Hellerich's Playland Memories
Dave is an ex-Playland racer living in Arkansas.
My first recollection of Playland speedway was in the early 50ís, my folks had just bought our first house and one of our neighbors was a relative of Bud Aikenhead. TV was still rather new but they did broadcast the races from Playland on friday or Saturday night. The picture was fair and of course in black and white but it hooked me on racing forever. All the neighbor kids, including myself, would re-inact those races with our Radio Flyer wagons. Since we lived on top of a hill, we would race side by side at breakneck speed for several blocks, sometimes crashing etc. We had a pit area and worked on those wagons as if they were the real thing. I had already made up my mind that someday I would drive a stock car.
As the years went by and I got my first car, a 1950 Studebaker, the dream was still haunting me. Sunset had opened and a few of us would drive out and watch on Sunday nights. I am not sure what night Playland ran but I do remember the big tree on the river levy behind the board fence that sometimes we would climb up in and watch for free. Also remember cars off to the side of the new interstate watching also until the police made them move on.
Did a lot of drag racing and go karts too (rental tracks was all that was available). Met Larry Morton thru my future wife who was working for the same company and started to go to the races with him, became an obsession with me and spent all my spare time helping him and going to the track. Larry had a 34 Plymouth coupe #23 and had rolled it over several times (was involved with Don Augustus racing team for awhile).
One night at Playland Larry flipped in the #3 corner and after getting out safely, the car burst into flames, the officials tried to put it out but there fire extinguishers did not work and the car burned completely up.
Abe Slusky gave Larry a cash amount and also took up a collection in the stands to replace the car (I think it was something like 450.00). One of the Rydbergs who raced, had a coupe body in their yard and gave it to Larry. We put it on the burnt frame and checked out the engine ( 6cyl Chrysler) and got new tires etc. He raced it awhile after that but the frame was so tweaked it never was right. Larry bought another car from Augustus and I bought the old one for 75.00.
Put in a stock Desoto six that a guy gave me and went racing (no trailer in those days just pulled on a tow bar). First time behind the wheel was so nervous I couldnít get the belt fastened with out help, but when the engine fired up and I made a lap or two, all fear was gone. I was 21 yrs old then (1961), never did win a race with that car but had a good time and learned a lot from it. Didnít have any slicks to run at Playland so did most of my racing at Sunset on the dirt. Did borrow some slicks a few times and race on the asphalt with that old Plymouth , after I had put a new frame under it. Hit the guard rail at Sunset one night and bent that frame good, so I took the car apart and sold it piece by piece. Bought a 32 Ford sedan from Al Costintino , who was a friend of Mike Dizona.
Had a flathead in it and was built very good, showed it in the auto show too. That's when I started to race Friday at Playland and Sunday at Sunset.
One thing I remember about Playland with the Plymouth was that even if you ran dead last all night, Abe Slusky always paid everybody something for just being there. Some of the racers that I had the privilege to compete with there were Bud Burdick, Don Ronk, Bob Kosiski, Bob Cave, John Beeman, Kurt Lind, Jim Wyman and so many more that the list is endless. There was a one armed fellow that drove a 47 Ford coupe( donít recall his name) one night he lost a wheel and it flew into the pit area striking a gentleman by the name of Ernie Matz, breaking his leg. He recovered and ended up building and maintaining a 32 Plymouth coupe that was later driven by Bob Kosiski. I bought a 33 Ford coupe from a friend of Glen Robey, that was after they switched to overhead V8ís, after the Plymouth I ran the #67 on my cars. in 68 went to Vietnam and when I returned they had switched to late model cars (55 on up). Bought a 65 Mustang from a fellow that ran it at Playland but never could get used to driving full fender coil spring cars. My brother did build a 55 Chev with a Ford straight axle front end, it was owned by Motor City Used Cars. #9. It wasnít to long after that that Playland was torn down. Every time I return to visit relatives, I feel sad when I drive by the old track site. So many memories of good times and good friends. Now Sunset is gone too and I guess we have to accept it but those years were some of the best for me. I have a million more stories of those racing days and maybe someday will write more about them. By the way does anyone out there remember the mini stocks at Playland? One that sticks in my mind is a Volkswagon with a 348 Chev mounted in it, I think maybe Bob Jura owned it but not sure. Keep up the good work at GOTRA, us old-timers really appreciate it.
Note from Dan: The volkswagon was owned by Larry Jiskra and he raced against the regular stockers. He rammed a power pole and the car caught fire, burning Larry in the process. This adventure caused the ban on foreign cars, until the mini-stock class started up. My uncle Dave Franks was Larry's pit crew..... Dan Franks
returned from a trip to Omaha from my home in Arkansas, as I came into Council
Bluffs headed to the big O, I glanced to my right and saw the soccer fields
where the Playland Speedway once was. Flashbacks of many good times racing there
were abundant, I believe the two awesome cottonwood trees on the backstretch are
still standing. If they could only give us a history lesson on what they must
have witnessed in Playland's life span. I still have vivid recollections of my
experiences on and off the track and will try to send them as I can. Met with
Howard Kozoil Jr. who I have been corresponding with on the internet. He
graciously took myself and my wife on a tour of some of the old and new places
of stock car racing memorabilia that is so much part of my past. Kosiskiís
Racing, Bud Burdicks residence etc. Back in Arkansas I thought about Danís
site and decided maybe I could pass on some of my memories for all to savor.
first one to mind is about the large wooden roller coaster that once stood in
awesome elegance for all to ride, except me, went on it once as a child and
never got over the harrowing and somewhat sickly excursion. But my greatest
adventure as a teen was to watch the stock cars and smell the odors of rubber
and exhaust along with the incredible sounds they made on that oval. Afterwards
we would head for the bumper cars and re-inact the races, I envisioned being on
that oval and beating the Burdicks and Aitkenheads to the checkered flag. As
luck and perseverance would have it, I was able to fulfill my dream, other than
being first at the finish. I did win some races in my day but they came
few and far between for several reasons.
was the main objective and yes, winning was always the goal, but friendship and
hanging around those of such driving talent, always gave me much satisfaction.
Sitting on a bench in the midway area one night with Bud Aitkenhead, I began to
pick his brain about past racing days, trying to get some speed or driving
secrets from him (which he did help me with later on). One story he related was
when he first started racing, it was with a model A roadster. This was an
everyday driver and he said that on weekends , he would drive it to Sioux City
and race it on the dirt. No roll cage only a leather sided helmet of sorts and
regular tires that came with the Ford. I asked about seat belts and to this day
get a chuckle out of his response, Bud was a fairly tall and slender fellow, a
fairly large leather belt kept his britches cinched up. When arriving at
the Sioux City track he would remove that belt and loop it thru the seat
that was his makeshift safety belt. I donít know how he faired when back in
the pits keeping those pants up, but had heard of other early racers doing the
on my racing at Playland and other memories will be coming as I get time to
savor and write them down. Thanks Howard and Dan for giving us old guys a chance
to relive the past and maybe enlighten the new generation to how great those
This was at Sunset with brother Steve and myself along with brother-in-law Bob Billings. Had 289 in it.
Dave Hellerich Sr.