Indoor hardtop racing in San Francisco
In early 1955, the Crown American Racing Club of San Francisco sponsored the Northern California Indoor Hardtop Championship (NCIHTC) races indoors at the Cow Palace sanctioned by the Oakland Racing Association.
While pre-race publicity billed the Cow Palace events as “the national debut of indoor stock car racing;” the author’s research suggests that this might not have been an outlandish claim. There were indoor stock car races held over the winter of 1951-2 inside the cavernous Cincinnati Gardens in Ohio, but those were small cars, makes such as Crosley, Renault 4CV and Peugeot 203 stripped down and raced on a 1/10-mile oval, whereas the races on the Cow Palace 1/5-mile oval were for full-size stock cars.
Interestingly, the Cow Palace’s opening night was scheduled against the final night of the Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) 6-week indoor midget car racing series held across San Francisco Bay inside the Oakland Exposition Building.
While the hardtops were racing inside the Cow Palace, the victory in the final 14-lap race in the Pacific Coast Indoor Auto Racing Championship was captured by San Francisco’s Dave Holliday (who had started his racing career racing under his given name Dave Steele) in Vic Gotelli’s #154 as Johnny Baldwin won his third consecutive BCRA indoor title.
The inaugural night of indoor hardtop racing on Saturday night, February 12, 1955 featured qualifying, heat races, a 15-lap semi-main race and a 30-lap feature. Victory in the first race of the hardtop series was captured by Max (sometimes erroneously called “Mac”) McCord of Alameda, trailed by Henry “Cowboy” Alves in second. Carmel Fernandez Jr. won the semi-main and finished third in the feature, while roadster racer George “Blonde” Pacheco won the trophy dash for the four fastest qualified cars.
It appears that the Oakland Racing Association (ORA) which sanctioned the races patterned themselves after the BCRA indoor races and awarded points by results from races throughout the night, not just the feature results.
At the end of the first night of racing, Pacheco and Alves were tied for the points lead with 48 markers apiece trailed by McCord with 43 points, then Fernandez Sr. in fourth. Fifth through tenth in the “Big Ten,” were in order Bob Anderson, Richard Fishburn, Dick Smith, George Lawrence, Walt Moniz and Tom Olives.
The author has been thus far unable to uncover the complete racing results from the second week’s results from February 19 program, but the fragments found list Carmel Fernandez Jr as the winner of the second heat race and Walt Moniz the trophy dash winner. “Cowboy” Alves padded his points lead as the winner of the night’s feature race in car #666 with only 2,500 fans reportedly in attendance.
There was a two-week break due to other events at the Cow Palace, which included a musical concert by Liberace on the afternoon of Sunday February 27 which drew 13,000 fans. Prior to the March 5, 1955 third round of races, Henry Alves from Oakland was listed as the points leader with 103 markers and he held a lead of 32 points over second place driver Lou Phillips from San Francisco. Hot rod roadster racer George Pacheco was in third place in the points chase, followed by Fishburn, McCord and Bob Anderson who worked as a typesetter for the Hayward Daily Review newspaper, in sixth place.
Heat race winners for the March 5 program included Pacheco, George Hanson, Moniz, Fishburn, and Earl ‘Doc’ Sadler who also won the trophy dash. Chet Thompson in the #999 machine who sometimes raced under the moniker “Johnny Comet” won the semi-main, and Hanson took the victory in the 30-lap feature event.
Beginning with the March 12, 1955 fourth round of racing inside the Cow Palace, the racing was “dual sanctioned” by BCRA and NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Racing) with the races described as “mixed company” with NASCAR modified stock cars equipped with racing engines and the BCRA hardtops racing alongside the ORA stock hardtops.
The addition of NASCAR sanction to the program brought along drivers Gene Dudley, Johnny Franklin, Vern Fry and Dwight Palmer for the scheduled 15-lap semi-main and the 30-lap feature while the BCRA contributed their two-time hardtop champion Lou Bernardoni and Ted Montague.
Dan Regan won the trophy dash, with the heat race wins garnered by Montague, Anderson, Alves, Roletto and Dan O’Connell of San Leandro. Bernardoni won the semi-main trailed by Montague with Anderson fourth. The win in the crash-filled feature went to McCord, followed by Bob Burdock, Olives and Roletto.
The faster modified stock cars dominated the March 19th fifth round of indoor racing at the Cow Palace, as ORA regulars Dick Anderson in the Hayward Printers Special and father and son Fernandez Sr and Jr were unable to qualify for the program. The victory in the night’s first race, the four-lap trophy dash victory went to Palo Alto’s Dick Seyler, while ‘Doc’ Sadler won both the first and second ten-lap heat races behind the wheel of his “stock” 1934 Plymouth coupe.
Joe ‘Rollover’ Roletto won the third heat race, while Burdock and Olives won the fourth and fifth heat races respectively. The seventh event of the evening, the 15-lap semi-main was captured by Marty Flores of San Leandro followed by Leroy Davies.
Chuck Webb, the 1953 track champion at Sacramento’s West Capitol Speedway won the night’s featured 30-lap main event as he battled through heavy traffic. San Francisco’s Lou Bernardoni who set the track record for qualifying around the Cow Palace 1/5-mile oval at 11.2 seconds finished second and Joe Nault was third.
The final race of the six-week North California Indoor Hardtop Championship (NCIHTC) winter program concluded on Saturday night March 26, 1955. The first 10-lap heat race was captured by future BCRA midget champion Dick Atkins of Hayward, while Ned Mosely and Joe Diaz won the second and third heat races. Joe Justie, from Stockton earlier the winner of the trophy dash, won both the fourth and fifth heat races.
Jimmy Stewart (not the actor) won the semi-main as he edged Max McCord who had entered the night’s racing leading by 11 points, with Anderson in third. ORA regular Henry ‘Cowboy” Alves won the 30-lap feature over BCRA regular George Hansen, with Diaz in third place. With his victory Alves overtook McCord’s slim points lead and won the NCIHTC title as he tallied 230 points to McCord’s 212 with ‘big car’ veteran Joe Roletto placed third.
The two top drivers, Henry “Cowboy” Alves, and Max McCord, were the only drivers to win more than once in the series’ six races, with George Hanson of San Francisco and Chuck Webb of Sacramento single race winners. Although the BCRA outdoor racing season kicked off the week following the NCIHTC finale, promoter Marc Mott scheduled a Spring series of indoor stock car races to launch on May 7 1955 to run through the month of June.