If you’re like me, I have found many positives from this era of shelter in place. Much of this would include a renewed appreciation of very simple things, and accordingly, I have spent more time considering what is really important. Yet, this also feels like a season of loss. I longed for the start of both racing and baseball. I worry about the fate of two of my favorite Midwest League teams, the Burlington Bees and the Clinton LumberKings, who may have been hanging on by a thread as it was.
There have been personal losses. Longtime Indianapolis scribe and racing personality Al Stilley lost his wife and, because of social distance, I can’t even offer direct support. There have been others and, given how much we are consumed with our personal plight and the well-being of our nation, there is the sense that some who have left us may have done so well under the radar.
It is in that spirit that I am thinking about Dave Van Patten, a man who was deeply and passionately involved in our sport for decades. Dave was born in Stockport, Iowa in 1933, then a town just over 300 people. He would graduate from Keosauqua High School, a historic burg of around 1,000 souls about 15 miles south.
His father was a successful Allis Chalmers dealer, and also did a little coal mining on the side. Dave fell in love with auto racing at the Wapello County Fair in Eldon. While Eldon may be more renowned as the setting for Grant Wood’s iconic painting, American Gothic, Van Patten was more interested in the exploits of driver Herschel Buchanan on the half-mile dirt oval. I get it. Every couple of years while returning home from Knoxville, I feel a need to make a side trip to the old plant. It takes no imagination at all to imagine the action in days gone by.
In his teen years, Van Patten could have travelled north to see Emory Collins, Frank Luptow, and Bill Holland (all Hall of Famers) score victories under the IMCA banner. Even now, if you venture to the empty track on a warm summer day those ghosts will surely come.
In time, Van Patten would race a little, but in the end, it was his days as an owner and supporter that put him on the map. His mobile home business, close to the Iowa State Fairgrounds, put him in proximity to Bob Trostle, and the two men worked together (and fought together) for years. And there were many great years. However, Van Patten entered my life more in his years as a promoter, and an announcer.
By the end of 1977 the IMCA as we had known it, had reached the end of the line. Enter Van Patten and fellow-Iowan Robert Lawton. Negotiating with Gene Van Winkle and Woody Brinkman, Van Patten and Lawton purchased National Speedways Incorporated, and by 1978 launched the rebranded National Speedways Contest Association. It had the flavor of the old IMCA, with dates scheduled at places like the Iowa State Fair, the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, and so many old fairground haunts, including the Wapello County Fair.
Much like I described my detours to Eldon, I often pull off of the highway to stop and stare at the big track in Knoxville, Illinois. Sure, it too has a long history. IMCA winners included Pete Folse, Jerry Richert, Harold Leep, and Jerry Blundy who lived nearby. Yet, for some reason, I always think about the NSCA.
For many years, I could hardly wait for the annual Frost Buster at Sedalia, which featured both late models and sprint cars. Sadly, it was an event that often fell to the elements. But even if you left in disappointment, more NSCA races would follow. Shane Carson captured the NSCA title in 1978 and 1979. Minnesotan John Stevenson, driving for Butch Bethke (with the outrageous Jimmy Casci in the fold), won the next two years. And Sonny Smyser, Randy Smith, and Scott Ritchart rounded out the series history.
With Lawton in charge, in 1985 the NSCA became known as the Regional World of Outlaws, and Randy Smith reigned supreme.
Like any series, some dates were snoozers, particularly if a big fairgrounds track got dusty and slick. Still, I loved the NSCA and, more often than not, it really wasn’t about the racing. It was Van Patten who always got my attention. As an announcer, I am sure he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. I’m an announcer, and I’m not everyone’s favorite either. Trust me, in today’s world the knights of the keyboard make sure you know that.
The big thing for me is that I always learned something when Dave was on the microphone. He had a mind for the anecdote, and a seemingly simple event could touch off a memory. For me, he was a walking history lesson and I soaked it up. The more stories in down time the better.
That said, he could not have survived today’s world. He told some jokes on air that were simply inappropriate, but often very funny. At the 1982 Frost Buster, he suggested that a trip to see the Iowa Hawkeyes play in the Rose Bowl was spent drinking beer – lots of it. I remember him standing on the end of a sawed-off telephone pole conducting the driver’s meeting at North Kansas City’s Riverside Stadium. The whole time he was talking, someone (I think it might have been Rick Weld or Bobby Layne) were untying his shoes. Dave continued on until he realized what had happened, which set off a torrent of words that had everyone reeling with laughter.
The point is, he seemed to understand racing was serious, but it was also supposed to be fun. I can think of times I would be doing the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame induction, and there was Dave in a racing T-shirt and shorts. It all hung together. He wrote a book, with assistance from Donna Vert, called Don’t Believe Anything I Say. I have no idea what Donna’s role was in the book, but I suspect some of it was spent just trying to keep him between the fences. It could not have been easy.
The book captures Dave perfectly. There is a chronology to it – well, sort of. Mainly it is snippets of stories, memories, and a lot of it about the extracurricular world of racing. Every time I pick it up, I think about how Dave would weave in a story about Chuck Amati, Dick Sutcliffe, the Little 500, or whatever came to his mind.
Now, there are two things I wish. First, I should have figured out a way to have heard more of his stories. Second (and I might have done this briefly once), thank him for how he influenced my career. I tell stories and share history in my role now, as well. I’ve been around a while too. Occasionally, somebody objects to that. Tough. I’m not changing. Dave didn’t, nor am I. Racing has a great oral tradition. That’s often how history is passed down, and I am grateful for what Dave shared. For the record, I did believe what he had to say – well, most of it.
My concern was that, in the face of the pandemic, his death would go unnoticed. When I looked back at the date of his passing, a big grin came over me. He died on April 1, 2020. Of course, he did. What other choice was possible?