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.  

1 comment:

  1. Kevin,
    This is a very interesting read and I would love to share a Facebook page I have created to combine all the history I could find on Alaska's various race tracks. I found several pictures of the racing at Rendezvous including a couple of the midgets.
    https://m.facebook.com/Alaska-Racing-Past-and-Present-499379170234345/

    ReplyDelete