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. 





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