Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Midget racer Bob Harner before World War 2.

Photograph of Bob Harner provided by JD Cormack

JD Cormack recently shared two vintage photographs with the author of nineteen forties and fifties midget racer Bob Harner .  While Harner (his actual family surname was spelled Harnar)  did not have a Hall of Fame midget racing career, research into his racing career demonstrated how popular midget racing was during the post-World War 2 period, as Harner raced at a number of long-lost and little-known tracks all across our country. In a series of short articles, we will trace Harner’s travels to these various tracks and trace the history of the individual tracks.

Bob Harner was born in Akron Ohio in 1916, raced locally in the Northeastern Ohio area during 1942 and newspaper articles credited Harner with winning the 1941 West Virginia 'Class B' midget championship.

Harner appeared on the half-mile dirt at the Mansfield Fairgrounds located on Springmill Street in a pair of shows promoted by famed thrill show promoter B. Ward Beam. Beam had originally run a flight school near his hometown of Celina Ohio in 1917 but later went bust with a failed airplane manufacturing company.

By 1923, Beam had formed ‘Ward Beam's International Congress of Daredevils,’ a barnstorming thrill show that featured the ‘T-Bone crash’ and the lengthwise transcontinental bus jump. In addition to his thrill show bookings, at various times Beam also promoted races at Roby Speedway in Hammond Indiana near Chicago and the deadly half-mile board track at Bridgeville Pennsylvania.

On Sunday afternoon May 3rd 1942,  26-year old Bob Harner’s name was among those on the entry list for an open competition midget racing program which was paired with “Lucky” Lee Lott’s Hell Drivers thrill show at Mansfield. 

While we have no results for Harner in the May 3rd race, the day’s 15-lap feature race was captured by Toledo’s Al Menominee on what was described as a “dust-bound” track, despite a week’s worth of track preparation and the sprinkling of the track surface the night before the race. The racing program was interrupted several times during the afternoon as young boys swarmed the track, but the reported crowd of 10,000 went home awestruck after they witnessed Lucky Lott’s transcontinental bus jump with a stock automobile.

Fortunately, we found more information about Harner’s next reported race a month later at Akron’s Rubber Bowl stadium, a venue which had hosted midget car racing since in June 1941. Built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) crews during 1939, the 30,000 seat horseshoe-shaped stadium’s primary tenant was the University of Akron ‘Zips’ football team.

Veteran Cleveland racing promoter Don Zeiter leased the Rubber Bowl Stadium, located adjacent to the Akron Fulton Airport, Goodyear Airdock, and Derby Downs (the home of the All-American Soap Box Derby) from the City of Akron fore weekly midget races in exchange for a minimum rental fee or a percentage of the nightly profits, whichever was greater.  Zeiter’s crews built and maintained a one-fifth-mile cinder oval track with elevated turns with an inside wooden rail to keep the racers off the football field.

On Thursday night June 4, 1942, with 3,500 paying fans in the stands, Bob Harner who lived on the south side of Akron with his wife and two daughters, finished third in the 25-lap preliminary “Class B” feature before Dennis ‘Duke’ Nalon outdueled local Steubenville driver ‘Wild’ Bill Boyd and Duane Carter for the victory in 25-lap “Class A” feature.

After going silent for World War 2, midget car racing resumed at the Rubber Bowl on April 26 1946.  The number generated during the 1946 racing season at the Rubber Bowl demonstrates how popular midget racing was immediately following the War. The 1946 Rubber Bowl season featured 24 races and paid attendance totaled 260,607. The City of Akron received $31,409.00 as the city's portion of the profits per the agreement with promoter Zeiter, which is equivalent to over $370,000 in 2015.    

Midget racing at the Rubber Bowl continued through 1959 despite two tragedies. On the night of May 24 1947 during the fourth race of the evening, the midget racer of Jack Walkup of nearby Stow, Ohio brushed the outer wooden wall.  The right rear wheel of Walkup’s machine broke off, and as 10,000 horrified fans watched, the wheel bounced into the stands and struck 26-year old George V. Chupek on the left side of the head.

Chupek an unmarried tire factory employee and former paratrooper who had survived five campaigns in the European theater during World War II was killed instantly, but miraculously his date for the evening, Mary Ellison, seated in the box seat next to Chupek escaped miraculously unharmed.  

Chupek’s surviving family members later filed suit against the City of Akron, but the suit was eventually dismissed by the Summit County Court of Appeals in February 1951, which stated in part that the city, acting as a landlord was not liable for failure to make the premises safe.

Just over a year after the Chupek tragedy, on Thursday night May 27 1948, veteran Detroit driver George Witzman was warming up Jim White’s Offenhauser powered midget before the evening’s racing program when the car’s steering assembly apparently froze. The car crashed through the wooden outer fence and overturned with the worst result, as Witzman was transported to the Akron City Hospital where he died six hours later. His car owner who ran the Fort Miami Speedway and Witzman’s fellow competitors staged a memorial race at the Fort Miami Speedway on June 4 to benefit Witzman’s widow and five children.

In early 1949, promoter Don Zeiter sold his 'Zeiter Midget Speedways' operation to Earl Clay and retired to his farm in Northern Michigan.  Harold Zeiter bid on the operation of the Rubber Bowl midget races in 1949, but lost out to a syndicate led by Rubber Bowl manager Charles Burns. Burns' team which included Ed Palmer and sports promoter Bill Griffith bid promised the City a minimum of $450 per event or 15% of the gross profits after taxes whichever was greater. 

Harold Zeiter's bid promised 18 1/2% of the gross profits after taxes but a lower minimum, which the City shied away from, as attendance at the Rubber Bowl midget races was dropping due to the general decline in the popularity of midget racing and the opening of new larger local tracks built exclusively for racing; both took a heavy toll on spectator turn-out for races held at the Rubber Bowl. From a high in 1946  of 260,607, in 1947 paid attendance for the season dropped to 202,753, and in 1948 season attendance fell further to 112,155.  

Rubber Bowl racing promoters later added hot rod roadsters and stock cars to the ARDC (American Racing Drivers Club) midget racing programs with little success before racing at the Rubber Bowl ceased at the end of the 1959 season.

The Rubber Bowl remained the home to football and the occasional concert (including the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane in 1972) until the final Akron Zips football game at the Rubber Bowl was held on November 13, 2008. After the Zips moved their home games to a new on-campus stadium, the Rubber Bowl has fallen into disrepair as it passed through the hands of various owners, each with plans to renovate the stadium, none of which ever came to fruition. The latest scheduled event at the Rubber Bowl, a hip-hop concert in May 2015, was relocated due to the dilapidated condition of the Rubber Bowl.  

On the afternoon of June 7, 1942, Bob Harnar, billed as the "Flying Amishman from Akron," raced on the Ashland Fairgrounds 3/8-mile dirt track which was located inside the harness racing track in Ashland, Ohio. This special program was rescheduled after a rain out on Memorial Day. Harnar, advertised as the "1941 West Virginia Class B dirt track champion," signed up during the extra week to race against  drivers nicknamed the "Indianapolis Big Three" - Dennis 'Duke' Nalon, Paul Russo, and Mel Hanson, who was billed as the "Firecracker Kid from Los Angeles."   Since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had suspended racing for the duration on December 29 1941, these three drivers were not busy at their typical venue on Memorial Day 1942.  The seven-race program was scheduled to be topped by a 15-lap feature, but the results from that day are lost to history.
Bob Harner’s next race, and his last race until after World War 2, was on Sunday July 26 1942 again at the Mansfield Fairgrounds half-mile track, in a race that Ward Beam billed as “Positively your Last Chance to see races until after the War.” Although the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 and the United States Congress declared war on Japan the following day, life on the domestic front did not change overnight. For example, gasoline rationing did not go into effect in 17 Eastern states until May 15 1942, and rationing only went nationwide on December 1 1942.    

In order to conserve rubber, the Office of Defense Transportation General Order 14 part 501 had initially commanded that all auto racing must cease at midnight on July 10, 1942, but the date was later moved to midnight on July 31, 1942.  Harner and the Central States Racing Association drivers participated in the “One Half Mile Midget Championship” show with 22 cars entered for eight races in a program supplemented by the ‘International Congress of Daredevils’ thrill show which climaxed with a rocket car bus jump by Captain Dick Rogers.

In addition to being the last local race until after the war, this also marked the final auto race held at the Mansfield Fairgrounds on Springmill Street. The Richland County Fair was relocated to its present site, 3-1/2 miles northwest in 1956, and the Fair Board sold the site to its current occupant, Taylor Metal Products Company.  

In future chapters, we will follow intrepid midget racer Bob Harner as he resumed touring and racing across the country after World War Two.

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