Friday, October 3, 2014


More than thirty years before the inception of Indiana Sprint Week, the United States Auto Club (USAC) staged a multi-race series for midget racers in Florida during the months of February and March in 1957. Known as the “Tangerine Tournament” it featured the top midget cars and drivers from around the country. 

After months of planning, the schedule for the Tangerine Tournament was announced on January 6 1957 by Ashley T. Wright, chairman of the organizing committee the membership of which included driver Tony Bettenhausen who served as the Chief Steward of the series. Wright, from Orland Park Illinois, best known as the owner of the series of immaculate ‘Hardwood Door’ midgets, also served as the USAC Midwest zone supervisor during the middle fifties.

The initial schedule for the Tangerine Tournament was described in the press as Florida’s first “big time racing circuit” although the American Race Drivers Club (ARDC) had hosted a series of races at four tracks in 1948. The thirteen all-Offenhauser engine USAC midget racing programs featured a core group of 15 USAC cars and drivers which were scheduled to appear twice at six race tracks.  

From a base established in the former Indian River/Frank B Smith Lincoln-Mercury dealership at 720 South 4th Street in Fort Pierce overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, races were scheduled at tracks that spanned the state of Florida from Pensacola in the north to Miami in the south and Tampa on the Gulf Coast.  Trios of races were scheduled in the same geographic area on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, with the first event set for Pensacola on February 17.

Florida was virgin territory for USAC midgets, held at race tracks that typically hosted weekly hardtop or jalopy races, so Mr. Wright devoted a lot of time and energy to promote the series. Newspaper articles introduced readers to the midget cars as “little bundles of dynamite” powered by Offenhauser engines, the “power plant instrumental in winning national titles for many years, considered the finest power unit of its type in the world.” Drivers from all parts of the country that included Indianapolis 500 veterans Al Keller, Chuck Weyant, and 1953 midget champion Leroy Warriner were among those entered to handle the “little gems of mechanical perfection.”

In advance of the start of the Tournament, on February 7, Len Sutton billed as the first man to “turn upside at 140 MPH and live through it” (a reference to his 1956 practice crash in the Wolcott Special) spoke to the Fort Pierce Lions Club and showed a short film on the 1956 Indianapolis ‘500.’ 

Two nights later as part of the regular hardtop racing program at Fort Pierce Speedway, Sutton and Bob Gregg staged a match race in the two Ashley Wright midgets.Gregg was behind the wheel of the new “Kay Special” a Kurtis-Kraft roadster midget named after Wright’s wife Kathryn, while Sutton drove the conventional “Hardwood Door” Kurtis-Kraft midget. After the races, Ashley showed the interested fans a 25-minute film that recapped the 1956 Indianapolis ‘500.’

Another effort to interest fans in the series was the nomination of cars and drivers to represent cities throughout Florida; for instance Jimmy Knight represented the City of Tampa, Sonny McDaniel the town of Fort Pierce, Al Keller, West Palm Beach, Rex Easton the city of Winter Park and Len Duncan the city of Jacksonville.  This effort was so convincing that some newspaper articles actually listed those cities as the drivers’ hometown in race results. 

The 1957 USAC midget racing season had already held four races before the inaugural Tangerine event at Pensacola – two races indoors at the Allen County Coliseum in Fort Wayne, one race at the ¼-mile South Mountain Speedway in Phoenix and one at the paved 1/3-mile at San Jose California. 

The winners of those four earlier races- Rex Easton, Warriner, Clark ‘Shorty’ Templeman, and Gene Hartley all were entered at Five Flags Speedway on Sunday February 17. The $2000 dollar nightly purses indeed attracted drivers from all over the country including two young racers from Texas destined for great results later in their careers named Lloyd Ruby and A.J. Foyt.    

The USAC midgets raced on a paved ¼-mile oval inside the larger ½-mile paved oval Five Flags Speedway located in Northwest Pensacola, The track owned and promoted by Alf Knight and Ted Chester opened on Memorial Day 1953. Knight would later move on to serve as track superintendent of the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1959, while Chester was owner of the Hudson Hornet driven by 1952 NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Racing) Grand National champion Tim Flock. Chester gained notoriety as the owner of “Jocko” the monkey that rode with Flock in a pair of the 1953 NASCAR races. 

Details of the opening afternoon midget race are sketchy; the entry list included Johnnie Tolan and Chuck Rodee (real name Rodeghier) the 1956 USAC midget championship runner-up, Len Duncan, and Andy Linden. Hank Nykaza a 12-year racing veteran former United Midget racing Association champion from East Chicago set quick time and then won the trophy dash, his heat race and the 12-lap semi-main. Victory in the 30-lap feature was captured by Chicago’s Jimmy Knight over Linden, Hartley, and Templeman.

News reports indicated that Knight started the day behind the wheel of a roadster midget but after problems switched to a conventional midget for the feature. Despite Knight’s victory, Andy Linden tallied the most points in the opening night’s event.  Knight, whose real name was James Randerson, started his racing career in 1948 in his own black ‘Lite-Knight’ midget. In 1953, Jimmy, a railroad worker when not racing finished second in both AAA (American Automobile Association) Midwest and National midget points.  

Five days later on the night February 22 the USAC midgets appeared at H.B. Highsmith’s Fort Pierce Speedway located three miles south of town on Orange Avenue.  Highsmith a hardtop racer, quit the Florida Highway Patrol after years in 1956 to open the ¼-mile Speedway, the first paved track located in St Lucie County.  Highsmith would sell his interest in Fort Pierce Speedway Inc. in December 1957 and returned to the Highway Patrol from which he would retire as a lieutenant in 1970.

The entries at Fort Pierce included Bob Wente, Andy Furci, Buzz Barton, Jim McWithey, Don Branson, and Tony Bonadies in the race which was part of town’s ‘Sandy Shoes Festival.’ Thanks to the extensive coverage provided by the Fort Pierce News Tribune, we have a much clearer historical picture of the Friday night Fort Pierce races.

A crowd estimated at 1200 fans watched Andy Linden set quick time of 16.52 seconds in Lee Elkin’s midget in qualifying before the first of three 8-lap heat races. Wente form St. Louis won the first heat over Elmer George and Dutch Schaefer, and then Nykaza won the second heat over Foyt and Easton. Pensacola winner Jimmy Knight won the third heat over Jim McWithey, who led the 12-lap semi-main from start to finish trailed by Nykaza. 

Feature race front row starter veteran Dutch Schafer jumped into the lead at the drop of the green flag and held the lead for the 21 circuits trailed by pole-sitter Sonny McDaniel from Houston. On lap 21, Schafer’s car blew a tire, and the valve stem flew into the grandstands and struck an Air Force lieutenant in the arm. McDaniel drove the ‘Texas Racing Club Special’ past as ‘Dutch’ pulled into the infield and Sonny held on over the final nine laps to claim the win over Len Duncan and Rex Easton.

After the races, McDaniel received his trophy from ‘Miss Citrus Queen’ Frances Layton a 21-year old from Callahan Florida, while his car owner Tommy Thompson received his trophy from Barbara Vickers “Miss St. Lucie.”  H.B. Highsmith promised fans that for the next race, he would purchase more rosin to scatter in the corners to give the slick tires on the powerful midgets more ‘bite’ on the worn asphalt surface and create more side-by-side racing. 

The teams traveled 120 miles northwest for the Saturday night race at the ¼-mile paved Sunbrock Speedway in Orlando named after its owner, the notorious promoter Larry Sunbrock. Sunbrock had a checkered history that dated back to the nineteen thirties when he was president of the National Roller Skating Association of America, which promoted long distance roller skating races on an indoor oval which advertised 'up to' $5000 in prizes.

After several arrests and lawsuits regarding his roller skating promotions, Larry  organized a touring “Wild West Rodeo and Hollywood Thrill Show” that earned him the nickname “Never a Dull Moment” Sunbrock in Variety and Billboard entertainment trade magazines. In 1949,  after more legal problems, Sunbrock bought property near Ferguson Drive and Old Wintergarden Road in Orlando and formed Florida Racing Inc. to stage jalopy races at his new Speedway. Sunbrock lost control of the racing facility in 1957 because of tax and divorce problems that stemmed from his multiple bank accounts opened under various aliases.  

In the USAC race in Orlando on the night of February 23, Al Keller set quick time in qualifying with a lap of 15.3 seconds, but for some reason his “City of West Palm Beach Special” was forced to start scratch on the field for the 30-lap feature. While Andy Linden won the race over Gene Hartley and Shorty Templeman to extend his Tangerine Tournament points lead, Keller recovered with a brilliant fourth place finish. 

After the Saturday night races ended, the teams had to hustle 85 miles southwest for the Sunday afternoon show on the half-mile dirt track at Plant Field in Tampa which earlier in the month hosted its annual series of South Florida Fair ‘big car’ races sanctioned by the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA). Plant Field built in 1899 as a multi-use entertainment venue to draw visitors to the Tampa Bay Hotel resort first hosted automobile races beginning in 1921 and racing lasted there until the mid-nineteen seventies.

USAC regular Don Branson set quick time in Elbert ‘Al’ Willey’s “Al’s Paint and Body Special” Kurtis-Kraft midget from Moline Illinois with a best lap of 26.72 seconds.  Andy Linden started seventh for the 20-lap feature but quickly moved to the lead and comfortably won his second straight Tangerine Tournament feature over Len Duncan, Chuck Rodee, and Len Sutton. 

The teams returned to their base in Fort Pierce for four days to repair and refresh their mounts in preparation of the upcoming Friday night show in Hialeah with six preliminary races advertised on a card topped by a 30-lap feature race.  One of the new entries listed for Hialeah was Forrest Parker a cabinet maker from Covington Indiana who had won the debut 100-lap USAC outdoor midget race at Bill Lipke’s Kokomo Speedway in 1956. 

Hialeah Speedway, a 1/3-mile paved track west of Miami was built by the Greater Miami Racing Association on farmland close to the Palmetto Expressway a bypass around the city of Miami and had opened in July 1954. Details on the Hialeah USAC event promoted by Tony Bettenhausen are slim but Al Keller was the winner in Carl Evans’ midget trailed by Linden, Hartley and Templeman. Despite not winning the race, the ex-Marine boxer Linden padded his Tournament points lead with another solid finish.

The teams traveled 235 miles north to make a return visit to Sunbrock Speedway for a 30-lap feature on Saturday night, March 2, which was captured by Linden for his third Tangerine Tournament victory. Hartley remained close in the points tally as he recorded a second place finish. 

The USAC cars and stars were scheduled to race on Sunday afternoon March 3 on the ½-mile Jacksonville Speedway Park located west of town but persistent drizzle caused a cancellation, and teams returned to Fort Pierce to rest and prepare for the next weekend’s races.

The Tangerine Tournament returned to action on Friday March 8 at the ¼-mile Silver Dollar Speedway located on Highway 92 west of the central Florida city of Lakeland. The track had opened in 1955 and would have a short life, as it was replaced by a mobile home park after the 1959 season.  

Chicago midget racer Al Alpern captured the Lakeland 30-lap feature with Andy Linden in second place followed by Hartley and Templeman. This marked Alpern’s second USAC midget win, his first came at the Crystal Motor Speedway in Crystal Michigan in June 1956.

On Saturday night March 9, the USAC midgets returned to Orlando for the eighth round of the series with predictable results as Andy Linden captured his fourth tour victory over Hartley and Templeman. On Sunday afternoon, the tour made its first visit to Southland Speedway a 5000-seat facility located adjacent the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. This track, which replaced a return visit to Tampa, was the site in 1956 of the first USAC sprint car race ever held. 2000 spectators paid to watch Al Keller set the standard in qualifying as the Carl Evans midget toured the high-banked half-mile paved oval in 20.12 seconds.

Keller started 14th in the 18-car feature starting field but at the end of 20 laps grabbed the win over Warriner, Lloyd Ruby, and Don Branson in the Willey roadster midget. With a sixth place finish after a blown tire on the final lap, Linden lost ground in the points but continued to hold the lead with three races scheduled to run. Prior to the blown tire, Linden had dueled with Keller for the win.  The track later known as Palm Beach Speedway after the purchase of the facility by the fair board continued to operate until 1983. 

The tournament round scheduled for Friday March 15 at Hialeah Speedway fell victim to local thunderstorms, which meant the teams returned to the base of operations at Fort Pierce on Saturday night. The top three in points were Linden, Templeman, and Branson, though the top 12 drivers were still mathematically in contention for the championship.  

The additional rosin on the track surface promised by Highsmith paid off as fast qualifier Forrest Parker toured the oval in 16.05 seconds nearly half a second faster than Linden’s previous track record.  Leroy Warriner drove Bob Higman’s midget to victory in the 30-lap feature with Linden second, and Branson fourth, while Templeman finished eleventh.

Andy Linden- Tangerine Tournament champion

Teams packed up and headed north to the Jacksonville Speedway Park for the final Tangerine Tournament race on the half-mile dirt oval. During the feature, Templeman was involved in an accident on the rough rutted track surface which dropped him from the championship hunt. With his second place finish in the feature behind Len Duncan, Linden guaranteed himself the USAC 'Florida region' championship over Branson.  In the eleven Florida races held, the ‘McNamara Special” won four races, with five second place finishes, one sixth place and one seventh place.  

 Immediately following the end of the series, there was discussion of the second annual Tangerine Tournament in 1958, but it remains forever a unique one-year only event, although USAC staged a “junior version” in 2005 at four tracks with USAC Ford Focus midgets. Although it only happened one year, thanks to Ashley Wright’s vision, the Tangerine Tournament blazed a trail for the USAC ‘midget week’ and ‘sprint week’ tournaments we are familiar with today.


Open-wheel racing was a dangerous business in the nineteen fifties, but it is still shocking to consider the tragedies that befell three of the Tangerine Tournament midget racers before the 1957 season ended. 

On June 20, less than three weeks after he claimed his third career USAC midget win, Al Alpern racing in the third heat race of the USAC race at the ¼-mile paved Grand Rapids Michigan Speedrome when his midget ran over the wheel Jimmy Knight’s midget and flipped over the top the four-foot high guardrail. Al ages 30 died shortly after his arrival at Butterworth Hospital.

On August 24 1957 as Hank Nykaza raced in the 100-lap USAC midget race on the Milwaukee Mile, as he completed his 68th lap, the rear wheels of his midget locked up and the car spun violently. The force of the spin apparently caused the hasp of his seat belt to release and Hank was thrown to the pavement without his helmet. Following drivers somehow avoided Nykaza as he laid on the track, but Hank died enroute to the hospital.

1957 seemed to be Andy Linden’s year, as he drove for Lee Elkins in all three USAC divisions. That year, he finished fifth in the Indianapolis ‘500,’ wound up sixth in USAC championship points, won two more midget races and three sprint car races at three of the toughest tracks – Dayton, Winchester, and the Terre Haute action track. On November 3, Andy appeared at a special JC Agajanian USAC midget program at the Clovis (California) Speedway. 

During the Clovis race, Linden’s car hooked a rut, bounced high in the air, and landed on the guardrail. Andy’s head struck the guardrail and he suffered severe head injuries, which Andy left in a wheelchair for the remaining 30 years of his life. In an amazing testament to strength of the human will, Andy eventually recovered his memory and motor skills and learned to drive a passenger car.  

1 comment:

  1. Kevin:
    This is some good reading. For years I had only heard of the "Tangerine Tournament" and had only the USAC yearbook from 1957 as a source of information. Great stuff. Thanks
    Lee Hulse