Thursday, March 31, 2016

"WATER FROM WILBUR"


Photo by the author


On a recent trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Hall of Fame, the author photographed several of the historic trophies on display. One which really caught the author’s eye was the silver cup engraved with the phrase “Water from Wilbur.”

Louis Meyer asked for buttermilk after he won his second Indianapolis 500-mile race in 1933, and that was repeated following his third win in 1936. The tradition of the winner drinking from a bottle of milk continued until World war 2 interrupted racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Beginning in 1947 this silver cup was filled with ice and water and presented to the ‘500’ race winner by Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and three-time ‘500’ winner Wilbur Shaw. This new tradition continued through the 1954 ‘500’ despite Shaw suffering a major heart attack in 1951 at the Soap Box Derby in Akron Ohio.  

Wilbur Shaw, right, presents the "Water from Wilbur" 
to 1949 '500' winner Bill Holland, center.
photograph appears courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies.

On October 30 1954, on the eve of his 52nd birthday, Shaw, pilot Ray Grimes and artist Ernest Roose flew in a Cessna airplane to Detroit so that Shaw could test drive a new Chrysler at the Chrysler Proving Grounds. On the return flight, with Roose presumed to be at the controls, the Cessna plunged into a field on Homer Ginter’s farm near Peterson Indiana, in Adams County and all three men were killed.
 


Sam Hanks drinks "Water from Wilbur" in 1957. Photograph appears courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies.


To honor Wilbur Shaw’s memory, the Speedway continued to present the ‘500’ race winner with “Water from Wilbur” through the 1957, with Sam Hanks the last documented winner to drink from the "Water from Wilbur" cup, which now rests in an honored location in a display case in the Museum.  

The earlier tradition of the winner drinking milk that began with Louis Meyer in 1933,  resumed in 1956, with sponsorship from the American Dairy Association according to Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson.  Maplehurst Dairy, an Indianapolis firm, had a refrigerator stocked with milk set up in break room in the Garage Area during the month of May in 1955, and this break room area was used a frequent background during the month. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Dean Van Lines Kuzma roadster




During a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and Hall of Fame this past weekend,  the author was fortunate enough to photograph the 1955 Dean Van Lines Kuzma roadster. 

This car was built new for car owner Al Dean crew chief Clint Brawner and driver Jimmy Bryan for the 1955 Indianapolis 500-mile race. Bryan led the race twice for 31 laps before the fuel pump on the Offenhauser engine’s failed on lap 90.

During the 1956, ‘500,’ a tire blew around lap 100 and Jimmy spun into the south infield. Jimmy returned to the pits and he and crew returned to the car, put on a new tire and restarted the car to rejoin the race. Bryan and the Kuzam were still running at the finished 15 laps behind the winner pat Flaherty and finished 19th.



During the winter of 1956-7 Eddie Kuzma narrowed the chassis and built and new body for the car.  Bryan qualified the ‘Dean Van Lines Special’ for 15th starting spot on the third day of time trials. During the 1957 ‘500.’ Bryan ran in the top 5 last half of the race and finished third but never challenged winner Sam Hanks. This is the livery and configuration the car has been restored to represent. 

For the 1958 ‘500’ a young rookie from Houston Texas named Foyt drove the Dean van Lines Kuzma but finished 16th when he spun out in turn one on lap 148 after a radiator hose broke and dumped water under his tires.


During practice on May 23 1959, Earl Motter spun and backed the car into the south short chute wall and severely damaged the tail which ended its racing career. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

THE LIFE OF FRANK SUESS

Left click on the photographs to enlarge

Recently, while cataloging a group of old photographs recently purchased through an online auction site, the author found a reprint of a remarkable newspaper photograph of a 1932 crash that involved driver Frank Suess at the historic Legion Ascot Speedway. Before we discuss the circumstances of the photograph, we will profile the driver and his career. 

Frank Suess' yearbook photo from Santa Monica High School 
courtesy of the Santa Monica High School archives.

Frank L. Suess was born August 27 1910 and raised in Santa Monica California by his parents Frank J. and Ruby along with an older sister Helen and younger brother Gordon. Frank graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1928, and two years later, in 1930, his name first appeared in the press as one of the listed entries for the November 2 ‘Western Circuit Sweepstakes’ at Bakersfield Speedway. 
 
Bakersfield Speedway builder, owner, and promoter Paul J. C. Derkum, a former bicycle and motorcycle racer who raced in the first event held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, promised fans “the greatest aggregation of cars and drivers seen on a California dirt track in the last decade,” a promised Derkum could safely make because the race had been granted American Automobile Association (AAA) sanction number 2407, a first for the Bakersfield track. 

Frank Suess’ #36 ‘Santa Monica Special’ was one of 52 cars entered for the event, in which only the fastest 36 cars participated in a series of short 5-mile heat races to advance to the 25-lap feature race on the one-mile dirt track.  In qualifying, Francis Quinn established a “new world record for mile dirt tracks” with a lap of 39.41 seconds, then drove his “Dayton Thoroughbred Special” to victory in the 25-mile feature easily over Johnny Krieger and Chester ‘Chet’ Gardner.

Suess entered the inaugural race at the new Oakland Speedway on October 19 1931, as the driver of the #71 ‘PAL Special.’ Other notable entrants included Indianapolis 500-mile race veterans Billy Arnold, Ralph Hepburn, Louis Meyer, and Ernie Triplett. No records of Suess’ performance were found, but Triplett led all 100 laps over Hepburn and Meyer on a track surface that deteriorated throughout the event.

Francis Quinn in 1929 behind the wheel of the "Schmidt Special" 
photo from the Ed Reynolds collection owned by the author

Frank Suess and the ‘PAL Special’ were entered for the race at Oakland Speedway scheduled for December 13 1932 which was rained out. 1930 AAA Pacific Southwest champion Francis Quinn enroute to Oakland from Southern California, called ahead and after he learned that the race was rained out, turned around. North of Fresno, a suspected drunk driver crossed the centerline and hit Quinn’s Ford Model A head on; 28-year old Francis Quinn was killed instantly but his $4,000 Miller Marine powered “big car” was miraculously undamaged in the accident.

The rescheduled Oakland race was rained out for the second time on December 27, and eventually was run on New Year’s Day 1932. It is unclear whether Frank Suess was in Oakland that day as the newspaper report listed only the first seven finishers in the accident-shortened race won by Elbert “Babe” Stapp.

Two days later on Sunday January 3 1932, Frank Suess was in action at the ‘Western Circuit Sweepstakes’ held at Derkum’s Bakersfield Speedway. Suess and the ‘PAL Special’ finished fourth in the third of three five-mile heat races, while Ernie Triplett in Bill White’s new four-cylinder 16-valve Miller Marine- powered car won his heat race and the 50-mile feature over Stapp.

A Ted Wilson photograph oF Frank Suess behind the wheel of the PAL Special.
Photograph  from John R. Lucero's book Legion Ascot Speedway 

Frank Suess and the ‘PAL Special ‘began to record better finishes as the 1931 AAA Pacific Southwest season progressed, with a third place finish in the 10-lap consolation race at the 5/8-mile oiled dirt Legion Ascot Speedway on February 28, and a second place finish in the 5-mile consolation race at the Oakland Speedway on March 6.

A week later, on March 13 1932, Suess qualified for the 100-lap feature at Legion Ascot Speedway, but during the course of the race, Suess’ car fell off the pace and Frank hugged the bottom groove of the track as he entered turn three. As Nick Martino sped past, Martino, who was dueling for position, misjudged the distance, and the ‘Stricker Special’ clipped the right front wheel of Suess’ machine and flipped end over end, but Martino escaped unscathed. 

During the 1932 racing season, Legion Ascot Speedway began to stage regular ‘Class B’ events to help develop the skills of the younger, less experienced drivers who drove lesser quality equipment. Besides Suess, Class B drivers included Ted Horn, Chris Vest and George Connor.

Frank Suess cheats death in 1932
photo from the Ed Reynolds Collection owned by the author

Late in the season, Frank Suess was involved in the accident for which he became nationally famous, but a mystery which surrounds the photograph is the date of the crash. The photograph ran in many newspapers across the country between November 1932 and February 1933, without the exact date ever noted. Most of the newspapers titled the photograph with the headline As Death Rushed by Speed Demon, or He Lived to Laugh About It with a caption that stated “Frank Suess probably wouldn’t have given a thin dime for his chances, nor would anyone else who witnessed the crash.”  

The captions generally provided a few details about the crash - Frank’s #40 ‘S & S Special’ lost a wheel as he entered turn three at Legion Ascot during a 5-lap heat race. The edge of the airborne wheel can be seen in above photograph in the upper right corner.  In the original full-frame photograph, the entire wheel was visible, a detail which was lost when this copy was made by amateur photographer Ed Reynolds.  

Just after the photograph above was taken, Frank fell onto the oiled dirt surface and slid 50 feet across the track in the face of oncoming race traffic. Remarkably unhurt, Frank Suess was according to the caption “back in the infield pit area within moments trying to find another car to race.”

The final tally of the point standings for the 20-race 1932 AAA Pacific Southwest circuit listed Frank Suess in the 25th positon behind Howard “Howdy” Wilcox, William “Bryan” Saulpaugh, and William “Shorty” Cantlon. While Frank raced most of the circuit, those successful Eastern AAA drivers left the West Coast after the early season races at Legion Ascot Speedway to race back East, including at Indianapolis,  and did not return to the West Coast.    

For the 1933 AAA season, Frank Suess moved into better equipment, the #25 ‘Stewar Special’, which featured a drawing of a foaming mug of beer on the cowling. Suess was entered for the March 25 races at Oakland, the second AAA race of the season at the track, which was rained out and rescheduled for April 23.

Before the rescheduled Oakland race could be held, two tragedies befell the West Coast racing fraternity. Bob Carey was killed in a crash at Legion Ascot Speedway while practicing for the ‘Easter Sweepstakes’ on April 16 after the throttle of Joe Marks’ ‘Lion Head Special’ (formerly owned by Louis Meyer) jammed open. On April 22, Bryan Saulpaugh died in a practice accident at the Oakland Speedway after his car overturned and the 28-year old driver was killed after he was thrown out onto the racing surface.       

On April 23, disaster struck again during the 15-lap consolation race which was run after the 150-mile feature race which was won by Chet Gardner. Race leader Chris Vest’s car was apparently touched by the trailing machine of Portland Oregon’s “Swede” Smith (real name George Smyth). Vest lost control and the machine turned right, rocketed up the banking, hit the guardrail, and rolled three times.  

Smith, apparently unnerved by the accident, slowed and was passed by Al Richardson and Suess.  The wreckage caught fire and Vest suffered burns on his chest, a fractured skull and lost four fingers on his left hand, but recovered from his injuries and returned to racing before the end of the 1933 season.

At Legion Ascot Speedway, on May 1, Frank Suess finished in the sixth positon in a remarkable 100-lap feature.  Rex Mays’ original mount was forced out on the 23rd lap with a broken axle, then on lap 40 he took over for Art Boyce when Boyce lost all feeling in his left arm after he was hit by a rock and pitted.   Mays rejoined the race in seventh place but stormed back through the field to win in a time of 48 minutes and 14 seconds. Suess, in sixth place, trailed Mays, Gardner, former motorcycle racer Johnny Krieger, future 14-time Indy 500 starter George Connor and Seattle’s Eugene “Woody” Woodford to the checkered flag.  

Frank Suess and the AAA Pacific Southwest division ‘big car’ drivers were in action on Sunday June 11 1933 at the new Silvergate Speedway built on the marshlands near the San Diego River. The 5/8-mile dirt track which opened on May 7 1933 was planned as the third major California track along with Legion Ascot and Oakland.  This track was built by a group of businessman led by Lee Conti that replaced the nearby ½-mile “Neal’s Sportsman Park.” 

The 50-lap Silvergate feature was won by George Connor in a time of 26 minutes and 45 seconds. A local newspaper reported the Ted Horn, Frank Suess and ‘Swede’ Smith all failed to finish the main event due to what the paper termed “minor mishaps.”      

The following Wednesday evening, June 14, the same cars and drivers were back in action on the oiled 5/8-mile surface at Legion Ascot Speedway when tragedy struck during the 15-lap ‘Class B’ race. As Ted Horn entered turn one, his car spun into the path of Frank Suess in the ‘Stewar Special.’ Unable to either spin or slow the ‘Stewar Special’ hit Horn’s machine and in turn was struck by the following car, #39 driven by “Frenchie” LaHorgue from Van Nuys California. 

The life and prior career of the third driver in the incident, “Frenchie” LaHorgue is a mystery; even his given name is unknown. All we know of LaHorgue prior to the crash is that in February 1933 won a 50-lap ‘big car’ race at Neal’s Sportsman Park.

The Ted Wilson photograph of the remains of the Stewar Special 
from the Bruce R. Craig Collection  
courtesy of the Revs Institute of Automotive Research Inc.  

The cars of Suess and LaHorgue slid up and over the banking, tumbled and came to rest resting on their sides against a perimeter wire fence, with the engine torn from the ‘Stewar Special.’  Both drivers were quickly transported to White Memorial Hospital less than three miles away. LaHorgue recovered from injuries, but Frank L. Suess, just 22 years old, died at the hospital in the early morning hours of the following day, June 15, and was later laid to rest by his family in the Woodlawn Cemetery in his hometown of Santa Monica.  


Frank Suess was the thirteenth driver to lose his life in the short history of Legion Ascot Speedway, a track that claimed twenty-four lives before it closed in January 1936.   Just how deadly racing was on the oiled 5/8-mile Legion Ascot racing surface can be shown statistically. In 1933 alone, Legion Ascot Speedway saw six driver deaths, which accounted for nearly 20% of the 32 United States race driver deaths recorded that year.  

While Legion Ascot Speedway was deadly, it also served as a fertile training ground, as many Legion Ascot drivers who raced with Frank Suess including Wilbur Shaw, Rex Mays, Ernie Triplett, George Connor, and Chet Gardner went on to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Midget Racer Bob Harner in 1948 and beyond

To place this article in the proper context, the author suggests that if you have not already, read the three previous articles regarding Bob Harner’s racing career entitled  ‘before World War 2’  'in 1945 & 1946’ and ‘in 1947’ before reading this final installment.

During the height of the midget auto racing’s popularity in the United States, on Sunday night June 13, 1948 Bob Harnar (alternately spelled Harner), the midget auto racer from Akron Ohio was scheduled to appear at the opening race for the Manchester Motordrome’s second season.
 
 Bob Harnar in a Ford V8-60 powered midget - assumed to be pre-war era
Photograph courtesy of JD Cormack
 

 Built at a cost of $70,000 (nearly $3/4 million today) by brothers George and Walter Hart and their partner, Robert Early, the Londonderry New Hampshire track slightly shorter than a ¼ mile in length, opened in July of 1947 and featured seating for 10,000 fans. After the short 1947 racing season, Walter Hart was killed in an automobile accident and his widow succeeded him in the track partnership.  

That June night in 1948 the races at Londonderry were to be sanctioned by the new Bay State Midget Racing Association (BSMRA), and advertisements promised appearances by such local stars as Joe Sostilio, Frankie Simonetti, and Buddy Tatro. Besides Harner and Jimmy Florian, his teammate in the Pollock Racing Kurtis Kraft Offenhauser-powered midgets, another “guest driver from the Midwest” included Bill Spear (Spier), who was advertised as driving the only rubber suspended car in the county.

Apparently the scheduled race did not come off, as the local newspaper described in an article the following week “racing was delayed at the Manchester Motordrome because of a misunderstanding between the promoters and the Bay State Racing Association. This misunderstanding has been eliminated and both parties have agreed to abide by a newly- drawn contract. As evidence of good faith, the Bay State Association has announced that 24 drivers and cars will participate in the opening Sunday (June 20).”

The following week saw the opening of a new midget track, Hudson Speedway, less than ten miles away from Manchester. The two tracks spent the rest of the 1948 season locked in a scheduling battle with one another and the BSMRA, the AAA, and the United Car Owners Association (UCOA), and as expected, all parties lost. The Motordrome reportedly ran midget races as late as 1962, and today the site features a velodrome and a BMX bicycle track.

Joe Sostilio from Massachusetts, the defending 1947 BSMRA champion, became entangled later in 1948 in a bizarre criminal case after the June 25 crash at the ¼-mile paved Mohawk Stadium in Lunenberg Massachusetts that killed 22-year old driver Steve Bishop.  Even though newspaper reports the day following the accident did not mention Sostilio’s name in connection with the fateful second race nor was there contact between the cars of Bishop and Sostilio, a grand jury indicted Sostilio in August 18 1948 on two counts of assault and one count of manslaughter. The indictment stated that Sostilio "did in a wanton and reckless manner operate a motor vehicle in a race with other motor vehicles, and as a result of said wanton reckless operation caused mortal injuries to one Stephen D. Bishop, said injury resulting in his death." 
Free on bail, awaiting trial Sostilio continued to race, and then in February 1949 a Worchester jury rejected his defense of the incident being “an unavoidable accident” and convicted Sostilio on all three counts.  Judge Charles Fairhurst gave Sostilio a three-month jail sentence but stayed the sentence pending appeal. Sostilio’s conviction was affirmed by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in December 1949, but it is unclear to this historian whether Sostilio ever served the sentence.  The ill-fated Mohawk Stadium which had opened just two weeks before the Bishop fatality closed sometime during 1949 and after several years of being the target for vandals was demolished and replaced by a drive-in movie theatre in 1955.

Joe “Rosie” Sostilio passed his rookie driving test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 1953 in the Belanger-owned Chrysler 331 cubic inch “Hemi” V8-powered Kurtis 500A but failed to qualify. In 1954 Sostilio was the assigned driver for Ed Walsh’s Bardahl -sponsored Kurtis, but was replaced at the last moment in final day ‘500’ time trials by veteran Art Cross. Sostilio who finished his quarter-century racing career in 1958, passed away in July 2000 in St Petersburg Florida.

Bob Harner also won a heat race and the class B race during the early part of the 1948 season at the Lonsdale Sports Arena a 1/3-mile high-banked paved oval located on the banks of the Blackstone River two miles north of Pawtucket, Rhode Island which operated from 1947 to 1956.

A consistent winner at both Lonsdale and Manchester race tracks during this period was Johnny Thomson who won 32 midget features in 1948 on his way to claiming the 1948 UCOA title. Thomson later won the 1952 Eastern American Automobile Association (AAA) midget title winner and then graduated to the AAA Eastern sprint cars where he won the 1954 and 1958 championships. Thomson raced in eight Indianapolis 500-mile races and won seven AAA championship car races before he lost his life in a sprint car accident on the first lap of a 25-lap feature on September 24 1960 at the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Fairgrounds.

 
Bob Harnar in the post-war Pollock Kurtis Kraft Offenhauser midget
photograph courtesy of JD Cormack

On Tuesday night June 15 1948, “all the New England Stars” along with Harnar, Florian, and Spears appeared at the ¼-mile Westboro Stadium in Massachusetts. Racing began at Westboro Stadium in 1947 and continued there until the track closed in 1985.  After the property was sold off and the track demolished it became the site of the ‘Speedway Plaza’ shopping center.

On July 16, 1948, Harner returned to race in familiar surroundings in the AAA sanctioned 50-lap ‘Mid-season Championship’ at Ebensburg Pennsylvania, and raced with Bobby Orr, Jack Kabat, and one-legged California racer Cal Niday. Former ‘big car’ racer Mike Little was aiming for his sixth straight feature win at Ebensburg, but was beaten to the checkered flag by Kabat.

On October 31, 1948 Bob Harner was entered in the midget races at the Conococheague Speedway near Hagerstown Maryland, a track with a particularly colorful early history.   Construction of the track on Route 40 six miles west of Hagerstown adjacent to the Conococheague Amusement Park began in April 1947 by a group led by farmer-contractor Stanley Schetrompf. When it was completed, the covered grandstand, advertised as the largest in Western Maryland, was 375 feet long and seated over 3,000 fans with additional uncovered bleachers for another other 2,000 fans.  The ½-mile banked clay race track facility was built at a reported total cost of S60.000.  

The grand opening motorcycle races set for August 8 1948 were delayed by rain first to the 15th then again by rain until August 22 1948. Almost immediately, Sherriff Joseph Baker acting at the behest of the Washington County Ministerial Association ordered no racing on Sundays in accordance with Maryland “Blue Laws” which since Colonial times prohibited hunting and retail sales or entertainment activities on Sundays. In September 1948 the track dropped its AAA sanction, citing low car counts and went with Central States Racing Association (CSRA) sanction and continued to race on Sundays, but during the CSRA midget races on September 12 1948, tragedy struck and Pennsylvania driver Earle Fattman was killed.

While the State Police investigation assigned no blame for the tragedy, Sherriff Baker took the opportunity to renew his call for no Sunday racing, but given the fact that Harner and the CSRA midgets ran there on October 31, it was clear that the promoters ignored the “Blue Laws.”  In November 1948, citing poor attendance Calvin “Mike” Shank and Ed Goetz took over active management from   Schetrompf despite the fact that the track sat on Schetrompf’s farm.

Racing resumed at Conococheague over the 1949 Memorial Day weekend and then on June 10  1949 the Washington County grand jury indicted seven men associated with the Speedway for “Sabbath breaking” along with the employees of the local movie theater. All seven men were promptly arrested by Sherriff’s deputies and released after they posted the required $7.45 bond.  

A jury trial on June 24th found six Conococheague Speedway employees and officials guilty of “Sabbath breaking,” yet all the movie theatre employees were acquitted.  A seventh track employee was granted a new trial because Judge Joseph Mish ruled that the state “inadvertently failed to show that he was among those working at the Conococheague Speedway on Sunday, May 29, 1949.”  Judge Mish then imposed the maximum fine of five dollars and court costs on each of those convicted, and thereafter no Sunday racing occurred at Conococheague Speedway.

After the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of “Blue Laws” in 1962,   it was not until 1987 that Maryland legislators finally  repealed most of the ancient “Blue Laws,” although  Maryland still permits Sunday automobile sales in only Charles, Prince George's, Montgomery, and Howard counties. Conococheague Speedway is known these days as Hagerstown Speedway and since 1982 has honored Schetrompf’s memory by staging the “Stanley Schetrompf Founders Day Classic,” a 50-lap feature for late model stock cars. 

While much of his 1948 season results remain unknown, Bob Harner is credited with a second place finish in the 1948 AAA Michigan Ohio Valley Circuit midget championship behind Ralph Pratt. The 1949 season for Harnar is even more of a mystery with only one mention was found after extensive research.  On July 20, 1949 Harnar was one of many midget racers entered in a race at Williams Grove Speedway which was cancelled due to the failure of the track’s 300,000 watt lighting system following a rainstorm.

Bob Harnar’s single career AAA championship car appearance came on September 10 1950 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds dirt one-mile track where he unsuccessfully tried to qualify Ralph Miller’s ‘Vulcan Tool Special.’  Ralph S. Miller from Dayton in Ohio started his racing career as young man in ‘stock’ cars, then worked in Harold Hosterman's shop and helped build tooling and patterns for the famous ‘HAL’ engines and components.  
 

Walt Geiss in the Vulcan Tool Special in 1952
Photograph courtesy of Rick Patterson


Starting in January 1946, Ralph Miller, a tool maker by trade built his own “rear-drive double tubular  chassis” powered by a 4-cylinder supercharged intercooled racing engine for which Miller “made every part” according to an April 1948 article in the Dayton Daily News.  The car which Miller built with the assistance of driver Carlyle “Duke” Dinsmore debuted at the Illinois State Fairgrounds mile at DuQuoin September 1948 with 1941 Indianapolis 500-mile race co-winner Floyd Davis behind the wheel. The ‘Ralph Miller Special’ started last in the 18-car starting field and finished the 100-lap race in ninth position after Davis was relieved at lap 70 by Dinsmore.  

The team then moved on two days later to the “Atlanta 100” at Lakewood Speedway where Davis went the full 100-lap distance and finished seventh out of twelve finishers.  The following month, back at the 1948 season-ending race at DuQuoin, Dinsmore qualified 17th in the Ralph Miller creation but failed to finish the race in which Ted Horn lost his life.    
 
Cy Marshall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1950 in the Vulcan Tool Special
Photograph courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

Over the next eight years, through the 1956 AAA season, the Ralph Miller machine made sixteen entries in championship events, with drivers that included Harnar, Cy Marshall, Frank Armi, and Cal Niday, none of whom were able to get the ‘Vulcan Tool Special’ (Ralph’s employer at the time)  into the starting field. Only Colorado native Keith Andrews was able to qualify the “Syer-Hal Special” for a race;  Keith finished second in the 1953 Pikes Peak “Race to the Clouds,” with a run that was only 2-1/2 seconds slower than Louie Unser.  

After Van Johnson failed to qualify the ‘Vulcan Tool Special’ for the 1956 DuQuoin race and finished fourth in the consolation race, the car stopped competing on the AAA circuit.  In 1957, Ralph Miller was granted United States patent number 2817322 for his supercharged engine which was designed to run on “diesel, dual fuel, or gasoline and operated so as to limit or reduce the engine’s thermal load” by using early intake valve closure to reduce heat build-up in the combustion chamber. Miller retired from the Dayton Reliable Tool Company and passed away in 1992 at age 87, found through research by Rick Patterson. The Ralph Miller car is currently in a private collection in the Midwest.

Many diesel engine manufacturers have developed and patented new engine designs based on Miller’s principles. In 1995, Mazda introduced a 2.3 liter (140 cubic inches) V-6 engine option on its Millenia S model that used “Miller Cycle” technology with an intercooler, early intake valve timing and low-pressure supercharging to achieve 210 horsepower and 28 miles to the gallon. The primary advantage of the Mazda engine was it reduced exhaust temperatures by 11% which lowered nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions.

After his active racing career ended, Bob Harnar entered the contracting business and reportedly served as an official at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  In 1952, Bob Harnar, now 36 years old, appeared in an indoor race at the Toledo Sports Arena together with a roster of “former champion drivers” that included Harnar’s contemporaries Jack Kabat, Carl Forberg, Gays Biro, and Ralph Pratt. Later on June 19, 1952 many of those same “former champions” appeared in a 50-lap feature program staged at Bedford’s Sportsmans Park.

  Ten years later, on January 10 1962, Harner had his final moment in the racing spotlight when he and a group of “old time racers” that included Gays Biro, Ralph Pratt, Jim Florian, Al Silver, and Herb Swan appeared in a special indoor race presented as a part of motorcycle and ¾ midget racing program on a 1/10-mile track inside the Cleveland Arena.  Bob Harnar passed away at age 68 in 1984 in Fairlawn Ohio.  

While Bob Harnar did not win any major races or championships, or race at our sport’s mecca, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, hopefully this series of articles about Harnar’s career has given the reader insight into the life and travels of a midget automobile racer in the sport’s halcyon days in the years before and after World War 2.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Post War racing was dangerous

Many veterans of service in World War 2 left the ranks of the United States military and once home quickly joined the ranks of racing drivers. One such driver, Al Duris sadly became an example of just how hazardous racing was in those post-war days - long before fuel cells, five-point safety belts, and roll bars (let alone roll cages). Duris narrowly avoided death on the track twice, but he did not survive his third brush with death.   

Born on March 24, 1924 in Bedford Ohio, the source of Albert J. “Al” Duris’ interest in automobile racing is unknown but it seems plausible that as a young man Duris watched midget auto races in his hometown at Sportsman Park, a greyhound track alleged built by Al Capone in 1934 that first hosted midget racing on the ¼-mile oval in 1936. A 1942 graduate of Bedford High School, Duris enlisted in the U.S. Army on January 28 1943 and served in World War 2 with the Army Corps of Engineers for three years as a truck driver.  After his military service was completed, Al returned home to Bedford and took a civilian job as truck driver. 

In June 1947, Duris raced in a semi-stock race at the ½-mile Ravenna Speedway on the Portage County Fairgrounds near his home, and then on July 9th Al appeared in a midget at the Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania. Duris raced regularly through the balance of the 1947 season in the Pennsylvania area, as on July 15 he appeared at Ebensburg Speedway in the 50-lap American Automobile Association (AAA) sanctioned ‘Mid-Season Championship ‘race together with fellow Ohioans Bob Harnar and Bob Orr. The next night, Duris finished third behind track record holder “Little Artie” Cottier and Jack Seither in the 25-lap feature at Williams Grove.

Al Duris was one of several Central States Racing Association (CSRA) “All Star” drivers scheduled to appear on Sunday afternoon September 12 1948 at the ½-mile banked dirt Conococheague Speedway in Hagerstown Maryland for a scheduled seven-event program that was topped by an eight-lap “Australian pursuit” race and the 25-lap feature. During this era, “Australian Pursuit” races were very popular with the fans - the field started in reverse order of their qualifying time, e.g. the slowest car started first. The fastest qualifier started last and he passed cars, they left the track. The leader at the end of eight laps was declared the winner. 
 
A postcard photograph of Al Duris in "Kitty's Offy."
  
Besides Duris who drove Claude Catt’s maroon-and-white #48 “Kitty’s Offy” (often referred to as the “Kitty Catt Offy”) other CSRA “All Stars” entered at Conococheague included Charles Miller of Philadelphia and Al Shaffer of Columbus Ohio, who later survived a plane crash, was behind the wheel of ‘Dutch’s Offy.’  Herb Swann drove one of the two ‘Ray Leo Offys,’ with CSRA point leader “Big“ Bill Spears in the ‘Jeffers Offy’ and Eddie Dunn in his own Offenhauser-powered midget.

On Sunday, in time trials Bill Spears set a new CSRA record for a half-mile track when he completed one flying lap in 25.36 seconds. As feature time approached, due to the lateness of the hour, the promoters reduced the length of the feature to 20 laps. On the leader’s tenth lap, flagman “Doc” Conway ran onto the track surface to black flag two cars that had been disqualified but had continued to race. Conway’s sudden actions took back marker Earle C. Fattman of by surprise, and Fattman, a 25-year old Army veteran from Washington Pennsylvania who had served in Greenland, swerved into the path of the leaders and his car glanced off of Duris’ passing “Kitty’s Offy.”

A crowd of 6,000 fans watched as Fattman’s “doodlebug” veered out of control towards the infield of the track and smashed through the track’s flimsy inner wooden fence. Fattman’s car then crashed into a Cities Service oil truck parked in the infield and overturned, narrowly missing a crowd of spectators in the infield.  According to the report in the newspaper The Daily Notes from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania the oil truck was “completely demolished” and Fattman was “killed instantly,” pronounced dead at the scene by local physician Dr.  E.G. Hoachlander. 

According to published reports the race continued and was won by Charles Miller of Philadelphia followed by Fred Moore of Tampa Florida, Shaffer, and Swann, while Duris who had narrowly skirted disaster, finished the race in fifth place.  Earle Fattman’s body was transported home by train the following day to Glyde Pennsylvania for burial.
Fattman’s death, the track's first fatality added to the Conococheague Speedway’s growing pains which stemmed from the track’s operation on Sundays in defiance of Maryland’s “Blue Laws.” “Blue Laws” common in many states at the time, could be traced back to colonial times banned sales of certain items and prohibited entertainment or leisure activities on Sundays, which was considered to be devoted to worship or rest.

The fatal accident was investigated by Maryland State Trooper Harold Basore who was on duty at the track at the time of the accident. Basore then met with Maryland State Attorney Martin Ingram who ruled that Fattman’s fatality was an “unavoidable accident,” while the local sheriff, Joe Baker, stated though he had received no sworn complaints, he wanted Sunday racing at Conococheague Speedway halted immediately.

In defiance of the Sheriff, the CSRA midgets returned to  Conococheague Speedway for the 50-lap ‘Maryland Sweepstakes’ on Sunday October 17 and the  50-lap “Gold Cup” race on Sunday October 31 1948 with the same cars and drivers, which included Duris in “Kitty’s Offy,” with the exception of Al Shaffer who had moved into the cockpit of the ‘Lockington Offy.’ 

Through the 1949 racing season, Al Duris concentrated on running the Pennsylvania AAA and Speedway All-Star midget club circuits, which made weekly visits to the 3/8-mile Ebensburg Speedway, the ½-mile Heidelberg Raceway dirt oval in suburban Pittsburgh, the ¼-mile Hilltop Speedway near Lebanon, and Williams Grove Speedway.  Duris had a successful 1949 season, as he won races at Williams Grove and Hilltop, led the All-Star points at mid-season, and during a stretch in June and July 1949, he notched five consecutive wins at Heidelberg Raceway.  

1950 found Al Duris engaged to be married in October, and he continued to race frequently in Pennsylvania with an occasional foray to the Don Zeiter promoted Canfield (Ohio) Speedway. On July 21 1950 Duris traveled to take part in the AAA-sanctioned event at the 3/8-mile high 34-degree banked paved Cincinnati Race Bowl. Located in the suburban community of Evendale the track promised “wild competition” in pre-race newspaper advertisements. 

During one of the night’s races, the right rear wheel on Duris’ midget broke off, cleared the guardrail and an eight-foot high wire fence and then struck two boys seated in the sixth row in the grandstand. Duris brought his damaged midget car to a stop without further incident but James Karpe, 12, died at the adjacent Good Samaritan Hospital shortly after his arrival, while his 17 year old cousin Robert Ellis passed away six hours later on July 22 1950.  A bystander in the infield, Erwin Hansell of Anderson Indiana, was struck by the flying wheel hub but suffered only minor injuries.

Less than a month later, Al Duris entered the AAA National championship midget race at the famed Milwaukee Mile in West Allis Wisconsin set for Sunday August 20 1950. This race would be Duris’ greatest challenge so far in his young career, as the field of 26 drivers included twelve men who during their careers would start the Indianapolis 500-mile race and three future ‘500’ winners - Bill Vukovich, Sam Hanks, and Jack McGrath.  

At the drop of the green flag for the 100-lap feature, as the field entered turn one, Duris’ midget clipped the inner fence, swung across the track and struck the red #58 midget owned and driven by Ray Crawford, the grocer and World War 2 fighter ace from Alhambra California. After it hit Crawford’s car, Duris’ machine continued out of control across the track, through the outside fence, and then fell into the eight foot deep dry concrete bed of Honey Creek.

Duris’ midget landed upside down, burst into flames and burned in view of the 16,372 fans in the covered grandstand that included his 24-year old fiancĂ©e Lillian Parker. Crawford’s car also went into the fence during the accident and then Crawford suffered hand burns in an unsuccessful attempt to pull Al Duris from the burning vehicle.
 
Ray Crawford’s rescue efforts were in vain, however, and the dangerous post-war era of midget racing had claimed another victim.  The race restarted after the accident scene was cleared and the fences repaired was won by Tony Bettenhausen in the #39 Eric Lund-owned Offenhauser midget in one hour and ten minutes over Chuck Stevenson.

All racing enthusiasts owe a debt of gratitude to racing pioneers like Duris, one of many young men who returned home from World War 2 and bravely raced in spite of the dangers and helped our sport grow. If you ever find yourself near Bedford, Ohio stop at the Bedford Cemetery and pay your respects to Al Duris.