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.

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