Howard Koziol's Playland Memories
Howard is currently a Late Model racer in the Omaha area. He has graciously consented to jot down some of his Playland remembrances here.
I am no writer, but I have considered writing some
various short stories dealing with stuff I saw, & actually did at Playland. In the summer of 1967,which was the
1st year Playland ran its "Bronco" class, I saved every article in the
Omaha World Herald that dealt with Playland or Sunset. I was 14 (& knew
everything) then. I still have all of that in a manilla folder somewhere, and,
because of age, the newspaper is beginning to yellow. Interesting that local
media coverage back then was much more detailed & more frequent than it is
now, even with racing as "trendy" as it is these days.
The 1st event in which I participated at
Playland was a demo derby at the end of the 1970 season.
Ran a couple of times in the Mini Stocks, driving cars
that belonged to others in ’71 & ’72. Raced briefly in the Road Runner
class in ‘73-’74. The Bronco-renamed as Hobby Stock class was what I raced
in during the ‘75-’77 seasons. Will go into greater detail on these later.
Here are some of the memories floating around in that
vast space between my ears:
The first time I can ever remember going to Playland was
with my uncle, Mel Weaver, on a Friday night in either 1957 or'58.Driving
underneath the Roller Coaster to get into the park & then seeing all those
rides & games made a major impression on me, but, more important
was getting to go with Uncle Mel to the stock car races for the first
time in my young life. Waiting in line for tickets at the north admission
building seemed like it took forever. When we finally got to our seats, I
remember how tightly packed in everyone was due to such a large crowd. Vendors
would move frequently up & down the aisles selling popcorn, peanuts,&
drinks. Before the hot laps & races started, I distinctly remember the smell
of cigar smoke & beer, and of course, that popcorn. After the races started,
the smell of engine exhaust prevailed. Something inside my head went completely
bonkers after the first few laps, and I knew this sport at this place was
something I wanted very much to be a part of. However, my folks were not as
enthused about racing as I was, thus I didn't get to go as much as I would've
liked to. But whenever Uncle Mel would take me, I was so excited I could hardly
contain myself. You know how those "How bad have you got it?" Nascar
commercials portray fans who've got it bad today? Well, I had it real bad back
then, even as a little kid, thanks to the great racers/racing at Playland.
From my first time in '57 or'58 until 1962, I remember
the yellow '32 Ford coupe # V8 driven by Bud Burdick as being one of the biggest
of the big guns. If memory serves me correctly, Bud was point champ in '58, '59
& '61.Don Pash the Avoca Flash( who ended up being Fred Miller's
father-in-law) driving the white '32 Ford coupe # 5 was champ in 1960.In 1962,
the point champ was Bill Wrich, who at that time drove black '32 coupe #
16.Others that come to mind during that time period were Bob Kosiski,black'32
coupe# 46, Bob's brother Dan,white '34 Ford coupe # 35(the number was inside a
circle with a wing on it), Jim Wyman, white '32 coupe # 14,Bob Burdick(Bud's
nephew),bronze '33 Dodge coupe# 53,Glen Robey,'33 Hudson coupe # 8-ball, Bob
Cave, black&white '32 Chev coupe# 7,Keith Leithoff, maroon & white Chevy
coupe # 49,& Bud Aitkenhead, white '34 Ford sedan # 38.I believe Don Settel
was point champ in 1957, but I don't remember his number.Other names &
numbers from that era:# 6-Jim Stewart,# 9-John Stewart, # 4-Ed Janisch, #
37-George Rydberg,# 82-Ed Rydberg,# 77-Dick Gappa, # 76-Mike Dizona, # 92-Jim
Vana, # 3, Bob Womochil.Maybe some of you reading this will recall during the
late '50's/early '60's, there was a silver(?)'57 Chev(# 88, I think)that ran
with the coupes. Don't remember the driver or how well the '57 did, but it
certainly stuck out running with the coupes. Sometime during this era, Bud
Burdick, in his famous yellow # V8 '32 Ford coupe, ran against Bob Kosiski (I
think), driving a 1960 Thunderbird in a special match race. Sorry, don't remember
Two of the most famous names that raced at Playland were
Tiny Lund & Johnny Beauchamp, but I honestly don't remember seeing them race
there.Could've been before my time or my memory is fading.All this was before
the Interstate came through.I vaguely remember the old Aksarben Bridge. One of
the track announcers during that time was Frank"Coffeehead" Allen,
from KOIL radio. He & some officials stood in a white wooden tower in the
center of the infield. The backstretch of the 1/5 mile asphalt oval had a wood
fence(that got driven through many times) with lots of advertising on it.One of
the"rides" I remember near the north admission building to the race
track was called Pump-It. These were miniature railroad type flat cars mounted
on a miniature railroad track.The rider pushed/pulled a T-shaped handle
back&forth while sitting on the little flat car to make it go. One of the
reasons I liked that ride so much was because it was near the race track.
During 1963, most of the above-mentioned drivers belonged
to a group called the MSCRA.This group did not race at Playland that year. A
group that raced the same style of cars, but slightly less modified ran there in
'63. I didn't get to go much that year. A few names I remember from that group:
Elvin Heiman, Ron Hoden, Jerry Marco,& Bob Matson.
The amusement park and speedway were closed entirely in
1964 & '65 due to construction of the new Interstate,which would greatly
reduce the size & change the landscape of the amusement park, but the race
track would remain.
In 1966, a down-sized, re-arranged amusement park opened
for business, with the race track still intact. Gone was the Aksarben
Bridge.Gone was the highly famous white-painted wood-framed Roller Coaster that
you drove under to enter the park,its replacement being a smaller roller coaster
called The Wild Mouse.The Mouse was much different than the old roller
coaster,but a very fun ride nonetheless.It had a pointed nose & round ears
on the front of each coaster-cart.When going straight & headed for a curve,
this ride gave you the sensation that you were not going to make the curve but
possibly fall off;then make the curve sharply,before a very quick downward drop
that usually left your stomach somewhere up in the air.
The MSCRA group of drivers returned to race on Friday
nights,but the car count was getting smaller. The old coupes & sedans were
allowed to run overhead-valve v-8's,& pretty good sized asphalt slicks. Most
of the motors were 301 cu.in. Chevs, but of course JIm Wyman ran a Ford 289.If I
remember correctly,Bob Cave still ran his 6 cyl against the V-8's. Speaking of
V-8, Bud Burdick really hit (or got run into) the concrete flagstand just off
the inside of the front straightaway that year.That flagstand was later replaced
with a perch above the fence along the outside of the front straightway.Point
champ that year? Bob Kosiski,driving a metallic blue '32 Ford coupe # 53, with a
Chev small block.Little did we know the major change that was on its way for
At the 1967 Auto Show, there was a yellow 1955 Chev 2dr
hardtop made into a stock car # 96 .This car looked pretty stock, other than
being gutted & having a roll cage & bracing & having lots of yellow
paint everywhere,including the stock wheels.A large sign on the car read
something like this: Come on, join the fun! Build a "Bronco Class"
stock car like this one & come race with us at Playland Speedway on Saturday
nights. Promoter Abe Slusky did what I thought at that time was the unthinkable
& eliminated the coupes in favor of a class of later-model cars with a $350
claiming price on the whole car. Although the numbers started small, by the end
of the year over 100 of these "Bronco"cars were racing at playland.Mr.
Slusky's move gave birth to a new&very large racing fraternity.Any American
car 1946 or newer was allowed,with any motor if you were willing to let your car
go for$350. There was a 7" tire rule.A lot of interesting equipment showed
up.Paul Zdan originally waxed eveyone with his red # 10 1946 Ford complete with
straight axle& Chev 301 under the hood.This dominant car got claimed &
Mr.Zdan just continued to dominate in his new mount:a red 1955 #10 Chev.Later
that year, one Saturday night I went to the races with a group including one of
John Earnest's brothers, who was a good friend of mine.The group had a lot to
cheer about that night.Earnest, (black& yellow '57 Chev # 73) & his
brother-in-law Bob Jura,(black& yellow '57Chev # 72) finished 1-2 in the 'A',ahead
of totally dominant Paul Zdan.Even the World Herald made note of it. Other names
& numbers from this new era: Frank Prideaux # 67,Don Brown #16, Larry
Brown,Elvin Heiman #66, Ron Tilley #56, Jim Boyd# 52,Phil Kennon # 99, Joe
Estes, Leroy Estes,George Tangeman, Larry Robinson, Ron Wolfe# 76, Bill Martin
#64, John Ferrin#103, Wally Nissen, Jerry Marco, Ron Hoden, & many, many
more.The 1967 season at Playland opened up a whole new era in local racing that
is still felt today.
In addition to the successful "Bronco"class,Mr.Slusky
added "Figure 8"racing to the Saturday night card. A dirt figure-8
track was used in the infield,with the crossing being the center of
excitement.Whether on the asphalt oval, or the dirt figure-8, fun racing was
very alive& well at Playland at the end of the 1967 season.
During the 1968 season, a friend of mine from jr high
& I conned his older brother into taking us to Playland,because none of our
parents wanted to go.He dropped us off & said he would pick us up afterward.
That night,both my friend& I were impressed by Dave Chase's lavender # 31
1963 Chev, complete with a lumbering,low rpm 409 in it.Chase cleaned house that
night,taking his heat,the trophy dash,& the 'A'.
That is one thing that always intrigued me about
even in the last year of racing, it wasn't always the high dollar stuff that
won.In 1968, Chase's ' 63 was not high dollar,nor was a 409 exactly light on the
front end.That same night we went to the amusement park during
intermission,& got in line to ride "The Bullet". It was one of my
favorite rides. Word was that most of the amusement park employees were more
than willing to operate"The Bullet" because they got to keep whatever
money that fell out of the riders pockets that the riders didn't claim,and,there
was a lot of it on this one night alone.However on this night,not only riders
money was emerging from this crazy ride.Screams were not the only thing erupting
from riders mouths,either.Wouldn't you know,this happened when we were next in
line.This was not the only miscue of the evening,as my friend's brother forgot
about picking us up after the races.At first we thought this was cool,but then
decided that it really wasn't because we spent all of our money at Playland that
night,thus no bus fare.In desparation, we started walking, bemoaning the fact
that South Omaha was rather far from Playland.We didn't get too far,when,his
brother remembered and showed up after all.
The 1968 season ended (as did some other Playland seaons
as well) with the "Playland 300", a 300 lap "relay"race in
which 20 -2-driver-teams(1 driver from each team on the track at a time)
competed for an increased purse along with additional prizes. The teams
consisted of the Top 20 in points & a chosen partner that was not in the top
20. The pit area for this race was moved to the infield. One team member would
be required to wait in the team's designated pit stall while the other raced on
the track. Only when the team member that had been racing pulled into the
pits,could his partner pull onto the track.Both drivers were required to run a
minimum number of laps, unless there was mechanical failure.
Bob Jura & his
partner(sorry, don't remember who his
partner was) won the "300" at the end of the 1968 season. I remember
the World Herald doing a nice article complete with pictures about this race.
I don't remember a whole lot about the 1969 season. I do
remember local media personality Joe Patrick was the track announcer that year.
The field of "Bronco" stock cars was still pretty large.Large enough
to have "D,C,B& A" features each week. Former black & white
#77 coupe driver Dick Gappa drove Larry Gascoigne's tan colored #15 '57 Chev to
the points championship that year, if I remember correctly. I was now 16 &
had my driver's license, so I could drive myself over to Playland to watch the
races. I wanted to get into racing myself, but my folks wanted me to wait til
after high school. 1969 ended up being the last year of only 1 class of racing
at Playland. More changes were on the way for 1970...........
I never had the pleasure of knowing innovative Playland promoter Abe Slusky. But I sure enjoyed hanging out at his race track. I think I enjoyed it as much as ever in 1970. Not being one to let things lag behind the times at Playland, Mr. Slusky implemented some changes/additions for the 1970 season that led to one of Playland's best ever, in my opinion.
Before the season began, the race track received a new
layer of asphalt. I remember on a beautiful spring day,skippng lunch at my
high school in Omaha & heading over to CB to the McDonald's by Tee
Jay,buying some lunch & taking it to Playland & watching the
asphalt crew,dreaming of the day when I would race there.
Playland's format would expand to 3 classes in 1970. The
Bronco class would remain intact, with drivers such as Dave Kaut, Bob
Johnson, O.J. Gay, Al Franks(Dan's dad),Don Brown, Claude Brown,Gale
Hevelone,& Mel Krueger competing. Walter Johnson, one of the few black
race car drivers to compete got his start in the Bronco class.
A different new class created as a less expensive way to
go racing was the"Mini Stocks". This class saw some former
Bronco drivers move into it,as well as some new racers. Primarily
consisting of VW Beetles, this class also had Opel Cadets,Fiats, Hondas,
& several other brands of foreign cars. Names I remember from this
class were: Robin Chase, Jimmy Jones,Jr., Mark Roseland, Joe Estes,Barry
Caughlin, Butch Bovee, Frank Maason, George Snelling, Pete Abshire, Pat
Riley, Calvin Smithberg, & many more.When the Mini Stocks raced, it
sounded like a swarm of loud bumble bees on the loose.
One day Joe Estes stopped at the Standard station where I
worked during my high school years.I knew that Joe raced at Playland
because I went to school with his sister, Mary, who used to talk about
Joe's racing.While his street car was being filled with gasoline, I asked
him about his racing in the Mini Stock class. He said it was a blast,&
that it was a little more affordable to race Minis.He invited me to be on
his pit crew, which I ended up working on for 2 or 3 seasons,enjoying
every bit of it.
The "icing on the cake" for 1970 was the newly
created "Super Stock" class. This was to become Playland's Late
Model-type class.Newer equipment.No claim rules. Wide rims &
tires.More horsepower.The Bronco class was ready to graduate some drivers
into the Supers.Paul Zdan had the most unique looking car in the class: a
1964 Chevelle convertable with a sprint car wing fastened to the cage of
the red #10.Actually, it was a '57 Chevy frame with a '64 Chevelle
convertable body with a Chev 350 in it.Ron Tilley's white '64 Chevelle 2dr
hardtop with the blue #56 on it sponsored by Lloyd's Gulf was one
impressive machine. The tires on # 56 looked like they were 24"
wide.Other Super Stock drivers were Bill Scheffield,# 101;Frank VanDoorn,#
30; Ed Morris,# 78, a purple '56 Chev whose left front tire was on the
ground only when the car was not moving; Elvin Heiman,# 66;Mike Rocha,#77;
Jim Boyd,# 52, a really cool '68 Chevelle; John Ferrin,# 103, an orange
'55 Chev ( John & his wife Jeanette are our next-door neighbors,really
good ones,I might add); Wally Nissen, #100, Glen McKeighan.# z62, whose
exhaust headers exited above the front tires,producing a real cool sound
out of his Chev small block; Roger Nixon,# 126(Ford Mustang body); Denny
Watkins,#27,Don Schlondorf,white '55 Chev with blue # 98 on it. Dick Gappa
drove Larry Gascgoine’s orange ’56 Chev sponsored by a product called
Cromwell x-3. Thus, the car was number x-3. Gappa was one of the top
contenders, & even won a race labeled”The Mid-season Championship”
.Tilley & Zdan always raced each other hard, and, believe it or not
actually tied for the Super Stock Championship in1970. On one of the last
nights of the season, I remember a lot of race fans who were also Nebraska
Cornhusker fans(myself included) having transistor radios listening to the
progress of the Nebr/Southern Cal football game in between races. That
game ended in a tie.
All 3 classes put on a good show the entire season. The
stands were full evey week.The multi-class format turned out to be a
change for the better, bringing in new racers as wellas creating
opportunity for the existing ones.
One sad change that was unexpected during the 1970
season: Abe Slusky passed away. Playland was shut down during the weekend
of Mr.Slusky's passing. Jim Davis was track manager that season, with
Abe's son Jerry Slusky taking over for his dad.
1970 was the first year I got to compete in an event at
Playland. No, not a race. My first Demolition Derby. I bought a tank(1960
Pontiac) from Joe Estes' brother Leroy, who used the Pontiac in a previous
Derby. What a total blast! (No pun intended). I got 5th place out of 23
cars & got paid $3 cash. The Pontiac was a goner after this
1970 ended up being a bittersweet year for
the racing was really good. The new layer of asphalt was certainly a big
plus.The multi-class format created yet more growth. But the passing of
Abe Slusky was the beginning of the end for the place that was to become
the object of some very fond memories for many of us.........
Playland's 1971-1974 seasons are pretty scarmbled in my
memory, I don't have much documentation from that era to back the memory,
so please forgive me if my time line/info is a
The 1971 season had the same format as 1970, Superstocks,
Broncos, & Minis. Superstock competition became more diversified. Dave
Milbourn,owner of the Silver Tap Lounge in downtown Omaha, showed up with
a Chev big block-powered 1969 Camaro convertible #77, the sign of things
to come in racing. This car was very competitive every time it ran.
Milbourne also brought his big block powered '70 Chevelle occasionally.
Later in the yr, He brought a '71 big block powered Camaro.This car was
not up to par in its new state, & Milbourne put Bud Burdick in it to
troubleshoot it. All of Milbourne's stuff was top notch back then. Out of
the 3 cars, his '69 convertible experienced the most success. Blue #27,
Denny Watkins,also won at least 2 'A' Features & was very competitive.
Bud Burdick, driving Wayne Mason's 1971 Chevelle #2x, showed up every now
& then,always a potential winner.Mike Danburg of Council Bluffs,
showed up with a ’65 Chevelle powered by a small block with an intake
manifold taller than most humans.
In the Bronco division, Bob Johnson of Council Bluffs was
always in the top 5 in his white '57 Chev #1, with the #1 done up like the
American flag. Other Bronco drivers that come to mind that yr were Dave
Kaut,Walter Johnson, orange '55
Chev(one of the few area black drivers to compete), Sonny Miller,#109,Brad
Chase(one of Dave Chase’s younger brothers), blue '55 Chev #2,O.J. Gay,
Mel Krueger, Jim Shaw, & many,many others.
The Mini class continued to grow, with the VW Beetle
being the car the majority ran. One standout very different from the
VW’s,was the tiny red Honda car driven by Robin Chase. This car &
Robin were both extremely poular. Robin Chase won a lot in his little Red
Honda car. In spite of all that, he let yours truly drive it in a heat
race one night. I found out in a big way that you didn’t just jump in a
car that was one of the best in its class & do as well as its regular
driver, especially when you had never raced in your life.The dose of
humble pie I got that night has stuck with me & always will.
The 1972 season brought about some more changes, although
the format remained the same. Lyle Kline, then owner/manager of Sunset
Speedway, also became the manager of Playland Speedway.
A variety of Superstocks showed up, although they never
all showed up on the same night. Bud Burdick drove the Larry Kelley-owned
white ’66 Chevelle convertible #2. This was a clean, cool looking car.
The Chev Monte Carlo became a very popular mount in this class. Bill
Martin raced a ’71 Monte powered by a ground shaking 454 that was in the
hunt every time. Wally Nissen also moved to a Monte Carlo. Ed Morris now
was driving the Wayne Mason yellow #2x, as well as Driving Jack Nichols’
#93 VW in the Mini class.
The Bronco class was pretty much dominated by white ’57
Chev #44, Dave Kaut. With Superstock/Late Model car counts rising, as well
as the popularity participant-wise of the Minis, Bronco car count decreased
a little, but nonetheless remained a popular class.
Speaking of the Minis, another one of the experienced
competitors in this class was Darrell Taylor of Omaha. Darrell began
racing a coupe at Sunset in 1968, a car he purchased from Ed Janisch.
Since the coupes were phased out locally, Darrell joined the Minis at
Playland, winning his 1st ‘A’ Feature ever in 1972. His
white #9 VW had a
paint scheme very similar to his coupe. Darrell was instrumental in
getting the Mini class from Playland to race on given Sun nites at the old
Midwest Speedway in Lincoln.
Yet more change was in store for the 1973-74 seasons. The
track was leased to Tom Paltani of Omaha, who changed the format. Broncos
were gone replaced by a stictly stock class of street cars known as the
Road Runners. Also gone were the Minis. The Superstock class remained,
with its numbers dropping a bit. The Road Runner class car count rose
rapidly, similar to the way the Broncos did
a few years earlier, although totals were not quite as high.Names
that come to mind from the Road Runner class were Bob Cave Jr, Karl Gray,
Joe Estes, Jerry Marco, and a host of others. Joe Estes was point champ in
the Road Runner class in ’74, the vehicle taking him to that
championship being a mid-60’s Dodge Dart powered by a 318.
Yours truly raced a 1962 Dodge in the Road Runner class
in 1973 very briefly until a crash took that car out for good. In 1974, I
ran a full-sized ’63 Ford 4 door, with a 260 cu.in.(all stock) Ford
engine. Ran a Ford 3 speed trans in 2nd gear. I’m not going
to say this car was slow, but you could nearly flatfoot it all the way
around Playland. Needless to say, I was not competitive the few times I
ran this car,but the experience of being able to run in an affordable
class at Playland was worth it.
The track would change hands for the last time in 1975. Gerald Leazenby & Bob golden would operate Playland for its final 3 seasons. More details on the end of an era later………….
I was one of the fortunate individuals that raced at Playland during its last years.The aerial shot now at the top of the website was taken in 1977,Playland's last season.Note the extra "corners" in the middle of the infield: These were added by track leasees/operators Gerald Leazenby & Bob Golden, the pair that operated Playland from 1975 until the end, Oct 15, 1977.The extra corners were added for go karts, but I don't remember when karts raced there.
Also note the missing section of bleachers: The city of Council Bluffs was in a big hurry to shut Playland down, even before the lease legally expired at the end of 1977. The city inspector deemed this section of bleachers unsafe, thus a reason to shut the place down prematurely unless the problem was resolved. Well,the problem not only got resolved, it got removed. The city inspector had no choice other than to allow Playland to open up for one final season,and many others along with yours truly were very glad it did..........
During the final season, we pitted next to the Gascoignes under the well lit canopy outside of the old Spook House. Go ahead, take your shots about that being the perfect pit stall for me. Anyway, it was a great pit spot because not only was it well lit & level, most of it was concrete. There was a 55 gallon drum trash barrel nearby, & one evening I went to the barrel to toss some trash in it. Don't have any idea what made me look inside the barrel before I deposited the trash, but much to my pleasant surprise, there was a small stack of postcards with the Roller Coaster on the front side (none of which I can find any more), & also a small stack of the advertising brochures that Dan has provided various views of here. The Park was obviously a big draw, but so was the race track. The pics of the race track on the back page were mostly from when the track was dirt, so they had to be pre-1954. The Packard(?) stunt car pic appears to be after the track was asphalted, so it must be 1954 or after. Notice how packed the stands were. How 'bout that brave flagman??? If anyone reading this was in or knows any of the folks or cars that were in this brochure, yours truly would very much like to hear from you. Who says everything in a trash barrel is trash???
The 3 pics of cars that Dan has overlaid on top of the front page of the advertising brochure were taken in 1977, Playland's final season.
This pic is of my yellow #77, shortened '62 Ford frame with a '66 Fairlane body on it, powered by a Ford 390. Will go into more detail about that car in a later update. All 3 cars in these pics ran in what was called the Hobby Class in 1977. This class was similar to the former Bronco Class in that there was a claim rule on the whole car, but for the most part, the rules in the class were fairly liberal.You could run any width rim/tire on the RF, but a 9" tread width limit on the other 3. No quick changes were allowed. 1--4bbl carb, pump gas.
This pic is Joe Gascoigne accepting the winner's trophy of one of the innaugural Tiny Lund Memorial races, sponsored by George Wolfe,who is on Joe's left. Will also tell a George Wolfe story in a later update. The flagman in this pic is Gene Gilmore, who flagged Playland's final season. Kind of hard to tell in this pic with the people standing in front of it, but Joe Gascoigne's car is a '67 Nova body on a shortened '57 Chev frame, powered by a Chev small block. The car's # was technically 11, but on each side it had ChevyII (Roman numeral 2). Will relate a Gascoigne story in a later update as well.
The bottom pic was taken on the front stretch during a Hobby Division heat race in 1977. The red '57 Chev #12 is being driven by Karl Gray. This car was purchased from Chuck Gillespie, who raced it as #20 in the same class in 1976.On the outside of #12 is the red '64 Chevelle #53, being driven by Larry Robinson,Sr. This car was the former #4 owned by Krug bros, formerly driven by 1976 point champ Jerry Marco. Robinson purchased this car partially into the 1977 season & raced it the rest of the year.Barely visible behind Gray & Robinson is the RF tip of blue '66 Chevelle #34, driven by 1977 Hobby Point Champion Don Marshall. Unfortunately, this is the only pic I have with Don in it. His Chev 427 powered Chevelle was very fast & Marshall got the most out of that car. More pics coming later................