On the only racing left

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Some time ago I received an extra thick copy of N.A.R.N., America’s midget car racing weekly – the 1941 Christmas number, with Daddy Xmas in a midget on the cover and a review of the 1941 speedway season inside. It is the size of this special supplement which brings home to you what a vast business this American midget doodling is. As it looks like going on, at all events for a while, and is the only regular motor racing now happening in an insane universe, we really should sit well up and notice it. For this reason I asked a friend to review the 1941 season for me and his remarks were published last month. True, he seemed rather to sneer at this kind of racing, and I must confess I have no taste for it myself – and that goes for what cinder-shifting we have had over here and not for our allies’ racing alone. The reason why I hold midget racing in low esteem is simply because midget-car racing is nothing more than a staged spectacle. Little cars on little wheels can run around little artificial tracks, and little artificial tracks, dirt, board or what have you, can be planted almost anywhere where a crowd can be relied on to come and goggle. Very often in a local fair ground…. Consequently, I cannot but link the midget-car driver with the professional strong man, the “Wall-ofDeath” rider or the parachute-dropper in an aerial circus, except that he foolishly risks death more often…. The sort of people I once met at a London midget drivers’ club did nothing to make me retract this opinion. I am fully alive to the enthralling spectacle which a dozen closely packed midgets in action can offer, cornering at the flat-out speed of a baby car and sometimes going as fast as a good sports car on the straights. I see no especial reason why cold water should be thrown on this, shall we say, bastard offspring of the Sport, now that thousands of war-toiling beings relax by watching it each “nite.” But to compare it with the racing of cars for purposes of research, or to gain marque publicity we must not.

Just to give you some idea of how professionalised is this class of racing in America, let me quote a bit of bother they had recently. It seems that a paper apologised to the widow of a driver who had crashed for saying the doodle-bug involved was badly damaged, after the widow had written in protest, on the grounds that she might lose money when selling the wreck…. The fact is that most of the American midget drivers regard racing as a means of earning a living, and remaining “in the money” occupies their attention and their families’ attention very fully. One driver has publicly announced that he was counting the days until he could quit racing and live in his own house with his own family on the proceeds. Without labouring the evidence, obviously there is a world of difference between racing your own fullsize racing car or driving a manufacturer’s racing cars in European events and figuring as a doodle-chauffeur in the States.

However, this is the only racing left and we may as well take more than a glance at it. The fundamentals were very nicely expounded by my friend in his article in the April issue of Motor Sport, so let me endeavour briefly to survey the 1941 American speedway season.

In Southern California racing seems to have happened at Gilmore Stadium, Atlantic Speedway, Orange Empire, Southern Ascot and Balboa Stadium. “Dynamo” Walt Faulkner gained 27 “firsts,” 13 “seconds” and 6 “thirds,” driving E.R. Casale’s blue V8, and was undoubted champion. Quite long races were held, such as the 150-lap Thanksgiving Grand Prix and the 100-Lap Gold Cup Inaugural Event at Gilmore. Walt Turley sustained fatal injuries at Orange Empire and four or five drivers sustained serious injuries. Incidentally. the Gilmore Stadium is a 1/4-mile clay oval, on which the midgets, weighing about 1,000 lb. and running up to 6,000 r.p.m., were said to go round the swerves at 50 m.p.h. and to reach 80 m.p.h. on the straights. Balboa Stadium saw speeds some 5 m.p.h. higher and at Atlantic Boulevard the fastest paved 1/3-mile circuit in existence, 45 m.p.h. on the corners and 70 m.p.h. on the straights were realised. Culver City is another Southern California course, which has 35-ft. wide straights and 45-ft. wide turns, the lap being 1/4 mile. It opened with a 10-mile main race and after a few events the surface was badly cutup.

The Southern Tier Auto Racing Club had 42 drivers and 30 cars on its books and sponsored sprint events at 10 tracks in New York City and Pennsylvania. Top honours went to Amos Hill, on points; he drove a Riley at the Syracuse State Fair.

Farmer City, Ill., with a population of 1,000, introduced midget racing to Cornbelt region fans at a one-tenth-mile horse exhibition fairground track in the fall of 1938. Last year it ran Gilmore-type racing at a former wheat field and attracted excellent Press publicity by featuring a Press box for the editors! Fourteen races were promoted by the Fair Board, some of 50 and 100 laps (only 5 and 10 miles, remember) and no one was seriously hurt; 44 drivers competed.

Houston Speed Bowl seems proud of its wild racing and boasts “at least 26 complete roll-overs in 33 meets”! Many bad injuries are reported in some detail, but there were no fatalities. Eight meetings were cancelled on account of rain and one because of a hurricane. Well over 100,000 “fans” are reported to have attended and the competitors received $18,768, or an average of $569 a meet. After a slow start, various county fairs held successful midget races in Kansas City and big-car racing took place at the County and State Fairs. The Wichita West Side Softball Park saw 20 meets and the local boys seemed satisfied enough with prize money based on a percentage of the “gate.” The first midget-car fatality in this State happened at this track, in a heat feature. Under the promotion of Bill Heiserman, Castle Hill Midget Speedway had a very successful season. Purses totalled $34,060.50, $2,000 being paid on one 100-lap race. The paid attendance in 1941 was 125,505 persons, or an average of some 6,275, spectators per event, at all classes of events. Hustling Henry Banks was champion, handling a Caruso Offy.

Western Pennsylvania and Ohio saw meets at the 1/4-mile New Kensington Dirt Speedway, at the 1/2-mile high-banked Uniontown, Pa., Track, at the 1/2-mile Canfield Fairground Track, at Akron Rubber Bowl, Smithfield and Bedford Banked Track; 5,000 “fans” attended at the initial meet at Uniontown on Labour Day.

More encouraging is the big-car racing at a 1-mile banked track at Oakland. Hal Cole won a 100-mile race with a 255 cub. in. Miller, at 88 m.p.h. There were 18 starters. Twenty-four cars started in a 200-mile race, again won by Cole. Then they had a 250-mile Stock Car Race, won by Al. Eames’s Ford V8, With Phillips (Ford V8) second and Schock’s Chrysler third. The winning Ford averaged 73.46 m.p.h. Still they couldn’t avoid accidents. Black well was in eleventh place when Agabahian turned over on lap 200; Blackwell turned his head to observe the crash, lost control and himself crashed, with fatal results. Another car burst a tyre and crashed. Finally there was a 500-mile race with 33 starters, before 15,000 spectators, in September – on a rough-surfaced 1-mile oval! Cole “broke a clutch shaft” after 184 miles, but came back in 50 minutes without his shirt, but with a new “clutch shaft.” The front end of a Hispano-Suiza fell off alter 304 laps and its driver was killed. In the end a Riley driven by Barnett won at 75.86 m.p.h., the driver doing his 6 hour 35 min. 35 secs. drive unaided. A Plymouth was second and a Miller, handled by a “roadster grad.” (inexperienced driver to you!), third, all three finishing with “both frame rails broken,” from which I surmise the side members were a queer shape.

Right at the commencement of the 1941 season the A.A.A. announced a minimum purse of $1,100 for 1/2-mile big-car events, the piston displacement for which was lowered to 20.5 cub. in. – rather less than 3.4 litres. The first of their big-car meets was watched by a record crowd of 34,000, who saw “Vic Nauman take the feature,” whatever that may mean.

A lengthy article is devoted to Ralph A. Hankinson, described as the Dean of Auto Race Promoters. He is said to have had “a Barnum-ic flair for showmanship,” and to have “shown Barney Oldfield, Ralph De Palma, Ray Keeeh, Frank Lockhart, Fred Frame, Wilbur Shaw, Lou Meyer. etc., to fans the country over.” Somehow Percy Bradley and Harry Edwards and Leslie Wilson and Eric Giles are not in the same street (fortunately!), and I’m not sure whether Fred Craner “showed” the German aces or whether they showed Fred Craner (and the rest of us), but the fact remains this was racing of a very different sort! Anyway, you see why I call speedway racing a circus….

That, then, is a review of the last season’s racing of the only sort left to us. I find myself interested, but not impressed. I will conclude by reprinting from The National Auto Racing News of December 18th, 1941, an article on Promoter Bill Heiserman, as it gives a very good idea of speedway finance and attendances:–

A check-up of season data for 1941 on the Eastern racing front shows that pioneer promoter Bill Heiserman continues to rate as tops in the midget racing division for the seventh straight year. For the fifth straight year Heiserman has topped the $50,000 prize-money mark, a record that has never been approached by any single promoter or group of promotors.

Bill continued to operate his big plant, Castle Hill Speedway, for the fourth consecutive year and also completed his third straight season of indoor races at the Bronx Coliseum. Although he dropped the Bridgeport Track after five seasons, Heiserman moved his New England interests to Springfield, Mass., and in partnership with Larry Doyle gave that section of the country its most successful season of midget auto racing.

In all, Heiserman promoted 80 meets, 10 more than in 1940, and enjoyed a far more successful year, playing to a total paid attendance of 266,679 persons. Total prize money for 1941, not counting the meets run in December at the Bronx Coliseum, reached the impressive total of $62,603, making the all-time total for Heiserman promotions the neat sum of $340,439.

A breakdow a of the figures shows an attendance of 80,000 at the indoor meets at the Bronx Coliseum; 130,000 at Castle Hill Speedway; and 65,000 at West Springfield Speedway. Prize money figures at Castle Hill were $34,060.50 for 37 meets; .N.Y. Coliseum, $15,997 for 24 meets; West Springfield, $12,546 for 19 meets.

The 1941 season was Bill Heiserman’s tenth in the speedway promotion and one of his best. Bill will sit tight with his trio of speedways for 1942, due to the present war conditions.