Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The short life of the Hoosier Motor Speedway

The Hoosier Motor Speedway was a half-mile banked dirt track in Indianapolis Indiana located at the intersection of Pendleton Pike ( now known as Massachusetts Avenue) and 38th Street, about 10 miles east of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and while it was not a western Indiana track it was considered by racers to be part of the of the “Suicide Circuit.“

Nowadays the track location is well within the Indianapolis city boundaries, but from 1922 to 1925, when the oval track was in operation, it sat just beyond the eastern outskirts of the city of Indianapolis. When it opened on November 11, 1922 with a 75-mile ‘big car’ race, the Hoosier Motor Speedway billed itself as “the greatest half-mile race course in the world.”

It appears that the Hoosier Motor Speedway did not run a schedule of regular weekly racing programs; rather it staged long distance races on holidays, such as July 4th and Armistice Day. For example, on July 4 1923 the track played host to races attended by the famed General “Black Jack” Pershing and his guest the visiting World War One French General, Henri Gourard.

An advertisement in the September 1923 Indianapolis News newspaper illustrated the urban growth that the short-lived Hoosier Motor Speedway battled from the start. The ad for Shadelands Park urged buyers to “come take a breath of nature just one square north of Hoosier Motor Speedway and view the 80 large tracts in this beautiful home site addition out northeast, right in the line of the growth of Indianapolis.”

During 1923, manager J.V. Lines struggled to keep the Hoosier Motor Speedway financially afloat with boxing exhibitions at a temporary arena on the grounds, but that plan ran afoul of the Indiana State Boxing Commission and the Marion County Sheriff George Snyder, as the authorities contended that these were actual fights, not exhibitions.

The final boxing match in August, which featured famed Argentine boxer Luis Firpo and Joe Downey from Cincinnati, ended in financial disaster when the promoter of the event absconded with a portion of the gate receipts and Lines, out the 1/3 of the gate he was promised, had to make good on the $2000 appearance fee guaranteed to Firpo.

Despite that financial disaster, the Hoosier Motor Speedway continued to stage races that included a 75-lap mile benefit race for the Riley Memorial Hospital Fund on October 21 1923 that featured drivers Ray Harlan and Hilton Crouch, and the season finale held on Armistice Day November 11 1923.    
The 1923 Hoosier Motor Speedway season finale was known the ‘Hoosier 100,’ a 100- mile race for the Central States Championship and the J.V. Lines Trophy. 42 cars and drivers from across three states entered the race but only 16 cars would start the 100-mile feature. 

Starters in the feature included Arthur ‘Fuzzy’ Davidson from Chicago, George Lyons from Chicago in his Essex Special and future Indianapolis competitors William ‘Shorty’ Cantlon, Joe Huff, Charles ‘Dutch’ Baumann Homer Ormsby and Stuart Wilkinson.

Also entered  in the field of mostly “Fronty-Fords,” which used Arthur Chevrolet’s Frontenac double overhead camshaft cylinder  head on a Ford Model T engine block, was the ‘Hartley Special’ built by brothers Ted and Calvin Glenn ‘C.G.’ Hartley who ran the Hartley Garage an auto repair shop in tiny Roanoke Indiana with mechanics Charles Bowman and Arthur Smith. The engine in the ‘Hartley Special’ used a standard Ford crankshaft, but featured a Bosch battery ignition system built by Harry Bonewitz also of Roanoke.

 At the drop of the green flag at 2 o’clock in the afternoon Davidson grabbed the lead but was soon passed by Lyons, who led until his Essex suffered a broken axle on the 50th lap. Joe Huff in his eponymous racer took command and held the lead until he was forced to pit with engine trouble and Huff lost two laps to the leaders. 

The J.V. Lines Trophy today
photograph by Gene Ingram

Ted Hartley took the lead then held the point the rest of the way without a pit stop, and finished the 100 miles in one hour 56 minutes and 29 seconds. Second place went to Joe Huff who had made up one of his lost laps. The Hartley brothers won $260.00 in addition to the J.V. Lines silver loving cup, which was displayed in the lobby of the Farmers State Bank in Roanoke. The J.V. Lines trophy is still displayed in Roanoke in the trophy case of the local historical society.

The Central States Championship was Ted Hartley’s first race victory in what proved to be a long and successful racing career. Ted raced into his 70’s before he retired in 1973.and raced across the United States and Canada, in Mexico and South America. Ted scored the 1939 Central States Racing Association midget championship and the 1950 Great Lakes Auto Racing Association championship. 

Ted Hartley's son, Leslie Eugene “Gene” Hartley was the 1959 USAC (United States Auto Club) midget series champion, scored 33 USAC midget feature wins in his career,  and drove in ten Indianapolis 500-mile races. Both father and son are members of the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Brother C.G. Hartley who built the winning machine also drove race cars and later entered his own #29 ‘Hartley Special’ a Fronty-Ford powered machine in the 1924 Indianapolis 500-mile race but failed to qualify. C.G.’s real talent was in working on machinery, as he patented two inventions, a steering attachment for tractors and an engine governor system which made it into production.  
After the 1923 season, J.V. Lines departed as the track operator and the promoter of the Hoosier Motor Speedway beginning in 1924 was the Indianapolis firm of Morton & Brett. Elvin D. Morton and his partner, Jack Brett, were major distributors and manufacturers of aftermarket Ford and Dodge speed parts sold through regional distributors and mail order catalogs. While under Morton & Brett management, the track suffered a driver fatality, but not in the manner one might expect.

28-year-old Arthur ‘Fuzzy’ Davidson from Chicago, one of several drivers whom lived on the grounds was found dead on the grounds on the evening of July 22 1925.  The following day, Marion County Coroner Robinson announced that Davidson, who won a race on the Hoosier Motor Speedway in 1923, died as a result of “congestion of the lungs that resulted from overindulgence in alcohol.” Recall that at the time the 18th Amendment to the Constitution banning the manufacture and sale of alcohol was in effect at the time.  

A few weeks after what proved to be the final race, held on Labor Day 1925, won by 1924 Indianapolis 500-mile starter and Detroit native Fred Harder, the Hoosier Motor Speedway grandstands and bleachers, valued at $12,000 were destroyed by fire on the night of September 15, 1925. The arsonist was never captured and the grandstands never rebuilt. 

Within two years, the site was overgrown with little evidence that the track ever existed.  Ninety years later, there is no evidence that the Hoosier Motor Speedway ever existed, as it is now is the site of commercial shopping center. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

A brief history of midget car racing in Alaska

Alaska, the largest of all the fifty states of the United States of America, is the least densely populated, and has few auto racing venues. 

Permanent race tracks were (and remain) rare- there are currently only six operating tracks in the entire state. There is little or no documented history of Alaskan auto racing available, let alone any history of the short-lived period of midget auto racing in the state.  

A discussion with Tom Schmeh, the curator of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame (NSCHOF) in Knoxville, Iowa, brought the lack of information home. Mr. Schmeh asked for help concerning the history of midget auto racing in Alaska after an Alaskan NSCHOF member contacted Tom seeking additional information about a recently uncovered collection of old midget parts.

While talking to Tom Schmeh, I recalled a conversation that I had years ago with the late Don Radbruch about racing in Alaska. Don mentioned that he heard a story of some midget racers that had toured Alaska after World War 2, but that he never been able to track the story down. 

After speaking to Tom on the telephone, he coordinated a group of historians to pool our knowledge as an Alaskan midget racing research project. I received valuable help from many sources, each of which provided a piece of the puzzle. This article is the result of the research group’s findings.

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska has three pre-war midgets in its collection, a 1938 Elto, a 1935 Offy, and a 1937 V8-60. Although the Museum purchased these cars from a Long Island collector and they have no Alaskan racing history, Museum staff members Willy Vinton and Nancy DeWitt both provided key historical information. 

Tom Schmeh contacted John Nelson of the Golden Wheels Fraternity vintage racing organization, who provided several key pieces of information, and Mel Anthony, Golden Wheels member, vintage racer and author of Smoke, Sand, & Rubber, an excellent history of Northwest midget racing, provided me with several important details.

This story also could not have been completed without the help of Roni Lynn McFadden, and Jonnie Geber who provided photos, articles, and recollections of their father, Johnnie Goss. Larry Jendras and Hal Schlegel of the www.RacingHistory.org group also provided valuable research assistance.
Beginning in 1947, a tall young man from Alhambra, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles, named John Steven “Johnnie” Goss bought a midget and began to race with the tough post-war United Racing Association (URA). The URA dominated the Southern California midget-racing scene, with the hottest cars and top drivers such as Bill Vukovich, Rodger Ward, Sam Hanks and Norm Girtz.  

Eventually, the Goss Racing Team grew to two midgets, numbered 63 & 93. #93 was a gold and white Kurtis/Offenhauser while #63, was a blue and white Ford V8-60 powered Richter chassis. The pair of cars traveled to and from the races riding on a unique double-decker trailer towed behind Johnnie’s tan Studebaker pickup truck.  

His mother, Edna Goss co-owned Johnnie’s race cars and maintained the records. Johnnie typically worked on his cars, and used other drivers, but on occasion, he would climb behind the wheel of one of his cars and race. 
In 1949, 28-year-old Johnnie Goss and his family relocated to the area of Lake Chelan, Washington (180 miles east of Seattle)  to operate a resort. While searches of the limited URA post-war race records do not list Johnnie Goss as a feature winner, when he moved north, he found success. 

Goss won at least four features at the high-banked ¼-mileDigney Speedway in Burnaby British Columbia, in 1949 and 1950 and at least one Washington Midget Racing Association (WMRA) feature in 1949. Frequent drivers of the Goss Specials included Louie Sherman and northwest standout Clark “Shorty” Templeman who won 42 WMARA features with 5 Washington and 3 Oregon championships in his career.

While in Washington, Goss also tried his hand at promoting midget races, most memorably at Bellevue High School.  Johnnie convinced the school board to test out a couple of midget cars on the new school track; it had rained the night before the test, conducted by Goss and another driver. The test ended unhappily when the two midgets threw mud “halfway up the grandstand”, including the board members who sat in the first row. 
In early 1952, Goss sold the #93 Goss Special to Al Riggs and relocated to Fairbank with his #63 V8-60 midget. After her established himself in local racing circles, Johnnie contacted his northwest friends and persuaded a group of northwest car owners and drivers to visit the Alaskan Territory for a summer series of races. As many as 12 midgets were shipped to Alaska including the Carsten #44 previously driven to many wins to Allen Heath and the ex-Homer Norman Kurtis rail frame Ford V8-60 powered midget.  

Driver Johnny Ellis is thought to have traveled to race in Alaska, but the full roster of drivers remains largely unknown. The first Alaskan midget races were likely held on a cinder track on the Kenai Peninsula located on the south coast  near Anchorage,  Alaska’s most populated city before moving on to race in Alaska’s Interior Region. The’ Interior’ was (and still is) largely wilderness – the largest city in the Interior is Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, with a population in 1950 of approximately 5,600 people.

At the northern edge of town, on the Steese Highway, stood the Club Rendezvous, owned by three men – Frank Caruso, Satch Bianchi, and Jack Tiemeir.  Fairbanks was home to Ladd Air Field, and the club catered to the Air Force personnel from the nearby field. 

In addition to the nightclub, the three men also owned the adjacent Rendezvous Speedway, the next stop on the midget racing tour, where Johnnie Goss had become the track’s official starter. Rendezvous Speedway had opened sometime after the end of World War 2, perhaps 1948, and hosted jalopy racing on a crude ¼-mile dirt oval lined with dirt berms and no grandstand. During the wintertime, the track hosted sled dog races.   

By 1952, both the track and its competitors had grown from their crude beginnings, with the cars now known as “Hot Rods,” organized by the Alaska Auto Racing Association (AARA).  AARA staged a 17-week racing schedule (from Memorial Day through Labor Day) on a now oiled dirt surface (to keep down the dust) for crowds nearing 500 spectators. Starting in 1952, a local motorcycle club, the ‘Arctic Rippers’  convinced promoter 'Satch' Bianchi to let them stage motorcycle races at Rendezvous Speedway on Sundays.

The midget racers arrived to take part in the big Fourth of July weekend program at the Speedway, which would be touched twice by tragedy. On Friday, July 4, 1952 24-year old service station employee Don Wida died after an accident - his car flipped over during the hot rod trophy dash after spinning. The crushed car came to rest in the turn nearest the entrance of the Rendezvous Club with the mortally injured Wida trapped inside.

Just two days later, on Sunday July 6, Johnnie Goss was flagging the finish of the motorcycle races when a passing motorcycle hooked his sleeve as he waved the checkered flag. Johnnie was thrown onto the track directly in the path of another cycle, struck and killed. Fellow racers raffled off Johnnie’s midget, and several weeks later on July 19 Rendezvous Speedway held a benefit race to help the families of the two fallen racers.

Wida left behind a wife and three-year-old son in Minneapolis, while Goss left a widow with an eight-month old daughter and a pregnant girlfriend who gave birth to another daughter just six days after his death. For the benefit race, admission increased to a flat $3.00 over the regular $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for Service personnel.  

As the benefit program featured only hot rods and motorcycles, it seems that the visiting midget crews and drivers returned to the Northwest soon after Johnnie Goss’ death. At least seven midgets returned to the States, which could have left as many as six midgets in Alaska.  

Midget racing continued sporadically at Rendezvous, but never matched the popularity of the hot rods. In June 1953 frequent race winner Don Boam, driver of a Kurtis-Kraft V8-60 midget, in an interview with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner explained the problems. Boam stated that there had been three midgets out for each race in 1953, but that “there were two more here, another enroute now, with plans to bring two more from California in the near future.”  

Boam further explained that it was hard to keep the midgets in racing condition because of the delays and costs in obtaining parts. An understandable situation, given that those were the days before factory-built race cars and parts sold by racing parts superstores delivered via overnight shipping. 

Newspaper articles in the Fairbanks newspaper were carefully written to disguise the actual number of cars at the track. In 1953 in an effort to stir up more statewide interest in auto racing, cars and drivers from Fairbanks and Anchorage traveled to both tracks on successive weekends.  
Joe O’Rourke, the Speedway promoter made one final push to promote midget racing for the 1955 season and enlisted local entertainer Margary Gale to purchase a Ford V8-60 rail frame car from the Seattle area. 

The July 4 1955 Rendezvous racing program promised as many as 12 midget cars in the program which featured  37-inch tall ‘Wizard of Oz’ actress and singer Tiny Doll (real name Dolleeta), taking some laps in a midget car, before she appeared that evening  at the Club with Jimmy Durante. However, as time passed, following the trends of the day, stock cars at first supplemented the hot rod and midget racing program but by the end of 1956, stock cars were the only program.

 In August 1956, the Club Rendezvous burned to the ground (which also destroyed one midget car) but the fire did not damage any of the track facilities, and racing continued while the Club’s owners rebuilt. 

In 1958 Jack Johnson, owner of another local nightclub, the Fireside, built a quarter midget track next to his club, believed to be the first quarter midget track in Alaska, while stock car racing continued at Rendezvous Speedway though the 1961 season. 

In the 1970’s, Fairbanks grew because of the oil boom; crews dismantled the old Speedway grandstand and the area eventually became a pipe yard to support the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

Although Rendezvous Speedway is gone, the Fairbanks area currently boasts two oval speedways – the ¼-mile dirt Mitchell Speedway hosts  a regular program of winged sprint cars, and the ¼-mile paved North Pole Speedway hosts karts and legends cars. Like the old Rendezvous Speedway, North Pole Speedway shares its property with a tavern. 

While the history of Alaskan midget racing (and the 1952 midget tour) is an interesting story, there are still large gaps in the story – for instance, what happened to rest of the “Alaska midgets?” One Alaskan collector has a pre-war stamped aluminum frame midget that he suspects (but has not confirmed) has an Alaskan racing history. 

There doubtless are more Alaskan midget car racing stories still waiting to be told; if any readers know of information concerning Alaskan midget racing, or can identify the cars in these photos, please contact the author.