Monday, July 31, 2017

3/4 (TQ) midgets at the Petersen

The Richard Varner Gallery  of the Petersen Automotive Museum has a current exhibition through 2018 entitled "Harley vs. Indian." The author really isn't a motorcycle guy, but the exhibit featured a pair of  early 3/4 (TQ) midgets, powered by (as you might have guessed) Harley Davidson and Indian engines. The Harley powered car was emblazoned "Half a Harley" so its safe to assume that the Indian TQ midget was also a single-cylinder power plant adapted from a motorcycle.

Click to enlarge these photos of the Harley TQ

Click to enlarge these photos of the Indian TQ
The author took these photographs and welcomes more information on either or both of these cars at

Friday, July 21, 2017

1930’s Muroc Record breakers

Part three

In our last chapter about the land speed record (LSR) attempts conducted on Muroc Dry Lake during the 1930’s we traced the early history of  the Clyde Adams built “Catfish” race car designed by renowned Stanford aeronautics professor Elliott Grey Reid. The car dropped off  the 1932 AAA (American Automobile Association) national  championship trail- why?  

After the July 2 race at Syracuse race where “Stubby” Stubblefield finished second,  the current Class C world speed record holding car was purchased from Art Sparks and Paul Weirick by the 1932 Indianapolis winner Fred Frame who used it on a nationwide barnstorming tour. According to author Gordon Eliot White, Sparks and Weirick used the $8500 proceeds from the sale to buy a pair of Miller 220 engines stroked to 247 cubic inches which they used in their successful AAA Pacific Southwest circuit ‘big car.’

The “Catfish” & Fred Frame

On Saturday October 29 1932, Frame and the “Catfish” appeared in a match race sanctioned by the AAA against the 1927 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner George Souders who returned to racing after three years.  Severely injured in a dirt track crash at Detroit July 1928 in which he suffered a compound skull fracture and broken bones in both arms, Souders retired as race driver the following February.

The first race on the 5/8-mile West Texas Fairgrounds in more than two years was promoted and officiated by local petroleum products trucking company owner D.H. Jefferies, who imported the 1925 Indianapolis winner Peter DePaolo to act as the official starter. The 75 laps of racing action was scheduled to be divided into three heats- the first heat distance of 30 laps, the second 25 laps, and the last heat 20 laps. 

The interesting twist in Abilene was that the “Catfish” was driven by Souders, not Frame who drove his Miller-powered Duesenberg with which he had finished second at the 1931 Indianapolis ‘500.’ Frame purchased the blue-painted Duesenberg from owner Harry Hartz after the 1931 season, entered it for Billy Winn at Indianapolis in 1932, and then drove the car himself for the balance of the 1932 AAA season. Sometime prior to its appearance at Abilene, Frame had replaced the original Duesenberg engine with a Miller power plant.  

The Frame cars arrived in the Abilene area early in the week and were placed on display. The “Catfish” was parked at Christian’s Super Service the local Firestone tire distributor, while Frame’s Miller-Duesenberg was on display in the showroom of the Fulwiler Motor Company, the local Ford dealer  On Wednesday October 26, as the “Catfish” was towed behind a truck to the race track it bumped the back of the truck which “dented its snout.”

With the damage quickly repaired, Souders practiced the “Catfish” extensively on Thursday while Frame took a local newspaper reporter, Harold L. “Prexy” Anderson, along as a passenger for a few fast laps around the 5/8-mile dirt track. After the run, “Prexy” a long-time Abilene fixture self-described as “one of the most widely read and quoted sports writers in the southwest” wrote that it had been his “first racing ride - and last” while Frame for his part, noted that he had been running “at a snail’s pace.”

The Abilene Morning News reporter noted that while the “Catfish” was super-streamlined which allowed it run faster on the long straightaways at Indianapolis, it had “no advantage on the Abilene short course.” On Friday morning after a few practice laps, Souders directed mechanics to install a lower rear end drive gear in preparation for the following day’s race.

The race program which began at 3 PM on Saturday was very well attended but turned out to be not very competitive. Souders in the “Catfish” which still carried its Gilmore sponsorship logos suffered a flat tire during the first 30-lap heat race and George finished two laps in arrears. Souders was more competitive in the remaining two heat races, but Frame swept all three heat races wins that day.  

Frame and Harry Hartz at Muroc in 1933

This photograph from the June 1934 issue of Popular Science magazine
show a crew readying the Union '76' Special at Muroc Dry Lake

In March 1933  the “Catfish” powered by a Miller 255 marine engine reappeared at Muroc Dry Lake prepared to set new records driven by Frame and Harry Hartz.  Leading up to the record runs in early March 1933, newspaper articles ran across the country with a photograph of Hartz seated in the “new ultra-streamlined car” which “resembles very much a prehistoric monster.” Sponsorship for the record attempt was provided by with Union ‘76’ gasoline.

The Union Oil Company founded in 1890 in Santa Paula California sold its products through independent and company owned service stations. Union introduced its ‘76’ grade of gasoline on January 2 1932 and on February 6 1932 filed a trademark application which was rejected by the examiner of trademarks. The reason given was that “the number `76' applied to gasoline would doubtless indicate to the purchaser the octane rating….or Baumé gravity (density).”

An affidavit filed by the company responded that “said numeral `76' was not affixed by said Union Oil Company of California to the gasoline to indicate its gravity or octane rating or any other grade, characteristic or quality of the gasoline, but merely as an arbitrary trademark." This dispute clearly outlines the confusion over Union’76’ gasoline, as even 85 years later, there remains the public perception that Union ‘76’ gasoline had a 76 octane rating.

Union newspaper advertisements were carefully worded but bragged of the gasoline’s performance advantages. For example an advertisement in the San Bernardino Sun published in September 1932 read in part “Union 76 gives extra performance - this fresh gasoline broke and still holds every American stock car speed record from 1 to 500 miles.” This is a reference to the records set in July 1932 by Eddie Miller and Earl Cooper in a pair of V-12 powered Auburns.   

The Union ‘76’ ad went on to state “under all motor operating temperatures on the road, new Union 76 Gasoline has the highest anti-knock or octane rating of any non-premium gasoline sold!  Qualities vary in different gasolines. You will find Union 76 with its superior qualities of quick starting, anti-knock and power gives you the economy of greater mileage and smoother performance.”

After numerous appeals and rejections in 1937 the tribunals of the Patent Office affirmed the decision of the Commissioner of Patents’ rejection of the registration. The decision stated that the “numerals ‘76’ are mis-descriptive of a grade or quality of oil and do not indicate origin. It appears that the mark "76" might be understood by the purchasing public to be a grade or quality mark so the appellant should not be given the right to use these numerals to the exclusion of all others engaged in the trade.”

Even today Unocal (Union’s predecessor) states that “in 1932, the company introduced a new high-octane gasoline with the brand name 76. The number 76 is no ordinary number but was incorporated to mark a token of respect to the Declaration of Independence of United States of America dated 1776.”

Harry Hartz, the 1926 AAA national champion had retired from racing after suffering severe injuries and burns in a 1927 crash on the Rockingham board track in Salem New Hampshire. Hartz became a car owner and won the 1930 Indianapolis ‘500’ in car he modified.  

The following year, defending champion Billy Arnold in Hartz’ car led the first 155 laps of the 1931 Indianapolis ‘500’ before he crashed out with a six-lap lead, and Hartz’ second car driven by Fred Frame finished second.  In the 1932 ‘500,’ Frame returned in a Hartz owned machine and won after he led the final 58 laps.

On March 9 Hartz set new International Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) records for the “flying” one kilometer and one mile at 148.70 Miles per hour (MPH) and 151.10 MPH respectively. The following day Hartz set the new 10-mile Class C record of 146.71 MPH as he covered the distance in a scant four minutes and 5.39 seconds which broke John Godfrey Parry-Thomas’ record which had stood since 1926. 

On March 11, Hartz set the new five-kilometer standard at 145.93 MPH which broke Stubblefield’s record set in the same chassis by more 12 ½ miles per hour. Fred Frame then took the wheel for the five-mile run that same day and he broke Stubblefield’s nine-month old record by over fourteen miles per hour.

The following day Sunday March 12 1933 Frame set new International Class C standards for 50 kilometer and 50 mile distances from a standing start. Kaye Don had set the old records in 1929 on the high-banked Brooklands track in England, but on a circular course set up on the flat dry lake surface, Frame smashed the old records. Frame’s new 50-kilometer speed of 136.52 MPH broke Don’s record by nearly 13 MPH, while his 50-mile average speed of 139.64 MPH bettered Don’s record by over 15 MPH.

The “Catfish” after the Muroc Class C records
Johnny Seymour and Frank Hinkley celebrate qualifying
for the 1934 Indianapolis 500-mile race
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The Clyde Adams built “Catfish” did not appear at any AAA championship races in 1933, but it was entered by Fred Frame as the unsponsored “Streamline Miller” for the 1934 Indianapolis ‘500’ for driver Johnny Seymour.  Johnny, himself a former land speed record holder on an Indian motorcycle had four previous starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all behind the wheel of front-wheel drive machines.  

Fred Frame entered three cars at the Speedway in 1934 - the “Catfish” with the Miller engine de-stroked to just 200 cubic inches of displacement, the old Miller-powered Duesenberg for rookie Rex Mays and the 1930 Indianapolis winning front wheel drive car purchased from Harry Hartz for Frame himself.  Seymour struggled through practice to find sufficient speed, while Mays comfortably qualified on the third day of time trials at 113.639 MPH.

On Monday May 28 the last day of qualifying disaster struck during Frame’s 10-lap qualifying run when a steering arm broke and the front wheel drive entry crashed into the wall and was damaged beyond immediate repair. Frame and his riding mechanic Aloysius ‘Al’ Theisen, a young dirt track racer were shaken but otherwise uninjured.

Frame watched from the pit area as Seymour posted a ten-lap qualifying average of 108.591 MPH to become the slowest car in the starting field. Seymour and his riding mechanic Frank Hinkley started the “Streamline Miller” last in the 33-car field but they were sidelined on lap 22 by either a burnt rod bearing or broken pinion gear 

Frame later sold the “Catfish” to Charles Worley around the time that its International 1-mile, 1-kilometer and five kilometer records were smashed by Rudolf Caraciola in a modified Mercedes W25 Grand Prix car. The record car funded not by an oil company but by the Nazi party, was fitted with a canopy over the driver and powered by a 205-cubic inch straight eight double overhead camshaft engine that developed a reported 430 horsepower. 

On October 28 1934 on five-kilometer stretch of specially constructed roadway known as “the Gyon record stretch” between Budapest and Kecskernet Hungary, Caraciola posted an astonishing two-way average speed of 197.35 MPH for the “flying kilometer” and 196.78 MPH for the “flying mile.” In an enormous jump in speed, both runs were nearly 50 miles per hour faster than Hartz’ records set just a year and half earlier  Caraciola afterwards compared the W25’s ride on the 18 feet 6 inch wide concrete to racing a limousine and the car forever become known as the “Rennlimousine"
The 1934 Mercedes W25 Rennlimousine
photo courtesy of Daimler AG

On December 10 1934 the “Rennlimousine” modified with a lower canopy, a wider windshield and a set of air intakes and outlets made its attempt at the five kilometer record at the AVUS (Automobil-Verkehrs und Übungsstraße) track in the Berlin suburbs which was composed of two six-mile long straightaways connected by tall banked brick curves. At the end of the day, Caraciola smashed Hartz’ record by 46 MPH and establish the new AIACR Class C five kilometer standard of 197.86 MPH
Frank McGurk and Karl Hattel pose before the 1936 Indianapolis 500 start
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 

The “Catfish” returned to Indianapolis in 1936 powered by a Ford Model B engine with a ‘DO’ (double overhead camshaft) Cragar cylinder head conversion as the ‘Abel’s Auto Ford Special.’  Frank “Wildman” McGurk a Legion Ascot Speedway veteran but a rookie on the Indianapolis bricks was selected to pilot the car he also drove Worley’s ‘big car.’

Karl Hattel a talented 21 year old midget racer served as McGurk’s riding mechanic and the pair qualified the “Catfish” with a ten-lap average speed of 113.102 MPH on the busy second day of time trials to take their place as the 22nd starter. On Race Day, the number 52 “Catfish” was sidelined after 51 laps after the crankshaft broke in the Ford engine.

Before the 1937 Indianapolis ‘500’ ownership of the “Catfish” passed to another of the era’s multi-talented men, Frank Brisko who was a race driver, mechanic, engine and car builder. Brisko first raced on the Indianapolis 2-1/2 mile brick course in 1929 and had introduced his own engine design in 1936. Brisko fitted one of his own 271-cubic inch six-cylinder double overhead camshaft engines between the frame rails of the “Catfish” for rookie driver Dennis “Duke” Nalon. After “Duke” could not get the #21  “Elgin Piston Ring Special” up to speed, veteran Dave Evans, who first raced in the ‘500’ in 1925 gave it a try but fell short as the car could not complete its qualifying attempt.


According to Gordon Eliot White, the “Catfish” was driven by Emil Andres in the 1938 Indianapolis 500-mile race but the car was unrecognizable as the “Catfish” as it had been re-bodied with a one-man body after the end of the AAA “junk formula” rules following the 1937 season.  The “Catfish” was gone but it had spawned some similarly styled machines; in 1938, Floyd “Pop” Dreyer built a Harley-Davidson powered midget race car that was a small-scale homage to the “Catfish.”  

Wilbur Shaw's winning "Pay Car" in 1937  
note the similarity to the "Catfish"
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The most famous of the cars inspired by the aerodynamic “Catfish” was the Wilbur Shaw “Pay Car.”  Built by Myron Stevens who rode with Shaw in the car’s debut in the 1936 Indianapolis ‘500,’ the pair lost ten minutes during the race when the hood came loose and the “Gilmore Speedway Special” finished seventh.   The following year the “Pay Car” returned;  Shaw started second, led 131 laps and recorded his first of three “500’ victories.   

Monday, July 17, 2017

Biographies of the 
2017 BCRA Hall of Fame inductees

The 2017 Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) Hall of Fame inductions were held at the July 15 Jack London bash picnic held at Behrens Park on the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. The inductees or their families received a plaque and a lapel pin that denotes this high honor. The author’s brief biographies of the four 2017 inductees follow in alphabetical order. 
Jim Abreu

Jim Abreu wanted to get involved in automobile racing, so in 1949 he approached San Jose Speedway promoter (and former BCRA business manager) Robert Barkheimer for a job as a photographer. Although Jim was only 18 years of age (back in those days a person had to be 21 to enter the pits), Barkheimer hired the young Abreu to shoot “head shot” photographs of the drivers for use in newspaper articles promoting and reporting on races at San Jose Speedway.  

Abreu leveraged that access the following year to get credentialed access into the BCRA indoor midget races held inside the Oakland Exposition Building.  Jim Abreu continued to photograph BCRA drivers and racing action during the glory years of nineteen sixties and seventies, and only stopped photographing races a few years ago due to his sciatica.

Jim maintains his archive of treasured historical photographs and his photos have been reproduced in several racing history books. Through the years, Jim worked closely with teams in the BCRA midget lites division providing them with photographs for sponsor and promotional use. Jim Abreu is truly a friend of the Bay Cities Racing Association.

Doug Bock

Doug’s introduction to Bay Area sports fans came as a star lineman on the Sir Francis Drake High School football team in San Anselmo. Doug started his racing career as half-owner of a race car at Vallejo Speedway, and he has been a stalwart BCRA car owner for over twenty years. Doug was the owner of the #26 midget that fellow BCRA hall of fame member Glenn Carson drove to capture his third BCRA championship in 2000.

John Sarale, inducted into the BCRA Hall of Fame last year also drove for Doug who in recent years fielded cars for such rising stars as Justin Grant, Thomas Meseraull, Shane and Dustin Golobic and Taylor Simas. Doug’s grandson, Britton carries on the family name in racing and was in action at Petaluma Speedway for the Jack London races in both a winged sprint car and a midget.

Dick Geide

In talking to Dick about his induction, he told that author that “I ran in a great era of Bay Cities Racing Association with many great drivers.” It is hard to argue with Dick’s statement, as the list of drivers that he raced with include champions and hall of famers Norm Rapp, Billy Vukovich, Johnny Baldwin, Dick Atkins, Dave Strickland, George Benson and Burt Foland just to name a few.

Dick started to work for Norm Rapp’s racing supply business during 1959 and for a few years could warm up Norm’s midget before races. Dick made his BCRA midget racing debut during the 1962 season at Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium behind the wheel of Richard Walsh’s rail frame midget.

For the 1963 season Geide partnered with Paul Sechini and they purchased Lloyd Ridge’s Kurtis-Kraft midget powered by a Ford V8-60 engine. In 1964 the pair finished fifteenth in BCRA points and the little Kurtis was the top-scoring Ford powered car.

For 1965 Geide and Sechini bought Porter Goff’s “Easter egg” Quinn Epperly built Offenhauser powered midget and finished sixth in the points behind two-time champion Dick Atkins. Geide improved to fourth in points at the end of the 1966 BCRA season behind champion Billy Vukovich before the car was sold. During that time that he drove the Offy, Dick set new one- and three-lap records at Santa Maria Speedway and a new three-lap standard indoors at Oakland. 

In 1967 Dick served as the BCRA president and drove for Karl Hokanson at the indoor races and Frank Fiore for the outdoor season. In 1967 Dick captured at least two semi-main victories indoors. In 1968, Dick won the semi-main in the 100-lap United States Auto Club national midget race at San Jose Speedway driving a Ford Falcon powered roadster midget. Billy Vukovich won the feature that day trailed by George Benson and Mel Kenyon.

In recent years, racing fans and racing historians alike have enjoyed Dick’s sharing of his scrapbook book photos and memories on the BCRA fan site on Facebook.  

Marietta Nichols

Marietta Nichols’ life was always about family and racing. Her father, BCRA Hall of Fame member Art Shanoian bought his first race car the year Marietta was born, so many of her childhood memories revolved around racing, particularly at Calistoga Speedway. Later when Art bought his first midget race car, which began the family’s seven decades of involvement with our club, Marietta was a crew member.

Marietta met her husband, Hall of Famer Ken Nichols, the 1973 BCRA champion at that year’s banquet, and her son, Jimmy Screeton also a BCRA Hall of Fame member drove for his grandfather Art beginning in 1983.  Her youngest son, Chad began his BCRA career in the nineteen nineties also driving for Art and continues to be a fierce competitor in the orange #17 midget.

Marietta was passionate and involved in the sport of midget auto racing and supported her family and the club in any way she could whether it was buying and maintaining equipment, reserving travel, driving trucks and trailers, or nursing their injuries after accidents. 

Marietta encouraged her father, husband and sons - she sponsored them, scored them in races, and occasionally provided constructive criticism of their driving. Marietta was the heartbeat of a family that has raced with BCRA for seven decades and scored 116 main event wins (and counting). BCRA was honored to have Marietta’s family on hand to celebrate the induction of this great friend of the BCRA into the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

1930’s Muroc Record breakers

Part two

As readers learned in part one of our story about the the land speed record (LSR) attempts conducted on Muroc Dry Lake, Wilbur Shaw set new American and International Class C “flying mile speed” records on March 30 1932, yet his name does not appear in the official AIACR (now the FIA) records.
The reason behind this is simple - the International sanctioning body, the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) used April 1 as the cutoff date for certification of records set in the first quarter of 1932, and Shaw’s run missed being submitted by the cutoff date. By the time the second quarter closed on July 1 1932 Shaw’s record had already been eclipsed.

The “Catfish”

Barely six weeks after Shaw’s record Hartwell Wilburn “Stubby” Stubblefield set the new Class C record on Muroc Dry Lake in the “Catfish” owned by Art Sparks and Paul Weirick and sponsored by Gilmore’s “Lion Head” motor oil.  Sparks and Weirick were also partners in an AAA (American Automobile Association) Pacific Southwest “big car” which had been previously driven by such West Coast AAA stars as Bill Cummings, Jimmy Sharp, and Al Gordon. The famed Sparks and Weirick Adams-built “big car” would capture the AAA Pacific Southwest car owner’s title five times and at one point won twelve consecutive features at the 5/8-mile oiled dirt Legion Ascot Speedway.   

Stubblefield had raced at Legion Ascot since 1927 as the cars evolved from modified Model T Fords to Miller powered pure racing machines. In 1930 “Stubby” was billed as one of the Pacific Coast “Big Six” along with Ernie Triplett, Arvol Brunmier, Walt May, Jimmy Sharp, and Francis Quinn and he finished fifth in the 1930 AAA Pacific Southwest year-end point standings with three feature victories. Also during 1930, Stubblefield made his first trip “back East” and drove relief during the Indianapolis 500-mile race for mysterious car owner/driver Leslie “Bugs” Allen and later drove the Allen-owned Miller in two additional AAA championship race appearances.

During the 1931 AAA Pacific Southwest season, “Stubby” scored seven features wins and wound up third in AAA Pacific Southwest driver’s points. Perhaps due to his success on the West Coast, Stubby only made one championship appearance during 1931 in the Milton Jones entry at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he finished eighth as a ‘500’ rookie.    

The year 1932 did not start out well for Stubblefield as on January 18 his wife Dorothy filed for divorce in Los Angeles. In her suit, Dorothy claimed that although “Stubby” had earned more than $10,000 from racing and his work in films (he appeared in ‘The Crowd Roars’ as a credited cast member) during 1931 he had failed to support her and their five year old daughter Patricia Jean.

Mrs. Stubblefield whose stage name was Dorothy McHenry also claimed that “Stubby” was intemperate (probably in regards to alcohol), showed no affection, often struck her and “stayed out late without explanation.”  On March 28 1932 Dorothy received an interlocutory decree of divorce which granted her custody of their daughter and ordered “Stubby’” to pay $30 a month toward support of Patricia Jean.

Gilmore Oil promotional photo of the "Catfish" at Muroc
author's collection

The car that Stubblefield used to set several Class C records known as the “Catfish” was unique in appearance to say the least. It was the first race car designed with aerodynamics in mind and proven through scale model wind tunnel testing.  The car’s design was conceived and perfected by two Stanford University professors- Elliott Grey Reid assisted by Ulysses Arnold Patchett.  

Reid headed the Guggenheim Aeronautics Laboratory at Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto California and designed the “Catfish” with the assistance of Patchett, an instructor in mechanical engineering.  In 1927, Stanford University established by railroad tycoon Leland Stanford to honor the memory of his only child who died of typhoid fever, was one of eleven colleges that received grants from the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics funded by the mining magnate and his son Harry.
Elliott Reid, left, and his staff at the Guggenheim lab at Stanford
photo courtesy of Leland J Stanford Junior University  

To run the new laboratory, Stanford hired Reid away from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia where he conducted research. At the time of his hire Reid a 27-year old University of Michigan alumnus was the youngest professor at Stanford and he purchased a home at 542 Center Street in Palo Alto. Patchett, a recent University of California graduate was a mechanical engineering instructor at Stanford.

Reid experienced a close-up view of practical aeronautics on May 22 1929 as he was returning to Stanford after he attended the Aircraft Engineering Research Conference at Langley Field, Virginia. Reid was one of the seven passengers who escaped from the crash of a Boeing model 80 tri-motored bi-plane owned by Boeing Air Transport.

The flight bound for Oakland from Salt Lake City was climbing away from the Elko Nevada airport just after midnight after dropping a passenger when the Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine on the left wing “went out” at an altitude of 2000 feet. The two pilots made a forced landing with the engine ablaze five miles west of the airport. After Reid and the other passengers scrambled out, the plane which was built of steel tubing covered in fabric was consumed by flames and eventually burned to the ground.

The “Catfish” was built by Clyde Adams a native Texan got his start in metalworking along with Myron Stevens at Harry A. Miller Engineering in Los Angeles. After Miller’s bankruptcy Adams and Stevens set up their own shared work space. Adams became well known following his construction in 1931 of the body for the former Frank Lockhart Miller ‘big car’ owned by William S. “Bill “ White and driven by Ernie Triplett.

In an interview with the Stanford Daily on May 19 1932 Professor Reid described the “Catfish” as “the first racing car in America intended for use on curved tracks which has ever been scientifically streamlined.” Reid explained that “the principal distinction between this and other racing cars is the small frontal area and smoothness of contour for avoidance of any abrupt change of curvature. As a result air resistance is materially reduced,” Reid said this reduced resistance was demonstrated at the speed trials as “the dust, instead of' being sucked after the car as in an ordinary racing car, immediately settled to the ground, there being  no churning of the air behind the car.”

The “Catfish” beneath its sleek body was powered by a state-of-the-art 255-cubic inch Miller four-cylinder engine, but its chassis and running gear were comprised of recycled Miller, Ford and even Chrysler parts. On May 16 1932 Stubblefield and the Gilmore Special which used “Lion Head” motor oil in its Miller four-cylinder engine set new records at four distances.

The average time of the 1-kilometer runs was 15.09 seconds for a speed of 148.218 miles per hour (MPH) which broke Kaye Don’s January 1929 record set in a Sunbeam by over seven miles per hour.  ‘Stubby’ and the “Catfish” covered the “flying mile” in an average of 24.43 seconds or 147.36 MPH which eclipsed Shaw’s earlier run by a remarkable 10 MPH. 

Next up were the five kilometer and five mile runs, which broke records set by Kaye Don in March 1929 at Brooklands. Stubblefield blazed the Gilmore Special through the 5 kilometer distance at 133.93 MPH and sped down the 5 mile course in two minutes and 14.97 seconds at an average speed of 133.36 MPH. Both of Stubblefield’s longer record runs were over three MPH faster than Don’s records set in the 12-cylinder 242-cubic inch supercharged Sunbeam “Tiger.”

The “Catfish” at Indy

After their record setting runs, Stubblefield and car owners/mechanics Art Sparks and Paul Weirck headed east with “the Catfish” for the Indianapolis 500-mile race. Although this would be Stubblefield’s third appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it was Sparks and Weirick’s first time as car owners at the Speedway.   Contrary to contemporary internet sources which claim that the team earned Gilmore Oil Company sponsorship only after the car set the new Class C records, the car appeared at Muroc clad in the trademark Gilmore cream and red livery and carried race number 15. 
Stubblefield and Wolfer after their time trial in 1932
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The oddly-shaped Gilmore “Lion Head Special” made its qualifying attempt on the Indianapolis bricks on the third day of time trails Monday May 23 with “Stubby” and first-time riding mechanic Otto Wolfer (who was also a West Coast ‘big car’ driver) on board. The “Gilmore Lion Special’s” average speed of 117.295 MPH for its first three laps were actually faster than pole winner Lou Moore’s average of 116.970 MPH for the first three laps.

During the fourth lap racing down the backstretch, the right rear tire on the “Catfish” began to come apart, and Stubblefield cut his speed and completed the final lap at just 101.488 MPH, which reduced his four-lap average to 112.899 MPH to start 25th on Decoration Day. On the third lap of the 200-lap grind, fellow California ‘big car’ racer Al Gordon who started 37th in the field in the “Lion Tamer Special,” another Gilmore sponsored Miller-powered machine (named in honor of the Gilmore sponsored traveling circus show) owned by Doug Harrison sideswiped the “Catfish” in the north short chute.

The impact damaged the tail of the “Catfish” as Gordon and his riding mechanic Horace Booty sailed over the fourth turn wall in the “Lion Tamer.” Gordon and Booty were uninjured and Stubblefield’s damaged car trailed gasoline to the pit area where it briefly caught fire. Once extinguished, the Sparks & Weirick crew spent over an hour making repairs before the “Catfish” returned to the race many laps in arrears. Stubblefield and Wolfer were still turning laps when officials flagged them off the track one hour after winner Fred Frame had taken the checkered flag. The aerodynamic “Gilmore Lion” completed a total of 187 laps and was placed fourteenth.

The “Gilmore Lion” appeared at the next race on the 1932 AAA schedule at the Michigan State Fairgrounds mile and “Stubby” qualified second fastest to start the race alongside pole sitter Bill Cummings. Stubblefield was scored in fourth place two laps behind the leader when a sudden rainstorm called a halt to the race with 83 laps completed. 

Two weeks later at the one-mile Roby Speedway near Chicago, Stubblefield and the “Catfish” grabbed the victory over Al Gordon and the repaired “Lion Tamer.”  On July 2 at the Syracuse “Moody Mile,” after he started in third place, “Stubby” and the “Catfish” in their final championship car appearance for the year finished second behind the eventual 1932 AAA National Champion Bob Carey.

Check our next chapter of the Muroc Record breakers story coming soon to find out why the “Catfish” disappeared mid-season from the 1932 AAA championship trail.


Monday, July 3, 2017

1930’s Muroc Record Breakers

Part one

During the early years of the decade of the nineteen thirties, two Los Angeles based independent petroleum producers, the Gilmore Oil Company and the Union Oil Company of California focused their marketing campaigns on racing successes. The focus of this article will be the land speed record (LSR) attempts conducted on Muroc Dry Lake in Kern County 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles over an exciting three-year period.


Gilmore “Blu-Green” Gasoline

The opening LSR salvo was launched by the Gilmore Oil Company in 1932 in support of the company’s “Blu-Green” gasoline brand and “Lion Head” motor oil.  “Blu-Green” was Gilmore Oil’s regular grade unleaded gasoline, one of three grades sold at the 3500 independent Gilmore stations along with the low-grade “Gilmore Fleet” and leaded regular "Gilmore Ethyl.”

“Blu-Green” treated gasoline introduced by Gilmore at forty service stations on June 1 1925, contained a patented (US 1654259) additive, known as “Boyce-ite.” Produced by the Boyce & Veeder Company Incorporated of Long Island City New York the key ingredients of the additive nitrated aromatic hydrocarbons specifically ortho-nitrotoluene for “improved carbon-removing and preventing qualities.”  Distribution of “Blu-Green” gasoline grew quickly - by October 1925 it was offered at 127 Gilmore service stations, and in historical context it is easy to understand its immediate popularity.


Carbon deposits were a major problem for gasoline powered engines of this era.  When a car’s engine began to “knock” and experienced a loss pf power caused by sticking valves, the owner paid a mechanic to perform a "carbon and valve job.” This process typically required the removal of the cylinder head(s) then physically scraping, wire brushing, or using caustic lye to remove the carbon from the valves and piston crowns before the re-installation of the cylinder head(s).

In the early nineteen twenties General Motors (GM) scientists discovered the effect of synthesized tetraethyl lead (TEL) in the reduction of cylinder detonation or “knock.” After successful pilot testing, GM and the Standard Oil Company (ESSO) jointly created a new company, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to manufacture sell and distribute the anti-knock compound, “Ethyl Fluid” using TEL manufactured by DuPont.

In addition to boosting the gasoline octane rating, “Ethyl Fluid” typically added by gasoline producers at a rate of five ounces to a gallon of gasoline also contained an oil-soluble red dye to help consumers and recognize treated gasoline. 

Although Gilmore stations sold “Gilmore Ethyl” and later in August 1934 added the premium grade ‘Red Lion plus tetraethyl” the company wanted to sell a medium grade of gasoline but avoid paying the franchise cost of the lead additive, and “Boyce-ite” was the answer. 

In their patent application Boyce & Veeder Company Incorporated claimed that with the addition of as little as.0012% (twelve hundredths of one percent) by volume “Boyce-ite” was effective in preventing carbon deposits and could even remove existing carbon deposits.

Considering the cost and loss of use of the vehicle associated with a "carbon and valve job,” one can easily understand the immediate consumer interest in a treated gasoline (or additive) that eliminated carbon build-up simply while driving.   In addition to “Boyce-ite” there were other gasoline additives available on the market, such as “Lubri-Gas,” “Lubrizol,” or benzol, but Gilmore’s “Blu-Green” gasoline came pre-mixed with the additive right from the pump.  

To demonstrate the value of the ‘Boyce-ite” in support of its patent application, Boyce & Veeder paid the Department of Mechanical Engineering at New York University to conduct a test of the new product. A Ford touring car fueled with untreated gasoline was driven until the engine developed the telltale “knock” and loss of power associated with carbon build-up. University researchers recorded the car’s fuel economy then removed the engine and recorded the horsepower output on a test stand.  

With the engine reinstalled, the car was then driven for eight days thereafter a total of 946 miles fueled with gasoline treated with .003125% of “Boyce-ite” (4 ounces to ten gallons).  At the end of the eight-day test, the Ford’s fuel economy had increased from the baseline of 16.7 miles per gallon (MPG) to 21.7 MPG – a nearly 30% increase.

The University’s written report a copy of which was featured in “Boyce-ite” advertisements stated that after the “Boyce-ite treatment” the engine’s horsepower increased 8-2/3%. A visual inspection noted removal of the carbon to “a sufficient extent to put the engine back in its original working condition.”  Chemical testing conducted by researchers revealed that “Boyce-ite” worked without damage to the metal parts of the engine or fuel system components.    

An added value of the ortho-nitrotoluene additive was that it turned the gasoline mixture a “distinctive greenish-blue color” without the need for an oil-soluble dye to identify the treated gasoline.  By comparison of the color with a standard solution, it could be determined whether the correct amount of the ingredient had been mixed with the fuel and a dyed imitator gasoline uncovered. .

Initially sold in 1925 as Gilmore “Blu-Green with Boyce-ite,” before long the “Boyce-ite” name was dropped, although advertising  copy listed the patent number (1654259) held by Boyce & Veeder. Gilmore advertised that “Blu-Green positively removes carbon from the trouble zone where automotive experts claim carbon causes 81% of motor troubles” with “a secret harmless formula that dissolves carbon deposits.”

Newspaper advertisements for “Blu-Green - the only premium gas at no extra cost” also prominently featured the ‘Gilmore Blu-Green Guarantee’ which read “regardless of the mechanical condition or design of your motor, if after adopting Gilmore “Blu-Green” gasoline, purchased from Independent Dealers, as your standard motor fuel, you ever find it again necessary to remove carbon, have that carbon burned out and send us the bill. A check will be sent you immediately.” 

Wilbur Shaw’s 1932 LSR record

In 1932 Wilbur Shaw described as “diminutive” in newspapers as he was just over five feet in height, was in his second season of racing on the AAA (American Automobile Association) Pacific Southwest circuit still five years away from his first Indianapolis 500-mile race victory which made him a national household name.
On February 28 1932, Shaw drove the new “Blu-Green Special” ‘big car’ in its maiden outing on the 5/8-mile oiled dirt Legion Ascot Speedway. Owned and built by Fred J Blauvelt (often misspelled as “Blovell”) with assistance from his friend Jerry Houck  the car rode on a chassis with four longitudinal leaf springs and was powered by a Miller 220-cubic inch marine engine cloaked in a beautiful aluminum body crafted by Myron Stevens.

Blauvelt was a veteran race car mechanic whose career included working early in the 1927 racing season for Peter DePaolo the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner.  After the 1927 Indianapolis ‘500,’ Frank did a lengthy stint as the mechanic for Californian Charles Haase’s rear-drive supercharged Miller 91-cubic inch entry. After he worked with driver Al Melcher for the  1927 season, Blauvelt stuck with Haase and rookie driver Lou Moore through the 1928 AAA season as the mechanic on the machine that was allegedly the last 91-cubic inch rear wheel drive car built by Harry A. Miller Engineering.

Lou Moore had a spectacular early rookie season with a second place finish at Indianapolis followed by a third place result at Detroit which propelled him to a third place finish in the 1928  AAA season point standings. For the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race Fred Blauvelt worked for Leon Duray’s Packard (battery) Cable three-car team alongside the 1926 Indianapolis winning mechanic Jimmy Lee. Following the Packard Cable teams’ disappointing Indianapolis results, Duray, Blauvelt, and Lee took two of the Miller race cars to Europe and Duray competed in the Monza Grand Prix held on the remodeled oval autodrome.  

In 1930 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Blauvelt was the mechanic and also rode with Tony Gulotta in Richfield Oil heir John Talbot’s Miller powered “MAVV (carburetor) Special” sponsored by the carburetor’s inventor, Blauvelt’s former driver Al Melcher.  After Indianapolis, Frank reunited with driver Lou Moore to work with the troubled Coleman Motors front wheel drive program for the rest of the 1930 AAA season.  

1932 found Blauvelt in Los Angeles working for Harry A. Miller Engineering on the Miller 4WD project along with his friend and fellow mechanic Jerry Houck.  The pair found enough time to build a new ‘big car’ for Wilbur Shaw who drove the car to victory in its very first race, the 2-lap Helmet Dash in the racing program held on Sunday afternoon February 28 1932.  Shaw and the #48 “Blu-Green Special” went on later that day to finish second behind Bill Cummings in the 100-lap 62½-mile main event.

The car quickly proved to be a winner as on consecutive Sunday afternoons, March 20 and 27 1932 Shaw won the 100-lap feature races. Days after that second win, Shaw, Blauvelt and the Blu-Green Special were on the Muroc Dry Lake for their attempt to break the American and the International Class C “flying mile” speed record. International Class C administered by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) was open to cars with engines that displaced between 183 and 305 cubic inches.  The record of 136.98 miles per hour (MPH) held by England’s Kaye Don was set in January 1929 with the 12-cylinder 242-cubic inch supercharged Sunbeam “Tiger” on the steeply banked Brooklands track near London. 
Wilbur Shaw center oversees the fueling of the Blauvelt car
with Gilmore Blu-Green Gasoline in this promotional photo
shared by "Rootie Katoozie" on the Jalopy Journal site

The American Class C record administered by the AAA was slightly different as it was open to cars with engines that displaced between 231 to 300 cubic inches. For many years the American Class C records were held by Jimmy Murphy at 122.615 MPH for the “flying mile” and 122.77 MPH for the “flying kilometer” set at Daytona Beach Florida in the Meteor-Duesenberg on April 27 1920.  

The American “flying mile” record of 130.647 MPH which Shaw was aiming to beat was held by Ernie Triplett who had captured the record on August 30 1931 during the AAA-sanctioned “World’s Speed Trials” meet held on Pismo Beach in California. That same day at Pismo Beach HW “Stubby” Stubblefield reset the American “flying kilometer” record at “over 130 MPH.

 This photo from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital studies reportedly shows Shaw, left, and Barney Oldfield, right at the Muroc Dry Lake for the 1932 record attempt.


The windswept Muroc Dry Lake over 140 square miles in area and nearly ½ mile above sea level was located near the small high desert town of Muroc, California which had been homesteaded by the Corum family around 1910. When it came time to establish a post office, the postal authorities would not allow the use of ‘Corum” as the town’s name as it was too similar to the name of the northern California mining town of Coram, so the order of the letters was simply reversed.

The course for the Shaw’s record attempt was laid out running north-south on the lake bed overseen by the AAA West Coast Supervisor Arthur Pillsbury, with the timing conducted by George F Stephenson assisted by FE Betts, Waldo Steen, and Harold R. Harper.  On Wednesday  March 30 on his first run southbound, Shaw and the “Blu-Green Special” covered the one mile distance in 26.962 seconds for a speed of 138.66 MPH. Shaw completed his return run in the northbound direction in a slightly slower time in 26.496 seconds or 135.87 MPH, for an average speed for the two required runs of 137.25 MPH.

In advertisements published just days after the record, B.A. Rowell manager of refined oil sales for the Gilmore Oil Company, pointed out that for the record attempt, Shaw had eschewed the use of castor oil in favor of the new Gilmore pure Pennsylvania grade “Lion Head” Oil available at Gilmore stations.  

Castor oil obtained by pressing the seeds of the castor plant was commonly used low viscosity oil that provided good high temperature lubrication but quickly left gummy deposits inside the engine.  Although Shaw had set the new American standard, the results of the International record attempt had to be examined and certified by AIACR officials during their next meeting in June for confirmation of the International record.

Check back soon for part two of the 1930’s Muroc Record Breakers story.