Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fred Agabashian
from the Bay Area to Indianapolis glory
Part one 1947 to 1952  


All photographs appear courtesy of the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

San Francisco Bay Area midget driver Levan “Fred” Agabashian achieved great success in local midget racing before he made it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In his years at the Speedway which coincided with the early part of the roadster era, "Doctor" Agabashian was highly regarded for his ability to diagnose and solve the problems with ill-handling race cars.

Born in Modesto California in 1913 to Armenian immigrants Levan and Nevart Agabashian, legend has it that Fred drove his father’s car at age five and tinkered with cars as a youngster. Fred participated in his first race with a jalopy at age 17 in 1931 while still a student at Berkeley High School. One of Fred’s three younger sisters, Alice Elcano, became a famed Bay Area radio Big Band singer. 

During his career, Fred drove stock cars and ‘big cars’ but he made his name in midgets and won his first midget racing championship in 1937 with the short-lived Northern California Racing Association. Fred raced with such midget legends as Herk Edwards, “Lucky” Lloyd Logan, Ted Ayers, 3-time STAR midget champion Al Stein, and Tony Dutro on long-lost tracks such as the 1/5-mile dirt ‘Motordromes’ in San Francisco and San Jose and the 1/6-mile dirt Neptune Beach Speedway which was next to the amusement park of the same name in Alameda.   

In 1946, Agabashian won his first Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) championship for car owner Jack London and the following year Agabashian made his first visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the rookie driver of the “Ross Page Special” a supercharged Miller-Offenhauser powered Kurtis chassis owned by one the promoters of the San Jose Speedway.

Fred and the Ross Page Special shown in 1947.
Note the clear Plexiglas fairing behind Fred's head 

Though many observers were drawn to the clear Plexiglas fairing behind driver Agabashian’s head, the maroon and white Ross Page car with gold trim is considered to be the forerunner of Frank Kurtis’ later roadster designs as it featured an offset engine and driveline. After he finished ninth in the 1947 ‘500,’ he returned to the Bay Area, and Agabashian won the BCRA title again in  1947, this time for car owner George Bignotti.      

Agabashian was one of 25 drivers who took part in the February 1948 “Aztec Championship” a series of 15 races that the BCRA club staged in Mexico City. The tour organized by Damon Miller and Art Driefer led by BCRA starter Hank Madeiros and Floyd Busby who filled in for “Boots” Archer the BCRA business manager.

The venue was the new Ciudad de los Deportes stadium which reportedly held up to 65,000 fans. The Mexican promoters guaranteed the club $18,000 for six nights of racing, with three nights of racing each of the planned two weeks with an option to extend the contract for up to two months.

A group of nearly 100 people (wives and mechanics) left the Bay Area aboard a Southern Pacific train on January 20 1948. The rail line promised to arrive at the stadium in Mexico City in five days for a cost of $205 per car but five teams elected to tow their cars and equipment to Mexico.

Once there the teams learned that their cars did not run well at Mexico City’s altitude even with the use of high octane gasoline. Agabashian won the opening night race before 20,000 fans over Andy Guthrie. Johnnie Parsons won the trophy dash and finished third in the feature ahead of Jerry Piper.

The author could not find any more race results in period newspapers, but thanks to Bay Area racing historians, the author pieced together a few more details. BCRA historian Jimmy Montgomery provided his copies of the results of the seven non-points races in Mexico City. The first race was held on Thursday February 5 with 26 cars entered.

Woody Brown set quick time of 13.58 seconds in the Jack O’Brien owned Ford V8-60 powered midget which stood as the track record for three days until Johnnie Parsons reset the track record of 12.92 seconds three nights later. The Mexico City racing programs featured time trials each night followed by a trophy dash, four 5-lap heat races, and two 6-lap “finals” for the top finishers in the heat races. After a break the BCRA racers ran a 15-lap semi-feature and a 25-lap feature.

The second night in Mexico City, February 7th, Parsons won the Trophy Dash and the feature, and Woody Brown captured the third night 25-lap feature on February 8. After a night off, racing resumed on the tenth and Parsons won his third trophy dash and Agabashian his second Mexico City feature race. Marvin Burke won the fifth feature over Agabashian on February 12 over Agabashian and the racers took a few days off before their next race.

On February 15 in the penultimate Mexico race the car count dropped to 24 midgets, and fast qualifier Jerry Piper won the Trophy Dash, while Vic Gotelli won the feature over Parsons. The last Aztec race was run on February 19 as Woody Brown won his second feature over Marvin Burke and Agabashian.

The tour was not extended beyond the original contract and Al Slonaker in his February 24 “Speedway Sparks” column in the Oakland Tribune reported that “midgeteers are drifting home from Mexico City” and that   Agabashian won the Aztec Championship.   The tour ended after the contracted two weeks because according to the recollections of Floyd Busby, Sr. the size of the crowds steadily declined over the six nights.

Slonaker later reported in March that “Mexican publicity billed our boys as ‘suicide pilots’ and ‘death defying drivers.’ Somehow our sensible speedway sportsmen began to believe this nonsense, and overnight they became madmen. Mexico City saw two weeks of the craziest and downright wildest driving ever witnessed.” There seems to be a measure of exaggeration in Slonaker’s article as Floyd Busby, Jr. remembers that his father told him that despite the local press hype, none of the ‘death defying drivers’ even turned a midget over while they raced in Mexico. This second-hand recollection was confirmed by historian and writer Tom Motter.  

Agabashian returned to Indianapolis in May 1948 to reprise his roles as the driver of the ‘Ross Page Special’ and bumped his way into starting field but the 183-cubic inch Leon Duray-designed supercharged engine broke an oil line with just 58 of the 200 laps completed.  In October Agabashian was crowned the BCRA champion for the third consecutive year, after his chief competitor Jerry Piper broke his arm in a crash during a BCRA midget race in Santa Rosa late in the season which ended Piper’s season early.   

For 1949, Piper and Agabashian started the BCRA season as teammates for George Bignotti, with Piper taking the wheel of the 1948 championship car while Fred drove the brand-new Kurtis-Kraft #154 “Burgermeister Special.” Fred set the quick time in the first race in the BCRA winter indoor championship held January 8 on the 1/10-mile oval laid out on the concrete floor of the Oakland Exposition building.

Agabashian set quick time on three occasions during the 8-race series and eventually lowered the track record to an amazing 8.22 seconds. Fred won the penultimate feature race, but Hayward’s Bob Sweikert won the inaugural BCRA indoor championship.

In May 1949 at Indianapolis, Fred was again nominated as the driver of the ‘Ross Page Special,’ but the Miller-Offenhauser supercharged engine broke its crankshaft during a practice run on Friday May 27. The next day, Fred jumped into the Indianapolis Race Cars Inc. (IRC) Maserati 8CL chassis number 3035 and posted a four-lap qualifying average speed of 127.007 miles per hour (MPH) which bumped Henry Banks from the field.

IRC was a group of three Indianapolis businessmen led by investment banker Roger Gould Wolcott that purchased the assets of the Boyle Racing Team after the 1948 death of Boyle chief mechanic Harry “Cotton” Henning. Evidently the IRC team mechanics lacked the understanding of the complexities of Italian engineering that Henning had possessed as both of the IRC team’s Maserati entries retired from the 1949 ‘500’ early.

Agabashian’s car dropped out first, with terminal overheating on lap 38 and teammate Leland “Lee” Wallard retired the 1939 and 1940 winning Maserati 8CTF 17 laps later with gearbox troubles.  Near the end of the 1949 AAA season, Agabashian substituted for injured driver Johnny Mantz in JC Agajanian’s Kurtis 2000 in the 100-mile race at the old California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento. Fred started from the pole position and led 99 of the 100 laps to post his first (an only) AAA championship victory. 

Fred’s entry for the 1950 Indianapolis ‘500’ was announced very early, in mid-January with Fred as the teammate to Johnnie Parsons, the defending American Automobile Association AAA National Champion in the Kurtis-Kraft “house cars.”

Fred in his #28 car to the left of his teammate in #1 Johnnie Parsons

Parsons drove the same Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser that he drove in 1949 for St. Louis car owner Ed Walsh, Frank Kurtis’ partner and the President of Kurtis-Kraft Inc. while Fred was assigned the team’s “new” Kurtis 3000, one of five built for the 1950 ‘500.’ What made Agabashian’s “Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special” different was that it was powered by an experimental 179-cubic inch supercharged Offenhauser engine.

“I always liked research and development, new stuff," Agabashian said in an interview at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1987. "I could've probably had better luck if I drove something conventional." Never was that statement truer than in 1950.

During May Fred turned some of the fastest laps in practice, and he coached rookie driver Walt Faulkner, a fellow midget driver who struggled with JC Agajanian’s #98 Kurtis 2000 upright chassis. On “Pole Day” May 13 Agabashian’s #28 “Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special” was the first car out and posted a 10-mile qualifying average speed of 132.792 MPH much to the delight of the more than 50,000 fans which held up through the day as the fastest average speed. 

Just before time trials closed at 6 PM local time, Faulkner in the #98 ‘Agajanian Special’ took to the track. After a “slow” first lap of 132 MPH, Faulkner’s best lap was his second, recorded at 136.013 MPH before laps of 134.8 and 133.8 MPH for a four-lap average of 134.343 MPH. Faulkner’s last second run not only knocked Agabashian off the pole, but set new track records and nudged Fred to start from the middle of the front row for the ‘500.’

On Memorial Day, Fred ran in third place at 40 laps, but the yellow #28 Kurtis 3000 fell out on the 64th lap with a broken oil line while his teammate’s conventional Offenhauser-powered Kurtis chassis won the rain-shortened race. Fred drove the supercharged ‘Wynn’s Friction Proofing Special’ for Ed Walsh for the rest of the AAA season and appeared in nine of the twelve 1950 AAA championship races and wound up 14th in points.  

In October, Fred received special permission from AAA’s West Coast Supervisor Gordon Betz to participate in the BCRA midget portion of the Bert Moreland Benefit race held on the ¼-mile oval at Oakland Stadium. Moreland who had driven Agabashian’s midget in BCRA competition had been paralyzed in a crash at Contra Costa Speedway earlier in the season and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life until he passed away in 2001. 

In January 1951 it was announced that Fred had assumed the responsibilities of the manager of the BCRA club but his reign was a short one, as he resigned on April 8 under pressure from the AAA following Bill Holland’s suspension for “outlaw (non-AAA) activities.” 

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Fred in the “Granatelli Bardahl Special” was the fastest of only three drivers to complete a qualifying run on the second day of time trials and his 135.029 MPH four-lap average earned him the 11th starting position. The clutch on the Granatelli Kurtis 3000 failed as Fred left the pits on his 109th lap and he was placed 17th in the final standings.

Fred’s 1951 AAA racing season was a difficult one, as Agabashian failed to qualify for two other AAA races with Andy Granatelli and he drove for three other car owners – Ray Brady, Pat Clancy, and JC Agajanian for a total of six AAA race appearances with a best finish of sixth recorded twice during the season. After the 1951 AAA season, Fred now 38 years old, cut back on his racing appearances and focused his energies on success in just one race a year- the Indianapolis 500-mile race.

In our next installment we’ll continue to tell the story of Fred Agabashian’s Indianapolis ‘500’ career.

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