Monday, January 16, 2017

Roadster racer Don Kolb’s 1949 season

Don Kolb's 1948 photograph from the Oakland Tribune

When we last visited the story of Oakland roadster racer Don Kolb, he was a newlywed and finished third in the 1948 season points for Racing Roadsters Incorporated (RRI). In this installment we look at Kolb’s 1949 season.

To begin the 1949 season apparently there was a cease fire between RRI and the rival Northern California Racing Roadster Association (NCRRA).  The NCRRA sanctioned races in the San Joaquin Valley, east of the Bay Area, with Stockton’99’ Speedway as the group’s home track while RRI, with whom Kolb raced, sanctioned most of its 1949 races at Oakland Stadium. As an added attraction, several RRI races were paired with the new automotive ‘fad,’ demolition derbies, which began on the West Coast during 1947 at Carrell Speedway.

The Racing Roadsters Inc. 1949 season opened on Sunday night April 24 1949 at Contra Costa Speedway, a banked 1/4-mile dirt oval located near Buchanan Airfield on Pacheco Road four miles north of Walnut Creek California. The roadsters scheduled a full program that featured time trials, a trophy dash, four heat races, two semi-main races and a 25-lap feature race.  

The defending RRI champion Johnny Key won his heat race, one of the semi-main races and the feature, while Don Kolb won his heat race but his car dropped out during the feature. Other drivers at Contra Costa that night were Elmer George, Ed Andres, Al Slinker, Bill Grossi, former NCRRA regular Bob Schellenger (alternately spelled Schellinger) and a new driver to the Bay Area, young Bill Pettit originally from Salt Lake City Utah in his #222 roadster.

On Friday night May 6, the Racing Roadsters made their first appearance of the season at the freshly paved ¼-mile oval at Oakland Stadium, actually located at the intersection of 155th Avenue and East 14th Street in San Leandro. 4200 fans in the stands for the ‘Golden Gate Fields Sweepstakes’ meant that the RRI stars were racing for a purse of $2100. The 25-lap feature was captured by Sacramento’s Butler Rugaard who had started the race dead last. Second place went to Santa Cruz driver Lloyd Ragon followed by Don Kolb in third position with Pettit in fourth place in the race completed in just seven minutes and 36 seconds.

One week later, Kolb began the night’s races at Oakland Stadium in second place in RRI points behind Lloyd Ragon. Kolb beat Johnny Key to the stripe to win their heat race, but in the 25-lap feature later that evening, the finish was reversed as Key won a caution-filled race over Kolb and Slinker before what Oakland Tribune writer Rod Lee described as a small crowd.

Back at the Oakland Stadium on May 20 time trials, the trophy dash, and running of the heat races went smoothly, but the start of the evening’s 25-lap feature race was delayed for half an hour as drivers “squabbled over starting positions” according to a report in the next day’s Oakland Tribune. Once the feature began, Don Kolb took the lead on lap four and held on until lap nineteen when he gave way to Lloyd Ragon, the trophy dash winner. Ragon from Santa Cruz scored the victory over Kolb with Bob Schellenger third.

Based on his strong performances over the last two weeks Don Kolb entered the May 27 race at Oakland as the RRI point leader by eleven markers over Ragon. Kolb scored a clean sweep of the night’s racing as he won the trophy dash, his heat race, and the feature. Don took over the race lead from Schellenger on the nineteenth lap and won with a time of seven minutes and 32 seconds.

After the Oakland 5/8-mile track hosted the Western Racing Association (WRA) big cars on May 29, on Memorial Day the roadsters were back in action with twin 25-lap daytime features. Don Kolb won the trophy dash, but his name does not appear in the results of either feature. The first feature which honored flagman (and local new car salesman) Hank Mederios was won by Joe Perry, while the second race the ‘Memorial Day Sweepstakes’ was captured by Elmer George over his friend  and fellow Salinas resident Johnny Key.

At the next RRI race held on the ½-mile track in Watsonville on June 5, Don Kolb qualified third but had mechanical troubles during the evening and lost the RRI points lead to Ragon and Don would never again be in contention for the 1949 RRI drivers’ championship.  When the roadsters returned to Oakland on June 10, Kolb’s troubles continued as he and Schellenger tangled on lap 5 of the feature. Neither car finished while Ragon won again to pad his lead.

The following night, Kolb scored his second feature win of the 1949 season on the ¼-mile dirt track at Belmont City Stadium adjacent to the Bay Meadows thoroughbred track, Back at Oakland on Friday night June 17 for the ‘Captain Bolger Sweepstakes’ Kolb finished in third place behind Johnny  Key and  Stan Dean  in his trademark #33 roadster. Two days later in another Oakland Sunday daytime program, Key repeated as he won the 25-lap ‘Spike Jones Racing Roadster Handicap’ over Schellenger and tied the track record as he completed the 25 laps in seven minutes and six seconds at an average speed of over 52 miles per hour (MPH).

The following Friday night at Oakland after Ragon, Perry and Pettit crashed out on lap nine Johnny Key had victory in sight when his car blew a tire on the 22nd lap. With Key out of the running, Al Slinker inherited the win while Kolb finished in the fourth position.  Key returned to his winning ways at Oakland Stadium on July 1, but on Sunday July 10 for the “Radio Sweepstakes.” run on the 5/8-mile oval which featured a steeply banked third and fourth turn, the cars of Key, Kolb, Ragon and Slinker all broke down and did not start the 35-lap feature which was won by Stan Dean.

On Friday night July 15 the racing roadsters returned to the ¼-mile Oakland infield oval paired with the destruction derby. Al Slinker won the 5-car derby while Ragon won the 25-lap roadster main. The following night at Belmont, three spectators were injured after a wheel flew off Niles resident Chet Richards’ car and into the grandstand on the 33rd lap of the scheduled 35 lap feature. The rest of the race was cancelled with race leader Lloyd Ragon declared the winner.

Prior the start of the ‘hot rod’ race the next night July 16 at Contra Costa Speedway Ragon was listed as the RRI point leader, but after Johnny Key won the night’s feature race, Lloyd found himself trailing Johnny by seven points. Even though he won the trophy dash and finished second in the feature Don Kolb remained in fourth place in the RRI season standings behind Schellenger. Back at Oakland Stadium on Friday night July 22 1949 Don Kolb finished the 25-lap feature in third place behind winner Lloyd Ragon and runner-up Johnny Key.

During the following week, word reached the West Coast of the tragic death of 21- year old Bill Pettit in a July 23 crash in Iowa. The Salt Lake City native had moved to Oakland and raced with RRI from the start of the 1949 season through the July 1 race, after which young Pettit had married and traveled “back east” to race with the Hurricane Hot Rod Association a group run by Chicago speed shop owner Anthony Granatelli.

Before the fateful race, Pettit who turned 21 only eight days earlier, reportedly sold his roadster and told his bride of two weeks that he would quit racing. On the last lap of the Saturday night feature race at the Playland Park Speedway in Council Bluffs Iowa, Pettit tried to slice between two cars in their battle for second place. Pettit’s #222 hooked wheels, barrel rolled three times, and came to rest upright, but he suffered fatal head injuries.

The Council Bluffs track was part of an amusement park complex across the Missouri River from Omaha Nebraska owned by Abe and Lou Slusky. The ¼-mile dirt track was originally the site of the shuttered Dodge Park dog track allegedly owned by mobster Meyer Lansky. The race on July 23 was the third ‘hot rod’ race ever held there as the track usually hosted midget car racing.

To honor their fallen comrade before the ‘July Sweepstakes’ feature on the 29th at Oakland, Lloyd Ragon carried a checkered flag on a memorial lap. Kolb’s car the evening’s fastest qualifier at 16.69 seconds, broke on the first lap of the feature and Don finished 12th in the 12-car field as Lloyd Ragon won and re-captured the RRI point lead by six points over Key.

In a sad postscript to the Pettit story, pioneering black roadster racer Curtis “Cyclone” Ross was killed at Playland Park on July 30 during the running of the ‘Bill Pettit Benefit Race.’ Ross, who had been one of the drivers involved in the Pettit fatal crash, died after his car ran over the back of another car and flipped end-over end several times.

Ross at 32 years old was much traveled as he had raced with the Midwestern-based Mutual and the California Roadster Associations. The ‘Pettit Benefit Race’ that brought in over $1300 for Bill’s young widow was the final ‘hot rod’ race at the Playland Park track which continued to race stock cars until 1977.

The roadster racing season moved into August 1949, and on the fifth newcomer Bob Gonzales won the 25-lap feature and set a new ¼-mile Oakland track record of seven minutes and six seconds for the distance. After the race card on the 11th was rained out on the 18th Don Kolb his won his third roadster feature of the 1949 season after an interesting series of events.  

During qualifying Johnny Key’s usual #5 entry broke a connecting rod and Key jumped into the seat of the #11 car. After the engine in the #5 car was repaired, Kolb took it over and won the 15-lap semi-main race to advance into the feature starting field.  During the 25-lap feature, Key in #11 moved up from his tenth starting position to take the lead on the fourth lap and maintained his lead until the engine failed in his #11 mount on the race’s 22nd lap. Kolb led the final three laps in the #5 “John Milton Special” to claim the win. Despite his three wins, by the end of the 1949 RRI season, Kolb finished the season in fifth place behind Johnny Key, Lloyd Ragon, Bob Schellenger and Stan Dean as reported at the March 2 1950 awards banquet.
A newspaper ad for A BCRA "hardtop" race 

During the fall of 1949 Don Kolb participated in several Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) “hardtop” and midget races. “Hardtops” were a relatively new phenomenon which the BCRA had debuted in August at Contra Costa Speedway followed by a slate of weekly races, often held in conjunction with BCRA midget races, as the “hardtops” quickly supplanted midget and roadster racing in popularity.

Later in August BCRA officials suspended midget point leader Jerry Piper for “conduct detrimental to the organization” after he and former BCRA business manager Bob Barkheimer founded their own “hardtop” sanctioning body, the California Stock Car Racing Association (CSCRA).  With Piper on the sidelines, Marvin Burke won the 1949 BCRA championship. In the coming years the CSCRA with Piper as its President grew to sanction races at more than 20 tracks in the state. 

Kolb described as one of the “new BCRA pilots” together with future BCRA Hall of Famers Bob Rushing and Cliff Roberts debuted at the BCRA “hardtop” race at Oakland Stadium on October 4. Kolb finished third behind BCRA “regulars” Johnny Soares and Bert Moreland in the 25-lap ‘Hayward Moose Sweepstakes.’ Kolb also was documented as an entry in the final BCRA “hardtop” race of the 1949 season held November 27 won by Ed Normi ahead of Bert Moreland and George Bignotti.   

Kolb was one of eighteen drivers entered in the annual BCRA midget “Invitational Classic’ scheduled for November 6 1949 on the Oakland Stadium 5/8-mile track. Other entries included Ed Elisian, Bob Veith, Walt Faulkner, Bill Vukovich, and Earl Motter. Bob Sweikert who had sold his own Kurtis-Kraft midget in February  after he captured the six-race 1949 inaugural BCRA indoor championship, returned to drive George Bignotti’ s #1, while three-time BCRA champion Fred Agabashian entered his Ford V-8 60 powered machine for rising BCRA star Larry Terra of Hayward.

The November 6 1949 event was rained out after time trials were completed and the entire program was rescheduled for November 13. Earl Motter was the fast qualifier on the 13th as he posted a best lap of 20.11 seconds which was nearly a tenth faster than the quick time he posted a week earlier. Kolb did not start the 25-lap feature, which was won by Bob Sweikert over Motter and Marvin Burke in a caution-filled race completed in 12 minutes and 39 seconds.   

In our next installment we will continue to follow Don Kolb’s career in the rapidly changing Bay Area racing environment in the early nineteen fifties.    

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