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill.
Dale McDowell, Chickamauga, Ga.: Along with his 2005 World 100 victory, McDowell earned $100,000 for 2014’s Dream at Eldora, the legendary track where he was one of the most consistent drivers over a 12-year stretch. McDowell, whose touring career was launched with his 1994 Southern All Star title, reached the national touring summit with the 1999 Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Racing Series and was later a successful regular with the World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil Series. McDowell’s major victories included the first event at a dirt-covered Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Batesville’s Topless 100 and East Alabama’s National 100. He's a two-time winner of both the Dixie Shootout and Cedar Lake’s USA Nationals. His 31 career Hav-A-Tampa/Xtreme victories are second on tour's all-time list. Along with his driving exploits, the current Team Dillon Racing pilot also helped operate Richard Childress Racing’s development driver program, taught driving schools and managed Boyd’s Speedway in Ringgold, Ga.
Kenny Simpson, Bedford, Ind.: This driver is still beloved at Brownstown (Ind.) Speedway, where he was a two-time Late Model champion before his unexpected death cut short his racing career. The Brownstown Speedway Hall of Fame inductee’s biggest victories came at Brownstown with 1984’s Jackson 100 and 102’s All-Star Circuit of Champions event at the quarter-mile oval in southern Indiana. Simpson’s Jackson 100 victory denied fellow Brownstown veteran Russ Petro his third straight victory in the track’s most prestigious event. Simpson, who Brownstown long honored with a memorial race, also captured 1984’s Race of Champions at the Springfield (Ill.) Mile. The driver who dabbled in sprint cars and also competed in ASA and USAC stock car events posted 19 Dirt Late Model victories in 1984.
David and John Draime, Massillon, Ohio: The brothers, drawn to racing after their father Russell competed as a driver beginning in 1952, rounded the Draime Enterprises race car operations in 1973 and began focusing solely on racing engines four years later. Providing potent engines for many standout Dirt Late Model teams, Draime engines have powered drivers to victories in five World 100s, seven DTWCs, six Hillbilly 100s, two Dreams and nine STARS championships. Draime engines have also propelled cars to five NASCAR Winston Racing Series titles and two ARCA championships. Draime's 5,700-square foot race shop houses many trophies along with engines and components.
Joel Hedrick, Baton Rouge, La.: Over an 11-year stretch, Hedrick’s Gulf Valve Service racing team was among the most successful Dirt Late Model teams nationally with Hall of Famers Freddy Smith, Billy Moyer and Rick Aukland the most successful among a star-studded cast of team drivers. The Hedrick-led team, including an assembly of capable crew members that went on to success with short-track and NASCAR teams, captured virtually all the sport’s biggest events along with UMP DIRTcar Summernationals and Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Racing Series championships. Hedrick also took short-track sponsorships to another level with corporate support Bazooka Bass Tubes, MCI (10-10-220), Red Line Oil, Cintas, Big Johnson and more. Along with Smith, Moyer and Aukland, among other drivers making stints with GVS included Davey Johnson, John Gill, Bart Hartman and Shannon Babb.
Jim Wilson, Gilman City, Mo.: A regional director for the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series for 20 years, Wilson also oversaw the Iowa-focused NASCAR Busch All Tour (1985-’01) along with founding and operating the World Dirt Racing League (2002-’09). NASCAR’s only dirt tour boasted champions such as Hall of Famers Steve Kosiski, Joe Kosiski and Ray Guss Jr. while WDRL competed in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kansas while crowning multi-time champs Kyle Berck, Denny Eckrich and Chad Simpson. Before the Des Moines, Iowa, native became a series director, Wilson was a successful race team owner, fielding and preparing fellow inductee Joe Merryfield’s World 100-winning car in 1975.