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'A heart of gold': Larry Ball Sr., Iowa Sprint car racing royalty, died of COVID-19


If Iowa has racing royalty, Larry Ball Sr. is among its court. 

Inducted into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame, Larry was one of the top Sprint car owners in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Relying on rock-solid equipment and dependable drivers, Larry’s teams got consistent Top 10 and Top 5 honors as well as plenty of Top 3 finishes.

"His car always ran up front," said Larry's son, Larry Ball Jr.

Larry Sr. — who was remembered as a supportive father, loving husband and caring friend in and out of the racing world — died last spring due to complications from COVID-19. He was 78.

Most Saturdays during the season, Larry Sr. and his son would pass the day in their suite at the Knoxville Raceway.

For Larry Jr., his dad was a constant comrade and a "straight shooter” when it came to their shared passion for racing.

"I might call him if I heard something or heard a racing rumor and say, 'Hey you heard this? You talk to anybody?' said the younger Ball, who's an attorney in Altoona. "And I can’t do that."

A native of Hartford, Larry Sr. raced modified stock cars in the 1960s. When Larry Jr. came along in 1967, the patriarch introduced his scion to go-karts, and eventually helped launch his son’s Sprint car career as a main driver for the family team, Ball Racing, Inc.

Chief among all of Larry Sr.’s accomplishments as the head of Ball Racing was that none of his drivers ever suffered a serious injury — a feat in the rough and tumble days of racing in the 80s and 90s.

"He gave me a lot of opportunities," Larry Jr. said.

Larry Sr.’s passion for racing extended off the track, too. When the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Museum needed truck drivers to cart around a 410-cubic inch engine Sprint car to various races, enticing fans to buy raffle tickets for a chance to win the car as a fundraiser for the institution, Larry Sr. always stepped up.  

"He was always there for me," said Tom Schmeh, the museum’s former director and Larry's good friend. "He was a great guy. He had just a wicked sense of humor. He was a big guy and he had a big heart, a heart of gold."

Single during his stretch in Knoxville, Tom’s mother moved to an assisted living facility in town to be close to her son during her twilight years.

Knowing that family was far for Tom and his mom, Larry Sr. and his wife, Donna, who lived on Des Moines’ east side, invited them to Thanksgiving at their house every year.

"It’s just typical of the type of people they were and they are. Just absolutely wonderful and very caring, compassionate people," Tom said. "It’s just so sad what’s happened. ... I miss him."

Larry Jr. misses his dad, too. He feels the loss acutely whenever something happens in the racing world that he knew his dad would have loved or "got a kick out of."

And as the racing season ramps up, Larry Jr. knows that his Saturdays are going to feel very different without his straight-shooting companion right next to him.

"It’s just too bad. There’s obviously been a lot of people affected by COVID," Larry Jr. said. "Hopefully it’s turning the corner and we can get it squared away."

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 600 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Christine Ellis, 65, Rockwell City. A crafter who always had a project, whether making flower arrangements or crocheting scarfs, blankets and dog sweaters.

Duane Hagberg, 87, Orion. Maintained a Cubs vs. Cardinals rivalry with his Heartland Health Care Center roommate, Jim Dodd.

Geraldine Hearn, 93, Marion. Owned and operated Vickroy Jewelry in Montezuma for a decade.

Sharyl Hohnecker, 70, Marion. Her Maquoketa home was known as the "Christmas House" because of how many lights and decorations she and her husband put up each winter.

Michael Wahl, 69, Norwalk. A gearhead who loved to drag race and street race.

Caroline Waits, 96, Centerville. Worked to provide a loving environment for her husband and six children.