1962 was a year of transition. Even though it was a time when one could still leave their doors unlocked or keys in the ignition, the innocence of the ‘50s was disappearing as we moved into the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict and saw the cold war ramping up, with a new, young president faced with defusing a nuclear holocaust - the Cuban missile crisis.
Also, the space race that year found John Glenn circling the globe for the first time in his Mercury spacecraft and Johnny Carson begins his thirty-year stint at the “Tonight Show” microphone. While the Rolling Stones played their first gig at London’s Marquee Club, Chrysler was introducing the chubby little Valiant to America’s drivers. Über financial scoundrel-to-be Bernie Madoff was starting his career as a financial advisor and the Philadelphia Warrior’s Wilt Chamberlain led his team to victory over the New York Knicks, personally scoring 100 points in the process.
In the world of drag racing, Jack Chrisman, in Mickey Thompson’s hemi-headed, Pontiac-powered dragster bested Don Garlits in the Top Eliminator final at the 8th NHRA Nationals at Indy. For the first time all cars competing in the stock classes were required to have safety belts installed, Don Prudhomme was still crewing for “TV” Tom Ivo, and Bennie Osborn – not yet tagged as “The Wizard” was tearing up the southwest in his home-built twin-engine “Brand-X” gas dragster.
1962 also saw a trio of young men from Pittsburg, Kansas - cousins Ron and Jim Wilbert and friend Bob McVickers - lease some property from a nearby farmer, with the intention of turning the land into a drag strip. It was located only a few miles away and just over the border in Missouri, about 17 miles north of Joplin and outside of the small town of Asbury.
Heavy equipment was brought in and the work began to transform the 40 acres of flat, grassy land into what would soon become the legendary quarter-mile drag strip known as Mo-Kan Dragway.
Mo-Kan was a success almost from opening day in July of 1962. It was a welcome venue for local racers and fans alike, and touring pros were drawn to it because of the close proximity to other tracks such as the new Southwest Raceway in Tulsa, Kansas City, Springfield, and others. They could then book in, race, and have a reasonably short distance to travel between each, thereby keeping expenses down. Jim Wilbert’s younger brother, Bill, also joined the trio, becoming the well-known and respected track announcer, finally leaving the microphone duties in 2003.
There is a long list of well-known cars and drivers who’ve visited Mo-Kan over the years: Don Garlits, “TV” Tom Ivo, Pete Robinson, E.J. Potter (the “Michigan Madman”), Dickie Harrell, “Stone, Woods & Cook,” Terry Ivey, Art Arfons and his “Cyclops,” the “Little Red Wagon,” Bennie Osborn, and many others. In a thrill to spectators one weekend in 1981, Don Garlits even match raced Les Shockley’s “Shock Wave” jet-powered truck!
In the days before the electronic timing systems that could accurately determine a winner, the Wilberts had built a wooden stand to the right side of Mo-Kan’s finish line. It was manned by one and sometimes two workers whose job it was to determine the winner and wave a flag – either to the left or right, depending on which lane was the winner. Once, when Bob Creitz was racing Lyle Fisher’s “Speed Sport Special,” the finish line’s flagman called the first two runs as ties. On the third pass, another tie was suspected; however, since Creitz’ car had gone further past the finish line it was thought he’d probably crossed slightly before his opponent, and therefore was declared the winner. One can only imagine the fisticuffs that would ensue if the winner between a Don Schumacher car and one from John Force Racing were determined that way today!
Mo-Kan’s safety record is enviable. Into its 54th year of operation, while there have been accidents, there has been only one fatality: Marvin Smiley, an A/Fuel circuit racer back in 1971. Popular Bennie Osborn is one racer who, unfortunately, has experienced not one – but two - accidents at the track. Early in his career, he hit a rough place in the strip and the solid-tube rear end in his dragster caused him to lose control, resulting in high-speed contact with a culvert pipe that damaged the car along with his back. The second time was years later and Bennie was in his new rear engine car. Using the same steering box being sold for front engine dragsters, it was a handful to drive, as he and a few others were finding out (it was finally determined that the box’s ratio needed to be slowed down for use in the REDs). Match racing Harold Wilson, Osborn overcorrected when the car started to drift and crashed hard at almost 200 mph. With a cracked vertebrae and neck injuries, Bennie decided to retire as a driver. An important safety advancement came out of this, however, as during the wreck the blower pulley cut his shoulder harness, prompting the NHRA to mandate aluminum plates behind the cage to prevent this from happening.