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Once an Igniter… Always an Igniter
It all started as an effort to organize a group of high school kids who had one thing in common…a love of cars. Drag racing was common in 1953 on north Minnesota Avenue. The area was more rural than today. A group of high school hot rodders would meet to challenge their friends to a quarter mile drag race. The Sioux Falls Igniters were born out of the want to organize this group of young hot rodders into an organized group of hot rodders. Most of the members went to Washington High School while others graduated from Cathedral High School. The idea for the club was actually the SD Highway Patrol’s idea so they could keep kids from drag racing everywhere. “The club was started to help protect us,” says original member Gary Hartenhoff when asked about the original members. “We knew if we included the cops, it would protect us.” Highway Patrol Officer Maynard Gudahl was influential in starting the local hot rod club. “We were all drag racing all over town and someone wanted to bring order to the chaos,” says another original member Joe Floyd. “We wanted a place to drag race. The police knew we were going to find a place to race and felt if they were involved with the club they would be able to ‘control’ the racing we were doing more than if they were not involved.”
“We had about six original members of the club,” says another original member Pierre Forette. It quickly grew to almost a couple dozen members in the first year. The goal of the club was to “promote safety in organized hot rodding”. In 1959, they incorporated under the laws of South Dakota and received their charter from the National Hot Rod Association in 1960. They sponsored a drag race at the Sioux Falls airport in 1955 along with helping with various community drives and citywide safety checks. The club continued to grow with membership topping out in the 40-50 range in the early sixties. As the club grew, so did their involvement in local car activities. The club acted as the official Soap Box Derby Inspection team and assisted with running the local Derby races held at what is now I-29 and Highway 38 (the original hill just North of the Ramkota Inn).
The Igniters first clubhouse was a little wooden building on north Main. The clubhouse later moved out to the airbase barracks north of Russell Street. “We had meetings because we had to be legitimate,” recalls another original member Pete Page. “We even took meeting minutes. Our Secretary, Jerry Murray, kept those records for over 20 years until a freak flash flood in Colorado flooded his basement and ruined the records.” Every Igniter member paid a $15 initiation fee and received an Igniter plaque. The plaque was designed by Hartenhoff and cost about $12. Igniter members would proudly show their plaque somewhere on their hot rod. Normally they were bolted to the bumper or license plate with a pair of chains so they would not break off when the car hit bumps.
Bill Kullander, who joined the club in 1955, says, “We never did mean things but we did get into trouble for racing occasionally. At the time, people looked at us as a group of rowdy kids that were destined to get into trouble. I’m sure they thought most of us would end up in the ‘Big House on the Hill’. Ironically, many of the club members went on to be successful professionals and business people.” The members never lost their love for cars and with their financial success were able to build street rods and car collections they could only dream of when they were kids.
Page remembers, “The police were always stopping us to check the loudness of our pipes. One particular officer named Smitty was always chasing us. He wrote us up many times for numerous petty offenses. One day we had an idea to ‘repay’ him. We pulled the spark plug wire off his Harley motorcycle between shifts and put it under the seat. When the new shift policeman went to kick start the bike it shocked him in the butt. The ‘shocked’ officer got mad at Smitty and we felt we got some sort of payback.”
A popular spot to race was Highway 38 north of the airport. “We raced between the bridges,” recalls Page. It was brand new concrete. We would be downtown cruising and the talk would escalate about who’s car was faster and before you knew it we were out there ready to race. The talk would be ‘we have a car that can beat you.’ It worked pretty well until the police came.”
Floyd smiles and said, “This was the best collection of rowdy misfits. We grew up in the best times and the best place. We grew up in times just like American Graffiti. The Barrel Drive-Inn was a hopping place at the time. It was at the South end of town at that time. Ricky’s and Cutler’s on East 10th were the East side hangouts. Phillips and Main were new one-way streets back then. That was the loop. We would get bored and get three cars side by side and drive 5 MPH and make all the other traffic really mad. It did not harm anyone, it was clean fun.”
“The cops knew us well. We knew all of the police officers at that time. We had cars in high school; there was no parking lot for us so we parked our cars on the streets. Dave Green (an expert pin stripper) later became Chief of Police, Gene Abdullah, (an original member) was a former US Marshal, and Sheriff Les Hawkey (member of the Roadmasters) were all friends of ours who went on to careers in law enforcement. All of the igniters were successful in life in spite of being hot rodders.”
Igniter members did many community minded deeds. One of them was to push installation of seat belts. From 1955-60 there was a push for safety belts in cars. Seat belts were not standard on cars at the time. Bill said, “We would go around with a highway patrolman or police officer and we would help install seat belts into people’s cars. We worked with law enforcement to tell the public the proper way to install seat belts.” Public service was an important part of Igniter membership.
Joe’s first car was a ‘38 Dodge sedan. The first month he had it he was heading south on Cliff Avenue at 12th Street. “This kid came down the sidewalk on a bicycle and hit my car in the front fender at the intersection. He was hurt so I picked him up and hauled him to McKennan Hospital. The cops came to the hospital and told me I left the scene of an accident. However, when I explained the situation they decided to not give me a ticket.” Pete drove a 1928 Model A Roadster (with no windshield or roof) year round. The car held four people-two in front and two in back. He lived on the east side of town and always had to park it on top of the hill on 8th Street by his house because the car never started. They would start the car by pushing it down the hill and popping the clutch.
Gary adds, “We grew up in the best of times for hot rodders. Car manufacturers did not build cars during the war. After the war there was plenty of demand for new cars so you could get these used cars for a great price because everyone was buying new ones. You started to think cars at an early age and you learned to drive at an early age. You did not even have driver’s licenses back in those days. It was like the Wild West for hot rodders.”
Page adds, “Sioux Falls back then was different. The cars were cheap and so were the parts. In those days, when you had problems with a car, you just pulled over to the side of the road, took a spare part out of the trunk and fixed it”.
Gary recalls, “Times were exciting. We never paid attention to the young ladies. They were not important to us. It was all about cars when we were young. The gals would come over to the garage when we would work on the cars but we never picked them up at their house. They thought we were kings because we had cars.”
According to Bill Kullander, “Back in the 50’s on the corner of 10th and Cliff was the original Sioux Falls Children’s Home managed by Elmer Garness and his wife. Their son, Jan, had a 1937 Ford Slantback Sedan with dual straight pipes (which were illegal). His folks had a room that was designed as his hobby room and we would build model cars in there. One day we hopped in his ‘37 and headed to Zesto. Along the way we noticed two little old ladies with an old Ford with a flat tire. We pulled in to help them out. Being an Igniter came with a responsibility to help others. We used to carry Igniter cards that said ‘you were just helped by a member of the SF Igniters Club’. When we pulled in, Jan made sure everyone could hear his car. We didn’t see a police officer in the parking lot. He just sat there watching us help the two old ladies. After we changed their tire and drove off, the officer followed and gave us a ticket. At the time you could get out of paying for the ticket if you went down to the police station and showed them that you fixed the pipes. There was a technique that we would use that included sticking a can of soup in the muffler to silence them enough to pass the inspection. This time, however, we didn’t fool the officer.”
Bill remembers, “All Igniter members had jackets with their name or nickname on them. Jan’s nickname was Mapo because he loved Mapo Cereal. (For those of you who are too young to know, there was a famous commercial for the cereal with the tag line ‘I want my Mapo’. One day we went down to KELO TV to help with the Jerry Lewis Telethon. (We would go collect the checks from people after they pledged a donation and bring them back to the station.) KELO TV legend, Dave Dedrick, would interview us on TV and when he came to Jan all he said was, “I want my Mapo”. So Jan had the name Mapo on his jacket. We would go to Kirk’s Drive Inn on 12th and Kiwanis on Saturday mornings for breakfast. The restaurant did not serve Mapo cereal. When Jan came in he would yell out ‘I want my Mapo’. Finally after a few months of listening to him, the waitress purchased a box of Mapo cereal for him.”
The club fell apart and splintered off into other hot rod clubs in town in the middle sixties. Decades passed but ‘once an Igniter, always an Igniter’ slogan was made a reality when Bill organized a reunion in 2007. “We had a reunion that Bill put together in 2007,” recalls Floyd. Joe, Bill, and Pierre talked about the reunion and figured out that there were four groups of Igniters throughout the years. Bill adds, “We wanted to get everyone together to reminisce. We were all getting older and we wanted to get together one more time. I worked for Xcel Energy in Community Relations so I had experience with setting up these types of meetings. We mailed out postcards and had people from California, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, and of course South Dakota. It amazed me that these guys would come all this way to make this meeting. We even had people show up that I didn’t have an address for but they heard about it and came. We had 53 attendees (including spouses). Out of the 53, 29 of them were Igniters.”
“What fascinated me was how many Igniter members we did not know. We knew the original members but did not know the newer guys. The club didn’t exist after 1964. It did have a good run for 10 years however,” said Gary Hartenhof. The Igniters were the first and probably most famous of all the local clubs. Their spirit and passion for hot rodding lives on. “Once an Igniter, always an Igniter.”