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. 

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