Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Post-war midget board track racing

This scan of a page from the September 1948 issue of
Popular Mechanics magazine provides a glimpse
of how the Polo Grounds track appeared
The Polo Grounds stadium which stood until 1964 at the corner of 155th Street at 8th Avenue in upper Manhattan is fondly remembered as the home of the New York Giants baseball team from 1889 through 1957. Throughout its long history, the Polo Grounds also hosted football games, boxing and wrestling matches and three separate periods of midget automobile racing.  This article, suggested by fellow automobile racing historian Gene Ingram, will focus on the one of the last of the board tracks, popular during the nineteen thirties, erected at the Polo Grounds. 

During 1947, Horace C Stoneham, the 44-year old owner of New York Giants baseball team was approached with the idea to use the Polo Grounds facility for midget auto racing when not in use for baseball. Stoneham the second generation owner of the Giants was concerned about the downward trend of baseball attendance was interested in the proposal to bring in more income. Stoneham’s main concern was damage to the baseball field which had occurred when the little cars raced on the warning track of the baseball field before World War Two.

The two men that led the midget racing idea, Alexis “Lex” Thompson and Water C. Stebbins then hired architect Lionel Levy to design an auto racing track that could be quickly erected and dismantled protecting the turf. Levy had extensive experience designing temporary outdoor arenas for boxing matches across the country through his association with famed boxing promoter Michael S. “Mike” Jacobs until Jacob’s retirement in 1946.

In November 1947, an article in Billboard magazine announced the formation of Small Car Enterprises Inc. to promote twenty nights of midget auto racing at the Polo Grounds on nights during the summer of 1948.  President Thompson and General Manager Stebbins guaranteed that each night’s racing program would pay an astounding purse of $10,000, an amount equivalent to $100,000 today. In addition to the Polo Grounds, the pair also announced that they would sanction midget races at the 10,000 seat Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson New Jersey during the 1948 season.  

Thompson described in Billboard as “a millionaire sportsman” was the only grandchild of the founder of the Republic Iron and Steel Company. After his father David, a director of the Inland Steel Company, died of pneumonia in March 1929, Alexis, then 15 years old, inherited a reported an estate valued at $3,750,000 dollars and his mother, divorced from Alexis’ father, served as the guardian of the estate until Alexis reached 21. While a student at Yale University, Alexis excelled in a number of athletic pursuits and Alexis was a member of the 1936 United States Olympic field hockey team.  

After college Thompson and three Yale classmates started a pharmaceutical firm that manufactured and sold eye drops for hay fever sufferers called “Eye-Gene” and its great success merely added to his fortune.  During the early nineteen forties the handsome young playboy cavorted with screen stars Henry Fonda, William Holden, and Clark Gable and Alexis reportedly dated actresses Betty Grable, Gene Tierney and Lana Turner after his separation from dancer Ann St. George whom he had married in 1936.

As if dating movie starlets was not enough the tall blonde 'Lex' Thompson reportedly owned and drove one of the six streamlined 1940 Chrysler Thunderbolts equipped with electric concealed headlights and retractable  one-piece top which he purchased for the outrageous sum of $8250.

In December 1940, the 28-year old Thompson bought half-interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers football club for $160,000 from Art Rooney. The following year, after the league balked at his plan to move the team to Boston, Thompson traded his Steelers interest for ownership of the Philadelphia Eagles club.

Throughout the nine years he owned the team, Thompson spent millions on his expensive hobby hiring the best players and coaches that included Earle “Greasy" Neale. In 1941 Thompson also organized a ground-breaking multi-city professional tennis tour with Fred Perry, Frank Kovacs, Don Budge, and Bobby Riggs that featured a $100,000 purse for the six month round-robin tournament. 

With the United States’ entry into the Second World War, Alexis Thompson enlisted in the US Army and served as a captain in the material command.  In 1946 after his war service was over, Thompson moved to the upstate village of Saranac Lake New York where he ran a real estate firm, restaurant and bar.

Around that same time he moved to divorce St. George and end the $1500 a month support payments (equivalent to $20,000 a month today). In February 1947 Alexis married for the second time to Jean Sinclair a young divorcee who had nursed Thompson back to health following his near-fatal 4-man bobsled accident in the AAU National Championships at Lake Placid New York.  

Thompson hired an experienced racing veteran in general manager Walter C. Stebbins who had been involved with midget racing as far back as 1936 when he staged races at Cedarhurst New York and Long Branch New Jersey. In 1937 Stebbins formed his own sanctioning body, the National Midget Auto Racing Circuit (NMARC) and later promoted midget races at Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt Raceway (1939) and Lockport in upstate New York.

It was a certainty that Small Car Enterprises would operate the Polo grounds races under American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) sanction, as Stebbins had long ties to the organization and had hosted the first ARDC sanctioned race at Cedarhurst on Long Island on Wednesday May 15 1940.  Forty-six ARDC midgets appeared that night under the lights at the ¼-mile paved oval Cedarhurst Municipal Stadium with the feature won by ARDC’s president Bill Schindler.

An April 17 1948 article in Billboard magazine provided an update that there would be 15 nights of midget auto racing at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were not playing baseball games at home during the months of June, July and August with the first race set for Tuesday June 1. The races to follow were scheduled on Tuesday and Saturday nights on June 5, June 8, June 12, and June 29. The July schedule of races was set for the 3rd, 13th, 17th, 20th and 24th. August race dates were the 10th, 14th, 24th, 28 and the finale on August 31st.

The track designed by Lionel Levy and built at a cost of $150,000 was a technical marvel. The 2200 pieces required which weighed a  total of 325 tons were unloaded off of a fleet of 30 semi-trucks and set up (and then dismantled) by a crew of 200 workmen over a period of fourteen hours. 1-1/2 inch thick tongue and groove pine boards of varying widths created the track surface secured by cleats to the pre-engineered aluminum stringers with stainless steel fittings, with the turns topped by a three-rail top fence built of 2 x 4’s banked at 10 degrees which left the top side of the race track about 7 feet above the ground.  

The racing surface was 36 feet wide on the slightly banked straightaways, 44 feet wide on the turns with a flat 12-foot wide safety apron on the inside of the track.  The T-shaped trusses up to 24 feet long evenly distributed the weight so the turf was undamaged.  The center of the first and second turns occurred over the home plate area, while the third and fourth turns were up against the center field wall.     

The first race set for Tuesday June 1 was first postponed to Thursday June 3 then delayed again as heavy rains continued which left the grounds too wet to set up the track. The inaugural Polo Grounds post-war midget race finally took place on Saturday night June 5 1948 and featured a program of three heat races, two semi-mains, two consolation races and the feature.

Thompson had spent a fortune in advance advertising which paid off as a crowd of 22,418 fans paid between $1.50 and $3.50 for their seats to watch thirty-three racing stars that included Schindler in the black Caruso #2 Offenhauser powered midget, defending ARDC champion George Rice (birth name Viola) in the Ed Bourgnon owned #36 Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser, Rex Records, and a young man from Texas named Lloyd Ruby in the Nowicke midget from Chicago Illinois.   

The first Polo Grounds ARDC 25-lap feature was completed in 5 minutes and 26 seconds and ended just after 11 PM won by veteran midget pilot Ray Nestor who lived only blocks from the stadium. Nestor won $1,250 of the total $10,000 purse with second place went to Rice from Milford Connecticut who won $944 and Long Island’s big car and midget chauffer Russell “Russ” Klar, who banked $733 for third place. The purse was distributed through the top ten finishers

The next scheduled race on June 8 was rained out so the ARDC racers made their second-ever appearance at the Polo Grounds on June 12, 1948. Although modern internet sources attribute the victory to Lloyd Ruby, ARDC records list the top three finishers in the feature as 15-year racing veteran Chet “Wildcat” Gibbons of Paterson Jew Jersey as the winner, Tony Bonadies, a garage operator from the Bronx in second, and the notorious Diego “Dee” Toran "the Mexican Motor Maniac" as the third place finisher. Toran had been convicted of manslaughter following the death of driver Alvah Jeep” Colkitt during an October 1947 ARDC race at Candlelight Stadium in Bridgeport Connecticut.     

After the second night of racing at the Polo Grounds it was obvious that there two big problems. First, attendance the second night had barely topped 8,000 fans in the stadium with the capacity of over 40,000 seats. Secondly, the promoters calculated that they spent over $2900 in labor costs (much of it on overtime) to set up and dismantle the track for the two nights of racing.

On June 19, Small Car Enterprises  issued a press release (published a week later in Billboard)  that stated that due to attendance and high labor costs, other alternatives were under study before the next scheduled Polo Grounds race on June 29. Subsequent unsubstantiated news reports suggested that Thompson had lost nearly $400,000 on the Polo Grounds racing experiment which likely included the cost of the track.  

By the time articles about the track appeared on newsstands in the August 1948 issue of Popular Science magazine and a longer article by Bill Reiche in the September 1948 edition of Popular Mechanics the races at the Polo Grounds were a dim memory. The remainder of the scheduled Polo Grounds races had been cancelled after just two races with the financial failures blamed on bad weather and high labor costs.

Alexis Thompson decided to set up his track in the Rose Bowl in partnership with Hollywood liquor distributor and movie producer Bert Friedlob the husband of movie star Eleanor Parker. Earlier in 1948, Friedlob had partnered with Lana Turner’s husband, tinplate heir Henry J “Bob” Topping in a failed promotion of United Racing Association (URA) midget racing in England that reportedly lost half a million dollars.

Midget racing was extremely popular on the West Coast immediately after World War 2 with (URA) races scheduled every day of the week during 1946 and 1947, but midget racing’s popularity peaked and begun to decline in late 1947. During 1946 and 1947, the URA ran two successful divisions; the ‘red’ circuit for non-Offenhauser powered cars and the ‘blue’ circuit for Offenhauser machines. 

For 1948 fourteen California track promoters formed the Pacific Coast Speedways Association (PCSA) to strengthen their hands in negotiations with the two midget racing sanctioning bodies, URA and the American Automobile Association (AAA). The PCSA's plan was to divide up the tracks as either "Offy' or open tracks and "non-Offy" tracks.  
There were already two Los Angeles metropolitan area stadium midget racing venues in operation in 1948 – the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Gilmore Stadium. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum built as memorial to World War One veterans, opened in 1923 with seating for over 75,000. Operated by the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, its seating capacity had increased to over 101,000 when it was used as the main venue for the 1932 Summer Olympics. The privately owned 18,000 seat Gilmore Stadium built by oilman Earl Gilmore in 1934 with a ¼-mile flat dirt midget racing track around a center football field.     

The horseshoe-shaped Rose Bowl, built in 1922 operated by the Tournament of Roses Association featured seating for 83,000 fans. Both the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum had hosted post-war midget races on tracks built around the perimeter of the football fields. The original Rose Bowl flat track was dirt while the Coliseum featured a ¼-mile asphalt flat oval. After their premiere events, attendance at both venues had fallen off through 1946 and 1947 and the Rose Bowl went dark in 1948.   

To combat slumping attendance during 1948 at the Coliseum, promoter William S. “Hollywood Bill” White had been working on plans for his own $125,000 high-banked board track. The exact nature of White’s businesses and sources of income remain somewhat mysterious years later, but he had entered cars in AAA Pacific Coast big cars races and the Indianapolis 500-mile race since the nineteen twenties and promoted Legion Ascot Speedway during its final year of operation.  

The pending arrival of the new Rose Bowl board track threw the already splintered Southern California midget racing community back into turmoil.  Gilmore promoter Gene Doyle had a contract with the United Racing Association (URA) for his schedule of Thursday night midget races while White had the AAA sanction for his Coliseum Friday night midget programs.

Thompson’s Levy-designed board track was shipped cross-country on sixteen railroad flat cars and arrived in California shortly after the Fourth of July holiday. Unlike the Polo Grounds, which required that the track be set up and broken down after each race, at the Rose Bowl the track could remain up for racing on Wednesday nights from July 28 to September 13, and only needed to be taken down once during the run so the field could be used for an All-American Football Conference (AAFC) professional football game between the Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco 49ers on August 18.

Initially, Doyle threatened the URA drivers that if they raced on Thompson’s track on Wednesday nights they would be banned from competing in Gilmore Stadium races for a period of one year.  The situation further escalated when ‘Lex’ Thompson offered an inaugural race purse of $7500 which was quickly matched by Bill White for the inaugural race at the Coliseum high-banked board track. Eventually, Thompson and Friedlob signed a sanctioning agreement with the AAA, and to supplement his Coliseum field, White recruited several well-known Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) drivers such as Fred Agabashian, Jerry Piper, and Marvin Burke.  

The Coliseum board track opened first, with its Inaugural race on Saturday July 10 1948 with a crowd reported in various sources that ranged from 36, 000 to as high as 55,000 with two-tier ticket pricing of $1.50 and $2.50. With fourteen- foot-high 30-degree banked turns, the new ¼-mile board track, in ways reminiscent of the old Beverley Hills and Culver City board tracks, proved to be 10 miles an hour faster than the asphalt track it replaced. Extra excitement was created as the inaugural Coliseum races were broadcast live locally on the new medium of television.  

After “Bullet” Joe Garson set quick time at 12.47 seconds, the opening night Coliseum  program featured a four-lap four-car trophy dash captured by Desmond Willoughby “DW” McCauley, then four 8-lap heat races, won by Chuck Stevenson, Mack Hellings, Agabashian, and Fletcher Pierce. Stevenson won the 12-lap Australian Pursuit race and Jerry Piper won the 15-lap semi-main. The 50-lap feature completed in eleven minutes and forty-eight seconds was won by Bobby Carroll over Garson, Burke, and Stevenson.  

Racing continued on the Coliseum boards over the next four Friday nights but for the most part the racing was single-file follow-the-leader and after the first night, attendance slumped. Garson won the second week, and on July 23, Sam Hanks made his first appearance and lowered the track record to 12.08 seconds in qualifying as Manuel Ayulo won the feature.


The board track at the Rose Bowl opened on July 28 1948, with a paid crowd of 25,206 that saw Garson win the 50-lap feature in the Eddie Meyer #24, but similar to the Coliseum, attendance quickly fell off as a week later on Wednesday August 4, only 12,256 fans passed through the Rose Bowl turnstiles to watch Bob Carroll win the feature in the Demmit Offenhauser followed by Texan Cecil Green and Lyle Dickey.

The July 30 Coliseum program won by Hanks featured 39 cars and stars, but attendance dropped even lower  and White announced that Coliseum board track racing would end on Friday August 13. In the final night of racing at Coliseum on the 35th lap of the 50-lap feature, Jack Habermehl ran over the wheel that fell off Bob Kelsey’s car.
Habermehl’s Bob Walker owned #8 Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser clipped the fence, flipped end-over-end three times and the 35-year old was pronounced dead upon arrival at Parkview Hospital.   Habermehl was a URA regular who also drove big cars, and had been victorious in the four-lap trophy dash a week and half earlier at the Rose Bowl.  Habermehl, 35 years old, and a World War 2 Army Air Force veteran, left behind a wife and three children. Hanks won the final 50-lap Coliseum feature for his second consecutive win.    

Meanwhile Garson had won again on the Rose Bowl boards on August 11, with Sam Hanks the feature winner on August 20. Garson won again on August 25, and ex-Marine Andy Linden topped the 50-lap Rose Bowl feature on September 1. Garson and the Eddie Meyer Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser won again a week later, and then ex-roadster driver Jack McGrath won the seventh and final Rose Bowl board track feature on September 15.   

In the September 17 edition of the Oakland Tribune sportswriter and occasional midget racer Jack Menges reported that the racing season at the Rose Bowl was complete and there was a chance that the aluminum framed board track could be set up in San Francisco’s minor league Seals Stadium which had hosted midget races nightly on a flat temporary track during December 1945.   

In September 1948 Billboard magazine reported that the local Hearst newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Express had launched a drive to ban automobile racing after four Southern California racing deaths during 1948 - drivers Jimmy McMahon, Jesse Romero, Jack Habermehl, and Fred Luce. The article also noted that Pasadena residents were circulating a petition to end board track midget racing at the Rose Bowl citing “motor noise and gasoline stench.”

Looking back many drivers who later starred in the Indianapolis 500-mile race ran the short-lived Los Angeles boards – Hanks, Agabashian, Ayulo, Hellings, Stevenson, Linden, and McGrath – but the racing was not exciting enough to draw the necessary crowds. Press coverage of the midget board tracks was minimal, and in the case of the Rose Bowl, practically non-existent. What happened to the board tracks used at the Polo Grounds and the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum after September 1948 remains a mystery – but they were probably scrapped at a huge loss to their owners.  
Shortly thereafter, Lex Thompson washed his hands of racing promotion, as in the November 27 1948 issue of Billboard, Stebbins announced that Small Car Enterprises and Stebbins Speedways had consolidated. Stebbins said the combination company would present indoor midget races on a 1/5-mile oval inside the 8600-seat Kingsbridge Armory in Bronx beginning in December. The article recalled that one of the midget racing programs at the Rose Bowl had attracted the “second largest crowd on the West Coast.”

Although he was unsuccessful in promoting midget auto races at the Manhattan ballpark, 1948 was overall a pretty  successful year for Alexis Thompson.  In early 1948 Alexis, an expert bobsledder was a member of the Cresta sled (skeleton) team for the 1948 United States Winter Olympic team in Switzerland, where in 1942 he had crashed and suffered a lacerated kidney. 

The huge sums of money that Thompson poured into his football team were finally rewarded on December 19 1948 when the Eagles won the NFL Championship game over the Chicago Cardinals 7-0 in a game played during a blinding snowstorm while Thompson was hospitalized in New York after having his appendix removed three days earlier. Alexis claimed he never made money on the team during his ownership (he said he lost $32,000 the year they won the championship) and he sold the Eagles in January 1949 to a group of 100 investors for $250,000.

Thompson’s dealings with Walter Stebbins came up again in March 1950 when Billboard reported that on March 18 Stebbins had filed suit against Thompson in New York Superior Court for $15,117 for an alleged breach of contract in connection to the Polo Grounds promotion. Alexis denied Stebbins’ claim that he had never paid the promised $10,000 annual salary.  

Alexi Thompson separated from his second wife during June 1951 with the divorce finalized in Nevada for $4500 seven months later. Lex married for the third time to red-haired, 30-year-old model and former child actress Joanne Tree on June 28 1953. Nine days later the couple’s honeymoon was rudely interrupted when Alexis was named as the father of 2-year daughter in a paternity suit filed by 22-year old model Julie Blue. Before the suit came to trial on October 15 it was discovered that Ms. Blue had a second paternity suit pending at the same time against another man, wealthy Standard Oil heir Edward T. Bedford.

On December 20, 1954 authorities found Thompson’s body on the floor next to the telephone in his luxury apartment in Englewood New Jersey after neighbors alerted police when newspapers piled up at his door. At the time of his death Alexis’ wife who during the Blue paternity suit told reporters 'I am the third and last Mrs. Alexis Thompson," was “visiting friends” in Beverley Hills California.  Medical Examiner William Greenfield ruled that Alexis Thompson had died on December 18 at age 40 from a heart attack and his body was cremated

There were midget races promoted by Ed Otto held on a ¼-mile dirt track built inside the Polo Grounds in 1958 and 1959 after the Giants moved west to San Francisco, but that  is another story for another time.  
The author is looking for any original photos of 1948 midget racing at the Polo Grounds, LA Coliseum, and the Rose Bowl.   

1 comment:

  1. Great story Kevin...the board tracks have intrigued me for years.