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.

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