Clare Lawicki – “Little 500” standout
Several weeks ago, Roger Zellner posted this photograph on Facebook of Steve Benovich’s beautiful upright sprint car at the Dayton Speedway. Clare Lawicki who hailed from the Northern Detroit suburbs crashed and destroyed this car which had originally been owned by Bud Tingelstad in a United States Auto Club (USAC) race at Dayton in April 1970.
Photo courtesy of Roger Zellner
Clare Lawicki first became known while racing “hot rod” roadsters at the ¼-mile dirt Motor City Speedway in Warren Township of Detroit. It’s unclear when he started racing but on May 7 1950 he was involved when tragedy struck on the fourth lap of the day’s 20-lap feature race. Lawicki’s roadster “locked wheels” with Louis Smith Jr.’s machine and both cars flipped over the retaining wall. Because he had the presence of mind to duck under the cowling of his car at the beginning of the crash, Clare escaped with only cuts and bruises.
Unfortunately, Louis Smith fared much worse in the accident and though newspapers initially reported that the 33-year old driver had suffered a broken arm and internal injuries, doctors at Detroit’s Holy Cross Hospital found Smith had suffered a severe spinal injury and was paralyzed. Tragically, Smith passed away the next day from his injuries just five minutes before his parents arrived from their home in Waukegan Illinois.
Many of the highlights of Lawicki’s racing career came at the high-banked ¼-mile asphalt Sun Valley Speedway in Anderson Indiana, home of the annual 500-lap “Little 500” race. Lawicki first competed in the “Little 500” in 1954 when he drove the #57 Mercury V8-powered “hot rod” roadster owned by Birmingham Michigan’s Harold Thomas. Lawicki qualified with a single lap of 15.06 seconds, far off Tom Cherry’s new track record of 14.340 seconds, to start 17th in the field.
The 33-car field was paced to the start by cowboy star Roy Rogers in Dodge Royal 500 convertible. Lawicki’s rookie finish in the race is lost to history (as only the top ten finishers were reported) in a race that was marred by two separate incidents in which axles broke on race cars and sent errant wheels went into the grandstands which injured nine fans. 1950 and 1952 winner Tom Cherry led an amazing 495 laps to win his third “Little 500” crown.
On July 11 1954 Clare took part in a National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) event held at the ½-mile dirt Grand Rapids Speedrome, and finished 11th driving a 1949 Ford. Lawicki finished 25 laps behind the winning 1954 Chrysler driven by Randleman North Carolina’s Lee Petty and won $25 in prize money.
The following year, with the race again sanctioned by the Mutual Racing Association (MRA) for the “roaring roadsters,” Lawicki again drove Thomas’ roadster. After 30-year old singer Mel “the Velvet Fog” Torme paced the field in a 1955 Ford convertible before the start, Clare who had qualified seventh ran in third place at the 100-, 200-, and 300- lap points of the race but apparently had mechanical problems later as he was credited with a 14th place finish with 375 laps completed behind 4-time winner Tom Cherry who led an amazing 450 of the 500 laps.
A photo of the 1956 Desoto Indy 500 Pace Car
Photo courtesy of the IUPUI University Library
Center for Digital Studies Indianapolis Motor
Lawicki’s was the first car that retired from the 500-lap race with mechanical failure and he was credited with one completed lap. Later in 1956, Clare notched two “outlaw” sprint car feature wins at the familiar confines of Motor City Speedway in July and August in fields that also featured Al Miller, Richard ‘Red” Amick and Ronnie Duman.
Clare Lawicki was absent from the 1957 “Little 500” (the running of which was delayed by weather until July 6), but he did race in a sprint car race held August 25 1957 at the high-banked ¼-mile paved Cincinnati Race Bowl. Five cars broke the track record, led by Leon Clum’s 12.708 second lap. Clare won the first heat race and then finished the 35-lap feature race in fifth place behind Al Miller, Pete Allen, Johnny White, and Duman.
Lawicki missed the 1958 and 1959 running of the 500-lap “Little 500” classic at Sun Valley Speedway as the cars transitioned into what we today recognize as sprint cars. Clare returned in May 1960 behind the wheel of John Bennett’s #66 sprint car and qualified at 58.350 seconds for his four-lap run to start ninth on the outside of the third row.
After the start paced by actor James Garner behind the wheel of a 1960 Chevrolet convertible outfitted with rear fender skirts, Parnelli Jones surged into the lead in the Fike Plumbing sprinter from his front row starting position and led 102 laps.
The 1959 winner Ronnie Duman sailed past Jones into the lead on lap 371 and never looked back and defeated Parnelli by two laps. Lawicki finished sixth, 79 laps behind Duman who drove Hoy Stevens’ GMC-powered machine which had won the “Little 500” in 1957 and 1959 and finished third in 1958.
Hoy Stevens was a Pontiac/GMC dealer from Fredericktown Ohio who owned the #37 black and white trimmed sprint car powered by a 12-port cylinder head fitted to a 306-cubic inch GMC inline six-cylinder engine. In 1959 Stevens bought the patterns and drawings for the Horning-Fisher 12-port heads form California and had four new aluminum heads cast in a foundry in nearby Columbus Ohio.
For the 1961 “Little 500” Lawicki moved into the seat of Stevens’ three-time winning GMC-powered machine and won the pole position with a four-lap run of 55.79 seconds. Pre-race activities included the arrival of the pace car driver, cowboy star Clint Walker in the infield via helicopter as only hours earlier he had appeared in the ‘500’ festival parade in Indianapolis.
Clare led the race’s first nine laps and finished the race in second place, fifteen laps behind rookie race winner Jim McElreath and seven laps ahead of the third place car driven by the 1951 winner Marlin “Red” Renner. Later in the 1961 racing season Clare appeared at three USAC sprint car races at Indianapolis Raceway Park (IRP) and New Bremen with the Stevens’ GMC sprint car but failed to qualify for the 15-car starting fields.
In 1962 Lawicki started the season with a non-qualifying effort at Salem Speedway as the GMC powered car timed in the slowest of the 22 cars entered, but he rebounded in early May with a 12th place finish at New Bremen after starting shotgun on the field. The International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) was in its first year of sanctioning the “Little 500” at Sun Valley Speedway, and IMCA brought out its roster of stars that included young Texan Johnny Rutherford, who won the pole, Gordon Wooley, Johnny White, and Pete Folse.
1962 “Little 500” pre-race activities featured as the pace car driver actor Vincent Edwards (aka Dr. Ben Casey) who received protection from local National Guard troops to prevent a reoccurrence of the mob scene that had occurred days earlier in Indianapolis. Lawicki started the race in eleventh place and ran strongly most of the race in the top five, and held the lead from lap 438 to lap 481, when Arnie Knepper of Bellville Illinois passed him for the lead and held on to win over Clare by half a lap.
Five days later, Lawicki and the Stevens GMC qualified for the fifteenth and last starting position for the USAC feature at the ½-mile dirt New Bremen Speedway and after the 30-lap race marked by high attrition, finished in ninth place. Unfortunately Clare’s subsequent attempts to qualify for five other 1962 USAC sprint car races fell short at IRP, Reading Pennsylvania, New Bremen, and Salem Speedway.
In early 1963, Lawicki and the GMC-powered car failed to qualify for the twin 50-lap feature program at the brutal 1-mile circular Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania as he timed 28th fastest out of the 29 cars entered. AJ Foyt won the first 50-lap race ahead of Roger McCluskey, but during the second feature tragedy struck on the 41st lap. Bobby Marvin a rising star on the USAC racing scene in 1962 drifted too high in turn two hooked the outside guardrail and flipped. The car came to rest in flames and the race was stopped with leader Roger McCluskey declared the winner.
Lawicki failed to qualify the Hoy Stevens GMC machine for the 1963 “Little 500” starting field but still competed in the race. Bud Randall had qualified one two cars entered by Hoosier sprint car legend Ennis “Dizz” Wilson for the eighteenth starting spot, but Clare started the car instead and though the car retired with overheating problems on the 452nd lap, Lawicki was placed in the twelfth finishing position.
Similar circumstances again resulted in Clare running the “Little 500” in 1964. After Dick Gaines qualified the “Dizz” Wilson Chevy sprinter in 32nd starting spot, Lawicki replaced him at the last minute. Indianapolis television show host Don Melvoin drove the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang convertible pace car to start the race, then Clare drove the #72 car up through the field to finish tenth with 442 laps completed in an event which was won by surprise winner Dick Good who drove a Indianapolis roadster style machine to victory with an eight-lap margin.
In February 1966 Lawicki debuted with the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) stock cars at the 2-1/2 mile high-banked Daytona International Speedway. He finished 10th in his 25-mile qualifying race but for the ‘ARCA Daytona 250’ itself, the #23 1966 Dodge Charger entry was driven by long-time ARCA competitor Jack Shanklin.
After not competing in the 1965 “Little 500,” Clare Lawicki returned in 1966 behind the wheel of a familiar car, the ex-Hoy Stevens GMC-powered sprint car owned by Avery Adams of Belleville Ohio. The best time that Lawicki could coax out of the old two-time winner was 26th starting place. The fastest qualifier, Dean Mast in a caged supermodified fitted with a roof panel set a pair of new track records, four laps at 53.13 seconds and his fastest single lap timed at 13.09 seconds.
On May 28 front row starter Rollie Beale won as he drove the ‘Don-Ken Special,’ owned by Toledo transmission shop owner Kenny Lay, to victory before a crowd of 14,500 spectators reportedly the largest crowd in the history of the event. Lawicki finished eighteenth in the six-cylinder GMC powered car, 65 laps behind the winner.
Lawicki’s tenth and final “Little 500”appearance came in 1967 behind the wheel of former driver Don Friend’s machine. Friend, a two-time “Little 500” starter in 1961 and 1963, had crashed Ted Helke’s yellow roadster in turn one at Winchester Speedway during an IMCA sprint car race on the third lap of the May 10 1964 feature. Friend’s driving career ended when the car “submarined” under the steel guardrail and Don suffered a skull fracture and his left arm was severed at the elbow.
Lawicki qualified Friend’s # 74 sprint car in 25th place for the 1967 race and then dropped out of the race on lap 255 with unspecified mechanical problems. The race’s pole-sitter Darl Harrisons won the race by three laps over Jerry Reichert with relief from Cy Fairchild over the last 115 laps.
In 1969, Lawicki drove the Benovich sprint car shown in the lead photograph at eight USAC paved track events, and the author strongly suspects that Clare tried to qualify for the “Little 500” but did not make the starting field. At June 1 at Dayton Speedway Lawicki failed to finish the 30-lap feature due to his involvement in an accident with Jim Smith, who retired after flipping out of the track.
Clare posted an eighth place finish at Toledo Speedway in the red and gold leaf trimmed sprinter, and then failed to finish at Heidelberg, New Bremen and Michigan’s 3/8-mile Berlin Speedway. In September Clare finished fifth in the 50 lap feature behind Gary Bettenhausen Rollie Beale, Cy Fairchild and Larry Dickson, and the following month finished ninth at Salem Speedway after 30 laps of the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial.
The USAC sprint cars made their 1970 season debut on the high-banked half-mile Dayton Speedway on Sunday April 12. In just the season’s fourth race it was already shaping up to be a continuation of “the Larry and Gary Show,” as Larry Dickson, the 1968 USAC sprint car series champion, had won the 1970 season’s first two sprint car races in Florida, while the 1969 USAC sprint car series champion Gary Bettenhausen had won the week before at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg Ohio.
In addition to Bettenhausen and Dickson, the field of entries featured 1966 “Little 500” winner Rollie Beale, Greg Weld, 1968 “Little 500” champion Karl Busson and a local 22-year old hydroplane racer named David “Salt” Walther. In qualifying Bettenhausen set the pace for the 20-car field and slotted in sixth for the feature start, while Clare Lawicki was set the start 14th on the outside of the seventh row.
After several failed attempts to start the scheduled 40-lap race, the green flag flew and Lee Kunzman charged into the lead from his pole position starting position. As the field streamed into the first turn, Lawicki attempted an outside pass for position but instead ran nearly head-on into the two-tier Armco steel outer guardrail. The resulting impact sheared off the front of the car; a pair of photographers shooting from an unauthorized area where struck by debris and injured.
Clare was trapped in the mangled wreckage for 15 minutes but once he was cut free and out of the remains of the Benovich sprinter, emergency personnel found that miraculously he had suffered multiple contusions on his legs and a broken wrist. When the racing resumed, Beale took the lead and led late into the race before his car’s engine failed and Dickson inherited the win. The crash apparently ended Clare Lawicki’s racing career and the Benovich car was a total loss.
Steve Benovich told observers at Dayton that day that he was out of money and that he was done with racing but he was premature in his statement. Three years later in 1973 Benovich entered another #54 sprint car for the April 29 USAC feature at Eldora for the 1967 and 1970 “Little 500” winner and 1971 USAC rookie of the year Darl Harrison.
As reported in the following day’s Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune reported that during the feature Harrison’s car hit the outside rail coming out of the first turn on the 28th lap and flipped six times. Harrison was described as “severely shaken but otherwise unhurt” and the second Benovich sprint car was destroyed. Sammy Sessions, the series’ defending champion grabbed the lead after the re-start in Mauri Amerling’s #1 car and held on to win the crash-filled 40-lap feature.
For his outstanding record in the “Little 500” with 3,366 laps completed, his pole position start in 1961, back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1961 and 1962, and two other top ten finishes in 1960 and 1964, Clare Lawicki was inducted into the “Little 500” Hall of Fame in 2009.
The author is interested in learning more about driver Clare Lawicki – contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org