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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.

 

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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 who won.

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 1967............................

 

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 Playland: 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 Derby,though.

1970 ended up being a bittersweet year for Playland. Oh, 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  bit jumbled.  

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.

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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. 

Use "Back" button to return to this page.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. 

Use "Back" button to return to this page.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................