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.   



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