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.


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