Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Roadster racer Don Kolb's 1948 season

Today we take a look at a year in the life of a track roadster racer in Northern California against the background of the rapidly changing race sanctioning environment of the era.

After World War II the popularity of auto racing in the United States exploded in particular midget car racing. Many race-hungry veterans like Oakland California racer Donald “Don” Kolb looked for a more economical form of racing and found it with “hot rods” or track roadsters.
These race cars were built up from stripped-down pre-war cars and powered by “hopped up” powerplants such as six cylinder GMC or Ford V-8 engines. As we shall see, 1948 proved to be a very significant year for Don Kolb both professionally and personally.

The 1948 Don Kolb story begins even before the racing season started, in February as the 24-year old Kolb helped create a new roadster racing sanctioning association. Through the period of 1946 to 1947, a majority of the roadster races in the California Bay Area were sanctioned by Northern California Roadster Racing Association (NCRRA), a non-profit group run by business manager Nils Lilejedahl. According to writer and promoter Al Slonaker’s ‘Speedway Sparks’ column in the Oakland Tribune during 1947 some members of the NCRRA became disenchanted with “the lack of profits” with NCRRA organization and formed their own for-profit sanctioning group known as Racing Roadsters Incorporated (RRI).

The new group’s president was announced as John Milton owner of the #5 “Milton Hudson” track roadster driven by Stan Dean. The Milton Motor Company located on 14th Street in Oakland California had been a Hudson dealership since 1938. RRI’s Vice-president was Al Dickman from Manteca California the owner of the #9 Ford V-8 powered roadster, while Arthur Garden, the group’s attorney acted as the non-voting secretary/treasurer.

Don Kolb was one of the RRI board members along with Hank Keith, Don Milton, Don Kolb, Dave Zimola, L. D. Plumley, and Henry K. Richardson. The corporation issued voting and non-voting members and Wilton and most of the board members took only non-voting stock for obvious political reasons.

RRI officials told Slonaker that they had more than 35 cars signed up for the 1948 season and contracts in place with the Oakland Stadium, Belmont Speedway, and Salinas Valley Speedway. For its part, the NCRRA organization claimed to have signed contracts to present races at Stockton 99 Speedway and Contra Costa Speedway with their stars “Lightning” Lemoine Frey (who drove for Dickman in 1947), “Jumpin” Joe Valente, “Sad” Sam Hawks, and young Ed Elisian. 

Despite its name, the 5/8-mile paved Oakland Stadium was located near the intersection of  East 14th Street and 155th Avenue in suburban San Leandro and featured a hugely banked 62-degree third and fourth turn complex, but it also had a ¼-mile track inside which was sometimes used by the roadsters. The ¼-mile dirt Belmont Speedway (also known as San Carlos Speedway) was located adjacent to the Bay Meadows thoroughbred race track which itself occasionally hosted auto racing. Both race tracks are long gone and are now the site of shopping centers.   

The 1/3-mile paved Salinas Valley Speedway was located in the Alisal (sycamore in Spanish) area east of Salinas. The Salinas area was a hot-bed of Northern California roadster racing and also featured Devils Bowl Speedway. Salinas was the home of Elmer George, Norman Garland, Arnold Chapman and the “King of Northern California roadsters," Johnny Key, the 1947 and 1948 NCRRA season champion. Although he was from Santa Cruz racer and service station owner Lloyd Ragon was also considered by most Bay Area roadster fans to be a member of the “Salinas Boys.”  

Contra Costa Speedway was a lightning fast ¼-mile dirt oval that was advertised as being in Walnut Creek but actually was in Pacheco adjacent to Buchanan Field. Contra Costa Speedway appears in scene of the 1960 motion picture “Wild Ride” that starred a young Jack Nicholson. Stockton 99 Speedway like Contra Costa a high-banked 1/4-mile except it was paved opened as a dirt 1/5-mile track 1947.

Built and operated by one-time boxing promoter William G. 'Billy' Hunefeld, the Stockton track initially had a youth football field in the infield. Of all the tracks mentioned in this article that the “roaring roadsters” raced, it is the only facility that is still open for racing.   

RRI officials also promised that their new group would require the use of safety hubs. Slonaker somewhat humorously noted that “this little precaution should make faithful fans a little more at ease in the stands. It's no fun trying to duck a flying wheel, too often the case when safety axles are omitted.”

Slonaker did not mention that RRI’s new rule would save driver’s lives as well. Many track roadster drivers died in accidents when their car flipped over after the rear axle broke and the car lost a wheel. A safety hub was a two-piece assembly with one part bolted to the rear end housing and the other welded onto the wheel hub. Combined with a bearing the assembly prevented the wheel from breaking loose in case the car’s axle broke.

Cyclone Safety Hubs were manufacturered by Mendel “Cookie” Ledington's "Cooks Machine Works in 1946 and 60 years later is still in business in same location

On Sunday April 25 Bob Sweikert a racer from Hayward came from eleventh starting position to claim victory at Salinas Valley Speedway over Tommy Cheek from Oakland with Johnny Key in third place. Sweikert posted a “clean sweep” that day – in addition to his win in the 25-lap main, run in 8 minutes and 5-1/2 seconds,  Sweikert set quick time in time trials with a lap of 18.70 seconds, won six- and eight-lap heat races, and beat Kolb to win the four-lap trophy dash.

Sweikert was one of many California drivers along with the Rathmann brothers and Troy Ruttman who used track roadster racing as a springboard to greater success. Born in Los Angeles but raised in Hayward Sweikert served domestically in the US Army Air Force in World War II. After his discharge Sweikert met UCLA coed Marion Edwards in 1947 and married her in 1948.

The Sweikert newlyweds returned to Bob’s hometown where he ran an auto repair shop in his parent’s garage and built his roadster.  Later, Sweikert would graduate to racing midgets, then big cars, before he “went east” to race with the American Automobile Association (AAA). Divorced and re-married Sweikert started his first Indianapolis ‘500’ in 1952 and won the 1955 Indianapolis 500-mile race before he perished in an AAA ‘big car’ accident in June 1956.

The same day as the Racing Roadsters’ Salinas Valley race, April 25, the Northern California Roadster Racing Association (NCRRA) staged a 25-lap race won the George “Blonde” Pacheco of Oakland at Bayshore Stadium a ¼-mile dirt former dog track next to the Cow Palace arena in Daly City. Head-to-head scheduling by the two Bay Area track roadster sanctioning bodies until car counts for both groups dropped and they merged to become United Roadsters Inc. in mid-1950.

During the RRI race held May 1 at Salinas, hometown driver Norm Garland was black flagged out of a comfortable lead on the 34th lap of the 35-lap feature for a leaking radiator that created a “track hazard” as fans roared their disapproval. After the race, enraged fans swarmed the speedway and in the ensuing riot, flagman Bill Jagger was punched in the face. Chaos reigned until the local sheriff was called upon to restore order.

For the roadster race two weeks later at Oakland Stadium the group’s season opener at the track on May14, promoter Charlie Curryer advertised it as a grudge match between the “heroes of the lettuce belt” and Oakland drivers that included Mel Senna, Al Slinker, Budge Canty, ‘Red’ Corbin and Kolb. The throttle on Jim Heath’s car hung open and Heath's car hit a large electrical pole adjacent to the ¼-mile track and burst into flame. Rescuers pulled Heath from the car and he suffered a compound fracture of his left leg but no burns. In the 25-lap feature, Tommy Cheek passed Bob Sweikert on the last lap to steal the win.

On Friday of the 1948 Memorial Day weekend 3,100 fans paid $1.00 admission at Oakland Stadium to watch Johnny Key win the 25-lap feature as Kolb finished in second place with Sweikert in third place.

On Saturday night July 10 1948 Kolb drove Walnut Creek car owner George Dietrich's Mercury-powered car to a 25-lap victory at Belmont Stadium. Kolb took the lead on the third lap after Stan Dean, in the “Milton Hudson” roadster went wide through the first turn on the flat quarter mile speedway, and Kolb was never seriously challenged again on the way to victory.  

Salinas’ Elmer George brought the crowd their feet on the twenty-fourth lap after he crashed head-on into the crash wall in front of the grandstand when his car broke a steering arm in turn four. George was miraculously uninjured and later “went east” in 1954 with his friend Johnny Key to race with the AAA. George eventually married his AAA ‘big car’ owner Mari Hulman, the daughter of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman. George was the 1957 United States Auto Club (USAC) Midwest ‘big car’ champion and started the Indy ‘500’ on three occasions before he retired from driving following his failure to qualify for the 1964 Indy 500.

On Sunday August 22 1948 Kolb married his fiancé Dorothy Quintel in a unique ceremony held on the front stretch of the 5/8-mile Oakland Stadium track in front of 7,500 witnesses as part of the second annual “Invitational Roadster Classic.” This race brought together drivers from Northern California roadster clubs as well as the cars and drivers from the California Roadster Association (CRA) from the Los Angeles area. The CRA cars carried the letter “X” to help fans differentiate between their local heroes and the southern invaders.


After the trophy dash, Kolb and Ms. Quintel who was RRI President John Milton’s secretary were married. As Kolb sat in his car, Quintel was brought “down the aisle” (the front stretch) as she rode in another roadster. As Dorothy stood in the cockpit of the roadster, Kolb stood beside her as Oakland Municipal Court Judge James S Blaine presided while he stood in the cockpit of a third roadster parked in front of the couple. Later, Johnny Key won the feature as Walt James in sixth was the highest finisher of the CRA cars.

The couple had an abbreviated honeymoon as the following Saturday, August 27 Kolb won the 25-lap feature at Oakland Stadium in front of 3,300 fans. Kolb started on the pole, led briefly, and then came back to defeat Jimmy Davies of Los Angeles and Bill Pettit of Oakland with US Navy veteran and future sports car racer Jack Flaherty in fourth place.

In October 1948 the Bay Area’s season racing champions were announced. Fred Agabashian reigned as Bay Cities Racing Association midget champion for the third year in a row, while Johnny Keys won his third consecutive Northern California track roadster championship with the Racing Roadsters Incorporated (RRI). Don Kolb placed third overall in RRI points behind Bob Schellinger of Danville. The 1948 champion of the rival Northern California Roadster Racing Association NCRRA was “Jumpin” Joe Valente a racing showman who became a track flag man after he retired from race driving.   

1 comment:

  1. very good i was a big fan of the roadsters back then. RRI also ran Madera, somewhere i have a program the year 1948 or 9. i will have to find it for the proper year.
    Jim Lowe
    Clovis ,ca.