Back in the 50’s the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) stock car circuit provided stiff competition to NASCAR. It was only when NASCAR was able to get big sponsors and television coverage did it stand-alone atop the stock car world. In its heyday, the IMCA Stock Car series drew more than 20,000 fans many times at venues such as the Minnesota State Fair, the Iowa State Fair and the Missouri State Fair as well as others.
Certainly IMCA had its share of great drivers, the likes of Herschel Buchanan, Don White, Johnny Beauchamp, Ramo Stott, Dick Hutcherson and others. But when you think of IMCA Stock Car history one name stands far above the others, Ernie Derr!
If you ever met Ernie Derr, you saw this small, quiet man and if you didn’t know better you would say he probably lived a quiet life. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Ernie may have been quiet and to himself, his accomplishments in auto racing and the International Motor Contest Association in particular, simply go off the charts. 328 feature wins and 12 championships in IMCA alone, what else needs to be said.
It didn’t matter what brand of car it was, in 1951 he won in a Mercury, then it was Oldsmobile’s for several years, then a long run with Pontiac’s, then a year with Plymouth’s, but when he switched to a Dodge, Ernie Derr simply became a legend.
Ernie Derr was born November 29, 1921. While known as the part of what this author calls the “Keokuk Connection”, he actually lived for many years in nearby Ft. Madison. He got his start in racing in 1950 after watching brother-in-law, Don White race and thought “it looked like a good way to make a dollar.” That year he finished 17th in IMCA points running only a few races.
On July 1, 1951, Ernie won his first IMCA race winning the prestigious 250 lap feature at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and went on to finish 5th in the points. In 1952, Ernie won 7 IMCA features and finished second in the points. In 1953 Ernie won his first of 12 IMCA championships, winning 15 races and beating out brother-in-law Don White for the title.
In 1954 Don returned the favor edging Ernie for the title.
In 1955, Ernie decided to try ARCA as well as IMCA and went on to win six events with that series. He was also in fifth place in IMCA in September 1955 with several wins, when IMCA stripped him of his points for running an unsanctioned race. He won a total of 11 ARCA races in a limited ARCA career.
In 1957 Derr returned to compete more regularly with IMCA and won several racing finishing fourth in points. In 1958, brother-in-law, Don White edged Derr out for the championship, with Ernie picking up 13 wins.
In 1959, Ernie Derr would move to the front of the pack again scoring 30 series wins and the Championship. He followed that up with Championships in 1960 & 1961 with 22 & 21 wins respectively. In 1962, Ernie drove to a fourth straight series championship, winning 28 of 51 races including eight in a row. For this phenomenal feat he earned $19,289.
In 1963 and 1964 he finished third in the points to Dick Hutcherson and Ramo Stott. From 1960 thru 1964, Keokuk drivers finished, 1-2-3 in IMCA points. In 1964, Ernie switched to a Plymouth. 1964 was a perfect season for the Keokuk Connection of Derr, Dick Hutcherson and Ramo Stott. The three of them combined to win all 56 IMCA stock car races held that season.
In 1965, Ernie Derr switched to a Dodge and as they say the rest is history. Seven straight IMCA championships and domination of the IMCA series, with only fellow Keokuk native, Ramo Stott able to give Derr a run for the points title. During one three year period, 1964 to 1966, Keokuk drivers (Derr, Stott & Dick Hutcherson) won all but two races in IMCA and at one of those races, they were not in attendance.
In 1965 with Derr in a Dodge and Stott in a Plymouth the pair won 37 of the 38 IMCA Stock Car features. In 1966, the pair won 35 of 36 features with Chuck Nutzman winning the remaining feature in a Plymouth.
Like some NASCAR stars, there were races that Ernie had trouble winning. One of those was the Iowa International 300. Ernie had actually won the race in 1951 (his first ever IMCA win) and again in 1953, but those races had been 250 lap affairs. In 1957, the race was extended to 300 laps and gremlins always seemed to bug Derr at the 300.
In 1966, he finally got rid of the gremlins and won the Iowa International 300. Once Ernie got things figured out, you were in trouble. He won the event every year through 1971, the year he retired from full time racing.
In 1969, Ernie won 25 of the 30 IMCA features, including the last 12 races of the season.
Also that year Ernie was joined on the IMCA circuit by his son Mike, and later son Russ who also compete in IMCA.
Mike went on to win several IMCA events and battled fellow Keokuk resident, Gordon Blankenship for the 1973 IMCA Championship, losing to Blankenship by just five points. In that epic battle, Mike Derr drove a Dodge and Blankenship a Plymouth.
Following the 1971season and perhaps realizing that he had done it all, Ernie Derr cut back on his racing endeavors and ended his career at the Fall Jamboree in Knoxville in September 1977. During those last seven seasons, Derr wheeled his Dodge to 145 wins out of 245 races contested in the IMCA stock car series.
From 1971 through 1976 Ernie campaigned a limited schedule with the United States Auto Club competing against the likes of five-time series champion Butch Hartman, two-time series champion and winningest driver in USAC Stock Car racing, Don White, 3-time series champion Norm Nelson, former nemesis and 1975 USAC champion Ramo Stott, as well as Al Unser, Roger McCluskey and Tiny Lund. Ernie logged three wins and at least eight runner-ups and almost always was in the top 5.
Ernie Derr run only one NASCAR Cup event (then called Grand Nationals). That would be on August 2, 1953 at the Davenport Speedway in Davenport, Iowa. He would finish well done in the running order of that 200 lap event. Of course in 1953, NASCAR was just another series. One wonders what would have happened if Ernie had lived closer to the heart of NASCAR.
But when I think of the old IMCA stock car series, one car stands high above the rest. A red Dodge from Keokuk, Iowa carrying the number one on its side and driven by Mr. IMCA Stock Cars Series, Ernie Derr.
Ernie Derr passed away at his home in Keokuk on January 8, 2014 at the age of 92.
In June, 2005, with the help of Ernie’s son Mike, I got to spend some time with Ernie. I had been told that Ernie was not very easy to talk to, but he finally relented and for about 45 minutes he shared some of his experiences with me, and then it was time to mow the lawn.
That and 45 minutes with brother-in-law Don White early in the day, doesn’t seem like a lot of time to learn much about a person, but combined with some comments made by son Mike, it was enough. “Dad simply outworked them.” That and being a very good and smart driver, I think were the secret to Ernie Derr’s incredible success.
Certainly in those last few years having a very fast Dodge added to his incredible string of accomplishments!