The last time I saw Ernie Speth was May 8, 2010, at a surprise 80th birthday party that his family and friends threw for him.
Ernie was a Quad-Cities racing pioneer and Speedway Fire-Rescue honored him as such on Feb. 16, 2013, at its awards banquet in Davenport, Iowa. Sadly, he could not attend due to health issues, but some of his family members were present to accept a plaque on his behalf.
Ernie died on March 5, 2013.
Following is a portion of an “On Track” column, one of two I wrote about Ernie and his pioneering racing days. It appeared in a July 2004 issue of Quad-Cities Racing Connection. ~ Phil Roberts
Ernie Speth says it was 1949 when his older brother Ray raced a pleasure car, owned by their second cousin, Ronnie Weedon, in the first-ever race at the old Mahoney’s race track west of Davenport. The promoter, as Ernie recalls, was a Dubuque undertaker.
But Ernie, who was 19, didn’t race that first season himself. He had other interests on his mind – namely girls.
Ernie’s brother got him into racing the next season, 1950.
But the stock car also remained his pleasure car. He drove it around town and back and forth to race tracks with its number on the sides. He’d take the headlights out to race and put them back in to drive home.
Ernie’s first race was at Davenport Speedway on a Thursday or Friday night, but he didn’t actually race because he didn’t make the show. “I time-trialed, then went back to the pits and sat on my car all night; I didn’t go fast enough to even get in the race.”
His cousin was at track for the time trials, too, that night and faired better, Ernie says. “Weedon got into the consy.”
Ernie’s next event was in Sterling, Ill., and he made the show this time. But he also flipped his car.
“The bumper in the front was too low to the ground,” Ernie recalls. “It dug into the track all the time.” And it caused him to flip. Ernie refers to it as “the race I went every direction except straight.”
Despite the rough rollover, Ernie drove the car home that night. He notes the only glass in the car was the windshield, “but it had about 4,000 cracks in it.”
When you roll hard in your first race, it makes an impression on you, says Ernie. “I was gun shy for about a year or so.”
Racing was a natural hobby for both Ernie Speth and Ronnie Weedon to take up because they always hung around with one another, and “all we ever thought of was cars, cars and more cars. Ronnie’s dad used to work on cars quite a little bit, and it rubbed off on Ronnie pretty big.”
Ernie’s dad and brother Ray also worked on cars but to a lesser extent.
“Midgets were big then (at race tracks), but we didn’t have enough money for a Midget. (But) it was cheap to get a stock car,” says Ernie.
Ernie raced until 1982. He says he only ran a couple of races that final season before hanging it up. He had been racing a Mustang but had taken that body off and put a Granada body on the chassis.
Ernie also had moved from a 427-cubic inch engine to a 351, “and the cars were too heavy for that little engine unless you had a hard, slick track. Then you could go. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work.”
Though Ernie raced a Ford in his final years in racing, from 1957 into the ’60s he was known for racing Studebakers. In fact, Studebakers were one of his trademarks for years. The other trademark were the red and white checkerboard roofs on his stock cars.