Friday, February 26, 2016

Midget racer Bob Harner in 1947

To place this article in the proper context, the author suggests that if you have not already, read the two previous articles regarding Bob Harner’s racing career entitled  ‘before World War 2’ and ‘in 1945 & 1946’ before reading this installment.

Bob Harner (alternately spelled Harnar) from Akron Ohio started the 1947 racing season as a member of the two-car Pollock Racing Team based in the northern Ohio resort community of Port Huron, owned by Dallas “Dale” Pollock. At the time, Pollock owned both the Huron City Bakery and the Travelers’ Inn Bar & Grill in Port Huron. Both of these businesses profited substantially during the post war period due to the nearby United States Army installations - the Erie Proving Grounds and Camp Perry.

Photograph of Bob Harner in the Pollock Offy provided by JD Cormack

Pollock brought two four cylinder 110 cubic inch Offenhauser-powered Kurtis-Kraft midgets painted brown and numbered #40 and #30 back from Los Angeles in early 1947. The Kurtis-Kraft Midget Genealogy of Speed book by Bill Montgomery does not list chassis numbers or details for the Pollock midgets but does contain a photo of the #30 Pollock midget.  There are no records that reflect Pollock driving in a race, but the local newspaper reported that Pollock suffered multiple facial cuts when he crashed into the guardrail at Vactionland Speedway near Port Huron that while testing an unidentified midget on November 1 1946.   

Vacationland was a ¼-mile dirt midget track located in Erie Township built by Clifford Swigart and on a 6-acre site on his farm on Route 163 near Camp Perry and featured a 4,000 seat grandstand.   The track opened for midget racing on May 6 1946 and during the winter of 1946-7 the track was flooded and transformed into a public ice skating rink.

The Vacationland facility reopened for the season on May 15 1947 but not for midget racing – the flooded track was the site of outboard motor boat races held each Wednesday night under the lights. Apparently the outboard motor boat races were not financially successful either as the local newspaper reported in November 1947 that the bleachers at the Vacationland Speedway were  dismantled and moved to a new midget automobile track in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  

A postcard of Jimmie Florian in other Pollock Offy

In addition to Harner, drivers on the Pollock Racing Team included at various times Jack Kabat from Toledo Ohio known as the “the King of Canfield Speedway,” “Big” Bill Spear from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Richard Orr of Akron and Eddie Johnson and Jimmie Florian from Cleveland. Dale Pollock clearly had an eye for driving talent since Spear later became the 1955 and 1958 Tri-State Auto Racing Association midget series champion and Eddie Johnson would start the Indianapolis ‘500’ fifteen times and notch multiple American Automobile Association (AAA)  and United States Auto Club (USAC) midget series wins during his career.

Likewise, a few years after he drove for Pollock, Florian recorded Ford Motor Company’s first National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) win on June 25 1950 in a 200-lap race on the high-banked Dayton Speedway as he drove the #27 ‘Euclid Ford Co.’ red and white flathead-powered 1950 Ford coupe to victory. After an on-and-off three-year flirtation with stock cars, Jim Florian returned to midget racing and captured the Central States Racing Association (CSRA) midget championship for the 1956 and 1957 seasons.

Bob Harner’s 1947 midget season opened on Wednesday April 30 at the Akron Rubber Bowl in a Zeiter Speedways promotion under AAA sanction. The Massillon Evening Independent newspaper reported that local driver Bob Harnar, nicknamed the “Hubba Hubba Boy,” and Bob Orr were both scheduled to debut their new $7,500 Offenhauser-powered Kurtis-Kraft midget cars as part of 40-car field of entries that also included Roy Sherman, Carl Forberg, and Art Hartsfield. 

The source of Harnar's curious nickname is revealed in Keith S. Herbst's excellent book on racing in the Niagara regions entitled Daredevils of the Frontier. While admitting that Harnar raced with minimal success, he was a crowd favorite because of  as Herbst relates through racer Eddie Roberts, Harnar's "pre-race shenanigans, a fake Groucho Marx nose, glasses, and mustache.    

Harnar was at the controls of the new Pollock midget #40 while Orr drove his own Motor Cargo sponsored red #17.  The public address announcers at the Rubber Bowl referred to Robert “Bobby” Orr, a Bronze Star winner during World War Two as “the Racing Millionaire” since his family owned three thriving businesses - the Akron Motor Cargo Company, Triple O Oil Sales, and Orr’s Coal Service.

Three days later, on May 3 Harner appeared with many of the same drivers from the Rubber Bowl in another AAA sanctioned event at the Canfield Fairgrounds Speedway south of Youngstown Ohio. Midget cars raced beginning in 1939 on a ¼-mile dirt track that shared the front stretch with the original ½- mile track built constructed 1929. The las recorded midget race at Canfield was held there in May of 1950, but auto racing continued at the Fairgrounds facility through 1973.

Harner was back in action on Wednesday June 11 1947 at the Rubber Bowl in an open competition show as the Zeiter Speedways organization withdrew from the AAA organization earlier that day. Bob finished third behind George Witzman and Eddie Johnson in the 25-lap feature race that was run in 6 minutes and 25 seconds. Four days later, on Sunday afternoon June 15, the highlight of Bob Harner’s season and perhaps his racing career came as he drove Pollock Offenhauser the Pollock midget to victory in the Zeiter Speedways 100-lap national championship race at the Bainbridge Speedway.

Early in the month of July 1947, Bob Harner was on the road in the East, racing on the ¼-mile dirt track at the Cambria County Fairgrounds in Ebensburg Pennsylvania on the 14th. Less than a month later, fellow Akron midget racer George “Joe” Selzer was killed in Ebensburg after his midget hooked wheels with Eddie Johnson’s machine on the 18th lap of the 25-lap main event. Selzer’s car flipped high in the air, and Selzer the 1946 “Ohio midget champion” was thrown onto the track surface and killed instantly

A week after his appearance in the July 14th Ebensburg race, Harner was in the village of Goshen New York racing on the historic three-cornered Good Time Park one-mile dirt track in an American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) 100-lap race with one-armed Texas driver Wes Saegessor, and Clarence LaRue, along with ARDC regulars Ted Tappet (Phil Walters), Len Duncan, and Ed ”Dutch” Schaefer.

The triangular harness racing track, owned by William H. Cane, also hosted three AAA championship car races during its existence – the first in 1936 was won by Rex Mays for his first championship win, and the two ‘George Robson Memorial’ races promoted by Langhorne Speedway’s Vincent “Jimmy” Frattone. The first Robson race was held October 6 1946 (a little over a month after Robson’s death) and the second August 17 1947, both won by Tony Bettenhausen.

Good Time Park fell on hard times after Mr. Cane’s death in 1956 and it lost its major annual draw the Hambletonian Stakes to the Illinois State Fairgrounds at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds; the dilapidated 2200-seat covered grandstand was torn down in the late 1970’s, but the outline of the track remains visible. 

The latter part of the month of July 1947 found Bob Harner back home racing in the Akron Rubber Bowl. On July 16, Harner finished in third place behind his Pollock teammate Jack Kabat and Elmer Williams of Toledo before 6,926 fans. Two weeks later on July 30 1947 things did go as well for the Pollock teammates. A crowd of 8,762 fans watched as during the 25-lap main event Kabat and Harner were caught up in the same melee and both Pollock Kurtis Kraft midgets crashed into the wooden outer retaining wall and were eliminated. Akron native Clarence LaRue claimed the win that night over Pennsylvania’s Mike Little and Bob Orr.

Harnar looked to future when on July 21 1947, along with Carl Scarborough, the 1946 CSRA midget and big car champion, and “Cowboy” Gays Biro the trio formed Ohio Midget Auto racing Incorporated, which promoted races as Tri-State Auto Racing Association.  This mostly forgotten group promoted races and crowned champions from 1947 through 1965 and owned and operated Tri-State Speedway in New Castle Pennsylvania in 1970 and 1971.

Bob Harner raced at Princess Anne Speedway in Norfolk Virginia located on the grounds of the “Agricade” fairgrounds several times during the 1947 season. The original ½- mile harness racing track hosted ‘big car’ races during the nineteen thirties, but in 1946 a ¼-mile paved track was built in the infield, leased to and promoted by Sherman “Red” Crise who presented Tuesday night motorcycle and midget car racing programs through 1949.  

During a qualifying heat race at Princess Anne on August 12 1947 Marvin “Shorty” Miller, a rookie midget driver from Lansdale Pennsylvania, crashed after his Ford V8-60 powered midget hit the backstretch guardrail. The car flipped and landed upside down with the 23-year old US Army veteran pinned beneath the car. Miller died at the DePaul Hospital in nearby Norfolk the following day, never having regained consciousness.  

After the 1949 season, the pavement at the Princess Anne ¼-mile track was removed and from then on it mainly hosted modified stock car races on the dirt track with occasional ARDC midget appearances. In the mid nineteen fifties, NASCAR as a sanctioning group came to Princess Anne Speedway and there were several races held there by the short-lived NASCAR midget group. In August 1953, the track hosted a 100-mile NASCAR Grand National stock car race which was won by Herb Thomas in his ‘Fabulous’ Hudson Hornet.  The property was sold for development in following the 1954 racing season.      

On October 5, Powell Speedway located 14 miles north of downtown Columbus near the west end of Ohio State Route 750, hosted the 100-lap AAA sanctioned 1947 Midwestern Midget Championship race. The entry list showed at least eighteen Offenhauser powered midgets piloted by “hard-bitten speed merchants” that included Harnar, Ralph Pratt, Bobby Orr, and Bill Covello. The racers competed for “the richest purse ever paid at Powell” in addition to the “huge George Byers and Sons Inc. Trophy “emblematic of Midwestern midget supremacy.” Byers and Sons was a large area car dealership that had grown from its original roots as a livery stable. Unfortunately, despite all the pre-race publicity, the author was unable to find the results of this race.  

Powell Speedway, known as times as Powell Motor Speedway or Powell Raceway was a ½ -mile steeply banked dirt track that encircled a ¼-mile dirt track built by returning World War 2 soldier Chuck Murphy and his father on the old site of the Delaware County Fairgrounds which had been vacant for nine years. Powell Speedway and the adjacent Murphy’s Party Barn opened for business in June 1946. During its existence the track hosted AAA big cars and midgets, Tom Cherry’s All American Racing Club (AARC) track roadsters, motorcycles, NASCAR, Midwest Association for Race Cars, Inc. (MARC) stock cars, drag races, and daredevil auto thrill shows. Both the dimensions and surface of the two tracks at Powell changed several times during its history under a succession of track operators.

The death of 41-year old Detroit Michigan car owner George Sparks who was struck by the passing race car of Nelson Stacy in the pit area during the race on July 4 1960 and the resulting lawsuit led to Powell Raceway’s closure in 1962. Spark’s widow filed suit claiming that the track and MARC failed to provide a protective barrier for the pit area. Local sports car and motorcycle clubs continued to maintain the grounds and held gymkhana events there through the nineteen seventies. With the growth of the Columbus area following the construction of the 270 beltway, the 100-acre property was finally sold for a housing development around 2000.    

During the winter of 1947-8, Bob Harner traveled south to San Antonio Texas with Toledo racer Elmer Wilson to race in the Pan American Speedway’s winter series, which paid a $1000 purse for each Sunday’s races. The track on Austin Highway in San Antonio was owned and promoted by Jimmy Johnson, and was laid out by an engineer to ensure “the exact dimension for a fifth mile” and used “a combination of sand and clay for a dustless race track.” 

The 1947-8 winter Pan American midget races were dominated by hometown one-armed driver Wes Saegesser in the new $12,000 Stanfield Offenhauser midget. Buzz Barton won the feature race on November 30, after Saegesser crashed in his heat race, but of particular interest to historians was 25-year old Texas racer Eugene “Jud” Larson’s third place finish in the Class B feature.

In 1948, Larson won the AAA Oklahoma/Texas midget driving championship, and within a couple of years, Jud would become a star in the IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) sprint cars. Eventually Jud reached the pinnacle of the sport, the AAA and USAC championship cars, in a career marked with accomplishments that led to Jud’s induction into both the National Sprint Car and Midget Auto Racing Halls of Fame.  

The “original” Pan American Speedway operated as a dirt facility until it was paved in 1956 and racing continued at Pan American Speedway until 1964, and then it became known as Mercury Speedway during it final season of existence during 1965. A “new” Pan American Speedway a paved ¼-mile oval track was built on Toepperwein Road and operated until 1978. 

This article does not purport to be a complete record of Bob Harner’s (or Harnar) midget racing career during 1947, as the author mainly used period newspaper articles to trace Harner’s travels, which obviously leaves the picture of Harner's career incomplete.

Unfortunately, Harner's results in many of the races he entered are lost to time.  Stories in the local newspaper in advance of a local race were used by the race promoter as an inexpensive way to increase fan interest and attendance.

The results of races are often lacking, unless something extraordinary occurred, as local small town sportswriters seldom covered racing events. Promoters frequently did not issue post-race results, as their thinking was that publicity after the fact did nothing to improve the paid attendance.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Stories behind the early Indianapolis ‘500’ radio broadcasts
The basic facts concerning the early history of radio broadcasts of the Indianapolis 500-mile race are well-known- the first broadcasts of the race took place on local area radio stations in 1922. The two stations were WLK, Indianapolis’ first radio station, run by Purdue electrical engineering graduate Francis Hamilton from his parent’s barn, and WHO, Indianapolis’ second radio station, which was owned by electric equipment and radio manufacturer, Hatfield Electric Company.

Chances are that those brief radio updates in 1922 were not very clear or the signals carried very far considering the low power of the stations’ transmitters.  Throughout the middle nineteen twenties, Indianapolis station WFBM, owned by the Merchants Heating and Light Company, and Chicago radio station WGN carried updates during those races.

The major step forward came in 1928 when the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) provided a nationwide radio broadcast of the last hour the 16th annual International 500-mile Sweepstakes. NBC’s ‘Red’ network only covered the United States as far west as Denver, Colorado, so NBC added in their year-old ‘Orange’ network, comprised of seven stations up and down the West Coast, which received the broadcast via shortwave relay from Denver.  

The broadcast on May 30 1928 was sponsored by the John Warren Watson Company of Philadelphia Pennsylvania. The purpose of the company’s sponsorship, stated in the May 26 1928 issue of Automotive Industries magazine was to “honor the race drivers and bring home to Americans a higher appreciation of the work of the drivers in contributing to the advancement of the modern automobile.” There was of course another motive in sponsoring the broadcast – to sell more of the company’s main product, the Watson “Stabilator.” We’ll get into the details of the broadcast later, but first let’s learn about John Warren Watson and learn about “Stabilators.”

The Watson ”Stabilator” is simply described an automatic friction brake which acted to limit an automobile’s suspension spring recoil. Early shock absorbers, which were being developed, worked well on large bumps, but were not very effective in controlling minor motions.  Watson claimed that the “Stabilator” checked the spring’s recoil in proportion to the recoil force and prevented the car’s wheel from unloading and coming off the road which made for an uncomfortable ride, tire slippage and increased tire and brake wear.

The manufacturer, the John Warren Watson Company advertised that “Stabilators” were for everyone; “the poor man insists on Stabilators because of the hundreds of dollars they will save him,” and “the rich man insists on Stabilators because of the luxurious comfort and safety which they provide.”  Watson’s literature stated that without “Stabilators,” wheel unloading occurred 20% of the time, while with “Stabilators” installed on all four corners, the uncontrolled bouncing happened less than 2% of the time.

The Watson device was relatively simple with just four parts – weatherproof front cover, shoe and strap assembly, spring assembly and the brake attached to the weatherproof back cover.  The John Warren Watson Company held sixteen patents, all which related to the basic design of their device, which was tailored to each particular automobile manufacturer and model.

To install on each corner of their customer’s car, a Watson licensed dealer followed a detailed 14-step installation procedure followed by a 6-step adjustment process that used a special “Stabilator” wrench.  Once their cars were outfitted, car owners were instructed to never grease or oil the “Stabilators” and to carefully monitor their tire pressures for best performance.  

John Warren Watson stock certificates had a precise drawing of the factory
The John Warren Watson Company’s manufacturing factory, built in 1927 by William Steele & Sons Co., engineers & constructors alongside the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks near the intersection of Harrison Street and Tulip Avenue in Philadelphia stretched over six city blocks, with its own powerhouse and 125-foot high red brick smokestack.

The company’s namesake and President, John Warren Watson, started his business career around 1906 as the chief investor and President the American Bronze Company which produced non-granular bronze bushings and bearings for leading automotive manufacturers which included Packard, Locomobile, Maxwell, and later Stutz and Duesenberg, as well truck manufacturers Case and Mack. During World War One, American Bronze cast bearings and bushings which used an alloy of 86 ½ % copper, 11 % tin and 2 ½ % zinc were used in Curtiss and Duesenberg airplane engines.

Mr. Watson left the presidency of American Bronze to form his eponymous company in 1919, although he remained on the Board of Directors of the American Bronze Corporation. John Warren Watson was considered by automakers as an authority on the engineering required for a smooth ride in an automobile. For the 1927 model year, Watson “Stabilators” were standard factory equipment on Cadillac, Chrysler, Duesenberg, DuPont, Franklin, Hudson, Isotta-Fraschini, Jordan, LaSalle, Locomobile, McFarlan, Nash, Packard, Peerless, Studebaker, Stutz, and Willys Knight automobiles.

John Warren Watson's Duesenberg Convertible Victoria

Watson and his wife Mary had a large home in Wayne Pennsylvania, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, and a 776-acre estate near Pinehurst North Carolina that included a 70-acre artificial lake that Watson had created by building a dam. Watson owned several exclusive luxury cars which included a 1931 Duesenberg Model J long-wheelbase Rollston-bodied Convertible Victoria and a custom bodied 1927 Chrysler Imperial Sportif (sport) Convertible built by Locke & Company of Rochester, New York. Both the Duesenberg and the Chrysler were donated to the Henry Ford Museum after John Warren Watson’s death.   

John Warren Watson, described in the press as 'movie-star handsome,' counted most of the leaders of the automotive industry as his personal friends, including Edsel Ford and Fred Duesenberg. In a 1989 interview conducted 
for the Edsel B. Ford Design History Center, Gordon Buehrig, the chief body designer for Duesenberg Motor Company, related Watson’s role in the preventable death of Fred Duesenberg.

Duesenberg was headed home to Indianapolis from New York and stayed overnight at Watson’s Pennsylvania home. Before Fred left the next morning, July 2, 1932, in a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg, Watson went out to the car with Fred and Watson observed that the car’s tires had a lot of miles on them. Watson later related to Buehrig that he told Fred, "You shouldn't drive that car with those slick tires.” 

Fred did anyway and later that day Duesenberg lost control of the car and crashed on the Lincoln Highway in the mountains outside of Jennerstown, Pennsylvania. Fred Duesenberg but while he hospitalized for his injuries following the accident he contracted pneumonia and died on July 26 1932.  

The John Warren Watson Company advertised heavily in the automotive trade magazines and the highly popular Saturday Evening Post. In 1926, golfer Grantland Rice and race driver Harry Hartz appeared in a series of print advertisements endorsing Watson “Stabilators.” The text of the Hartz advertisement that appeared in the August 16, 1928 issue of the Saturday Evening Post entitled "RELAX" read in part:

“The smart race car drivers - those who win and last - seize every opportunity to relax - momentary pauses at the pit or even during the whirl of the race itself to soften the tension of over-tensed nerves. There must be relaxation in the wild whirl of race driving to insure rested steady nerves for the final effort. Either they relax of something cracks.

Harry Hartz stands out as probably the most consistent and dependable driver of the automotive race track. In more than four-fifth of all the championship events in which he has competed, he has been among the first three to finish.

Hartz attributes no small part of his success in his ability to relax. After having experienced the value of relaxed motoring in six other Stabilated cars, he recently refused to accept delivery of a new car for his personal use until it was equipped with Watson Stabilators.”

In 1928, Watson introduced Type AA “Stabilators” for ‘light’ cars which sold for $28 for a set of four ($388 today) plus installation. ‘Light cars’ were defined by Watson as including those made by Chevrolet, Dodge, Pontiac, Nash and Whippets. The advertisements claimed that with Watson “Stabilators” installed, “light cars can ride the roughest roads at forty.”   

The NBC broadcast of the 1928 Indianapolis 500-mile was anchored by legendary announcer Graham McNamee. McNamee, who always opened his broadcasts with his tagline "good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience," was voted America’s most popular announcer in 1925.

During his career, Graham McNamee’s name was synonymous with radio coverage of such major sporting events as the World Series, the Rose Bowl, and the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney 1927 boxing match (which earned him an appearance on the cover of the October 3, 1927 Time magazine) as well as national political conventions and presidential inaugurations.

Articles published in newspapers in the days before the race on Decoration Day 1928 explained that “continuous broadcasting from the historic track will be conducted during the last hour of the race.  Graham McNamee will be stationed at the microphone high above the track to describe the final hour of the famous race for the first time over a national network.” The program’s start time was advertised as 2 PM on the East Coast, with the provision that “the exact beginning will be governed by the speed of the racing machines.”

Assuming that the broadcast began on time, listeners would have tuned in around lap 160 and heard McNamee describe the action with Louisiana native Tony Gulotta in the race lead with the supercharged and intercooled 91-cubic inch Miller “Stutz Blackhawk Special” over rookie Jimmy Gleason in a factory Duesenberg entry, with fellow rookie Louis Meyer’s gold Miller in third place. On lap 181, Gulotta, whose Miller entry was owned by Frank Lockhart’s widow, was forced to pit with a clogged fuel filter, while at the same time the radiator in Gleason’s Duesenberg began leaking water onto the magneto.

The misfortunes that befell Gulotta and Gleason handed the lead to Louis Meyer who went on to lead the final nineteen laps to post his first of three 500-mile race victories.  Donald Davidson relates that Graham McNamee later stated quite emphatically that the start of the Indianapolis “500” was the most spectacular sight he had ever witnessed.

McNamee and the NBC network returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway through 1931 with similar “last hour” coverage. In 1931, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company sponsored the program with Raymond Firestone as a guest during the broadcast.   

There was no radio coverage of the Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1932. In an article published in the Indianapolis News two days before the race, General Manager T.E. “Pop” Myers stated “radio in competition with newspapers….is unwilling to compensate financially for entertaining its listeners. It has been decided to permit the newspapers of the world to tell the complete and exclusive story of the race.”   NBC Radio returned the following year, 1933, and NBC coverage continued until 1938, in some years in addition to the finish, the network carried live segments at the start with updates during the course of the race.  

After 1932, NBC returned but did not hold an exclusive, as the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network also covered the Indianapolis ‘500’ in the late 1930’s. The CBS programs were anchored by Ted Husing, who like McNamee, had covered political events, World Series games, track and field events and horse races. Later in his career, Ted Husing briefly appeared in the MGM (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) automobile racing film “To Please a Lady” which starred Clark Gable and Barbra Stanwyck as the Speedway public address and radio announcer.

From 1939 to 1950, the Mutual Broadcasting System transmitted coverage of the Indianapolis ‘500’ nationwide.   This was a monumental achievement because before December 1936, the Mutual network consisted of just four stations - WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati, WXYZ in Detroit and WOR in Newark New Jersey but that changed when the twelve-station Don Lee Broadcasting System, the leading regional network on the West Coast, changed its affiliation from CBS to Mutual, and Mutual became a nationwide network.

Don Lee, with 46 General Motors Corporation dealerships up and down the West Coast, had expanded into radio in 1926. Lee’s dealerships took orders for custom-bodied Cadillacs which were built by Don Lee Coach & Body Works which employed a promising young metalworker named Frank Kurtis. Don Lee died in 1934, at age 53 and his estimated $9 ½ million business empire was inherited by his 28-year old bachelor son Thomas Stewart Lee. “Tommy” inherited but only after an extended 14-year legal battle with Don Lee’s 24-year old wife, Geraldine, to whom Don had been married three months and had omitted from his will.
Under Tommy Lee's leadership, the Don Lee brand sponsored a pair of United Racing Association (URA) midget racing cars with bodies built by Frank Kurtis and was an entrant in four Indianapolis 500-mile races.  Tommy Lee entered his 1932 Alfa Romeo P3 ‘monoposto’ (single seat) in the 1946 Indianapolis 500 as the “Don Lee Special.” 

The Alfa Romeo, which had earlier competed in the 1939 and 1940 Indianapolis 500-mile races, was driven by ‘big car’ veteran Hal Cole. Cole qualified the screaming supercharged red car for the fourth starting position, but early in the ‘1946 500’ the Alfa Romeo lost a wheel and later retired with just 16 laps completed with a terminal oil leak and finished 32th.

The ‘Don Lee’ Alfa returned for the 1947 running Indianapolis ‘500 ‘with 40-year-old driver Ken Fowler whose only previous start at Indianapolis had come ten years earlier. Fowler’s teammate was Dennis 'Duke' Nalon behind the wheel of the mighty pre-war 1939 two-stage supercharged V-12 powered Mercedes W154.  Nalon posted the second fastest average speed in qualifying, over 128 MPH, but the Mercedes fell out on lap 119 when a replacement piston in the Mercedes engine broke and then two laps later, the Alfa retired with a broken axle.

The ‘Don Lee’ 450-horsepower Mercedes W154 returned for the 1948 Indianapolis ‘500,’ driven by 46-year old veteran of 14 ‘500s’ Chet Miller, while midget “hot shoe” and Indianapolis rookie Mack Hellings drove Lee’s new Kurtis Kraft 2000, chassis number 319 powered by a 270-cubic inch displacement 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine. Miller’s Mercedes retired on lap 108 with a terminal oil leak, but Hellings and the KK 2000 finished the ‘500’ in fifth place.

During the early nineteen forties, Tommy Lee suffered serious head, neck and back injuries in a passenger car accident and afterwards, either due to possible brain damage in the accident or the side effects of powerful pain medications, Tommy’s behavior became erratic. On August 28, 1948, less than a month after final settlement of his father’s will, Tommy Lee was declared mentally incompetent, with control of his financial affairs given to an uncle by marriage, and Tommy was placed under the personal guardianship of his aunt, Nora Patee. Tommy was institutionalized first in Pasadena, then later in Palm Springs.

Photo of Clark Gable in the "Mike Brannan Special" appears courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

The ‘Don Lee Special’ Kurtis Kraft entry was driven in 1949 ‘500’ again by Mack Hellings, but the Offenhauser engine broke a valve on lap 172.  During the 1949 filming of “To Please a Lady,” the MGM studio purchased the car from Tommy Lee and had it re-numbered to became the red #77 “Mike Brannan Special” driven in the film by Clark Gable’s character.   

On Friday January 13 1950 Tommy Lee was temporarily released from a Palm Springs hospital and flown by pricate plane to Los Angeles an appointment with his dentist, Dr. E.J. Thee. Tommy was dropped off in front of the Pellissier Building on Wilshire Boulevard, but instead of taking the elevator to the dentist’s office, he went to the twelfth floor, took a few puffs off a cigarette and leapt to his death through a fire escape window. Lee’s body was found on the roof of the adjacent Wiltern Theatre nine floors below moments later by his nurse Jeanne Shiffler. Tommy’s $8 million estate, spelled out in a 24-word will, was finally settled 18 months after his death.  

The Mutual System broadcasted the ‘500’ from 1939 to 1941 and from 1946 to 1950, all with anchor Bill Slater and sponsorship from the Perfect Circle Piston Ring Company of Hagerstown Indiana.  In 1951 Mutual wanted to increase their advertising rates, but after extended negotiations, Perfect Circle pulled out as the sponsor, and Mutual dropped the ‘500’ broadcast from their schedule.

Just days before the ‘500,’ Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials including President Wilbur Shaw scrambled to arrange coverage with the Indianapolis Mutual affiliate, WIBC-AM. The 1951 race updates were delivered by WIBC announcer Sid Collins with the feed then sent from the WIBC studios to 25 other Mutual affiliates. These 25 stations later formed the nucleus of the IMS Radio Network which debuted in 1952, which broadcast the first ‘500’ heard from start to finish in 1953, a tradition which continues through the present day. 


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Another USAC record tied!

 With his victory on Friday night February 19 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala Florida in the United States Auto Club USAC AMSOIL® national sprint cars, Robert Ballou of Rocklin California is now in the top 20 on the list of all-time USAC sprint car wins. Ballou’s victory on the second night of “Dirt Games VII,” brought the defending USAC national sprint car champion’s win total to 23, and placed him in a tie for 19th place with USAC Hall of Fame legends A.J. Foyt and Roger McCluskey. 

To purchase a t-shirt with the above graphic, visit

Friday, February 19, 2016

Bryan Clauson - one of USAC's top ten!

With his win on Thursday night  February 18 2016 at the United States Auto Club (USAC) AMSOIL® Winter Dirt Games VII held at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala Florida, Bryan Clauson moved into the top ten of all-time USAC national sprint car race winners. Clauson from Noblesville Indiana moved into a tie for ninth place with Jon Stanbrough and the late Rich Vogler with 35 main event victories.

With his win, Clauson also gained membership in a unique club of USAC drivers who have won 35 or more USAC victories in both national sprint car and national midget competition, joining Tracy Hines and the late Rich Vogler.   

Thursday night's race was race number 18 on Clauson’s 2016 ‘Circular Insanity  - Chasing 200” tour, with a goal of competing in 200 open-wheel races during the 2016 season.

Follow Bryan’s progress at

Photo and logo courtesy of Bryan Clauson Racing Inc.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Midget racer Bob Harner in 1945 & 1946

By 1945, midget racer Bob Harner (or Harnar) and his wife Martha were the parents of three daughters – Marcia, born in 1938, Nancy, born in 1941, and Linda, born in 1944.  A son, Robert Junior, was born later in September 1946 which completed their family.

The author’s research did not locate any records of Bob Harner's (or Harnar) service in any branch of the United States military during World War 2.  The author suspects this might have been on religious reasons, since at various times during his pre-war racing career, Harner was described in newspaper articles as the “the Flying Amishman” or “the Mormon star from Akron.”

On August 17 1945, Colonel John Monroe Johnson, the Director of the Office of Defense Transportation lifted the wartime ban on automobile racing, just two days after Japan surrendered.  Harner obviously wasted little time in the resumption of his racing career, as in a nationwide Associated Press article dated September 6, 1945 from Buffalo New York, Bob Harner was described as “a member of a religious sect which does not believe in shaving.” 
Harner, who was in town for a race that evening revealed that he had removed his beard and he was quoted: "My beard interfered with driving. Trouble was the wind would roar through it and half the time I couldn't see where I was headed."

As we trace Bob Harner’s travels during the abbreviated 1945 and the 1946 racing schedule, consider that these were the days before the creation of the interstate highway system and race teams riding in a semi-tractor ‘toterhome’ towing an enclosed 40-foot long stacker trailer filled with spare race cars and parts.  In 1946, racers towed their midget race car loaded on a single-axle open trailer behind their passenger cars over unlit two-lane backroads, often speeding in order to reach their next racing destination in hopes of catching a few hours of sleep before they had to work on their car in the track parking lot.      

On October 21 1945 Harner raced the #97 Ford V8-60 powered midget at Fort Miami Speedway located on the grounds of the Lucas County Fairgrounds in Maumee Ohio, ten miles southwest of Toledo.  The former horse racing facility had hosted automobile racing as far back as 1905, as it did on July 30 of that year when hometown star Berna Eli “Barney” Oldfield and the Peerless Green Dragon met Dayton, Ohio’s Earl Kiser and the Winton Bullet for a series of match races held on the mile dirt track. The first 3-lap match race was called a draw, but unfortunately the “Bullet” suffered a cracked front axle during the race and had to retire for the afternoon.  

A ¼-mile infield dirt track located in the infield of the Lucas County Fairgrounds mile track had been built and hosted midget racing dating back to 1939, but on this day, the long race was held on the big one-mile track.  33 midget cars posted qualifying times for the 100-mile ‘National Championship’ midget race promoted by Gerald Good, and Perry Grim posted the day’s quick time at 41.87 seconds.  Fourteen of the cars entered were Offenhauser powered, and in a scenario familiar to modern midget racing fans, one engine was dominant, as seven of the top ten qualifiers drove Offenhauser-powered mounts.  

In addition to Harner and Grimm, the entry list included Bill Boyd, Gays Biro, Myron Fohr, Al Bonnell, Henry Banks, Tony Bettenhausen and one-armed driver Wes Saegesser. The feature was won by Bettenhausen, followed by Boyd and Grimm with the first eight finishers all in Offenhauser-powered machines. Bob Harner’s results are unknown as he was not among the top ten finishers. 

The first reported race of Bob Harnar’s busy 1946 racing season came at the Rubber Bowl in Akron on May 7 against a field that included Hawaii’s Wally Stokes, Michigan’s Johnny Wohlfeil, and Ralph Pratt from Nebraska.

We next found Harner racing in the northwestern New York city of Lockport, home of the Niagara County Fairgrounds.  This facility had hosted big car racing on the half mile dirt oval since 1927, but the midgets raced on June 6 1946 on the ¼ mile track built inside the ½-mile track.  In his book Sunday Driver, writer and broadcaster Brock Yates recalls his grandfather taking him to his first race at this, his hometown track, at age 12 in 1946- could Yates have attended the June 6th race?

Midget, big car and stock car races at the ‘Lockport Fairgrounds’ were later promoted by veteran racing promoter Walter C. Stebbins’ ‘Stebbins Speedways’ organization Allan Brown’s excellent reference book The History of America's Speedways: Past and Present states that racing ended at Lockport on the ½ -mile track in 1949 and on the ¼-mile oval in 1950, but not before Lockport became the site of the first URC (United Racing Club) sanctioned sprint car race in 1948. The race track at Lockport is long gone, with only the line of trees that once lined the outside of the east end of the ½-mile track to bear testament to its existence.

Three days later, on Sunday June 9 1946,  Harner was near his home in northeastern Ohio racing in another Don Zeiter promotion at the “new” Bainbridge Speedway, a one-mile dirt track about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland.  13,161 fans watched as the midget of Carl “Bud” Hamilton from Columbus Ohio hooked the second turn inner guardrail on the second lap of the 100-lap feature. Hamilton’s car hooked a guardrail post, then flipped and “Bud” was ejected onto the track surface, and two following midget cars ran over him.

Hamilton survived the accident, but suffered a fractured skull, two broken legs, and a punctured lung. During the crash, a wheel off Hamilton’s car broke off and hit Harner’s passing car which caused Harner to hit the outer guardrail and spin to a stop. Bob was able to restart but his car later retired with unspecified mechanical failure.  Duane Carter won the 100 lapper in one hour eighteen minutes in a race marred by high attrition as only four cars finished.
The Bainbridge Fairgrounds, near the Geauga Lake Amusement Park, hosted automobile racing from 1946 to 1951 on the one-mile dirt track originally built in 1927 for horse racing. The Bainbridge track hosted a July 13 1947 15-car AAA (American Automobile Association) championship race, won by Ted Horn by a lap over Bill Holland when the race was flagged at 90 laps due to rain.  In 1951, Bainbridge Speedway hosted a NASCAR 100-lap stock car race won by Truman “Fonty” Flock and open-wheel veteran Dick Rathmann finished in second place.  During the 1950's, a smaller 1000-meter track, known as the Grandview Race Track, was built in the infield for harness horse racing. The Bainbridge Fairgrounds closed in 1969 and the site was developed for commercial use, and is now the site of a Home Depot store.

Two weeks later, on Sunday June 23 1946, Harner was entered to race at the New Kensington Fairgrounds in western Pennsylvania. Promoted by racer Don Meyer, the nine race program, topped by a 25 lap feature race on the ¼-mile dirt oval, also featured entries from Howard Ripple of Pittsburgh, local driver Art Holbrook, Earl Hopkins, and Jimmy Florian.

‘Big Car’ racing began on the original New Kensington half-mile track located on Tarentum Bridge Road, not far from the south bank of the Allegheny River, as early as 1927 and continued until 1931, according to the late historian Don Radbruch. In September 1938, a semi-banked ¼-mile track opened in the infield and midgets ran there until Memorial Day 1941. After the war, the ¼-mile track reopened and midget racing resumed until 1949, and then the track was closed until 1952 when it reopened for two seasons of jalopy racing. The Fairgrounds property later became the site of a drive-in movie theatre but now is the site of several fast food restaurants and commercial buildings.

Bob Harner spent the 1946 Fourth of July holiday racing close to home, first in the “gala preholiday program and midseason championship” held at the Rubber Bowl in Akron on July 3 1946.  In addition to the nine-race program that included a maiden race, a 50-lap ‘Class A’ feature and 40-lap ‘Class B’ feature, radio and movie stars George Burns and Gracie Allen appeared live.

Harner raced at the Fort Miami Speedway on July 5 1946 and finished in 10th place in a controversial program. Twenty-two cars started the 100-lap feature but the dust on the track was so bad that racing was immediately halted and the track was wet down, which resulted in a two-hour delay. When racing resumed, the field was short five drivers who elected not to race due the track conditions.

Roy Duby dominated the race but was forced to pit for a new rear tire on lap 96, but Duby believed he had a comfortable three-lap lead over Tony Bettenhausen in second place. However when the checkered flag dropped moments later, the race win went to Bettenhausen who had apparently unlapped himself during Duby’s stop and crossed the line 35 seconds ahead of Duby. Duby and his crew vehemently protested, but after a scoring check, officials confirmed that Duby’s lead was only two laps when he pitted, and Bettenhausen’s win was upheld.

Midget racer Roy Duby

Roy Duby from Fenton Michigan was an Upper Midwest post-war midget racing star, but Duby’s greatest fame came later in hydroplane boat racing. Around 1950, Duby gave up on midget racing and began working as a crew chief (and occasionally driver) for a succession of hydroplane boat racing teams based out of the Detroit Yacht Club, including teams owned by Detroit bakery magnate Jack Schafer, the Schoenith family of electrical contractors, machinery re-seller George Simon, and big band leader Guy Lombardo.

Roy Duby’s career with the unlimited inboard boats spanned the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. In a Detroit River test run in 1952, Schafer’s giant twin-engine Allison-powered hydroplane ‘Such Crust III’ flipped and Duby suffered a broken back. Three years later, as the crew chief for Lombardo’s blue and gold ‘Tempo VII’ the boat won five races over the latter half of the season and was crowned the National High Point Champion. 
On April 17, 1962, Duby became the fastest man in a piston-engine propeller-driven hydroplane as he averaged 200.419 MPH in a pair of straight-line runs in the ‘US 1’ hydroplane on Guntersville Lake in Alabama. Duby retired from competitive boat racing in 1968, but later served as a coach for rookie hydroplane (and future Indianapolis 500) driver David ‘Salt’ Walther in 1970.  Duby's record still stands today.

The Fort Miami Speedway facility later hosted two NASCAR hardtop races in 1951 and 1952 both of which were won by Julius “Tim” Flock. Auto racing ceased when the track facility was remodeled in 1958 and known as “Maumee Downs,” featured horse racing until 1961. The grandstand and track were torn down in 1965 to make way for Lucas County Stadium, which served as the home of the Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball club until 2002.

With the departure of the Mud Hens, the stadium is part of the Lucas County Recreation Center Complex and is used for amateur games. There still is automobile racing held on the 128-acre grounds as the Northwestern Ohio Quarter Midget Racing Association (NWOQMA) has hosted races on 1/20th mile track since 1962. Current United States Auto Club (USAC) Silver Crown and midget racer Austin Nemire started his racing career at the Lucas County track.  

Steubenville Speedway, a ¼ mile dirt track located in an area known as Butte’s Field in the eastern Ohio town that borders the Ohio River hosted Bob Harner’s next recorded race. Originally an air field built in 1922 on property owned by Frank Butte, “the Field” also hosted circuses and horse shows. An illegal dog racing track was built on the grounds during the early 1930’s and operated for a couple of years before it was shut down by the authorities.
Proponents tried to reopen the Butte's Field dog racing track in 1939, but a bill to legalize pari-mutuel betting on greyhound racing failed to pass the Ohio House. The unused dog track hosted the occasional traveling auto thrill show, such as the ‘Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers’ before promoter Don Zeitler brought weekly midget car racing in 1941.

The initial date for the first post-war midget race at the Butte’s Field track, promoted by Zeiter Speedways, Thursday night July 11 1946, was rained out during time trials and was rescheduled for a week later.  Besides Harner, other drivers entered for the eight-race program included Roy Sherman from Los Angeles, Jack Kabat from Cleveland, 1940 Ohio Midget champion Wild Bill Boyd, and Bill Spears. The little track, later called Butte Speedway, hosted weekly motorcycle races in 1948 then stock cars in 1951.

The Butte’s Field area north of the corner Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, was re-developed in the late 1950’s and is now the Hollywood housing subdivision and shopping center. Steubenville’s St. John’s Community Arena hosted indoor three-quarter midget and motorcycle racing on a 1/8-mile track laid out on the concrete floor during the mid-nineteen sixties.   

Unfortunately the author was not able to find any other records for Bob Harner during the 1946 season. In later racing promotions, Bob was billed as the 1946 Virginia Circuit champion but the author cannot verify that claim, or even find the existence of such a circuit. Can any of our readers help solve the mystery? 

A note to our readers:

This article does not purport to be a complete record of Bob Harner’s (or Harnar) midget racing career during 1946, as the author used newspaper articles to trace Harner’s travels, which obviously left the picture of Harner's career incomplete. 
Unfortunately, Harner's results in many of the races we know about are lost to time.  Stories in the local newspaper a few days in advance of a local race were used as an inexpensive way for the promoter to increase fan interest and attendance.

The results of races are often lacking, unless something extraordinary occurred, as local small town sportswriters seldom covered races. Promoters frequently did not issue post-race results, as their thinking was that publicity after the fact did nothing to improve the paid attendance. 





Sunday, February 14, 2016

Racing history on display at the 2016 Sacramento Autorama

Mixed in with the beautiful hot rods and custom cars on display at the 2016 Sacramento Aurorama held at the Cal Expo State Fairgrounds were a pair of open-wheel race cars with interesting histories, shown in these photographs by the author. Click on the photographs to enlarge them. 

This a recreation of the Bob Lehman owned supermodifed that was driven in races by Jerry Graham during 1968 at Roseville's All-American Speedway and West Capitol Speedway in Sacramento. 

While the author is not normally a fan of recreations, this one is different than most as it built by the original owner and driver for owner Rick Mills

  Compare the cockpit of this 1968 supermodified with the cockpit of a modern race car to understand how far the science of race driver safety has come in nearly 50 years

This truly historic race car was on display in  the rear of the Butch Gardner Club House pavilion. This is the famed Atlas Chrome Special in its final iteration as the Shanoian Special as raced in the 1950's without its famous body of the built in 1933 by master metalsmith and car builder Frank Kurtis.  

 Little remains of the original Atlas Chrome car, which was raced extensively  at Legion Ascot Speedway, one clue is the chromed frame.  This car was first seen after years of being hidden from public view at Shanoian's induction in 2015 into the Calistoga Speedway Hall of Fame  

Detail of what the owner describes as a Model B Ford engine fitted with a Miller DOHC (double overhead camshaft cylinder head), although this might be a DOHC Cragar engine.  Sometime after Shanoian last raced it, the car was purchased and stored by famed racing collector Carl Schmid. The car was displayed by  Robert Radueschel.
This photo provided by historian Larry Pfitzmaier
shows the Atlas Chrome/Shanoian Special as it was stored in a barn years ago