A dark day at Yakima
On Decoration Day Monday May 31 1926 Californian Frank Lockhart who started the month as a relief driver shocked the racing world as he became the fourth rookie to win the Indianapolis 500-mile race. In his first championship start Lockhart blazed his way to the front of the field from his 20th starting position, led 95 laps to score victory in the rain-shortened 160-lap (400 miles) race with a two-lap advantage over second place Harry Hartz at the drop of the checkered flag. That same day, more than 1700 miles to the west of Indianapolis, a little-known race was held in Yakima Washington which cost three people their lives.
A race car passes the Yakima grandstand around 1918
photo courtesy of State Fair Park
The site of the race that fateful day in Yakima was the one-mile track originally built for horse racing on the Central Washington State Fairgrounds in 1894 five years after Washington achieved statehood. The track featured a 2000-seat grandstand, a three-story tall judges’ stand and 100 horse stalls. Automobile racing first came to the Yakima track around 1918, and automobile races had been part of the annual Fair since 1925.
Ira Hayes had participated in this event
The day before the races began, there was a fatality. 46-year-old race car driver Ira W Hayes of Auburn Washington was found dead under his wrecked race car, the Hayes Special, alongside the Inland Empire Highway now known as Highway 12 near Easton, about midway between his home and Yakima. It was unclear what caused Hayes who had experienced a fair amount of success in 1923 and 1924 Western Auto Racing Association races at the ½-mile Southwest Washington Fairgrounds track in Chehalis to lose control of his racer and crash.
During the racing program tragedy struck again as Oregon driver Ira Cook’s “Stutz Special” careened out of control as he rounded one of the turns. Why Cook was even in Yakima that day is a mystery, as just four days earlier he had been advertised as one of the featured drivers in the scheduled Reno Nevada Memorial Day races for cars with engines that displaced less than 183 cubic inches. Little is known of Cook’s racing career which appeared to be mostly confined to Oregon, where he had raced a “HVR Special” in races held on Labor Day 1925 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
Cook’s out-of-control Stutz tore through the wooden track barrier and struck a crowd which had been seated on a nearby fence. The group included at least three members of the Johnson family with young Harlin Ewing Johnson Junior, just 8 years old struck and killed instantly while his seven-year old sister and his 50-year old father were injured. Other victims in the group included 18-year old Walter Paude identified as a high school student with slight injuries and 22-year old Walter Howard who was described as badly hurt with “upper body lacerations and legs cut.”
Driver Ira Cook was also taken to the hospital suffering from what was believed to be a broken back, while Johnson Senior suffered a broken shoulder, a scalp wound and according to press reports was “probably fatally injured.“ The published prognosis proved correct, as just before midnight on May 31, Harlin Johnson Senior died from his injuries. On June 3, with the grieving widow and mother Bessie Johnson graveside, father and son were laid to rest side-by-side in Yakima’s Tahoma Cemetery.
Erie J. Barnes, the Washington state Director of Agriculture was in the grandstands that day and later declared that “no more auto races will be held at the state fairgrounds as long as I remain in office.” Barnes, who before his appointment in 1925 had served as the President of the Yakima Braves minor league baseball club, was replaced in 1932.
Barnes’ boss, Governor Roland H. Hartley got into a budgetary war with the legislature and without an approved state budget no State Fair was held in 1930 or 1931. When a new governor Clarence Martin was elected in the 1931 FDR landslide, the State Fair at Yakima returned in 1932 but after four years of financial losses it was discontinued. In 1939 the for-profit Central Washington Fair Association was formed and the group began holding fairs at Yakima again a tradition which continues through today.
Driver of the errant “Stutz Special” Ira Cook recovered from his injuries and was an entrant in the July Fourth 1926 AAA races with his Stutz at on the State Fairgrounds at Salem Oregon and his name appeared again in advance of the July 1927 races at Salem with a Frontenac Special.
The one-mile fairgrounds track operated as the Yakima Meadows horse track until November 1998 when it closed and the one-mile track was abandoned, while at some time during the early nineteen fifties a mildly banked 1/2-mile dirt track was built in front of the 3500 seat grandstands.
From Billboard magazine advertisements, it appears as though both the Yakima dirt tracks may have hosted hot rod roadster, midget, and ‘big car’ races during the decade of the 50’s under the management of J. Hugh King. The Yakima dirt track continues to operate today and the Fairgrounds also boasts a quarter midget race track run by the Racing Rascals quarter midget club.
The author encourages any readers with additional information about the early history of auto racing at the Yakima Central Washington State Fairgrounds or Ira Cook to contact me at email@example.com