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Reading Fairgrounds, Pennsylvania


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#1 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 May 2011 - 22:25

For 55 years, the fairgrounds in Reading (PA) were a centre of automobile racing in the eastern USofA - even more so, it was very much "the spiritual centre" of racing in the whole area, stretching from New England to the Carolinas and beyond! It was in Reading, where the legendary promoter Ralph A. "Pappy" Hankinson (c. 1879 - 19 Aug 1942) established his offices in 1932 to become the master of his trade, leading the way through the tumultuous pre-war era of dirt track racing, and where Indy winners and National Champions convened each spring for half a century to open yet another season of Sprint Car racing, quite literally the grass roots of the sport of motor racing in America. Reading Fairgrounds was more than just a racing track, and this thread shall recount the history of Big Car racing at this remarkable venue, beginning with an overview:

Automobile racing at the fairgrounds was introduced on September 20, 1924 at the annual Reading Fair, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. 20,000 spectators jammed the place to watch five racing events take place, dominated by Hankinson's "imported" IMCA racing troupe from the South, and one Grady Garner from Jacksonville, Florida won the main event that day. Another Southerner, Bob Robinson from Salerno (FL) was the headliner who was expected to win, but his engine swallowed a valve in one of the heats and Robinson had to be content with the first track record for the half-mile course, 32.0" or 56 mph. The purse amounted to nearly $2,000, of which Garner took home $400 - not a bad payday in 1924. Robinson came back to win the following two races in 1925 and '26, and in 1927 came the switch to the national sanctioning body which started the legend. Ray Keech was the first AAA winner, and would go on to win Indy barely two years later. In 1929, Billy Arnold won at Reading less than nine months before his greatest triumph, and in 1932 Fred Frame warmed up by winning at Reading on May 15, just a fortnight before his entry into the autoracing valhal.

That race was also the first of many, many "still dates" at the Reading Fairgrounds, and one of those saw a veritable earth quake of motor racing politics, when Ralph Hankinson bolted the AAA in the spring of 1941 to align with the Central States Racing Assoc. The fair officials backed their successful promoter unanimously, but the paying public had a hard time accepting the absence of the Indy stars despite Hankinson's efforts to promote his "business as usual". Within a year, though, most of the star drivers followed "Pappy", but then the war intervened, and Hankinson died within little more than three months of his last Reading promotion. His successor, Floyd Samuel "Sam" Nunis (16 Dec 1903 - 12 Feb 1980) brought Reading back into the AAA fold, where it remained until USAC took over its business in 1956.

By that time, however, an organization by the name of Reading Stock Car Assoc. had started organising weekly races at the fairgrounds for "modified stock cars". These evolved over time into RSCA "championship cars", or "heavies" in the folklore of the eastern racing people. Still, Big Car racing (by now more often than not refered to as Sprint Car racing) remained a popular and regular feature at Reading until the early seventies, when USAC's influence and power began to wane. About the same time, the so-called "Super Sprints" became a popular form of racing in Pennsylvania, and soon the RSCA began to sanction these Sprint Car/Modified mongrels as well, but despite this 1972 saw the first and only (non-war) year in the history of the track without any activity for the traditional sprinters.

A U-turn in USAC politics saw a return of the National Championship at Reading in 1978, but the writing was on the wall. Planning permission had been granted for a new shopping mall in the location of the fairgrounds, and by the end of the year racing was to cede. Due to legal wranglings, a short respite was granted in early 1979, but on Friday night, June 29 the last racing engines sounded at the historic site, and future URC Sprint Car star Dave Kelly won a 50-lap RSCA main for "championship cars", pocketing $2,000 out of a $12,000 purse (the track record, by the way, had been lowered to 22.684", close to 80 mph by Sheldon Kinser a few weeks earlier). The Reading Stock Car Assoc. was renamed the Racing Sanctioned Corp. of America, and that was that. The self-styled "Home of Champions" was no longer, and Reading's only motor racing site these days is Maple Grove Raceway, a dragstrip a few miles south of town, where in the late thirties and early forties Brecknock Speedway had, for a short time, threatened the monopoly of the fairgrounds track smack in the middle of Reading.

Reading Fairgrounds was a special venue, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Sprint Car racing was never the same again after 1979. Sadly, Reading just missed the link to the modern form of dirt track racing with the World of Outlaws, then still in its infancy. It would have been a fitting connection to the past for the WoO, and to the future for the old, storied fairgrounds. For a racing venue to regularly attract attendance figures close to 50 % of the town population in a relatively rural area is quite an achievement. Apart from that, Reading had a pagoda long before Indianapolis, and the most successful team in the latter's racing history was based in the former. But those are only trivia sidelights to an intersting story...

Edited by Michael Ferner, 21 June 2011 - 06:51.


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#2 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 May 2011 - 22:31

An overview of Big Car main event winners at the Reading Fairgrounds:

Year  Inaugural				Spring				   Summer				   Fair					 Fall
1924  -						-						-						 5   Grady Garner		-
1925  -						-						-						 5   Bob Robinson		-
1926  -						-						-						10   Bob Robinson		-
1927  -						-						-						10  *Ray Keech		   -
1928  -						-						-						10  *Mack McClure		-
1929  -						-						-						10? *Billy Arnold		-
1930  -						-						-						 0  *(rain)			  -
1931  -						-						-						10  *Bert Karnatz		-
1932  20  *Fred Frame		  20  *Bryan Saulpaugh	 20  *Billy Winn		  10  *Bryan Saulpaugh	 -
1933  20  *Billy Winn		  20  *Billy Winn		  -						15  *Billy Winn		  -
1934  20  *Johnny Hannon	   20  *Billy Winn		  -						15  *Johnny Hannon	   -
1935  20  *Doc MacKenzie	   -						-						15  *Doc MacKenzie	   20 a Tex Artz
1936  20  *Vern Orenduff	   -						15 b*Frankie Bailey	  15  *Billy Winn		  -
1937  18½b*Tony Willman		-						-						15  *Billy Winn		  -
1938  20  *Ted Horn			-						-						15  *Tommy Hinnershitz   -
1939  20  *Mark Light		  -						-						15  *Joie Chitwood	   -
1940  10  *Mark Light		  -						-						10  *Mark Light		  -
1941  12½c Jimmie Wilburn	  15 d Henry Banks		 -						15 c Ted Horn			-
1942  10 c Joie Chitwood	   10 c Joie Chitwood	   -						-						-
1943  -						-						-						-						-
1944  -						-						-						-						-
1945  -						-						-						-						-
1946  12½ *Walt Ader		   -						12½ *Joie Chitwood	   12½ *Bill Holland		-
1947  12½ *Hank Rogers		 12½ *Mark Light		  -						12½ *Ted Horn			-
1948  12½ *Ted Horn			12½ *Ted Horn			-						10  *Bill Holland		-
1949  12½ *Tommy Hinnershitz   15  *Jimmy Gibbons	   -						10  *Tommy Hinnershitz   -
1950  15  *Tommy Hinnershitz   15  *Bill Schindler	  -						10  *Lee Wallard		 -
1951  15  *Bill Schindler	  15  *Bill Schindler	  -						10  *Bobby Barker		-
1952  11½e*Tommy Hinnershitz   -						-						10  *Ernie McCoy		 -
1953  15  *Tommy Hinnershitz   -						-						10  *Wally Campbell	  50  *Joe Sostilio
1954  15  *Johnny Thomson	  -						50 d Len Duncan		  10  *Al Herman		   50  *Johnny Thomson
1955  15  *Tommy Hinnershitz   16 f Lou Johnson		 50  *Al Herman		   10  *Tommy Hinnershitz   25  *Eddie Sachs
1956  12 e*Tommy Hinnershitz   50  *Tommy Hinnershitz   -						10  *Tommy Hinnershitz   20  *Johnny Thomson
1957  15  *Johnny Thomson	  50  *Johnny Thomson	  -						 6½e*Joe Barzda		  20  *Tommy Hinnershitz
1958  14½g*Jiggs Peters		-						-						10  *Johnny Thomson	  25  *Johnny Thomson
1959  15  *Elmer George		-						-						12½ *Eddie Sachs		 -
1960  15  *A. J. Foyt		  -						-						15  *Jim Hurtubise	   -
1961  15  *A. J. Foyt		  -						-						15  *A. J. Foyt		  -
1962  15  *Jim Hurtubise	   -						-						50  *Roger McCluskey	 -
1963  15  *A. J. Foyt		  -						-						15  *Roger McCluskey	 -
1964  15  *A. J. Foyt		  -						-						 0  *(rain)			  -
1965  15  *Jud Larson		  15  *Greg Weld		   15 h*Red Riegel		  15 i*Johnny Rutherford   15 j*Bobby Unser
1966  15  *Jud Larson		   0  *(rain)			  15 h*Bobby Unser		 15 i*Roger McCluskey	 15 j*Larry Dickson
1967  15  *Larry Dickson	   15  *Greg Weld		   15 h*Greg Weld			0 i*(rain?)			 15 j*Bruce Walkup
1968  15  *Larry Dickson	   15  *Larry Dickson	   50 k*Greg Weld		   15 l*Gary Bettenhausen   -
1969  15  *Scratch Daniels	 15  *Greg Weld		   25 h*Gary Bettenhausen   12½m Dick Tobias		 -
1970  20  *Larry Dickson	   -						-						-						-
1971  20  *Larry Dickson	   20  *Dick Tobias		 20  *Lee Kunzman		 20 k*Larry Cannon		-
1972  -						-						-						-						-
1973  20  *Pancho Carter	   20  *Lee Kunzman		  0  *(rain)			  20 l*Kenny Weld		  -
1974  20  *Bill Puterbaugh	 20  *Lee Osborne		 20  *Pancho Carter	   -						-
1975  20  *Larry Dickson	   20  *Fred Linder		 20  *Lee Osborne		 -						-
1976  (on and off weekly or bi-weekly programmes of "Super Sprints")
1977  (on and off weekly or bi-weekly programmes of "Super Sprints")
1978  20  *Eddie Leavitt	   -						20  *Ron Shuman		  -						-
1979  20  *Paul Pitzer		 -						-						-						-

Notes:
*  AAA/USAC sanction (early races were IMCA sanction)
a  "Eastern Independent Dirt Track Championship", possibly CPRA sanction
b  stopped prematurely (accident)
c  CSRA sanction
d  AAA Midget race
e  stopped prematurely (rain)
f  URC sanction
g  stopped prematurely in error
h  second Spring Race
i  Summer Race
j  Fair Race
k  Fair moved to summer date
l  Fall Race on traditional fair date
m  Summer Race/URC sancion

Edited by Michael Ferner, 29 June 2011 - 19:31.


#3 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 May 2011 - 23:24

Lap records in qualifying:

32.0" - 56.2 mph - Bob Robinson, "Oldsmar-Floridian Special" (1924-09-20)
31.0" - 58.0 mph - Ray Keech, 1924 Miller? (1926-09-18)
30.8" - 58.4 mph - Ray Keech, 1924 Miller (1927-09-17)
29.2" - 61.6 mph - Billy Arnold, 1926 Miller (1929-09-14)
28.8" - 62.5 mph - Fred Frame, 1930 Duesenberg (1932-05-15)
28.6" - 62.9 mph - Bryan Saulpaugh, Krasek (1932-07-17)
28.2" - 63.8 mph - Fred Frame, 1930 Duesenberg/Miller (1933-06-18)
28.0" - 64.2 mph - Billy Winn, Sejnost/Frontenac? (1933-09-17)
27.8" - 64.7 mph - Bob Sall, 1934 Sall/McDowell (1935-04-28)
27.4" - 65.6 mph - Billy Winn, 1933 Gerber (1936-09-27)
27.0" - 66.6 mph - Frankie Beeder, 1937 Shaw/Curtiss (1937-09-19)
26.9" - 66.9 mph - Chet Gardner, 1927 Miller (1938-04-24)
26.7" - 67.4 mph - Bob Sall, 1932 Schrader/Miller (1938-04-24)
26.3" - 68.4 mph - Tommy Hinnershitz, 1938 Light/Miller (1938-04-24)
26.23" - 68.6 mph - Jimmie Wilburn, 1939 Morgan/Miller (1941-04-20)
25.79" - 69.7 mph - Ted Horn, 1939 Horn/Offenhauser (1942-04-19)
25.77" - 69.8 mph - Joie Chitwood, 1933 Cunningham/Offenhauser (1942-04-19)
? 25.52" - 70.5 mph - Bill Holland, 1939 Malamud/Offenhauser (1946-09-15) ?
24.35" - 73.9 mph - Tommy Hinnershitz, 1948 Hinnershitz/Offenhauser (1948-04-04)
24.12" - 74.6 mph - Wally Campbell, 1951 Parsons/Offenhauser (1953-10-11)
23.95" - 75.1 mph - Jud Larson, 1954 Hillegass/Offenhauser (1956-09-23)
23.94" - 75.1 mph - Johnny Thomson, 1951 Beal/Offenhauser (1957-03-31)
23.92" - 75.2 mph - Roger McCluskey, Wills/Chevrolet? (1961-09-17)
23.85" - 75.4 mph - Jim Hurtubise, 1959 Barnett/Chevrolet (1962-03-25)
23.74" - 75.8 mph - Chuck Hulse, 1963 Watson/Offenhauser (1963-09-15)
22.93" - 78.4 mph - A. J. Foyt, 1960 George/Chevrolet (1964-03-29)
22.91" - 78.5 mph - Gary Bettenhausen, 1971 Davis/Ford (1971-03-28)
22.89" - 78.6 mph - Billy Cassella, Seymour/Chevrolet (1973-09-21)
22.82" - 78.8 mph - Johnny Parsons, Jones/Chevrolet (1973-09-21)
22.792" - 78.9 mph - Jan Opperman, 1974 Smith/Chevrolet (1974-07-03)
22.684" - 79.3 mph - Sheldon Kinser, Hammond/Chevrolet (1979-04-14)

Edited by Michael Ferner, 25 May 2011 - 23:32.


#4 Flat Black 84

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 02:06

Nice encapsulation, Ferner. I'd like to see what you can do with Altoona one of these days. Like Reading, Altoona was a marvelous facility with a fascinating--albeit fairly brief--history.

#5 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 14:40

Oh, I can do an Altoona thread! I have lots of material about Altoona Speedway, both board and dirt track. As these threads go, it'll take a few weeks to get this one done, and then I can tackle Altoona. :)

(And before it gets too slanted towards Eastern tracks, how about the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, or Ascot Speedway? Both are BIG projects, though.)

#6 Flat Black 84

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 16:20

Or DuQuoin, or Gilmore, or Carrell, or Balboa. The possibilities are well nigh infinite.

#7 Jim Thurman

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 16:55

Oh, I can do an Altoona thread! I have lots of material about Altoona Speedway, both board and dirt track. As these threads go, it'll take a few weeks to get this one done, and then I can tackle Altoona. :)

(And before it gets too slanted towards Eastern tracks, how about the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, or Ascot Speedway? Both are BIG projects, though.)

:up: Or San Jose, or Richmond VA, or Cedar Rapids, or...

Maybe I can follow your lead and fill in the couple of missing Banning dates, or further down the road, Colton.

Great job as always Michael.

#8 Flat Black 84

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 17:41

Syracuse, Trenton, The Horn and Dayton would also be worthwhile.

#9 Terry O'Neil

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 18:15

For 55 years, the fairgrounds in Reading (PA) were a centre of automobile racing in the eastern USofA - even more so, it was very much "the spiritual centre" of racing in the whole area, stretching from New England to the Carolinas and beyond! It was in Reading, where the legendary promoter Ralph A. "Pappy" Hankinson (c. 1879 - 19 Aug 1942) established his offices in 1924 to become the master of his trade, leading the way through the tumultuous pre-war era of dirt track racing, and where Indy winners and National Champions convened each spring for half a century to open yet another season of Sprint Car racing, quite literally the grass roots of the sport of motor racing in America. Reading Fairgrounds was more than just a racing track, and this thread shall recount the history of Big Car racing at this remarkable venue, beginning with an overview:

Automobile racing at the fairgrounds was introduced on September 20, 1924 at the annual Reading Fair, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. 20,000 spectators jammed the place to watch five racing events take place, dominated by Hankinson's "imported" IMCA racing troupe from the South, and one Grady Garner from Jacksonville, Florida won the main event that day. Another Southerner, Bob Robinson from Salerno (FL) was the headliner who was expected to win, but his engine swallowed a valve in one of the heats and Robinson had to be content with the first track record for the half-mile course, 32.0" or 56 mph. The purse amounted to nearly $2,000, of which Garner took home $400 - not a bad payday in 1924. Robinson came back to win the following two races in 1925 and '26, and in 1927 came the switch to the national sanctioning body which started the legend. Ray Keech was the first AAA winner, and would go on to win Indy barely two years later. In 1929, Billy Arnold won at Reading less than nine months before his greatest triumph, and in 1932 Fred Frame warmed up by winning at Reading on May 15, just a fortnight before his entry into the autoracing valhal.

That race was also the first of many, many "still dates" at the Reading Fairgrounds, and one of those saw a veritable earth quake of motor racing politics, when Ralph Hankinson bolted the AAA in the spring of 1941 to align with the Central States Racing Assoc. The fair officials backed their successful promoter unanimously, but the paying public had a hard time accepting the absence of the Indy stars despite Hankinson's efforts to promote his "business as usual". Within a year, though, most of the star drivers followed "Pappy", but then the war intervened, and Hankinson died within little more than three months of his last Reading promotion. His successor, Floyd Samuel "Sam" Nunis (16 Dec 1903 - 12 Feb 1980) brought Reading back into the AAA fold, where it remained until USAC took over its business in 1956.

By that time, however, an organization by the name of Reading Stock Car Assoc. had started organising weekly races at the fairgrounds for "modified stock cars". These evolved over time into RSCA "championship cars", or "heavies" in the folklore of the eastern racing people. Still, Big Car racing (by now more often than not refered to as Sprint Car racing) remained a popular and regular feature at Reading until the early seventies, when USAC's influence and power began to wane. About the same time, the so-called "Super Sprints" became a popular form of racing in Pennsylvania, and soon the RSCA began to sanction these Sprint Car/Modified mongrels as well, but despite this 1972 saw the first and only (non-war) year in the history of the track without any activity for the traditional sprinters.

A U-turn in USAC politics saw a return of the National Championship at Reading in 1978, but the writing was on the wall. Planning permission had been granted for a new shopping mall in the location of the fairgrounds, and by the end of the year racing was to cede. Due to legal wranglings, a short respite was granted in early 1979, but on Friday night, June 29 the last racing engines sounded at the historic site, and future URC Sprint Car star Dave Kelly won a 50-lap RSCA main for "championship cars", pocketing $2,000 out of a $12,000 purse (the track record, by the way, had been lowered to 22.684", close to 80 mph by Sheldon Kinser a few weeks earlier). The Reading Stock Car Assoc. was renamed the Racing Sanctioned Corp. of America, and that was that. The self-styled "Home of Champions" was no longer, and Reading's only motor racing site these days is Maple Grove Raceway, a dragstrip a few miles south of town, where in the late thirties and early forties Brecknock Speedway had, for a short time, threatened the monopoly of the fairgrounds track smack in the middle of Reading.

Reading Fairgrounds was a special venue, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Sprint Car racing was never the same again after 1979. Sadly, Reading just missed the link to the modern form of dirt track racing with the World of Outlaws, then still in its infancy. It would have been a fitting connection to the past for the WoO, and to the future for the old, storied fairgrounds. For a racing venue to regularly attract attendance figures close to 50 % of the town population in a relatively rural area is quite an achievement. Apart from that, Reading had a pagoda long before Indianapolis, and the most successful team in the latter's racing history is based in the former. But those are only trivia sidelights to an intersting story...


Hello Michael,
Being a Brit, I am considered by some to have an unhealthy interest in American racing. Part of what I am interested in is the little publicised group of professional sports car drivers who raced under the SCODA banner in the 1950s and 1960s. I am aware that the group turned up at Reading Fairgrounds on 9th July 1957 for an evening event.
Could you add any meat to the bones for this event, and tell me if SCODA ever revisited Reading Fairgrounds please?
Regards
Terry

#10 sramoa

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 19:35

Michael,Do you have Reading race results and report from 1928 to 1931?
And who was Mack McClure?I know for him:he came from Harrisburg,PA and won two events in 1928 August(Salisbury,Md. and Flemington,NJ.)

#11 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 20:23

It all depends on regional newspapers, and if I have access to them! I did the Altamont Fairgrounds thread when I found the "Altamont Enterprise" newspapers online, and this thread here is courtesy to lots of issues of the "Reading Eagle" at http://news.google.com/archivesearch/. I have had access to the "Altoona Mirror", "Milwaukee Sentinel" and "Milwaukee Journal", all good sources with lots of detailed racing coverage, and Ascot is documented partly by the "Los Angeles Times", and partly through various available documents because it was such an important track.

Du Quoin is different, it's in the heart of nowhere and I don't know if the name Gutenberg rings a bell there. Gilmore, Carrell and Balboa were mainly Midget tracks, and I have limited interest in the doodle bugs. San Jose and Cedar Rapids are semi-good, i.e. I have some material, but perhaps not enough to do the tracks justice. I'd love to have a decent source for Richmond, Va. - in fact, all the Southern tracks except for Atlanta and, partly, Tampa Fla. are a major hole in my records! Syracuse is, again, well documented through the "Syracuse Herald", but Langhorne, and especially Trenton could do with better sources despite their closeness to major population centers. Dayton would be a worthwhile project, as would be Winchester, Jungle Park, Union Speedway and lots, lots of other tracks, but alas - not enough coverage available to me.

I do have something on Woodbridge Speedway in the pipeline, though. I love doing these threads, but they are time consuming because part of the allure is doing some background on people, organizations, and the general scene. I've had a love affair with US short track racing the last few years, and I have an urge to tell people about it, beacuse it's very enjoyable. The more you learn, the more interesting it gets. You can find incredible connections, stories and interesting CVs along the way, and the best thing is: it's real! It happened! Many, many years ago, all those people did what their heart told them to do, and nobody cared much about tomorrow, they lived "the now"!! Most of it is forgotten today, but I love bringing it back. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

:)

#12 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 20:36

Hello Michael,
Being a Brit, I am considered by some to have an unhealthy interest in American racing. Part of what I am interested in is the little publicised group of professional sports car drivers who raced under the SCODA banner in the 1950s and 1960s. I am aware that the group turned up at Reading Fairgrounds on 9th July 1957 for an evening event.
Could you add any meat to the bones for this event, and tell me if SCODA ever revisited Reading Fairgrounds please?
Regards
Terry


Terry, I need to check on that. As you may know (or not), my interest is firmly centered on "Big Cars" - Indy, Champ and Sprint Cars. I did try to get a general understanding of the forces behind the Reading Stock Car Association, but ignored details along the way. I know that one Kenny Brightbill, who tried the Sprints once or twice, is the record all-time feature winner at Reading with 135 wins. 135!! Weekly racing has always been a major source of income for the track operators, and a major force for attracting crowds to racing in general, but my views of it are a little ambivalent. I was planning to go into that subject more deeply within this thread.

I'm sorry to say, but I don't think I have ever heard of SCODA before. My mind just goes blank when I hear or read the words "sports cars" :D I'll see what I can dig up.

#13 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 May 2011 - 20:43

Michael,Do you have Reading race results and report from 1928 to 1931?


Yes.

And who was Mack McClure?I know for him:he came from Harrisburg,PA and won two events in 1928 August(Salisbury,Md. and Flemington,NJ.)


Not sure. I have the names Jack, Dick and Russell McClure, and hometowns listed as Norfolk (VA), Memphis (TN), Chicago (IL), Norwood (NJ), Harrisburg (PA), Dallas (TX) and even New York City, but I believe it was always the same person. There were also a Wade McClure, Joe McClure and Ed McClure racing in the general era, and it all gets quite confusing at times!

#14 Updraught

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Posted 27 May 2011 - 00:36

For 55 years, the fairgrounds in Reading (PA) were a centre of automobile racing in the eastern USofA - even more so, it was very much "the spiritual centre" of racing in the whole area, stretching from New England to the Carolinas and beyond! It was in Reading, where the legendary promoter Ralph A. "Pappy" Hankinson (c. 1879 - 19 Aug 1942) established his offices in 1924 to become the master of his trade, leading the way through the tumultuous pre-war era of dirt track racing, and where Indy winners and National Champions convened each spring for half a century to open yet another season of Sprint Car racing, quite literally the grass roots of the sport of motor racing in America. Reading Fairgrounds was more than just a racing track, and this thread shall recount the history of Big Car racing at this remarkable venue, beginning with an overview:

Automobile racing at the fairgrounds was introduced on September 20, 1924 at the annual Reading Fair, dating back to the middle of the 19th century. 20,000 spectators jammed the place to watch five racing events take place, dominated by Hankinson's "imported" IMCA racing troupe from the South, and one Grady Garner from Jacksonville, Florida won the main event that day. Another Southerner, Bob Robinson from Salerno (FL) was the headliner who was expected to win, but his engine swallowed a valve in one of the heats and Robinson had to be content with the first track record for the half-mile course, 32.0" or 56 mph. The purse amounted to nearly $2,000, of which Garner took home $400 - not a bad payday in 1924. Robinson came back to win the following two races in 1925 and '26, and in 1927 came the switch to the national sanctioning body which started the legend. Ray Keech was the first AAA winner, and would go on to win Indy barely two years later. In 1929, Billy Arnold won at Reading less than nine months before his greatest triumph, and in 1932 Fred Frame warmed up by winning at Reading on May 15, just a fortnight before his entry into the autoracing valhal.

That race was also the first of many, many "still dates" at the Reading Fairgrounds, and one of those saw a veritable earth quake of motor racing politics, when Ralph Hankinson bolted the AAA in the spring of 1941 to align with the Central States Racing Assoc. The fair officials backed their successful promoter unanimously, but the paying public had a hard time accepting the absence of the Indy stars despite Hankinson's efforts to promote his "business as usual". Within a year, though, most of the star drivers followed "Pappy", but then the war intervened, and Hankinson died within little more than three months of his last Reading promotion. His successor, Floyd Samuel "Sam" Nunis (16 Dec 1903 - 12 Feb 1980) brought Reading back into the AAA fold, where it remained until USAC took over its business in 1956.

By that time, however, an organization by the name of Reading Stock Car Assoc. had started organising weekly races at the fairgrounds for "modified stock cars". These evolved over time into RSCA "championship cars", or "heavies" in the folklore of the eastern racing people. Still, Big Car racing (by now more often than not refered to as Sprint Car racing) remained a popular and regular feature at Reading until the early seventies, when USAC's influence and power began to wane. About the same time, the so-called "Super Sprints" became a popular form of racing in Pennsylvania, and soon the RSCA began to sanction these Sprint Car/Modified mongrels as well, but despite this 1972 saw the first and only (non-war) year in the history of the track without any activity for the traditional sprinters.

A U-turn in USAC politics saw a return of the National Championship at Reading in 1978, but the writing was on the wall. Planning permission had been granted for a new shopping mall in the location of the fairgrounds, and by the end of the year racing was to cede. Due to legal wranglings, a short respite was granted in early 1979, but on Friday night, June 29 the last racing engines sounded at the historic site, and future URC Sprint Car star Dave Kelly won a 50-lap RSCA main for "championship cars", pocketing $2,000 out of a $12,000 purse (the track record, by the way, had been lowered to 22.684", close to 80 mph by Sheldon Kinser a few weeks earlier). The Reading Stock Car Assoc. was renamed the Racing Sanctioned Corp. of America, and that was that. The self-styled "Home of Champions" was no longer, and Reading's only motor racing site these days is Maple Grove Raceway, a dragstrip a few miles south of town, where in the late thirties and early forties Brecknock Speedway had, for a short time, threatened the monopoly of the fairgrounds track smack in the middle of Reading.

Reading Fairgrounds was a special venue, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Sprint Car racing was never the same again after 1979. Sadly, Reading just missed the link to the modern form of dirt track racing with the World of Outlaws, then still in its infancy. It would have been a fitting connection to the past for the WoO, and to the future for the old, storied fairgrounds. For a racing venue to regularly attract attendance figures close to 50 % of the town population in a relatively rural area is quite an achievement. Apart from that, Reading had a pagoda long before Indianapolis, and the most successful team in the latter's racing history is based in the former. But those are only trivia sidelights to an intersting story...



Excellent Michael!!

The very first race I attended was the Spring race in 1967. Sitting in the first turn, the grandstands really shook when the feature started!

#15 Nigel Beresford

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Posted 27 May 2011 - 01:08

the most successful team in the latter's racing history is based in the former....


Michael,

actually Penske Racing moved out of Reading to Mooresville NC in 2006. Sadly the planned move out of the riverside shop in Penske Plaza was not made before a flood devastated the site. Besides the physical damage this did, it was a terribly sad end for a building which was the source of so much racing history and it broke the hearts of those of us who had worked there.

Sadly the decline of the motorsport heritage of Reading mirrors the decline of the town in general.

Nigel

#16 Michael Ferner

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Posted 27 May 2011 - 16:25

Sad to hear that, Nigel. Also thanks for the info about Penske Racing.

#17 Michael Ferner

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Posted 27 May 2011 - 17:28

Reading Fairgrounds, part 1: The Road to Reading

Ralph Hankinson grew up in Kansas, and was said to have worked as a shepherd in his youth, probably many years before he saw his first automobile. Somehow, herding sheep doesn't seem to have satisfied the adventurous spirit, and he soon joined a traveling carnival show, and that's where he met George A. Hamid (4 Feb 1896 - 13 Jun 1971). Born in the Lebanon, Hamid came to the USofA in 1908 as part of an acrobatic troupe touring with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in Europe. Within less than a decade, the entrepreneurial Hamid entered the booking business, providing State and County Fairs with a myriad of circus acts, sideshows, rides and food booths, and this soon developed into the biggest agency of this kind in the States, perhaps the world. It is not known whether Hankinson preceded the younger Hamid in the booking business or followed him, in any case he became a part of the management of the Hamid organization by the late teens.

Before that, it was apparently Hankinson who invented the sport of Auto Polo, which was quite popular in America during the teens and twenties. What in the world, you ask, is Auto Polo??? Well, it's actually quite simple: two teams of two cars each, mostly Model T Fords, stripped down to the bare minimum (frame, engine, a bucket seat and a running board), each manned by a driver and a player with a mallet, playing polo without horses (in the early 20th century, America seemed hell-bent on losing its pre-industrial heritage, no matter what, and horses must have lived in constant fear of the slaughterhouse). The word "sport" in connection with Auto Polo is perhaps a bit of a euphemism, as it was essentially a circus act, which makes the theory that it was invented by Hankinson certainly more plausible! One of the most interesting things about it was the appearance of superstructures on the cars, not unlike roll-over bars, and these were quite necessary as the little wagons had a tendency to topple over in the heat of the fight. Whether its inventor or not, Hankinson definitely made a business out of Auto Polo, and in 1916 was reported to be touring Japan and the Philippines with his show!

From Auto Polo to Auto Racing is just a small step, and the link was provided by John Alexander "Alex" Sloan (c. 1879 - 10 Mar 1937), a former athlete and newspaper man from Minnesota. Sloan became involved with racing by becoming the manager of dirt track star Ben Kerscher and his Grand Prix Darracq in 1909, then accepted a post as PR man and assistant to Barney Oldfield's manager William H. "Bill" Pickens the following year. With Oldfield and Pickens, Alex (or "Tod", as he was known back then, after a prominent jockey) learned the business of "barnstorming", and travelled the country in advance trying to book exhibitions for Barney's car park and tout the colourful racing veteran as the "Speed King". Unfortunately, 1910 was the year in which Oldfield incurred the wrath of the AAA by running an exhibition against a pugilist, and though Sloan wasn't involved he got "booked" a couple of months later in connection with an "outlaw" meeting at Ascot Park in Los Angeles, which Barney and his cronies had instigated in response to the banishment.

While sitting out his suspension, Sloan accepted a post as sports editor with the Los Angeles Times in 1911, and later that year was reinstated by the AAA in advance of Oldfield, so he took a job with the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Co. of Rascine, Wisconsin. As the name suggests, this was a farm equipment manufacturer which had recently branched out into the manufacture of automobiles. To promote its line of affordable cars, Case had earlier contracted the services of Lewis Strang, a young racing driver from New York. In 1909, Strang had been part of William Crapo Durant's famed Buick team, alongside Bob Burman and Louis Chevrolet, which had toured virtually the whole sub-continent in an effort to promote their products. It was probably Strang who suggested Case do the same, with a focus on small county fairs as Case was using its established net of farm equipment dealers to sell their automobile products. Strang was also chiefly involved with the design of the Case racing cars, but unfortunately died in a road accident in Wisconsin on July 20, and so the Austrian-born local driver-cum-engineer Joe Jagersberger took over the technical lead, but the team desperately needed someone with "barnstorming" experience to spearhead this tour de force. Sloan's availability was a heaven-sent opportunity.

For the next three or four years, Sloan toured the country with an ever expanding entourage of cars and drivers, which soon included New York dirt track star Louis A. "Lou" Disbrow, who took over as the Case leading man after Jagersberger had been seriously injured in a racing wreck in late 1911. With Disbrow came not only a new star driver, but also a very enterprising and fiercely independent mind, who not only brought his recently acquired ex-de Palma Simplex "Zip" into the team, but also built a Fiat-engined special with an upside-down boat body which he named the "Jay-Eye-See Special" in deference to his new employer. The J. I. C. company, though, took more and more of a back seat, and the Case team became the "Sloan circus" in due time. Along the way, Alex kept helping the boards of the smaller county fairs with the promotion of the racing events, and by 1913 was registered as a AAA promoter in his own right. Effectively, he was now staging races with his own cars and drivers, so that apart from the promoter's profits, every dollar that went into the purse ended up in his pockets as well - this must've looked like a great business model!!

The AAA looked at all of this with a jaundiced eye - as much as the sanctioning body wanted its promoters to be successful, there was always the suspicion about "hippodroming", i.e. staged and fixed racing, hanging in the air, and that was something the AAA Contest Board was actively campaigning against. For all its faults and shortcomings, the big sanctioning body was still and always composed of a bunch of enthusiasts, who wanted to see to it that the Sport (capital "S"!) of motor racing remained clean and prosperous. The idea of hippodromed racing was simply anathema to them. The fair executives, on the other hand, loved it - after all, autoracing was to them like any other fairground attraction they routinely booked at agencies such as Hamid's: the high-wire artist, the dancing poodle or the bearded lady, you name it. They couldn't care less about cubic inches, record keeping or administration by AAA representatives, all they ever really wanted was a good gate. It was essentially the old conflict between love and money.

In the winter of 1914/5, the conflict finally boiled over. Although he kept well in the background, it is quite difficult to not see Sloan behind all these shenanigans. Unlike many of those involved at this level of the sport, he had a college education, coupled in his case with an extraordinary business acumen. He may well have been the prime mover, or at least must've put the flea in the ear of the fair executives who began an open rebellion against AAA politics, demanding less administration (costs) and fewer regulations, but Contest Board chairman, Richard Kennerdall, couldn't or wouldn't budge. To be fair, the rebels did have a point, since the sanctioning body had issued repeated statements over many years condemning dirt track racing in general, and declaring it had no specific interest in sanctioning these meetings, only waiting for them to die a natural death. This attitude was a direct result of the close partnership between AAA and the Manufacturers Association, which wanted to dissolve its links to the often lethal racing at the fairgrounds. As an example, the National Motor Vehicle Co. (manufacturer of the 1912 Indy winner) once went to lengths in press releases following a (non-fatal) dirt track accident of a National driver in the fall of 1911 to declare that the driver was in no way connected with the factory, and that it was "preposterous" to think that a company like National would engage in something as silly as dirt track racing! Such was the state of affairs, and the AAA officials in all probability had few qualms about letting the fairgrounds slip out of their grasp.

The outcome of this commotion was the formation and incorporation of the International Motor Contest Assoc. (IMCA) on March 10, 1915. Basically, this organization was designed to act as a government of puppets, and give a free hand to the fairs and the racing promoters. There is evidence that, in its early years, a few of the IMCA directors didn't grasp that concept and tried to administrate and regulate, forgetting entirely that their sole raison d'être was the complete and utter intolerance for these actions amongst their associates! Unlike the non-profit AAA Contest Board, however, the IMCA paid dividends to its stockholders, and so any discontent soon quieted down. All of the IMCA directors held company shares, you see.

After promoting two more AAA meetings in May, Alex Sloan was more than ready when the IMCA opened for business on Memorial Day at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. With a team of about a dozen cars, including the "Blitzen Benz", the "Jay-Eye-See", the "Simplex Zip" and several old Case racers, and drivers of the calibre of Disbrow, Eddie Hearne, John Raimey or Bill Endicott, there was no stopping this steam roller, and the great circus director finally enjoyed his freedom and success. To augment his shows, Ralph Hankinson's Auto Polo troupe was right up Sloan's alley, and the two of them soon became associates. With an ever increasing demand for his services (i.e. the promoting of the races, and the guarantee to provide entries), Sloan began to reign and divide, and amongst others Pickens and Hankinson were sent on their way to establish their own circus and tour. This is where his contacts with George Hamid came in handy, and Pappy had little trouble in establishing one of the busiest travelling racing shows in the country, touring many southern states from Florida to Kansas. Whether it was Hamid, Hankinson or Sloan who wanted to expand north is not exactly clear, but it was Hankinson who arrived in Reading June of 1924, to sign contracts with the Reading fair executives Abner S. Deysher and Charles W. Swoyer. The contracts were for four nights of Auto Polo, and a big afternoon of automobile races on the closing day of the annual Reading Fair, September 16 to 20.

Edited by Michael Ferner, 02 November 2012 - 20:10.


#18 sramoa

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Posted 27 May 2011 - 20:02

Yes.


Give me please!!!:D

#19 Michael Ferner

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Posted 28 May 2011 - 15:00

Richard, please be patient. This thread will contain lots of information, including results.

:)

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#20 Michael Ferner

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Posted 28 May 2011 - 20:05

A slight mistake in my opening post, which I have now corrected: Hankinson did not headquarter in Reading before 1932, he was operating out of New York City before that.

Reading Fairgrounds, part 2: 1924, and all that!

1924 was a pivotal year in American racing history, and it will be well to recall what had changed since 1915, and the formation of the IMCA. For the American Automobile Assoc. (AAA), things had taken a turn for the worse: after tailoring their policies for many years to the needs and fancies of the Manufacturers Assoc., the car companies left racing one by one, until only three were left: Duesenberg, Frontenac and Miller. None of the three had any particular standing within the industry, and in fact only the Duesenbergs had even a decent enough production output at any time in their company history - basically, all three factories were pure racing car (component) manufacturers, and as such relied upon selling their equipment to private owners, who in turn provided the entries for the race meetings. Though the AAA had succeeded in establishing a very successful National Championship circuit with about a dozen really BIG events per annum, beyond that the outlook was distinctly bleak. Only a comparatively small number of tracks throughout the country staged infrequent AAA meetings, and the transition from "local hotdog" to National Star was particularly difficult, nigh impossible. The National Championship was contested on big, expensive board tracks, for which a competitor needed a special and VERY expensive car - unless an aspiring driver found a sponsor for its acquisition, it was no longer possible to climb the career ladder, and it became usual practice for rich, but inexperienced individuals to buy themselves such a vehicle, and go competing at the nation's highest level. Unsatisfactory as this situation was, the National Championship circuit was at least self-sufficient in the burgeoning economy of the Golden Twenties, but for the "ordinary" dirt track driver there was little encouragement to do business with the AAA.

One of the few boons of AAA membership was its scheduling policy, which helped keeping a loyal band of promoters, especially in the Northeast, where a small circuit of dirt tracks was still intact and kept a number of semi-professional racing drivers in line. Unfortunately, avoiding clashing dates is only important where racing tracks and promoters vie for meetings, and with the scarcity of applicants in most regions it was very much a hollow virtue. By contrast, the IMCA avoided the issue of clashing dates by providing a number of seperate circuits with contracted drivers, a concept at odds with the liberal attitude of the AAA, which only accepted a signed entry blank as a binding contract. And if the situation at the grass roots of racing wasn't already depressing enough, some perceptive minds began to wonder about the sustainability of the National Championship and the board tracks it was run on - none of the original seven tracks built before the Great War had survived into the year 1923, and of the seven built since, three had already gone down the drain! For the time being, the booming economy kept furnishing new tracks like mushrooms popping up on a dewy meadow, but how long was this phenomenon going to continue? The only real ace in the hand of the Contest Board was the ongoing success of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its flagship event, the 500 Mile Race, but even there was trouble on the horizon, as the original owners had tired of their enterprise, and were seeking a buyer for the facility. And what about the racing drivers, how on earth was "new blood" expected to get its training now that riding mechanics had been made optional by the latest rule changes? Hitherto, the experience acquired by riding alongside an established ace had been considered essential for the prospective driver, to learn the craft of navigating a racing car at high speeds on a busy track. Perhaps, there was a need for the fairgrounds, after all!?! Quo vadis, AAA?

One possible solution to all those problems shaped up in the fall of 1923 in Southern California, where George Roy Bentel (2 Jul 1876 - c. 1945), a prominent local car and autoracing figure, announced the building of "the new Ascot Motor Speedway" to the East of downtown El-Lay. A somewhat shady figure to begin with, Bentel had begun making his fortune as a stock broker, then by trading cars and finally by building new coachwork for used cars. Undeterred by legal action taken by more than one "dissatisfied" customer, Bentel's financial success was also attracting the rich and the famous, who were beginning to settle in the metropolitan area, often in connection with the film industry, and Bentel lost no time in using his new contacts to make his entry into the business of movie production. In between all of this, for a time he also managed both the Mercer racing team and the old Ascot Park Speedway in the South of town, a former horse track. Though very successful as a motor racing venue, Ascot Park closed in late 1919, falling prey to urban development, so Bentel's idea of "new Ascot" was more than just a whim - it was a sound business idea. "The time for motor racing to take its place alongside baseball and kindred sports has arrived", was Bentel's slogan as he announced the commencement of weekly races at the new plant beginning in January 1924. The idea of weekly racing may have originated at Chicago's Roby Speedway or the Hoosier Motor Speedway in Indianapolis earlier in the decade - both tracks ran more or less regular programmes during 1923.

Bentel and his "silent" partner, Edgar Brown, commissioned Paul K. Derkum, former motorcycle racer and now the manager of the fairgrounds speedway at Bakersfield, to construct the track, a banked five-eights-of-a-mile oval, 60 feet wide and with a 40-foot flat horse track inside. No expenses were spared, and along with a special surface of "dirt, oil and crushed stone", a big open grand stand seating upwards of 10,000 and bleachers for 5,000 more, a five-hole golf course and an amusement park were part of the initial plans. Auto Polo and motorcycle races were to complement the speed fests, for which Bentel envisaged the best dirt track drivers of the whole country, including "drivers and cars forced out by the adoption of the 122-inch limit by Indianapolis and the four board speedways in the United States". Here's, of course, where it gets interesting: AAA's traditional clientele, as we have seen, had always been the big manufacturers, for which the Contest Board aimed to provide the framework for the development and testing of engineering skills in a sporting way. At the same time, the sanctioning body was also trying to gain international credibility for its racing and speed records - in a twist of irony, the AAA had ceded representation in the AIACR, the established international racing authority, to the rival Automobile Club of America a decade and a half earlier, only for the ACA to lose all its interest in the sport and to leave the USofA virtually isolated in terms of international recognition. To combat this trend, the AAA followed the rules of Grand Prix racing for their showcase events almost religiously, also hoping (in vain, as it would turn out) to lure the car factories back into the sport that way. But, unlike in Europe, where the manufacturers had slowly returned to the racing game after the Great War, America had seen a shift back to the fairgrounds, and the semi-professional racing drivers and owners in the early twenties. So, in order to find a way out of the international isolation, AAA had driven itself into a corner in the home market, to find itself truly caught between a rock and a hard place!

"New Ascot" looked like a golden opportunity to continue the outward struggle, while giving the professionals at home a new playing field, away from the dreaded fairgounds, in which to exercise their expensive hardware made obsolescent by yet another change in the international racing formula, and all of that right in the front yard of the prefered winter resort for the majority of drivers and owners, Southern California. Too good to be true? Well... yes and no! Speculation was rife in December of 1923, until Bentel placed a bombshell with a public announcement on the last Sunday of the year, reading in full: "Many statements in recently printed articles evidently of origin from a source unfriendly to new Ascot Speedway, bear but distant relation to the real facts of the case. When I decided to re-create old Ascot track which was built up and operated by me, and where the first big cash purses for auto races on the Pacific Coast were paid, I had not the least idea of depending on the eight or ten drivers who compete on board speedways, nor the like number of 122-inch cars, to provide material for the events at new Ascot. I had already arranged for about thirty of the greatest dirt-track drivers in the world, men who prove sensations when they compete over any one of the forty-three big State fair tracks throughout the United States and Canada, to come here for our opening and subsequent meets. I also had the assurance that a like number of California drivers with fast cars, barred from the board speedways through the arbitrary 122-inch ruling, will compete for our prize money. The latter, except for an occasional race at San Luis Obispo or San Jose, have no opportunity to race and earn money. I also had signed a nonspeedway driver, never seen in California, the acknowledged dirt-track champion of the world, to compete at new Ascot until next July when he must resume his racing on the international championship circuit. These drivers and their cars have been mobilized in Chicago for the last ten days awaiting shipping instructions from me.

"When the speedway drivers here learned it was my intention to use the eastern dirt-track stars and the California drivers barred from the board speedways on account of car classification, and feature the dirt-track king, I was visited by many individual drivers and delegations who urged that I reconsider and affiliate with the AAA and give them a chance at the $200,000 we are to offer in prizes during the season, this amount being more than the combined purses of all board speedways for a year. Having had cordial relations with many of the boys during the old Ascot days, I accepted the invitation of a driver noted for his sportsmanship and met the local representative of the AAA. What passed between us will have to remain in confidence until released by that gentleman. I am now going right ahead with my original plans and within the next few days there will arrive in Los Angeles thirty or more of the great drivers of the East, who will shortly thereafter make known their presence and demonstrate their ability here. I am pretty sure that as soon as the Los Angeles drivers learn that negotiations are definitely off between the AAA and myself they will send up a roar of protest. I was informed that a round robin has been prepared by the drivers in question to be transmitted to the eastern AAA office in the event of an unfavorable decision." (Los Angeles Times, Dec 31, 1923)

Strong words, indeed. Turns out, Bentel had not only signed up motorcycle factory teams and learned of the idea of weekly races during his recent visit of the Midwest - he had already completed a deal with Bill Pickens and his traveling IMCA show! Ten days later, another announcement rocked the racing establishment, that of AAA super star Ralph de Palma (the aforementioned "driver noted for his sportsmanship"; the other unnamed indivduals being "dirt-track king" Sig Haugdahl and AAA Pacific Coast rep Val Haresnape) signing up for an IMCA licence in order to compete at the twice postponed Ascot inaugural, which truly put the cat amongst the pigeons! De Palma's statement, in full: "My entry for the opening event at the new Ascot Speedway scheduled for January 20, will enable me to participate frequently in the branch of motor racing in which I got my start and first attained such fame as may have come to me, the dirt track. During the past summer I participated in ten dirt track and dirt speedway meets in the Middle West and the East. My enthusiasm for the dirt track sport was revived. The crowds attending these races convinced me that the public shared my enthusiasm. When I first learned of Mr. Bentel's plans to recreate old Ascot along modern lines, I was very much disappointed when informed that he might not be able to obtain the recognition and sanction of the American Automobile Association. Knowing that other drivers felt as I did in the matter, I brought together Mr. Bentel and an official of the AAA. Despite earnest labor, our endeavors went for naught. No satisfactory agreement was reached and, in consequence, in order to participate in my home city, over the kind of course I best like, it became necessary for me to enter to drive under the rules of the Ascot Speedway Association." (Los Angeles Times, Jan 10, 1924) Repent, AAA, the end is nigh... or, is it?

The day after de Palma's defection, a dozen local dirt track drivers put their names on the dotted line for Bentel, and rumours about other, more prominent AAA drivers following suit made the rounds, but in the end only sophomore speedway driver Leon Duray, back then still very much a man from the "second tier", made the switch. Meanwhile, after a successful opening meet at Ascot with a reported 35,000 crowd, most of the remaining AAA stars incorporated as the Speedway Drivers Association on the last day of January in Harry Miller's plant in Los Angeles, pledging allegiance to the Contest Board. Still, more bad news hit that organization early next month when it was learned that the Los Angeles Speedway in Beverly Hills, scene of the opening meet for the National Championship three weeks hence, was going to be dismantled following that race - down to three board speedways plus Indianapolis, for the time being!!! Also in February, Richard Kennerdell (c. 1864 - 11 Dec 1928) succeeded the luckless Joseph Mack as chairman of the AAA Contest Board, a post he had held for close to eight years back in the teens. The Franklin, Pennsylvania resident had been instrumental in getting the National Championship on its way in 1916, and his power and influence had been such that the Contest Board itself moved its headquarters to his hometown in Western Pennsylvania. Was he the man to turn things around for the AAA?

Perhaps "things" weren't nearly as bad as they looked, and perhaps the whole Ascot business was not so much detrimental to AAA, but more so to George Bentel and his cronies. After months on end of much ballyhoo and action at the new racing venue, with excellent attendance figures and scarcely believable purses, the usual PR BS churned out in large quantities by Pickens and a smattering of Bentel's Hollywood celebs for photo opportunities, finally the truth began to filter through. First signs of trouble showed on July 8, with de Palma applying for reinstatement with the AAA. He had been doing exceedingly well at Ascot, and according to the published figures was making more dough than at any other time of his career - what on earth was that all about?! Four weeks later, the Contest Board readmitted the 1915 Indy winner after imposing "the largest ever" fine in the history of the AAA on him, with additional conditions to fulfill for the repenting driver. De Palma accepted without demur, and henceforth was a AAA driver again. Ironically, on the very same day that de Palma's name was cleared in AAA matters, Bentel was indicted in connection with a $2,500,000 mail fraud linked to the theatre and movie producer Oliver Morosco, which would eventually lead to his conviction 18 months later - and those 18 months were far from pleasant times for the Ascot head! It did not take long for the track itself to come under scrutiny, and soon enough drivers and owners sued for prize money withheld or damages, charges of false advertising were made, the Ascot Speedway Association's permit to issue stock was revoked and wage complaints were filed. Bentel himself, along with his son-in-law, Joseph Brown, and Pickens were given suspended sentences in one case, and a little later Bentel was finally arrested on a charge of obtaining labour under false pretenses. The Barham brothers, owners of the property on which the speedway was built, filed suit against Bentel while still in county jail, claiming violation of lease terms, and even while doing time in federal prison the tribulations didn't end, as an investigation into tax defraud against both him and his son-in-law led to the arrest of Brown.

While all of this was going on, the Ascot track fared poorly. Bentel's reign had left deep holes in the Speedway Assocaition's coffers, and creditors tried in vain to regain their losses through a succession of trustees. Racing stopped altogether even before the spring of 1925 had arrived, and various entertainments like prize fights or rodeos failed to make substantial profits. Finally, the bangtails stepped in. After many, many years of seeing horse track after horse track being violated for automobile racing use, the animals must've laughed all their way to the manger about this unexpected reversal of fortune. Eventuallly, motor racing would return to Ascot Speedway, but the IMCA stayed away, and it would be several years before the track finally operated profitably - under AAA sanction! In a way, the failure to secure Ascot Speedway in 1924 would turn out to be a success of AAA policies - whatever it was that had been discussed between Haresnape and Bentel in late 1923, one can be sure that the AAA rep demanded financial guarantees, and whether or not Bentel would have been in a position to renege on his IMCA deal, a fate like the one that played out is unlikely to have happened with AAA in control. The other effect this whole shebang had on the Contest Board was a renewed drive to incorporate dirt track racing into its portfolio. Within a fortnight of Ralph de Palma's readmission, a newly formed organisation by the name of Western Racing Assoc. began promoting dirt track races under AAA sanction in California, and from those small acorns a forrest of oak trees would grow. But that is to look into the future. By the summer of 1924, with Reading about ready to embrace automobile racing for the first time, the IMCA still appeared to be in the driver's seat. With California "licked", the East Coast was simply going to be the next challenge, and Ralph Hankinson was up to it.

Edited by Michael Ferner, 18 October 2012 - 10:32.


#21 Jim Thurman

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 20:27

It all depends on regional newspapers, and if I have access to them!

I love doing these threads, but they are time consuming because part of the allure is doing some background on people, organizations, and the general scene. I've had a love affair with US short track racing the last few years, and I have an urge to tell people about it, beacuse it's very enjoyable. The more you learn, the more interesting it gets. You can find incredible connections, stories and interesting CVs along the way, and the best thing is: it's real! It happened! Many, many years ago, all those people did what their heart told them to do, and nobody cared much about tomorrow, they lived "the now"!! Most of it is forgotten today, but I love bringing it back. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

:)

:up: I do. Yes, same here. What I can do is limited to access to either online or on site newspapers. At the cost of some hours and gas money, I can conceivably make it to Colton to finish up the track history there (Inter-City Speedway/Tri-City Speedway/Colton Legion Speedway). I believe I only need to fill in two dates to complete the history of Banning Legion Speedway, which would necessitate a trip to UC Riverside where I could check both the San Bernardino and Riverside papers. The few races at the Riverside Fairgrounds could be checked there as well, though one race report certainly sounded like hippodroming, even if it involved Leon Duray and Frank Lockhart!

And, then there's the trips to the Los Angeles Central Library. They have the San Diego newspapers and I've dipped into the history of Silvergate Speedway. I was surprised to find how much racing was held at Silvergate, so it will take longer than anticipated. Balboa Stadium had three eras - midget, jalopy and SDRA modified sportsmen (super modifieds). Such a lengthy history (1938-1961) would take quite a while to compile.

The best thing I ever did was getting a Los Angeles library card. It gave me access to the Los Angeles Times and Newspaper Archive.

Looking forward to the rest of this thread and your others.

#22 bpratt

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Posted 05 June 2011 - 03:38

Jumping ahead a few years, and this might not be what it appears to be, a few minutes of racing footage from what is said to be Reading, PA:

http://www.archive.o...race_stunt_show

Says circa 1945. Some stunt show stuff mixed in.

And this one has three minutes of football before the racing. Same track. Says 1933.

http://www.archive.o...tball_auto_race

Any good photos of Reading from that era around?

#23 Michael Ferner

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Posted 05 June 2011 - 07:48

Great find, Brian!

Most pictures I've seen of the Reading track were made from the pits, i.e. the opposite side of the track, so it's hard to say, but in any case I think the track in the films is Langhorne Speedway. The year is certainly closer to 1933 than 1945.

Is there a way to get acceptable stills from the moving pictures? Everytime I stop the player, I get digital artifacts like blurr or ghost images - I feel like Werner Heisenberg! :lol:

#24 bpratt

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Posted 05 June 2011 - 21:49

I wondered as well if it wasn't Langhorne. It appears that Reading had covered grandstands. This track, when the camera pans, doesn't appear to have pillars coming into view.

As far as trying to get screen captures I have downloaded the films as MP4 files and then play, and pause, on a VLC player. Using the "snipping tool" that seems to be part of Windows 7 I can get somewhat blurry and pixilated shots.

#25 Michael Ferner

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Posted 21 June 2011 - 14:55

Reading Fairgrounds, part 3: Moving in

Reading wasn't the first promotion of Ralph Hankinson north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it's actually not exactly clear when and where this happened, but a likely candidate is the Kent & Sussex Fair at Harrington in Delaware on August 2, 1924 - by way of chronological orientation, that was a mere two days before Ralph de Palma's re-entry into AAA and Bentel's indictment in the Morosco affair. Harrington and the Kent-Sussex Fair would, in the future, often inaugurate the Eastern fair season, and remain a constant with Hankinson and his successor Sam Nunis right into the seventies. In 1924, the event was dominated entirely by local drivers who normally raced under the sanction of the National Motor Racing Assoc. (NMRA), such as Elwood Wolfe, Dooley Chiorano or Tommy Reed, the latter winning the main event over ten miles of the half-mile dirt track. It actually makes one wonder if Hankinson was being unfaithful to the IMCA for once, and one report even suggested that the meeting was sanctioned by the AAA! Be that as it may, when Hankinson's troupe moved into Reading on September 20, all reports agree on the IMCA sanctioning the event.

Hankinson's star driver was Robert "Bob" Robinson from Florida, now in his late twenties. It is not easy to find anything on Robinson's early career, but he apparently started racing in 1919 or '20, and by 1923 was touted as the "dirt track champion of the world/the south/Florida", or whatever Hankinson's PR machine felt appropriate at the time. Only three weeks before Reading, he apparently won the main event at the Lebanon Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, and must've had a number of similar wins. When Hankinson changed his allegiance to AAA, Robinson followed suit and enjoyed some success, notably two sixth place finishes in National Championship dirt track races at Syracuse (1928) and Detroit (1929), and at least ten feature wins in lesser events. He also tried the Indy 500 once, in 1929, but did not qualify. Two weeks later, he was tragically involved in the fatal accident of Indianapolis winner Ray Keech, who had become his mentor in 1928. Robinson lost control on a defective part of the Altoona board track, and initiated a multi-car pile-up in which Keech became involved. Ironically, Robinson himself was killed in a similar accident on July 27 in 1930 at the Woodbridge board track, when Rick Decker lost control due to a puncture and forced him into and through the guard rail. He was married and had a three-year-old son (Robert junior) at the time.

The rest of Hankinson's entourage of dirt track "stars" was positively obscure: Tony Bani was said to be the "Italian champion of 1919 and 1920", but likely was no more Italian than Leon Duray was French. Louis Fabian may have played the role of the Frenchman for Pappy Hankinson, but was actually from Western Pennsylvania, it seems. From Eastern Ohio, apparently, came (Jerry) Berry and (Marion) Hopping - since the first names of these drivers were never mentioned, this needs to be treated with caution, but Berry would go on to have a respectable career in non-AAA events. "Dusty" Rhodes, one of several drivers in the US with that slightly ambiguous name (for a dirt tracker!), was from Baltimore and had a long if undistinguished career. As for (Dick) Stebbins and (Lawrence) Wallace, both again mentioned without given name, they seem to have been Southerners on tour with Hankinson, and there's not much to be said about them and/or their track achievements. Neither is there much to say about Grady Garner, the man who would carry off the day's main honours - "the Ray Harroun of the Reading Fairgrounds" - from Jacksonville, Florida, his main claim to "fame", other than his Reading triumph, and as far as I can tell, was giving up the seat of his "Garner Special" during the Independence Day meet at Lakewood Park in Atlanta several weeks before to fellow Floridian W. H. Smith, whose Chevrolet had conked out in one of the heat races. Smith went on to win the main event that day, after several faster entries had fallen by the wayside. Garner himself seems to have died in a fiery road accident in South Carolina on May 29 in 1926, during a "moonlighting" run with illegal whisky on board. His female companion on that trip was so badly burned, that it took 24 hours to ID her - it was not his wife, nor his daughter, Rosetta.

Equally obscure are the specifications or identities of the cars at Reading's first encounter with motor racing: nothing at all is known about the "Garner Special", or about the curiously named "Oldsmar Floridian" of Bob Robinson (a Dodge special?) and "Frata-Frau" of Dusty Rhodes. Bani's "American Fiat" was built under licence in Poughkeepsie, New York, and probably a 9-litre four, or perhaps an 8.6-litre six-cylinder. The rest of the field was made up of more undefined specials, a Mercer (probably a raceabout) and the ubiquitous Essex and Chevrolet specials. Very much a mixed bag, from which a field of six made up the race for small cars, or "Division C", the first event on the card. Wallace romped home a winner in 6'23.4" over ten laps of the dusty fairgrounds track, or close to 47 mph. Berry and Hopping followed him home, with Rhodes, Stebbins and Fabian bringing up the rear. The win was worth $200 to Wallace, with another $200 to be split by the Ohio drivers. Only after this, the first of so many chequered flags in the history of the track, did the time trials commence, with Robinson taking a comfortable fast time along with a $100 bonus, at 32.0", from Garner (34.2") and Bani (34.4") - it was fairly obvious that he had the legs of the opposition.

Next on the programme were three heat races of six laps each, and in the first of these Garner's day almost came to an abrupt end: trying to avoid crashing into Dusty Rhodes on the last lap, he lost control and spun several times, but managed to pull up without major damage. Berry won the heat and $100 in the slow time of 3'56.0", with Stebbins second. Nobody expected Robinson to be beaten in the next heat, but motor racing is unpredictable, and the overwhelming favourite suddenly slowed on lap 3 and coasted to a halt, a valve having broken - he was through for the day! Bani took first (3'45.6"/47 mph) and the $100 bill instead, from Wallace and Fabian. The first two finishers in the first two six-lap heats had earned the right to line up for the last heat race, also of six laps, and Berry took his second win of the day in 3'53.6", from Bani, Wallace and Stebbins. Then it was time for the feature event over ten laps, five miles, with a rolling start ("speedway style") from Hankinson's yellow flag, like all the other events, too. The race was called the "Abraham Lincoln Frame Sweepstakes", in honour of the vice president of the Reading Automobile Club, and "a thrilling finish" was provided by Garner and Bani, with the former taking the verdict in 6'37.2" (45 mph). Berry beat Rhodes for 3rd and the last "money position", also taking the biggest bite from the purse overall, $580 of the roughly $2,000. Then it was all over.

20,000 spectators were said to have witnessed the races, proving "that the patrons of the Fair prefer auto races to harness or running races, which were heretofore featured on the closing day". Moving pictures were recorded for the "Community Events" programme, showing at local theatres in the fall, and wouldn't it be nice if these had survived? No accidents, other than Garner's inconsequential tête-à-queue had marred the day, which was apparently thoroughly enjoyed by the thousands in the grand stand, the bleachers and those crowding the fence around the track, although the latter "were literally covered with dust and dirt which was left in the trail of the speed demons". Not included in the 20,000 were many kids who had slipped under fences, or jumped over them when nobody was looking, and amongst them was a twelve-year-old boy from Laureldale, quite literally a stone's throw from the fairgrounds. Like most any teenage boy, he was enraptured by the colourful and noisy spectacle, and hooked for life. We'll meet him again (and again) in the course of this essay, let's just call him "Tommy" for the time being.

When 1925 came rolling around, Fair president Deysher and his men had little reason to change the game plan, and Hankinson had little trouble delivering the goods. Bob Robinson was back, now with his "Salerno Special", another colourful name for another mysterious racing car - or was it the "Oldsmar Floridian", rebuilt and rechristened? Tony Bani showed up with a Mercer this time, leaving the American Fiat to Lawrence Wallace. Louis Fabian was in a Sunbeam, and a Peugeot was entered for the Canadian (?) Jules Devereaux. Another new name amongst the drivers was that of Harold D. "Harry" Riggins (c. 1897 - 5 Sep 1932) of Virginia or Tennessee, one of a myriad of hopefuls who sought his luck with Pappy's travelling racing show. Riggins was no great shakes as a racing driver, and it didn't take him long to find out that he wasn't going to be the next Tommy Milton or Frank Lockhart. But he caught Hankinson's attention nonetheless, because he was a barrel of fun to be around, and serves well as an example of the promoter's eye for talent, not only of drivers. Pappy soon convinced Harry that he should stick around, but instead of handling the wheel of a racing car, he should perhaps try to grab a microphone and entertain the crowds at the races like he used to entertain his fellow drivers on the long hauls from one fairgrounds track to another. With that, Riggins had found a new vocation, and became one of Hankinson's "inner circle", an assistant manager of Hankinson Speedways, Inc. Like Alex Sloan before him, Pappy had realized that he needed to rule and divide in order to keep his growing empire intact, and a few of his assistant managers were left with a virtually free hand to do business for Hankinson Speedways. Men like Bill Breitenstein or Jim Malone were promoters in their own right, working for the organisation, and Riggins, amongst others, was a workhorse for the "Hank gang", often arriving at a destination well in advance to make all those little pieces fall into the right places. Fair executives valued this kind of attention to detail, and Riggins was well known and liked by all and sundry until his untimely death in a bathing accident in the Delaware near Morrisville (PA). Reportedly, he “was participating in a moonlight swimming party with two women companions when he sank beneath the water”, so at least he appears to have enjoyed life to the very last. His demise created an opening for another failed racing driver: Sam Nunis, of whom more anon.

The on-track action at Reading in 1925 was arranged along identical lines to the inaugural format, with a "Light Car" race of 10 laps, the time trials and three 6-lap heats leading to a ten-lap final. All 1924 track records were broken, except for the half-mile trials, in which Robinson (twice) and Wallace equalled the existing mark. The biggest applause, however, was drawn by a local driver by the name of Reeves, who drove his "Reading Special" around the track in 36.0" for the slowest time of all. The main event, now called the Abner S. Deysher Sweepstakes, was taken by Robinson at 49 mph, "by about two yards" from Wallace, and with Harry Davies a close third. Those three drivers had also taken all the heat wins, with Davies first amongst the small cars, and Wallace victorious in two of the 6-lappers. Riggins beat Bani, Fabian and Devereaux for fourth place, and Mack McClure, another Reading rookie, was the only retirement amongst the eight starters. Again, no accidents to mar the meeting.

The big story before the 1926 edition of the Reading Fair races was a proposed match race between two "Italians", Toots Campo (of Milano) and Tony Galliano (of Torino), for the right to marry a girl from Kansas City, Missouri!! Allegedly, the young woman liked both men enough to agree to marry whoever would be the winner in two out of three heat races. Evidently, Campo had a change of heart and didn't show up at Reading, but whether Galliano got the girl or not was, sadly, never released. At least he got a little monetary reward for his pains by finishing second in one of the heat races. The main event, now titled the Berks County Sweepstakes and for a distance of twenty laps, ten miles, was again captured by Robinson and his "Salerno Special", but this time he had to battle some noteworthy opposition: second place went to a driver named Wallace for the second year running, only this time it was Doug Wallace from Tennessee or Indiana, driving a "Hispo-Dodge Special", presumably an old Dodge chassis with a Hispano-Suiza V8 aircraft engine. Wallace was at the beginning of a career that would see him racing successfully all over the East Coast, and later also under AAA sanction. His biggest success would be a second place finish behind Babe Stapp in a 50-miler at the high-banked Atlanta Speedway in 1930. Third place went to Jack "Swede" Yonally of Minnesota, driving an unspecified Duesenberg, possibly one of the 1920 3-litre 8-cylinders.

Even more remarkable were some of those who didn't show up in the final results, like future Indy winner Ray Keech, who led a small contingent of NMRA drivers in a "guest appearance". During the year, Keech had already shown that his frame was rapidly becoming too big for the independent racing clubs, and here at Reading he pulverised the one-lap track record at 31.0" on his way to a substantial AAA career. Apart from Lewis "Bozo" Balus and Bob Riff, two New York City drivers who would each enjoy a decade or so at the lower fringe of AAA success, the entry also boasted two names that would become almost synonymous with racing on the Eastern fairgounds, yet at the time were merely connected to a couple of friends who were barely of age, and apparently engaging in an adventurous high-speed spleen far from home: Jimmy Patterson and Billy Winn (who, interestingly, entered as Billy Patterson and Jim Winn at the time - both men were christened James, incidentally). I have often wondered about how and why these two kids from faraway Kansas City (MO) ended up in the Northeast to commence their respective careers - maybe they just happened to accompany the would-be bride?

Edited by Michael Ferner, 24 June 2011 - 21:26.


#26 Michael Ferner

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Posted 24 June 2011 - 21:33

Reading Fairgrounds, part 4: The Winds of Change...

Meanwhile, elsewhere in America... When we last discussed the overall picture, and how things were going in the fall of 1924, the IMCA looked to be in a strong position almost everyhwere in the country, but with a potentially disastrous development cooking in the West, while the outlook for the AAA was disastrous almost everywhere, with the potential for a positive development on the "left coast". How did things pan out? Well, not exactly as straightforward as one might think. True, the IMCA lost Ascot, and with it California, but the experience was softened by the successful invasion of the East, and the continued success of its fortress in the Midwest, with isolated raids into mostly unchartered territory, like the Northwest or Canada. The AAA, on the other hand, still had difficulty in establishing a true grass roots minor league, which was at least partly due to a difference in attitude of their star drivers, when compared to the "common men" of the fairgrounds. Drivers like Ralph de Palma, Ira Vail or Eddie Hearne had no qualms about touring the whole country in search for good purses, and they also had the money to buy the best from Harry Miller's famous factory to do battle on the dirt tracks. That, of course, was no option for the many semi-professional racing drivers and car owners, who made up the bulk of the entries for dirt track races everywhere in the US. What these men really wanted, what they desperately needed in order to throw in their lot with the AAA, was a stable and vibrant circuit of race meetings near home. It's the typical problems facing a young man in his formative years, in that it takes a lot of courage and conviction to "go for it" and make a leap into the unknown, even if on a comparatively small scale, for it generally means giving up the security of a "daytime job" for a life of much, much travel and danger (one of the very few to make that leap in 1925 was a young Frank Lockhart). It's always been like that, and probably always will, but the situation was certainly exacerbated by the prevalent "blue collar" background of the typical dirt track racer. Hence, for the AAA to establish a successful dirt track circuit it needed the support of the local semi-professionals, but in order to get that support it needed a successful circuit - catch 22!

A major thorn in the side of both the AAA and IMCA was the emergence of the independent racing clubs in the twenties, like the aforementioned NMRA. Based in Philadelphia, and thus virtually in shouting distance of four states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware), this organisation was the product of the growing number of local semi-professionals who took their fate into their own hands and formed a circuit that had everything the AAA (or IMCA) couldn't provide: frequent races in a locally confined area, rules that could be tailored to meet the needs and wishes of those taking part, and open competition for anyone wishing to play by those rules. Time and again, those selfsame ideas would be envisioned by racing enthusiasts all over the US, and more and more independent clubs would spring up as a result, most of them going belly-up within a very short time when matters of practicality would clash with theoretical ideals. And of those which survived the first turmoil of this sort, many became the victim of their own success, so to speak.

Like the NMRA, for example: 1926 was by far the best year for this organisation, with regular race meetings almost every week, a stable roster of cars and drivers that was big enough to warrant two seperate classes for competition, and most of all, a shiny new dirt track right in the heart of the club's area of influence, the soon-to-be-famous Langhorne Speedway. And as fate would have it, only a few miles south a brand new board track was lying idle due to a fallout between an inept management and the AAA: the Baltimore-Washington Speedway in Laurel, Maryland. It didn't take long for the Laurel promoters and the NMRA to get together, and for the Philadelphia club to bask in the glory of having a board track on their schedule. One of the immediate effects was an influx of very competitive machinery into the NMRA, including the winner of last year's Indy 500, the Duesenberg of Pete de Paolo! Armed with those cars, many of the organisation's drivers suddenly became aware of their potential, and started gazing westwards, in the general direction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway...

Indianapolis! Back in 1926, the word alone already had that mesmeric quality to stop any racing enthusiast right in his tracks. This was the place were dreams were made, and realized! By sheer coincidence, nothing could have illustrated this fact more clearly than the actual happenings on that year's Memorial Day weekend, with an unheralded dirt track racer from the West Coast showing up with no ride, then getting into the race by a stroke of good luck and ending up as the winner of motordom's biggest prize - the fairy-tale-like story of Frank Lockhart would be an inspiration for more than just one generation of racing drivers! Nor did the fact that Cliff Woodbury, another archetypal dirt tracker, had finished third in the same race escape the attention of the Freddie Winnais, Russ Snowbergers or Jimmy Gleasons when they heard the news while practicing for the opening meet at Langhorne. A wind of change seemed to be in the air, one of those intangible things that come out of nowhere in particular, and have the power to change the course of history.

Other developments, seemingly unconnected with racing, came into play: the Rickenbacker Motor Co. experienced financial difficulties, and its founder and vice-president, Captain Edward Vernon Rickenbacker left the management in September, two months before the company went into receivership. This, of course, was the same man who, as Eddie Rickenbacher, had been one of the most prominent racing drivers in the US before WW1, and incidentally the winner of the only dirt track race in the history of the National Championship up until that pivotal year of 1924. Initial reports connected his future plans with aviation, most likely a position in the airplane industry, for it was in this field, rather than motor racing, that he had become a familiar figure with the general public. And so it came as somewhat of a surprise when he was appointed the new chairman of the Contest Board of the AAA in October, succeeding Richard Kennerdell whose health was declining rapidly.

Kennerdell's legacy is easily overlooked in this sequence of events, as it is admittedly hard to find out what went on exactly behind closed doors, but his importance in AAA Contest Board matters is indisputable: he was at the head of that institution for more than ten years, a longer period of time than all other chairmen so far combined, and it was during his reign that important developments such as the National Championship, and the renewed drive for AAA supremacy on America's dirt tracks were instigated. "Uncle Dick", as he was called by some in a curious mixture of admiration and disrespect, was likely experiencing some opposition in the latter enterprise, for example during the aftermath of the National Championship race at the New York State Fair at Syracuse in September of 1924, the much anticipated (by some) return to the dirt tracks for the premier autoracing series of the US, which was unfortunately marred by the fatal accident to Jimmy Murphy, then the "golden boy" of the AAA. The age-old antipathy in this organisation towards racing on the fairgrounds must've seen to it that the event remained an isolated occurence for the time being, but the writing was on the wall. By the time "Captain Rick" took over from "Uncle Dick", the whole Contest Board was in the process of undergoing a change of personnel, and old ideas and conceptions were soon forgotten. While the execution of this change in direction is rightly credited to Rickenbacker, the idea is likely to have formed with Kennerdell already.

Be that as it may, developments were well under way at the time when Rickenbacker took office, with the AAA attracting new tracks and drivers hand over fist: the Akron-Cleveland Speedway, a relatively new half-mile board track in Eastern Ohio, had just introduced the extremly successful and popular "outlaws" Dutch Baumann, Shorty Cantlon and Louie Schneider to sanctioned racing, with Louis Chevrolet about to promote a AAA meeting at the Hawthorne horse track in Chicago, previously a hotbed of independent racing action in the metropolitan area - that event was about to bring Wilbur Shaw and Frank Brisko into the ranks of the national sanctioning body. The public announcement of Rickenbacker's appointment by Thomas P. Henry, president of the AAA, gave indication of the direction chosen by the "new contest board (...) recently reorganized (...) strengthened and expanded in such a way as to be more representative of the public and the press, speedway and track operators and owners, as well as race drivers and automotive engineers. The board as now constituted (...) with Mr. Rickenbacker at its head, gives official automobile racing as strong a governing body as any sport in America.

"A big task devolves on Captain Rickenbacker. How big the task is can be seen from a mere glance at the program laid out by the board at its first meeting here last week. This program covered every phase of racing. It called for more and better races than ever before; for more intensive development of racing as a sport and as an important adjunct to automotive engineering; for the extension of official sanctioned races throughout the country as one way of reducing the frequent accidents at unsanctioned meets; for better contact between racing and automotive engineers; for more tests of automobile performance and for greater cooperation between the public, the drivers and the speedway and track managers throughout the country. (...) Because of his career, contest board members feel that no happier choice for a leader could have been made. They point out that he knows racing and racing cars, knows what the public wants, that he has a thorough understanding of the problems of promoter and driver alike. I can think of no one who might fill the chairmanship of the board with greater possibilities of success than Mr. Rickenbacker. (...) He has every qualification, and his acceptance insures all interests concerned that a supreme effort will be made to give America even higher standards and better performance on the championship racing circuit of the country." (The Evening Independent, St. Petersburg, Florida, Oct 30, 1926)

Reading between the lines, it becomes clear how the "new forces" managed to win over the diehards with regards to dirt track racing: in the typically condescending tone of the AAA, it was now deemed important to further the safety of the sport by taking as much control as possible from the independents - while there certainly was a kernel of truth in the assertion that AAA conducted its racing with higher standards for driver and spectator safety, the actual number of racing deaths doesn't really bear this out, maybe because of the higher stakes at the sanctioned meets. In any case, the ice was now officially broken. AAA was back in business at the fairgrounds, and with a determined face. One of the first to suffer was the NMRA, which lost its flagship track, Langhorne Speedway, and broke up within a year. Most of its better drivers and car owners joined the AAA, leaving the rest to reform under a different name, then fail again. By 1930, the once mighty club was ancient history. Other independents followed suit.

However, the biggest deal that the "new" Contest Board managed to arrange was for Hankinson Speedways to switch camp in March of 1927, adding over 40 dates to the AAA schedule, which totalled more than 100 events for the first time in history. It was the beginning of a new age! Under the headline "Hankinson Quits 'Outlaw' Racing for AAA Circuit", the Sunday Sentinel and Milwaukee Telegram commented on March 20: "In accepting the application of Ralph A. Hankinson for permission to conduct motor racing contests under the auspices and supervision of the contest board of the American Automobile association, unsanctioned, hippodrome racing in the United States received a body blow that may presage the passing of the species. Mr. Hankinson has been presenting auto race programs at state and district fairs for years and was one of the leading promoters of 'outlaw' racing. The designation 'outlaw' is used in the vernacular of the speedway and dirt tracks to specify motor racing events that are fixed, non-competitive and closed except to the teams of racing drivers in the employment of the promoter. The move on the part of Mr. Hankinson to leave the outlaw field and operate under the rules of the contest board, which supervises official championship events in the United States, was accepted only after he had contracted to hereafter operate his entire racing schedule under the rules of the contest board. One of the primary requirements of the contest board is that all events conducted under its supervision shall be open and competitive. Other strict stipulations are set up by the board to maintain the integrity of the sport and to protect the drivers and the public that patronizes these events. Any violation of these rules and regulations involves instant cancellation of the AAA affiliation. The admission of Mr. Hankinson to the AAA dirt circuit will mean better motor racing at scores of state and district fairs throughout New England, Pennsylvania and the states of the south, where this promoter operates. It will make possible the appearance at these spectacles of first-string, nationally known AAA drivers who can not participate in 'outlaw' racing. In addition, the racing events included in the Hankinson schedule will have the added impulse which will come from the active support of AAA motor clubs at the points where he contracts for the motor events at the fairs. This is one of the most signal victories that official racing in the United States has scored in years."

The IMCA managed to survive this ordeal on the strength of its extensive schedule of fair events in the Corn Belt, but even this organisation was now beginning to feel the heat. Between the reborn AAA and the remaining independent clubs of the Midwest, the air was becoming decidedly thin, and this would lead to some fairly unexpected consequences a little later on, as we will see. Meanwhile, the Contest Board published a list of "major auto races (...) under reservation for the use of championship drivers" in 1927, and amongst the usual coterie of board track events the schedule included two dirt track 100-milers, at Syracuse and Detroit, though annotated with the words "no points" - the air of change was manifesting itself. Captain Rickenbacker's stay as the most powerful figure in US racing would eventually outlast Kennerdell's by another decade, and be even more effective by his acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway within less than a year of his initial involvement with the AAA, thus neatly solving one of the problems mentioned in part 2 of this essay. Within another year, the AAA finally got its international recognition by being elected to a position on the International Sporting Commission (CSI) of the AIACR, the International Association of Recognized Automobile Clubs, addressing another dilemma pointed out in part 2. When everything was said and done, the AAA and its Contest Board looked stronger than ever before as the twenties began to fade into the history books - who would've thought that in 1924?

Edited by Michael Ferner, 28 June 2011 - 19:28.


#27 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 June 2011 - 20:37

Reading Fairgrounds, part 5: AAA comes to Town

It isn't very hard to understand Ralph Hankinson's motives in effecting the changeover to AAA - it's that magic word again that did the trick: Indianapolis! No promoter worthy of his profession could possibly hope to resist the temptation to advertise his races with the words "Indianapolis drivers!" or "Indianapolis cars!", and many a promoter did succumb to this sort of fantasy without the proper back-up in reality. To his credit, Hankinson was not that type - he may have stooped to the use of various forms of embellishment in his IMCA days (it was show biz, after all!), but Pappy was in it for the long haul, and he didn't particularly care to make enemies, especially not with the crowds! And he was smart enough to know that every broken promise in pre-race publicity was likely to come back and haunt him at the very next occasion, something which the Langhorne promoters learned the hard way when they celebrated their first AAA programmes with the magic word in huge letters, only to find that the Indy stars stayed away in droves. It didn't matter that the cream of former NMRA stars, who made up the entry just like the year before, would be Indianapolis drivers within a year or two, the paying public was disappointed, and acted accordingly. Langhorne Speedway was soon in deep trouble, and it looked like another failed racing site was doomed to end up on the real estate market.

The problem was that, unlike the IMCA for example, a AAA sanction did not guarantee any entries, it just offered a pool of AAA drivers and cars, including all the Indianapolis stars, for a promoter to negotiate terms with, the actual entry being decided by the principles of the free market. Hankinson understood this well, and resisted all kind of undue publicity for the 1927 Reading Fair, knowing that virtually all of the AAA stars were busy practicing for the upcoming board track race at Charlotte in North Carolina, which offered a purse that it was impossible to compete with for a small county fair. And thus, the entry and results of the first AAA meeting in Reading were virtually identical to that of the year before, with most of the Hankinson equipe staying loyal to their head man, and taking out AAA licences during the winter: Ray Keech came back to chisel another fifth of a second off his own track record in qualifying, and to take the lead halfway through the twenty-lap feature from Doug Wallace, who again finished second in his Hispo-Dodge. Bob Robinson was there, as usual, and took the "Light Car" event, only this time driving a Duesenberg 8, and Mack McClure took one of the heat races in his Dodge. Sometimes, change is not really change after all!

But, being smart, Hankinson also knew that there's no substitute for hard work, and for a racing promoter that means: building relationships, and careers! Or, in other words, make enough contacts amongst the present stars to finally get one of them to sign up and, at the same time, try to find a future star in the making, nurture him and foster his loyality so that he will repay his duty once he's blossomed. Sounds simple enough? Well, it can't actually be, otherwise there would've been scores of successful promoters, and we wouldn't discuss Pappy Hankinson's career because it would be considered ordinary! As it was, his eye for talent would soon become legend, with his most promising discovery turning out to be this young man from KCMO, Billy Winn. The big, paunchy Hankinson and the diminutive, feisty Winn would be friends - and business partners - for life. And Pappy wasn't afraid to try out ideas from way over in left field, like the Model T races he was advertising for the 1928 edition of the Reading Fair. Entries were limited to Berks County residents, and the cars had to be stripped of all fenders and glass to race over twenty laps of the half-mile fairgrounds track for a purse of $100, and a trophy from the hands of the promoter. That ought to be fun!

After years of sneaking into the fairgrounds on racing days and dreams of being a racing driver, Tommy, the teenager from Laureldale, was finally seeing the light. Now 16 years old, these Model T races were right up his alley! Being used to the hard work on his family's farm, which included repair work on tractors and the like, he found no difficulty in preparing an old, dilapidated Ford for the races, but coming up with the asking price for the wreck was much more of a challenge. Somehow or other, he managed, and on the closing day of the fair he was one of seven proud entries in the amateur races, ready to set the world afire and (of course!) collect the cheque. What he got instead was a reality check - the programme was changed to a 10-lap "main event" for the Fords, with a 6-lap consolation race following, and Tommy didn't place in the main, and finished only third in the consy. Well, at the very least he got to see his name in print! There would now be a full year to tinker with the "racing car", and perhaps a few trial runs on the rutted farm roads in the vicinity - ample time to heal for the bruised ego - but he would be back, that's for sure!

Ralph Hankinson could be well satisfied with the 1928 Reading event: the Model T races proved to be a real crowd pleaser, and despite fierce competition with other AAA events at Altamont (upstate New York) and Mineola (Long Island) on the same day, and a board track race at Atlantic City in New Jersey on the very next, he succeeded in his task of bringing a bona fide Indianapolis driver to Reading: Russ Snowberger. True, he was "only" a member of the rookie class of '28, and his actual experience of racing in the 500-mile event came down to barely 3 laps in his original entry, which was the first to retire from the field, and about a dozen laps as a relief driver. Nor did he have much luck at Reading, with a borrowed Dodge (McClure's?) that refused to run properly, leaving him third at the end of the day, and quite lucky to finish even that high up. Mack McClure snared the overall win with a Frontenac, with Phil (Eddie?) Testa finishing second, and Jimmy Patterson dropping to fourth in the closing stages. McClure, Patterson and Snowberger had earlier taken the heat races, with McClure also taking the time trials and a "special heat" for the fastest qualifyers, some sort of trophy dash.

Before the AAA boys returned for the annual fair in 1929, one other competitive event took place on the Reading Fairgrounds, directed by former AAA driver and promoter Edmund G. "Eddie" Yost, who arranged for the purchase of eight "1929 model stock cars" (a Ford, Chevrolet, Whippet and Plymouth each in the "$800 class", and a De Soto, Essex, Durant and Pontiac each in the "$1,000 class") for local amateur drivers to compete in several races, along with other races for motorcycles and cars for "non-professional drivers", including a 10-mile "free-for-all" as the main event. The meeting took place on Independence Day, and apparently was part of a small series, as a similar event was staged at the neighbouring Allentown Fairgrounds on Labor Day. Despite extensive publicity, the meeting attracted "only" 5,000 spectators, and was never repeated. Reports of the races were heavily slanted towards the competing touring cars, with but little attention given to the racing cars, but it appears that our Tommy was a winner in one of the 5-mile preliminaries. The main event may have gone to former AAA and NMRA driver Bill Sauerhoff of Delaware.

Hankinson was building up his new AAA circuit nicely, and for the 1929 fair had two-time Indianapolis money winner Billy Arnold as his main attraction, the Illinois boy fulfilling all expectations with a new track record, well over the mile-a-minute mark, and taking the main event from New Jerseyite Al Stewart and other Indy starters like Freddie Winnai, Herman Schurch and Russ Snowberger. The event was coming along really well, but the following year was a big disappointment when rain on the final day of the fair cancelled out the races, with no rain date available due to the full schedule of Hankinson meetings, the promoter having taken over the Langhorne and Woodbridge tracks that year, too. Pappy was showing them how to really make money at these venues, and in no time at all had a really strong driver's roster going for him, with names like Fred Frame, Bill Cummings and Lou Moore headlining. That, however, was beginning to have a detrimental effect on his "regular" shows, as the weekly races at Woodbridge were soon tying up the big names, and the fair races were left to suffer. And so it was that in 1931, Reading was down to one Indianapolis driver again, Bert Karnatz, who duly won the main event, from "no names" like Firman Lawshe, Ken Fowler, Bill Neapolitan and Johnny Wohlfeil. Still, with Karnatz and Wohlfeil from Michigan, and Fowler from Ohio, the field represented quite a large area of driving talent. But Hankinson knew that the time was ripe for something different, and he had the AAA officials listen when he approached them with a plan...

Edited by Michael Ferner, 29 June 2011 - 20:32.


#28 Michael Ferner

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Posted 29 June 2011 - 20:31

Reading Fairgrounds, part 6: Depression, or boom time?

It is a popular misconception, that the so-called Indianapolis "junk formula" of the thirties was a reaction of the AAA to the drastically worsening economic conditions and the world-wide recession following the stock market crash of October 1929. In more recent times, many authors have correctly pointed out the fact that the new rules for championship racing were already devised well in advance of the dramatic events that kick-started the Great Depression, often formulating the view that motor racing in the USofA was thus saved by some form of happenstance. But, is the latter statement really true? Was the "junk formula" really the saviour of the AAA and its Contest Board, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and everything else connected with it? Looking at the bare figures in connection with the Indy 500, that appears to be a plausible theory, but if we forget this somewhat isolated point of view for a moment, things may look quite different, and we may be able to get a deeper understanding of the underlying currents that formed the sport in the thirties, and well beyond.

Let us take a look at some of the developments that led to the formulation of the new racing regulations in 1929, scheduled to come into effect the following year: as has been stated, the AAA had followed the International Grand Prix Formula as devised by the AIACR with few alterations ever since the end of the Great War, at least as far as the National Championship was concerned, including the switch to 1.5-litre engines in 1926. When these new rules were first announced in Europe in late 1924, they were almost instantly met with unanimous disapproval amongst all parties concerned, and remained extremely unpopular throughout the time of their effectiveness, this leading to the abandonment of the formula for 1928 and the near total eclipse of Grand Prix racing in that year, followed by a severe drought in racing car design that lasted well into the thirties. In the greater scheme of things, it turned out to be merely a transitional phase in European motor racing, replacing the old style of factory supported teams with a "new class" of independent owner/drivers, much like the "American system" already in place all through the decade, but at the time it was felt that the sport as such was on the verge of extinction, and the reaction of the powers that be showed in a wild assortment of yearly changing racing formulae that followed the crisis, thereby accelerating the same as well.

Quite ironically, the AAA stopped following the AIACR rules the very same year it was finally admitted to this august body, in 1928, and continued to run Indianapolis and its major board track events for supercharged 1.5-litre cars, but also adding a couple of dirt track races, open for 3-litre cars, to the National Championship schedule - clearly a result of the recent reappraisal of dirt track racing in general, but also an act of sheer necessity, as the number of serviceable board tracks had dropped dramatically over the last couple of years, and only expensive repair work performed on one of them justifies the use of plural here! Even with the two extra dates, only six races made up the 1928 National Championship in total, down from 8 the year before and an even dozen in 1926 - a precarious development!! On the other hand, the sport's flagship event in the US, the Indy 500, was enjoying its most healthy period during the 1.5-litre years, with an average entry of 40 cars per year (better than all five previous formulae) and an average starting field of over 30, second only to the 600 CID formula of 1911/12.

Surviving documents show that the AAA made an at least nominal effort to adopt the International Formula for 1929 and '30, but faced with a somewhat panicky AIACR and the difficulty of incorporating the complex realities of dirt track racing at home, the Contest Board finally opted to go its own way on technical regulations in early 1929, resulting in the infamous "junk formula". Now, what was so junk about it? Let's try to take a rational approach, beginning with a listing of the actual rules that went into effect on January 1, 1930, for the "18th International Sweepstakes" at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - other events on board or dirt tracks were subject to a different subset of rules for a transitional period of one year, and continued to deviate slightly afterwards.

Engines were now limited to 6000 cc (366.1 ci) piston displacement and two valves per cylinder, with no more than two carburettor throats and no supercharger (except for two-stroke engines) feeding the cylinders.

Chassis dimensions limited to between 54 and 60 inches tread (137 to 152 cm), a minimum body width of 31 inches (79 cm) and two seats to be occupied at all times during competition.

Weight to be on a sliding scale from 1750 to 2746 lbs minimum (794 to 1245 kg), according to engine capacity.

N.B. These rules were slightly amended every year during the duration of the formula until 1937.

The new engine rules look reasonable enough, if somewhat retrograde with the ban on supercharging, but with the benefit of hindsight that was not a bad decision at all, since, historically, supercharging (especially of the then prevalent centrifugal type) has done little to improve the breed of racing or road cars in general, and has all but died a natural death in the meantime. In 1930, it simply removed an expensive and troublesome variable from the game, and few if any were really sorry to see it go. The restrictions on the number of valves and carburettor throats were hotly discussed at the time, and the first to undergo an "amendment" in 1931 already, so we don't need to dwell on that, either. What about the engine capacity, then? Well, the idea to open up the field in connection with a "sliding weight rule" was imported from Europe, and certainly had its merit, but the devil, as so often, is in the detail!

Why 6000 cc, and not 3000 cc, the limit to which most "top of the line" dirt track entries conformed in those days? Well, the "official" reason given at the time was that 6000 cc presented an upper limit to which practically all US production car engines conformed in those days, and thus it was hoped to attract manufacturers to enter Indy and racing in general - "The Golden Calf", the manufacturer again! Was that a reasonable hope? It's interesting to note that, when the AIACR tried to copy those rules for 1931 (only with a 5-litre maximum), there was such a hue and cry from the car companies that the idea was dropped almost as soon as it was proposed. One can perhaps only speculate about the reasons, but it seems the manufacturers were horrified by the idea to lose an acceptable "excuse" not to race! As long as one needed to design and build an engine specifically for racing, it was always easy to say "No! Nein! Non!" for whatever reason - once that was gone, it would be more difficult to abstain without losing face. Generally, it would seem that the idea to draw manufacturers into the sport by tailoring the rules to existing hardware is always doomed to failure - no company will ever say "All right, then - we have an engine, let's go racing"! The American car companies were already farther removed from the sport, and simply ignored the formula, and racing in general, by and large, without raising hell - that was deceptive.

So, what happened instead? Let's take Russ Snowberger as an example, an experienced professional from the East Coast, who took a close look at the new rules, especially the chassis and bodywork dimensions, which were also fashioned to attract existing designs of the manufacturers. In the early twenties, "Snowy" had raced a homemade two-man car with reasonable success, before going on to drive faster and more sophisticated machinery in the second part of the decade, and becoming a nationally known and successful driver. For 1930, he took his old two-man car out of hiding, installed a big 5.5-litre Studebaker engine in it, "hot-rodded" it some and - hey, presto! - here he was ready with a dirty cheap "new" racer! And, being the mechanical genius that he was, he was extraordinarily successful with this contraption, becoming the instant darling of the rule makers and the media, who marvelled at the idea of somebody spending no more than $1,500 on the building of a racing car (and a reputed $2 p.a. running costs!!!) which was competitive at the highest level. So, even if the manufacturers stayed away, at least racing was becoming more affordable!? Er... no, not really. Snowberger was an exception, and his car by far the most successful of the "semi-stock" car lot, actually the only one with at least half a decent chance for an outright win. Several factors played to his advantage, like the fact that he was a naturally skilled engineer besides being a great driver. He could just as easily have built a "full" racing car from scratch, like he did later on, and the results would've probably been the same. It's just that his shrewd judgment allowed him to take advantage of the new rules in a frugal way.

Nobody could possibly call Snowberger a "junk racer", because his car was always well maintained, even after five years of neglection, and the money he won was soon invested in a new body and other modifications. But, as has been said, he was the exception, and he already was "someone" in the sport. Otherwise, the rules played very much into the hands of the "nobodies", who still ran two-man cars, either "hand-me-downs" from an earlier era or homemade specials, because they had never won a dime in racing, and thus couldn't afford to "upgrade". Those were the real "junk racers", and their arrival at the Speedway was what effectively watered down the competition, even if it didn't have much influence on the overall scheme of things. Good drivers and good teams still dominated, and ironically were forced to spend even more money on all-new cars and engines when the rules were specifically designed to cut costs. But, as always in racing, change means extra expenses! And another one of the original goals failed miserably in the end, that of added variety on the grids and in the results. In racing, you can throw open the doors as wide as you want, there will always be one design that works best. And, given that many thought that the rules were expressly changed in order to stop the Miller steam roller on the competition, it was quite ironic that only two out of 32 top 4 finishing positions during that time were not won by a Miller or Miller-derived engine.

But, the "junk formula" at least created new record numbers of entries at the Speedway, didn't it? Hm... In 1929, some enthusiastic voices predicted "100 to 200" entries for the next race, but the reality looked very different: the number of entries dropped from 44 to 42 in 1930! Yes, it reached a new all-time high the following year, at 72, but was this attributable to the new formula? I don't think so! Why, one has to look no further than the dirt tracks to see the reason: motor racing was booming like never before in the USofA during the early thirties!!! If that comes as a surprise to you, considering the hardships the country was going through at that time, think of the observation we've made in part 4 of this essay, that "it takes a lot of courage and conviction to 'go for it' (...) for it generally means giving up the security of a 'daytime job' for a life of much, much travel and danger". Now, what happens if that daytime job suddenly evaporates in the turmoils of the depression??!! Right, off you go... And history will also tell us, that cheap entertainment always flourishes in economically bad times, for people seem to have a need to forget about grim realities every once in a while, and even more so when the going gets really tough! Racing promoters all over the US realized this only to well, lowered the prices for admission and were rewarded with enormous gates. Thus, purses stayed relatively healthy, and racing became a profitable business for some of those who had been unable to hold on to their "regular" jobs... and an affordable way to spend "surplus time" for others. Weird perhaps, but true!

And the AAA was right in the drivers seat when all this came to pass, cementing its position at the head of the racing "tree". A couple of developments that were instrumental in achieving this lofty position need to be recounted to bring us up to date: first, there was the Pacific Coast Championship. In late 1928, Art Pillsbury, the local AAA rep managed to engage the Glendale post of the American Legion with the running of Ascot Speedway, which triggered a success story that has never been rivalled. Initially, the war veterans were merely following the examples set by other Legion posts in Southern California, such as Banning or Chowchilla, but soon the special talents of men like Fred Loring or Harry Schmidt were beginning to tell, and Ascot entered its "Golden Period". Pillsbury also negotiated a general "amnesty" for the local independent racers, who switched over to AAA en masse, and a number of other local tracks followed the trend, so that a regular series of weekly races commenced, with the AAA keeping points and crowning a Pacific Coast Champion at the end of the year - it was a resounding success! Moreover, things got better and better with every passing year, and drivers from all over the country came to Califronia during the winter months to take part in the races, some even staying there all year. The traditionally already very strong local industry of racing shops was kept busy with new cars on an almost weekly basis, and locally built engines by Miller, Cragar, Riley or McDowell ruled the roost. It was really like the nirwana, even the Great Depression didn't seem to exist at Ascot!

Then, in 1931, came the shocking announcement of an affiliation between the IMCA and AAA!! In what must've been an extremely difficult marriage of convenience, both groups agreed to accept each other's track records, and to allow drivers, car owners and promoters to freely switch between the two sanctioning bodies. Chief beneficiary of this move was the AAA, of course, since it was still in posession of the "Ace of Aces", the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its 500-mile race, but also because of the growing importance and attraction of Ascot and the Pacific Coast Championship, not to mention the Hankinson Circuit in the East. It's less obvious to see what the IMCA was hoping to gain, but remember, independent racing in the Midwest, the core area of the Sloan imperium, was still going strong, mainly because of the AAA's weakness in the same locale. With the affiliation, it was now becoming extremely attractive for independents to join one of the two groups, for it meant competing in both, and within a year pretty much all independent activity in the Corn Belt ceased. That was all that was needed for the IMCA to survive, and for 1932 the club severed its links to the AAA, and the "show biz" venture went on like before. Just a little ripple in the road...

Edited by Michael Ferner, 17 August 2011 - 20:47.


#29 Michael Ferner

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Posted 18 August 2011 - 15:59

Reading Fairgrounds, part 7: Innovations!

Like most everyone in racing, Pappy Hankinson saw the boom happening, and lost no time in seeking ways to further his business. He was, of course, also aware of what was going on in California, where night racing on a weekly basis had achieved enormous success with the crowds and racers alike. Neither idea was really new, and even the combination had already been tried at Ascot in its IMCA days, but the recent success story of the Pacific Coast Championship made everyone sit up and take notice. Both concepts were also tricky for a promoter, and could backfire all too easily if not handled in a proper way. There were some steep initial costs connected with night racing, for example, and weekly racing shows needed a special environment to work well. Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and New York had tried weekly racing so far, and the success of these enterprises had varied greatly, even in those large population centres. Locationwise, Langhorne Speedway seemed to be the perfect setting for weekly races, midway between Trenton and Philadelphia, but Hankinson's instinct told him to think twice - wasn't the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so successful because it ran only once a year? In much the same way, Langhorne appeared to positively thrive on a diet of two to three, maybe four races maximum per year, so why change a good thing going strongly? As usual, Hankinson was right, and weekly racing does not seem to work on tracks of one mile or longer - as his successor in promoting Langhorne would ultimately find out! So he tried Woodbridge in New Jersey, which is close enough to the New York City metropolitan area to attract good crowds, but Woodbridge Speedway had a problem in that it was a board track - the weekly races played havoc with the racing surface, and the track upkeep alone ate up all the profits. Back to square one!

Taking a good look at what he already had, Pappy soon realized there were other ways to increase business: with the fair season in late summer/early fall already chockfull of events at the many fairs in the area, he hardly needed another track running weekly at the same time, just a few more events during spring and early summer would do fine. This could be achieved by persuading the fair officials of some of the better tracks to lease the fairgrounds for "still dates", i.e. race meetings not connected with the actual fair, which, again, was by no means a novel idea, but Hankinson took the concept one stage further by arranging a proper pre-fair season of racing events in the East, and to cap it all, he also introduced the "Hankinson Speedways Championship", or Hankinson Circuit for short, no doubt inspired by the doings on the Pacific Coast. The well kept track, good crowds and cooperative fair board at Reading convinced him to single out this town as the centre of his new activities. As a special boon, the Reading Fair people listened sympathetically when Pappy told them of his vision of night racing, and promised to help with the initial costs of setting up the track illumination - perfect! In early April of 1932, Hankinson Speedways proudly announced its schedule of ten pre-season dirt track races:

May 8, Reading, Pa.
May 22, Lehighton, Pa.
May 30, Flemington, N. J. and Brockton, Mass.
June 5, Reading, Pa.
June 12, Cumberland, Md.
June 19, Lehighton, Pa.
July 4, Bloomsburg, Pa. and Altamont, N. Y.
July 17, to be announced.

As we've come to expect, Pappy got all his sums right: entries began streaming in from all over the East Coast for the "Reading Inaugural", with many Midwesterners joining in, welcoming the chance to make early hay. About seventy had signed up by May 7, with additional entries expected to come in from nearby Langhorne, where a 50-miler was run that Saturday, giving Bill Cummings his fifth win of the still young season (he'd won four times in California already). Before noon on Sunday, more than sixty cars were at hand, and spectators were streaming in by the thousands - unfortunately, the rain was also streaming (down), and the races had to be postponed until the following Sunday - which actually turned out to be good for business, as many of the the racers from faraway locations decided to stay in town, since there was nothing else to do, and the presence of the drivers and racing cars only served to fuel the interest of the local populace. When the big day finally arrived, the sun and good fortune were smiling on Reading and Ralph Hankinson - the stands filled in no time at all! Time trials began at the early hour of ten, in an effort to weed out the large entry in time for the races in the afternoon - only nineteen would be allowed to compete in the heats and the consy, with ten the upper limit for the main event!

Amongst those to miss the cut were many former and future Indianapolis starters, such as Walt Brown, Gus Schrader, Paul Bost, Frank Farmer, Bert Karnatz, Mauri Rose and Gene Haustein. Fast time was made by Fred Frame in his two-man Duesenberg, the same car he had driven to second place in the 1931 Indy 500, and it was a new track record to boot: 28.8"! A late entry during the rain-delay, Zeke Meyer in Ed Yagle's ex-Lockhart Miller was next, also beating the previous record by Billy Arnold, then came a group of Midwesterners with Bryan "Socko" Saulpaugh, Shorty Gingrich, Jimmy Patterson and Billy Winn. The latter two were already well known in the East, but Saulpaugh and Gingrich were prime examples of the new wave of former IMCA and independent drivers from the heartlands (though Gingrich was originally from Florida, it seems), like Schrader and Rose, too, all of them having taken advantage of the unique AAA/IMCA affiliation the year before to break into the "big time". The rest of the "survivors" were Easterners, from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, of course. Sadly, the time trials were overshadowed by Reading Fairground's first fatality, 42-year-old Francis Timm of Old Forge in Northern Pennsylvania, who crashed his "Timm Special" into an iron fence and died shortly afterwards - it may well have been his first try at autoracing!

The races proper began after a short intermission with a couple of motorcycle races thrown in for good measure - Pappy always knew how to entertain a crowd. The fast heat saw Frame take another record from Arnold, at an even 60 mph gait, with Meyer and Winn following. Saulpaugh took the second heat in his little Krasek/Rajo, the car with which he had been so successful the previous fall, and his time was only eight tenths short of Frame's new record, and comfortably faster than the old one, too - Gingrich and Gordy Condon took the other two transfer spots for the final. New York veteran Ted Kessler was victorious in heat 3, followed by Guy Clapper and Malcolm Fox, and Bob Sall qualified for the main event by wining the 20-lap consy, breaking Bob Robinson's record for the distance by almost half a minute, and leaving Park Culp, Larry Beals, Harris Insinger and Bill Shoop out in the cold. Frame went straight into the lead in the main, followed by Meyer and Winn in his speedy Sejnost/Frontenac, who took second on lap 4, with Saulpaugh slipping by Meyer as well on the same lap. It must've been a sight to see the two little dirt track cars harrying the big Duesenberg all over the track, but Frame kept ahead by the slightest of margins, even when Saulpaugh replaced Winn as his main threat on lap 8. Seven circuits later, Winn retaliated, and by lap 25 it was noted how Frame had to revert to defensive driving to stay ahead, but stay he did, and within another five laps Winn had his hands full of Saulpaugh again - it was terrific stuff! Over the last ten laps, Frame parried all attempts by the little Fronty to spurt ahead, and finished out the winner by about a second, with Saulpaugh not far behind, and Gingrich a distant fourth. The time was another record, as it was the first race over twenty miles at the fairgrounds track, and the reporter of a local newspaper was so impressed that he thought it "may never be surpassed" - oh, how wrong!

More than 20,000 spectators had witnessed the events, some estimates going up as far as 25,000 - a sensational turnout, by any means. In fact, the Reading Inaugural races would soon develop a habit of crowds outnumbering even the fair races, very unusual for the times. Pretty soon, the event would establish a magic of its own, that of the Eastern Inaugural (or, Hankinson Inaugural), where one could get a glimpse of the new, exciting racing season after a long, dull winter - new cars, new drivers, sometimes new combinations of the same - "You saw it at Reading first!" The following day, an understandably enthusiastic Ralph Hankinson issued a press communiqué, stating that he would move his headquarters permanently to Reading, and publishing 45 dates for the coming fair season. He also modified the early schedule by cancelling the Cumberland meeting and moving the second Reading event into its place, thereby avoiding a clash with the National Championship race in Detroit, Michigan - clearly, he was hoping to attract more of the top line drivers after this initial success! For most of those, it was now time to head to Indianapolis, where another record entry of 72 was expected - an impressive number... until you learn that the next Langhorne race attracted 102 - one hundred and two!!!! If the "junk formula" was supposed to be the catalyst for the growth of the Indy 500, why was it that entries for dirt track races tripled or even quadrupled, while those at Indy barely doubled??

Being an ace promoter, Hankinson had already secured Fred Frame's entry for the second Reading race programme, of course, and on the heels of Fast Freddie's Indianapolis win, he also engaged Frame's car owner, Harry Hartz, to bring along the 500-mile race winning chariot to the Berks County capital for some exhibition laps. More than 50 other entries joined Frame and Hartz on June 12 at the Fairgrounds, only to discover that it rained in Reading, once again, and Pappy had to make some quick decisions - with another National Championship 100-miler scheduled for the following Sunday at Chicago's Roby Speedway, and an AMA motorcycle race at the local fairgrounds the same day, the racing season was already becoming a crowded one, and opportunities seemed to be slipping away. Luckily, though, the Reading Fair officials had been true to their word, and everything was in readiness for the inaugural of night racing, so Hankinson swiftly postponed the event until Thursday, June 16, with all the top drivers staying in town, and ample time for everybody to make the trek to the Windy City afterwards. After about two dozen time trials on Thursday evening, however, the rains returned yet again, and everything was put on hold until Friday night - fingers crossed!

Finally, the weather gods smiled on the racing community, and the programme went ahead as planned the next day, and how! Aided by the evening cool, track records tumbled by the half dozen, and action aplenty dizzied the somewhat sparse (by Reading standards) 5-digit crowd. Bert Karnatz, who'd tied Frame's qualifying record on Thursday already, was an early favourite, but Billy Winn shot into the lead from the "outside pole" in the first heat, and withstood ten laps of intense pressure by the Michigan lad to win, taking eleven seconds (!) from another Frame record. Before the next race, Hartz circled the track twice in his Miller-Hartz front drive, accompanied by none other than Barney Oldfield, and witnessed by the man himself, Harry Miller, and former Indy winner Joe Dawson. Then it was Saulpaugh's time to thrill the spectators, by coming from last into first in four laps, and riding out the remaining six still comfortably faster than the old record. During the 20-lap consy, an already agitated crowd went into a frenzy when leader Gordy Condon tangled with Bill Shoop while lapping him, sending the right rear wheel of the latter rolling down the frontstretch with the rest of the car following, Shoop bringing the three-wheeler safely to a halt at the pits. A minute or so later, a section of bleachers adjacent to the grandstands crashed, slightly injuring 23 spectators, and in the confusion Condon's win and yet another track record went almost unnoticed.

Not that it mattered too much, for the record was broken yet again in the very next race, the main event: Karnatz set the ball rolling, by covering the first two laps in 59 seconds, hotly pursued by Winn, but within another six laps both had to retire, leaving the lead to Saulpaugh, who made the first half of the 40-lap race in 9'49", then sped up to win in 19'32", despite puncturing a rear tyre against the inside fence and riding out the remaining three laps with a trail of sparks flying from the wheel - a nice effect for a night racing show! Condon came through from last place to finish second, another strong performance by the 31-year-old Altoona resident, followed by Johnny Moretti, Jimmy Patterson, Johnny Sawyer and Frank Farmer. Frame didn't stay around for the races - after having shipped his Duesenberg to Chicago during the week, and trying the Vieaux/Cragar on for size instead, the second postponement finally put paid to any hopes of having the Indy winner stay put, but he vowed to come back to make amends. Saulpaugh and Condon, the stars of the Friday night meeting, would be back, too, to defend their laurels, but in the case of the latter, fate sadly intervened: after crashing out of the main event at the postponed Bloomsburg races on July 9, Gordy went to Hollidaysburg, a few miles south of Altoona, four days later to try out a friend's racing car on the local horse track, crashing again but this time with fatal consequences.

Gordon J. "Gordy" Condon began racing in 1921, reportedly, but didn't make any headlines until competing in the first of five "semi-pro" races at the board track in his hometown, Altoona Speedway. On June 11 in 1927, twelve semi-professional racing drivers on dirt track cars started in a 50-mile race just before the National Championship 200-miler in the afternoon, for a purse of nearly $2,000. The rules were strict, as Jimmy Gleason found out, who had been entered in a Touring Car support race for the 200-mile National Championship race at Atlantic City five weeks earlier, and taken a few practice spins in a championship car there. After qualifying the former Tommy Milton LSR Miller for the 5th starting position at Altoona, he was barred from the race because of his earlier appearance as a "professional driver", and handed the car to Tommy Dawson, who promptly won the race. Condon started from the front row in a Frontenac special and finished 3rd, but was the last man running, many laps in arrears. He came back on Labor Day, to qualify the (Dewey) Closson/Dodge 15th and retire early in another 50-miler, won by Henry Turgeon in his Turgeon/Frontenac. Other Altoona "semi-pro" winners would be Earl Johnson (50 miles on Sep 3, 1928), Oliver Kley (20 miles on Oct 11, 1930) and Tony Willman (25 miles on July 4, 1931).

Meanwhile, Condon had become a "professional driver" himself, mainly as a result of the sinking of the SS Vestris in November of 1928! Frank Cramer, another resident of the speedway town of Altoona, and the owner of the Miller driven to 2nd place in that year's Indy 500 by Earl Devore, subsequently killed in the Vestris disaster, offered the car to Gordy for the 1929 running of the Indianapolis classic, only for Speed Gardner to "buy the ride" from under him. Three months later, Condon himself had found a backer to sponsor an entry at Altoona in the Miller formerly driven by Norm Batten, another Vestris victim. Gordy did very well with the Miller, and for the next two years became a regular in the AAA board and dirt track races, scoring at least four second place finishes at Woodbridge Speedway and many other top finishes, but apparently no wins, despite leading a number of main events. In 1931, he finally got his chance at the Brickyard in Ed Yagle's two-man car, fitted with the engine of the 1929 winner, but the little Miller was no longer competitive against other entries of almost four times the engine capacity, and Condon withdrew after completing only 3 qualifying laps. Three weeks later, he was very seriously injured at Langhorne Speedway, threatening to end his career, if not his life. But the tough Pennsylvanian was back at the circular track for the opening of the 1932 season, leading the eight-car team (!) of the Ambler Brothers from Germantown, a Philadelphia suburb. John and Bill Ambler had been building and running a number of Big Cars locally, mostly converted Fords, but in the early thirties they began turning out a series of "Hissos", Big Cars with converted WW1 surplus Hispano-Suiza aircraft engines. Condon's #1 "Ambler Special" may have been the very first Ambler/Hispano-Suiza, in any case he finished 6th in his comeback drive, laying to rest the "ghosts of Langhorne". He continued to impress until that fateful accident at Hollidaysburg, on a track that was not suited for racing cars.

Reading had been good to Hankinson, and so Pappy carded another meeting for his "reserved date", July 17. Not quite a weekly track, yet, but some sort of a "monthly routine", which called for something new to keep interest from flagging, and the promoter had exciting news for Reading: Bob Carey was to come, and to challenge Fred Frame! All through the summer of 1932, those two drivers and their heated battle for the National Championship (which also involved, to a lesser degree, Howdy Wilcox) made racing headlines all over the US, and promoters were falling over each other to sign one, if not both of them for their shows. There was no need to introduce the Indy winner to even the most remotely interested race goers, but Carey was a completely new name to the fans on the Atlantic seaboard, although he was pretty well known and respected in Midwestern independent racing circles. Like many of his colleagues, the Anderson (IN) native had taken advantage of the AAA/IMCA "truce" the previous year to "test the waters", found that he liked it, and headed off for California and a look at the Pacific Coast winter circuit. After a few races to "warm up", Carey found himself in the potent 8-cylinder Miller of former National Champion Louie Meyer, and proceeded to win two races on consecutive weekends, one of which a 100-miler at the new Oakland Speedway in the Bay area. Not content with this introduction, he stayed around after Meyer had left to prepare for the Indy 500, got another ride and won two more Oakland 100s, to the consternation of the AAA top stars, led by Wilbur Shaw, Ernie Triplett and Bill Cummings, who were trailing him in Pacific Coast Championship points in that order at the time. By early May, when it was time to head East for the annual extravaganza in the Hoosier capital, Triplett had managed to sneak ahead again into his customary number one slot, but that is beside the point: Carey had definitely made his point(s), and in the most impressive way! He was now "hot property"!!

Not one to let opportunity slip away, Louie Meyer had already made arrangements for Carey to drive his own "backup" car in the 500-mile grind. Contractually still bound to drive the big 16-cylinder Miller for his long-time sponsor and friend, Alden Sampson, the 1928 Speedway winner had built this car the year before as his main weapon for the dirt track races and Indianapolis "emergency spare" to fall back upon, which had worked out beautifully when the Sampson/Miller broke down in the early going, enabling Meyer to still finish 4th. Now, with Carey at the controls, the Meyer/Miller put its creator firmly in the shadow! After trailing his "teammate" for more than 100 miles, Meyer retired the Sampson/Miller with more engine trouble, but did not dare to call Carey in, as the Indy rookie was just about to take the lead! Unfortunately, Carey hit the wall just before half distance, and lost a big chunk of time for necessary repairs, which dropped him right out of contention, but he came back, undeterred, to finish 4th for a healthy dose of National Championship points. At this, Meyer decided to step back and let Carey have the car for the dirt track season, which, again, proved to be the right decision when the young Hoosier (who was actually only two months younger than Meyer) won two more 100-milers in the summer to crowd Frame for the National Championship lead! Additionally, while still in California, Carey had made arrangements for an associate, Frank McLain from Muncie (IN), to buy the Cragar Special that Clarence Tarbet had built to replace the 1927 Indy-winning Duesenberg chassis that had been wrecked in the fatal accident of Herman Schurch in November. This car had been one of the "stars" in the recently released Hollywood flick "The Crowd Roars", and with it Carey began to win regularly on dirt tracks in the Midwest. Ironically, Tarbet had been a long-time associate and car owner for Fred Frame in the latter's formative years, who was now beginning to feel the heat from Carey's driving!

But, sadly, not at Reading. Amongst the 38 cars lining up for time trials, there was no sign of Bob Carey, or the Tarbet/Cragar. The local newspaper bemoaned the short entry (for Reading standards) and poor attendance (still over 10,000), but the on-track action made up for those disappointments. Saulpaugh broke the track record in qualifying yet again (28.6"), and established a "day-time record" in the fast heat, but it was Billy Winn who overtook the Illinois ace early in the feature to take the 40-lap main. Frame and his two-car team of Indy 500 vehicles never got a look-in, pulling out himself late in the race when running only fifth, while Stubby Stubblefield in the spectacular "Catfish" crashed into the inside railing. Bob Sall came through for 3rd, his first top finish at the track, and Johnny Sawyer overcame a bad time trial and a disastrous start in the main to finish 4th. Jimmy Patterson (Katz=Miller/Duesenberg) and Frank Farmer (ex-Lockhart/Keech Yagle=Miller) completed the list of finishers, with Lloyd Vieaux and Harold Wright joining the two Frame entries on the sidelines. Amongst the non-qualifiers were five past and future Indy drivers, of whom Doc MacKenzie took the worst jolt: his fiery crash stopped the consolation race seven laps short of its scheduled distance, and send the driver to the local hospital for treatment of minor injuries - he didn't stay long enough to get married, however...  ;)

Exactly two months passed before the next Reading event, and it was a fairly eventful time if your name happened to be Fred Frame: a fortnight after the summer Reading race, he passed up an event in his former hometown Boston to race at the Kent-Sussex Fair in Delaware instead - maybe because he liked the track, having won there in 1931, or maybe because Pappy Hankinson needed him to bolster a poor field - anyway, he sent Stubby with the Catfish North, took his Duesey to the South and... crashed heavily, trying to outbrave Billy Winn into the first turn! Ironically, Winn had crashed twelve months earlier trying to wrest the lead from Frame - it was either crash or win with these fellows! At first, Frame appeared to have come out unscathed, except for the usual cuts and bruises, but when the pain wouldn't go away he consented to an X-ray days later - and discovered he'd broken several ribs! Now he was in trouble!! That Carey fellow had closed to within 50 points (the equivalent of a sixth place finish) in the National Championship with but one race left, and he had never finished worse than that in his entire career - which, admittedly, was only 4 races in toto, but then again, he'd won two out of the last three Championship dirt track races, and three out of five non-championship 100-milers - if he won again in that final race at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, the same track he'd won at back in June, Frame had to finish 3rd to be sure of the title, and that was only five weeks hence! Oh dear... For five long weeks, Frame experienced the agony of having two high-strung racing cars in his posession, and to have the choice of letting them sit or watch them being driven by someone else. To his credit, he chose the latter, and was rewarded with a nice 1-2 at Middletown (NY) on August 27. A week later, and he gained another triumph of sorts, a short respite: it rained in Detroit!! One more week of pain killers, and staying put in the hope of healing in time...

When the day of the final reckoning arrived, Frame had mobilized an army to call upon: he'd put Jimmy Patterson, who'd won with the Duesey at Middletown, into the Catfish, in addition to having his old buddy Harry Hartz wheel a brand new car (actually, the former "works" Miller V16, now rebuilt into a swb 16-valve four) for Bryan Saulpaugh to the line! But the results of the time trials were disheartening: Carey qualified on pole, with Fred's army down in 5th through 7th positions, the "captain" back in the rear after holding his breath for virtually the whole lap. He still needed a small miracle - and he got it! After running away with the main event for 59 of the 100 miles, Carey suddenly arrived at the pits with a puncture. By this time, Frame had already dropped to last, merely hanging on in the faint hope of a finish, nothing more than just the satisfaction of being able to say that he'd done everything that could've been done in his situation. But even though Frame was certainly in no position to mount a challenge, Carey was now having his work cut out trying to regain lost positions. Soon after, Patterson left the race with transmission trouble, but Saulpaugh held the fort and that vital 6th place to the finish, just ahead of the disappointed Hoosier challenger. Frame hung on and finished last, for a nibble of points, just in case they were needed, but the joy about the accomplishment was muted. Not only was he physically and mentally worn out after the ordeal, but he'd also heard of the latest rumours: back home in California, businessmen were in the throes of buying Oakland Speedway, in the hope of bringing Championship car racing back to the West Coast after an absence of more than five years. Many newspapers feted Frame as the new National Champion, but within little more than a month the rumours had become reality, an announcement that must have put a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon on Bob Carey's face...

But before that "final final" showdown in the West, the Eastern fair season was winding down in a beehive of activity: for Reading's race date on Saturday, September 17, Hankinson himself had scheduled two other events at Brockton (MA) and Altamont (NY), with Ira Vail promoting another meet at Mineola, Long Island. It was Vail, however, who attracted the best field, with Bob Sall, Jimmy Patterson, Doc MacKenzie, Joe Russo, Ken Fowler, Bob Carey and Lloyd Broshart making the main event, and such stars as Ralph de Palma, Russ Snowberger, Stubby Stubblefield, Freddie Winnai and Malcolm Fox failing to qualify! Pappy had to make do with what was left, and divide it by three: Billy Winn took the up-state New York event, while Fred Frame delighted his former townsmen with a feature win, so that the only genuine star left over for Reading was to be Bryan Saulpaugh, who duly won the time trials, fast heat and main event, the latter from Lloyd Vieaux, Bill Denver, Henry Ziegenthaler, Wes Johnson and Ted Kline. There were still 23 cars ready to take time trials, and apart from Ziegenthaler, a newcomer from Ohio, one other notable Reading rookie was 23-year-old Johnny Hannon from Conshohocken in Eastern Pennsylvania. Hannon, a former pugilist, who had been racing in area "outlaw" events for a couple of years and only very recently joined up with the AAA, had made a lot of people sit up and take notice only the weekend before by finishing 4th in two main events in New Jersey, Trenton on Saturday and Woodbridge on Sunday. Here at Reading, however, he missed the feature by finishing runner-up to Ziegenthaler in the consy, with only one transfer spot to the main event.

Reading's first racing "season" had been an unqualified success: the crowds had been good despite the hard times, the track had stood up well over the longer race distances for the still dates, and entries had been plentiful and of good quality. The faithful Reading fans had not only seen the Indy winner compete both before and after his big triumph, but also the winning car driven in an exhibition, manned by two legends of the sport. Many of the drivers competing in one or more of the four meetings had seen action on the Indy bricks, or were clearly going to in a few short years. And they had come from all over the US to race at the Berks County oval, from California, Missouri, Illinois and Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and all states of the Eastern seabord. Some of the fastest and most expensive cars in the nation had been exercised at the fairgrounds, and all track records had been lowered considerably during the year. Of the drivers, young Bryan Saulpaugh from Rock Island, Illinois, had been the most successful, running in all four feature races and finishing 3rd, 1st, 2nd and again 1st, duplicating the feat of the late Bob Robinson as a repeat winner. At 26, the Indianapolis front-row qualifier was considered to be one of the brightest future prospecs of the sport, but sadly, he was destined not to return to Reading, perishing in an accident in California the next spring. Nor would the Reading folks ever get to see the sensational Bob Carey driving, who suffered the same fate only six days earlier, and they had also seen the last of veteran driver Frank Farmer from Philadelphia, a two-time top 6 finisher at the fairgrounds, who had died along with fellow Philadelphian Bill Neapolitan as a result of a dreadful accident at the reopening of the old Woodbridge Speedway in August, now a dirt track. But even though the ranks were thinning, there was plenty of talent ready to step into the vacated shoes, and Reading was set to see them all in action - Ralph Hankinson would see about that. Life was good for a racing fan in Central Pennsylvania!

Edited by Michael Ferner, 23 October 2012 - 12:00.


#30 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 June 2012 - 12:43

Garner himself seems to have died in a fiery road accident in South Carolina on May 29 in 1926, during a "moonlighting" run with illegal whisky on board. His female companion on that trip was so badly burned, that it took 24 hours to ID her - it was not his wife, nor his daughter, Rosetta.

Equally obscure are the specifications or identities of the cars at Reading's first encounter with motor racing: nothing at all is known about the "Garner Special", or about the curiously named "Oldsmar Floridian" of Bob Robinson (a Dodge special?)...


Posted Image

No longer obscure is Bob Robinson's "Oldsmar Special", thanks to this newspaper article. And, since the local Dodge dealer saw fit to advertise a victory of the car in the following races at Tampa (FL), we can also safely assume it to have been Dodge powered, as already presumed. The same goes for the "Garner Special", as it was entered as a Dodge in the same races, and Garner himself is 99 % sure to have been the unfortunate victim of the moonshining accident (though the accident happened in broad daylight), since a man named Walter Purvis, brother-in-law of the deceased, was said to have made arrangements for the shipment of the body from Trenton (SC) to Jacksonville (FL). Walter Purvis was the real name of the well-known Jacksonville racing driver "Sam" Purvis. Purvis was originally from North Carolina, it seems, while Garner was said to hail from Savannah (GA). The name of his female companion was given as Lucile Kelloway from Jacksonville, which makes one wonder if she wasn't perhaps related to well-known racing brothers, L. J. "Foggy" and Buddy Callaway, who originally hailed from Macon (GA) and later also raced out of Florida.

Also very likely, the "Oldsmar Special" was later renamed the "Salerno Special", since its original name was due to sponsorship by an automobile dealer from Oldsmar with the pretty name Harry E. Prettyman, who may have simply withdrawn his sponsorship after the 1924 season.

Edited by Michael Ferner, 26 June 2012 - 12:51.


#31 Michael Ferner

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Posted 18 October 2012 - 15:23

Hello Michael,
Being a Brit, I am considered by some to have an unhealthy interest in American racing. Part of what I am interested in is the little publicised group of professional sports car drivers who raced under the SCODA banner in the 1950s and 1960s. I am aware that the group turned up at Reading Fairgrounds on 9th July 1957 for an evening event.
Could you add any meat to the bones for this event, and tell me if SCODA ever revisited Reading Fairgrounds please?
Regards
Terry


Terry,

Sorry for coming back to this so late, but my priorities are somewhat different  ;)

It seems your date for the SCODA Reading event was wrong; I found several references to a planned 25-lap race race on June 9, and the Reading Eagle issue of that day contained an article with a full (?) entry list. Here's a link to that article, and from there you can check other issues, perhaps for results.

http://news.google.c...A...ading&hl=en

Let me know if you need assistance.

#32 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 October 2012 - 20:46

Reading Fairgrounds, part 8: Points and Championships

From the perspective of today, it's difficult to imagine a world in which auto racing and point championships don't go hand in hand. Every little county track today keeps points, often in several classes and divisions, and declares its champions at least once a year, sometimes even seperating into spring, fall and/or mid-season championships. Even at the very top, race results mean nothing these days, and televison audiences usually drop off sharply when, say, the Formula One World Championship has already been decided before the last race of the season. The majority of people appear to think, "what's the point?", when the seemingly all-important adding up of championship points leaves no more questions to be answered. Some "anoraks" keep watching, because they want to know if driver X can move up from 5th into 4th in the final standings, but the incredulity about already crowned champions still competing is almost universal. Like a factory closing its doors for the year when the target turnover has been achieved by mid-November?? Luckily, so far, year-end races are not being axed from schedules on a regular basis, but the day can't be too far off. Racing, it seems, exists only to award seasonal championships, and individual race results and performances are minutely dissolved into one, viscous mash of insignificant matter that will, eventually, contribute to the overall goal, and (perhaps) glory. The age-old nuisance of the semi-interested question, "Who won?" is sure to be replaced by "What's the points" in the very near future...

Yet, at the same time, it's hard to think of more perfect bed mates than motor racing and point championships - the middle distance runner, as an example, may race many, many times a year, but he knows there will be one special race in which he may be crowned champion, and he can adjust his training to fit the schedule; and the same goes for virtually every sport man has ever devised. And so it was with motor racing, too, in the beginning: special events, like the Gordon Bennett Cup, the Grand Prix, the Vanderbilt Cup, the Grand Prize or even the Indy 500, were meant to crown the "kings of auto racing", and served as de facto championships in the days of yore. But there's one element in motorsports, namely the issue of mechanical reliability, that sets it apart from other sports, and though unquestionably a vital part of the competition itself, it was also soon a source of frustration and complaint on the part of the losers. The "what-if" scenarios entered the sport even before the first chequered flag was thrown (actually, many years before the flag was even "invented"), and with the complex realities of the mechanical device that is the centre piece of the sport of motor racing, those arguments easily outweighed the simple accusations of being a bad loser, or a "bad sport". For, the middle distance runner cannot blame anyone but himself if he can't deliver peak performance at the crucial moment, yet a test of stamina and speed in a motor vehicle will always, to a certain degree, depend on more or less accidental issues - and that was especially true of the very early contests, now more than a century ago.

The obvious solution to this dilemma is to create a series of similar events, and devise a way to arrive at some sort of an average performance - ergo, the points championship. But for one remarkable exception, of which more anon, it took quite some time to arrive at this solution, and arguably even a lot more to find a satisfactory one - even today, it needs only two passionate followers of the sport to get a good discussion going about the pros and cons of the various scoring methods! In Europe, there was no way for a points championship in any form to gain acceptance as long as there was only The Grand Prix in the "motherland" France, but as soon as similar events were proposed and even held in other countries, the idea of a "World Championship" was generated, and eventually put into use in 1925. In America, however, developments led more swiftly into this direction, starting with a series that has only very recently been "re-discovered" by ardent and meticulous historians. As early as 1905, the then still very "green" American Automobile Association sought to find a National Dirt Track Champion by staging a regular series of special events at some of the bigger dirt track meetings in the country. For various reasons, amongst them a near total apathy on the part of the car manufacturers and a bevy of quite serious accidents, the championship never created much of an awareness, and was abandoned possibly even before the year was out, but it did serve as a blue print for further "experiments", such as the car and driver rankings of the various motoring magazines in the early teens.

And it also highlighted another dilemma, one that was partly "imported" from the world of horse racing, to which auto racing always owed (quite naturally, one might add) much of its heritage: the question as to who the accolades belong to, the steed, owner or jockey! It didn't take long, however, for the general public to clearly state its preference for the driver (in direct contrast to the horse racing crowd which, to this day, has never shown more than a passing interest in the person handling the controls during the actual races), so much so that today, few of even the most enthusiastic aficionados appear to be bothered by the fact that all the "horses" in auto racing these days are mere clones of one another. Again, it takes a step back to look at this particular issue in a historical context to see how extraordinary it really is - and perhaps understand, why so many of the long-time followers of the sport have become estranged in the more recent years. Be that as it may, but for the immediate success of auto racing as a spectator sport, the fascination for the daredevil drivers was a very important element and a crucial help in establishing it as a crowd magnet, to an extent which the "breeders" (car manufacturers) could hardly have hoped to achieve with their products alone. From this point of view, the establishment of a championship focussed on the drivers becomes a natural, and when the Contest Board of the AAA introduced its initial scheme in the spring of 1916, namely two National Championships, one for drivers and one for car( make)s, it shouldn't surprise us to find that the public immediately took to the concept of the former, and ignored the latter completely. At some point, the AAA replaced the manufacturers championship with one for owners, but since this happened in total obscurity it is not known when this change took place.

Nor is it possible to make more than an educated guess about when and where the example set by the AAA was first followed, and by whom. To be sure, the IMCA (never one to miss an opportunity for PR) almost immediately began mimicking the AAA, and over the next two decades countless "outlaw" meets were promoted with the prospect of "points counting towards the dirt track championship" going to the winning driver, and interestingly only to the winner (except for perhaps a couple of cases when second place was deemed worthy of a nibble of points). Following these announcements, one gets the impression that IMCA officials pulled these points out of thin air, for there appears to be no rhyme nor reason behind those numbers, ranging anywhere from 3 to 1,000, seemingly regardless of race distance, track length or published purse figures! Frequently, mention was also made of National (or even World) Champion dirt track drivers appearing at IMCA meets, but the names attached to these titles were often inconsistent, and sometimes even contradictory. To the very best of my knowledge, no one has ever been able to produce intermediate or final point standings of IMCA championships prior to 1937, the year in which Alex Sloan passed away - an accident? The evidence suggests not, and that those early references to IMCA point championships were nothing more than the usual "Sloan Circus" ballyhoo.

Back in the real world, the first evidence of a non-AAA points championship can be found in connection with an obscure organization in Wisconsin, the Badger Motor Contest Club in 1923. Evidently the brainchild of racing promoter Grover Horn, the club held five races between June 10 and September 23 that year, one each at Jefferson, Sun Prairie and Janesville, bookended by a couple of meetings at the State Fair Park in West Allis, Milwaukee, to crown John B. "Jack" Mattes (~ 1897 - 1927, Aug 30) of Milwaukee its champion. It's doubtful whether Mattes kept any fond memories from that year, as he was involved in a gruesome accident at Janesville, when he hit a 14-year-old spectator who had run onto the track during the feature race. Mattes survived the accident almost unhurt, but the teenage boy was badly mangled and died on the scene. Such were the realities of racing back then, and within a week Mattes was back in harness, winning the final race and overhauling the erstwhile points leader, Leslie E. "Red" Parkhurst from Colorado, who'd come to the Badger State as a works rider for Harley-Davidson. The Janesville race also saw the emergence of another former motorcycle racer, finishing second in what may well have been his very first car race: Frank Brisko.

By the mid-twenties, the practice of finding a champion by keeping points had reached the West coast, where an independent club by the name of National Auto Racing Assoc. (NARA) staged regular meetings at various tracks in the "southland", including Ascot Speedway. Another track to host NARA events was the American Legion Speedway in Banning, a few miles east of San Bernardino. Managed and promoted by the Banning post of the American Legion, this track was probably the very first in the world to ever crown a points track champion (Barney Kloepfer in 1926), apparently using the NARA scoring method, which was based on the purse winnings of a driver. Without concrete information available, it seems that NARA (and Banning) simply added up the dollars won, i.e. awarded one championship point for every dollar in the purse. At the present time, the winner of the 1926 NARA points championship appears to be lost to history, but in 1927 it was apparently won by Bill Spence, and in 1928 by Jack Buxton.

Around that time (1927), Arthur C. "Art" Pillsbury had taken over from Val Haresnape as the AAA Pacific Coast representative, and was trying to establish a AAA dirt track circuit in the West in accordance with the new (post-1924) policy of the Contest Board. Pillsbury was perhaps the most bureaucratic official of that most bureaucratic organization, but he was also a shrewd tactician, and a clever businessman. He must've seen the advertising potential of the "Pacific Coast Championship", the name chosen by the NARA for its points title, and succeded in impressing the importance of that scheme on the Contest Board, who gave their approval to a series of races to determine a regional AAA champion, starting in 1929. At the same time, the de facto continuation of the NARA championship with the added prestige of the sanction by the national racing authority must've been a big help in attracting the local drivers, inducing them to switch camps en masse - the new "AAA Pacific Southwest Championship" was a rousing success from the word go! The continuation theme was also apparent in the chosen scoring method, which also attributed points according to race winnings, only that the AAA, efficient as ever, limited the variables by adopting a formula that related the number of points to be scored to the race distance of each individual contest: two points per mile were to be divvied up in the same proportion as the respective purse. Thus, the (in)famous decimal-point Pacific Coast scoring "tradition" was born, subsequently copied by non-AAA clubs for many years.

One other effect of the complicated scoring method was the inability of the race-going crowd to keep up to date on the points situation without help, prompting the promoters to furnish full point standings in the printed race programmes for every meeting, which no doubt helped selling them in numbers. This, in turn, kept the AAA and the unfortunate soul responsible for the updating of the standings (quite likely, Pillsbury himself) on their toes, and had the nice side effect of keeping the names of every driver, who had ever won a dime on the circuit, in "circulation", provided he remained "in good standing" with the AAA, that is. The whole, seemingly unnecessary excessive attention to detail actually seemed to work to the advantage of everyone who was involved - amazing! And another innovation also soon paid dividends: apart from the "traditional" titles and trophies for the champion driver and owner, another two cups were going to be awarded to the best appearing pit crew, and the most beautiful car, both of which were judged by a panel of changing members at each and every event, points awarded and standings published the same way as for the championship. The overall effect of this was a complete change of image for the dirt track racing crowd, who were now "dressing up" for the races instead of putting on oil-stained overalls, and took an active interest in the design and appearance of the cars as well, which soon showed in lots of chrome and fanciful paintwork.

It took three years for the idea to travel back across the continent, to the headquarters of the AAA in Washington (DC) and their eastern circuit. Why? Well, for one thing probably because of the large difference between the two regional circuits, both qualitative and quantitative: on the "left" coast, the whole series centred around Ascot Speedway and its (almost) weekly shows, which was generally supported by no more than four or five other tracks, running no more than a dozen races a year, at best. With a total amount of about fifty races, evenly spaced out over twelve months due to the generous weather in the area, and no clashing dates to take care of, it was "easy-peasy" to maintain points tables and a coherent order of proceedings. Things looked very different in the East, however, with usually about fifty races in the Hankinson circuit alone, and most of them crowded into a two- to three-month period during the fair season, clamouring for attention with several other race promotions. The thought of keeping points to the second decimal for the threehundred-odd drivers in the area must have been intimidating, to say the least! This was, eventually, taken care of by a new scoring method, without decimals (except for the odd occasion) and a more basic formula: instead of taking care of the multitude of different purse structures, the Eastern Circuit points would be awarded to a fixed number of finishers, depending on race distance, and irrespective of monetary winnings at all. This was far easier to follow, but still, with the large number of events on the schedule it was a daunting task for the auditor. Taking a leaf from the Pacific Coast book, regular points updates were published (usually semi-monthly, it seems), but with the hectic schedule during the season promoters had little chance to print anything close to up-to-date points in the programmes, so that in the end the AAA was dependent on the press to spread the word - with minimal success, sadly.

Whether it was the press refusing to co-operate, or the AAA not yet having latched onto the idea of issuing bulletins, the inaugural Eastern Circuit Championship somehow appears to have been competed for in total obscurity! Some historians even believe that the 1932 season was just a "trial year", and that the championship proper did not start until 1933. Be that as it may, a couple of local newspapers in the Woodbridge (NJ) area did publish point standings that year for a track championship of the AAA-sanctioned Woodbridge Speedway, and using the same scoring method (albeit only for the main events) that would be used by the AAA to determine the Eastern and Midwestern regional champions until WW2. Today, some sources claim that Bryan Saulpaugh won the eastern title in '32, but evidence for that is hard to find in period sources. Even more obscure (if possible!) is the claim of Bob Carey to an assumed 1932 midwestern championship, and despite some effort, I have not been able to find any mention of only just a winner for the Hankinson Circuit Championship, despite it having been grandly announced at the start of the season. It is almost as if all the good intentions were eventually drowned in serious mix-up somewhere along the way, and the AAA (and Hankinson) hoped to escape embarrassment by avoiding to proclaim a titlist! The whole situation cannot have been helped by the fact that both Carey and Saulpaugh died in racing accidents during the winter racing season in California, so that any promotional benefit of their respective achievements was lost in any case. A sad and unsatisfactory situation, but alas, that seems to be the total knowledge available today!

Edited by Michael Ferner, 25 November 2012 - 15:29.


#33 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 November 2012 - 17:39

Reading Fairgrounds, part 9: A Hometown Hero?

Johann Georg Hinterscheid was born in April of 1724 in Feilbingert, a little village in the Nahe vinyard region of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. Reliable sources are difficult to find, but it is possible that he was actually born on the Stolzenberg, a bare mountain (!) a few miles south of Feilbingert (more likely, he was born in the Stollenbergweg in said village), or that his surname was actually spelled Hinterschied, a very rare name in Germany today - you can count the members of that tribe on the fingers of one hand! Married in 1746 to Maria Katharina (birth name unknown), the pair embarked on the ship Edinburgh at Rotterdam, arriving in Philadelphia on September 15, 1749 to start a new life. Their first child, Jacob was born in Philadelphia the following year, and the young family soon moved to rural Alsace Township in Berks County, near Reading, and from there to neighbouring Oley. Jacob married Catherine Schepler on June 12, 1774, and their first child, Heinrich was born two years later. Heinrich, who spelled his surname Hinterschit(t), was married to Maria Magdalena Faust in the early years of the 19th century, and they had twelve or thirteen children born in 15 years. Heinrich was a remarkable man, by all accounts, owning several "valuable" farms and also a distillery. Their third (or fourth) child, born December 11, 1808 after twin sons the year before, was Conrad, who would adopt the spelling Hinnershitz like all of his siblings. He married Mary Ann Gibson in the thirties, and they had between nine and thirteen children, according to different sources. Their first son, after up to four daughters, was Reuben Wellington (or Walter) "Rufus" Hinnershitz, born in 1844. Rufus married Mary A. Wahl in the early seventies, and together they had eleven children, the youngest son being named Allen Wellington "Allie" Hinnershitz, born in August of 1890. Allie married Florence Esther "Floss" Feeg on September 23 in 1911, when Floss was already pregnant with their first child. It was a boy, and he was born the following spring, on April 6. The proud parents named him Thomas Paul Hinnershitz, but everybody soon learned to call him "Tommy" - yes, "our" Tommy!

Like all of his ancestors, Tommy was born into a life of farming, and that's what he did on his father's farm in Muhlenberg Township, to the north of Reading, when he did not actually dream of being a racing driver. The often hard, physical work kept him in good trim, though, and he was a strong and muscular guy, even as a teenager, and it also apprenticed him in all things mechanical, doing repair work on the farming equipment. Not a bad schooling, all things considered. But, all through his teenage years, he'd made up his mind that farming wasn't going to be his vocation - at least not the only one! In the spring of 1933, he finally - finally! - turned twenty-one, and was now eligible to apply for a racing driver's licence with the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association, the national sanctioning body that was sponsoring all the racing events at the fairgrounds track in downtown Reading, just a short stroll from his home in Laureldale. And in exactly 24 days, all the big AAA stars were expected to arrive for the big Inaugural Sweepstakes and another, new and exciting season: Fred Frame, Billy Winn, Freddie Winnai, Doc MacKenzie, Jimmy Patterson, Malcolm Fox and many, many more - over fifty entries had been filed, despite the unusually early date, just a fortnight after Easter Sunday! Hinnershitz was realistic enough to know that he wasn't going to challenge these pros for a win with his home-built Ford Model T racer, equipped with a Laurel-Roof racing head - not yet, anyway - but before the actual racing heats commenced at three in the afternoon, he was in for a rude shock: amongst the 30 cars taking part in the preliminary time trials, he finished dead last, and by some margin at that! Circling the half-mile track in 36.2", just short of 50 mph average speed, he was a full second slower than sophomore AAA driver Gus Zarka from Doylestown, just a few miles to the east, in his Lycoming special, who was 29th and himself a full second slower than 28th place - what a bummer!

Topping the list of qualifiers was the 25-year-old Bob Sall from New Jersey, quite a surprise. Sall had been racing with the AAA for about five years and even winning a handful of races before he really came to the attention during the 1932 season, winning no fewer than seven races on the Eastern Circuit, and nosing out the heavily favoured Bryan Saulpaugh for the track championship at Woodbridge Speedway, while driving for New Jersey's horsepower wizard Carl R. "Pop" Green. Over the winter, Sall had switched camp and was now driving for another New Jersey owner, Sexton W. "Sex" Perriman, in a Vance special, built by Johnny Vance in Ohio and formerly driven by Mauri Rose, Herman Schurch and Joe Russo. His time of 29.0" (62 mph) was not a record, but good enough to beat fellow New Jerseyan Lloyd Broshart, now driving for Green, and the crowd-pleasing Billy Winn in his Sejnost/Frontenac. Best homestater was Johnny Concannon in fourth, but Reading's very own Russell Spohn had failed to qualify for one of the 19 spots in the heat races. Spohn, in his fourth year of AAA competition, was hoping for the big break in his own Chrysler special, after a promising 1932 season which had seen him finish 7th at the opener in Langhorne, and 7th fastest in the time trials for the Reading Fair races. Back in September, his hometown fans had cheered him lustily, and commiserated with him after he'd crashed out of the main event - now he wouldn't even be able to start in the consy! That event was eventually won by Park Culp from nearby Allentown, who thus tagged onto the starting field for the feature race, giving the Reading fans at least something to cheer about during the main event. Oh, for a genuine and competitive hometown boy to show up the "carpetbaggers"!

At the sharp end of the field, Billy Winn soon made amends for his "poor" qualifying performance, by taking the lead on the first lap of the fast heat, and winning going away; then repeating the feat in the feature. Broshart and Fox ran second and third virtually throughout, and Concannon took fourth after winning the second heat from MacKenzie and Patterson, who also followed him home in the main event. Engine trouble stopped Sall (after winning heat 3), Culp and Bill Denver, while New York sports writer-turned racing driver Bill Troutwine failed to get away on account of ignition trouble. Fred Frame's big two-man Duesenberg/Miller had conked out in hot laps, continuing the streak of bad luck for the Indy winner following his defeat in the National Championship race in California during the winter, and the net result of that was a virtual walkover for the "Kansas City flash". At the end of the day, 18,000 spectators mixed cheers with boos to show their disappointment at what had turned out to be a rather listless event. It certainly hadn't been Winn's fault, but the feisty little driver from the "show me" state was now more determined than ever to "show them" - see you again in June!

During the seven week interval between the Reading Inaugural and Spring meetings, newcomer Johnny Hannon won four main events, three of which in succession, and took a commanding lead in the Eastern Circuit Championship. By winning two apiece, Winn and Sall just barely kept in touch, but Hannon's point total in mid June was already bigger than those of his two closest competitors combined! Both Hannon and Sall elected to compete at Woodbridge on June 18, leaving Winn to once again head the field at Reading - but another 50-plus entry was indication enough that it wasn't going to be a walk in the park. For one thing, Fred Frame was back, armed (with his potent Duesenberg/Miller) and dangerous (with a new track record in qualifying, 28.2"!). Winn was second (28.8"), and Broshart, Concannon, Ohio's Ken Fowler and veteran Ted Kessler from upstate New York all time-trialed in half a minute or less. Three crashes during qualifying had already decimated the field when these six drivers lined up for the fast heat at 3:00 pm, and at 3:01 that number had been doubled: going into turn 3 on the first lap, Frame was leading Winn by a slim margin, then hit the inside fence with his left front wheel, and spun to a halt, blocking the track! With lightning reflexes, Winn steered around the stricken Indy car, barely avoiding the outside wall during the resulting slide, and motored onwards to a red flag, as behind him all hell broke loose: in taking evasive action, Broshart hit the wall hard, smashing a wheel and bending the axle, although he was still able to pull up at the pits. But Concannon was less lucky, his mount hitting the two-man car head-on, ricocheting high into the air before crashing down on the concrete wall and turning over. Both Fowler and Kessler somehow escaped the melee, and before long the crowd rushed onto the track and to the scene, where rescuers freed Concannon from his predicament and loaded him into an ambulance.

Though seriously injured, Concannon would race again before the year was out, but the month of June had been incrediby unkind to his family: only a fortnight earlier, his mother had been hit by a thrown wheel from a racer while sitting in the grandstand at Langhorne Speedway, breaking her shoulder! Then, and as if fate was out to mock them, only minutes before Johnny's own accident, his teenage brother had fallen from a fence while watching the time trials, breaking his left wrist!! [By the way, twenty-eight years later, that same little brother would make it to auto racing's Taj Mahal, the Indy 500 - as a car owner!] Compared to that litany of woes, Frame's plight looked almost trivial, but in any case he was finished off for the day yet again before he had really started it, and with a wrecked car at that - ouch! With the fastest three of his rivals out, Winn could hardly believe his luck as he sailed through the rerun of the fast heat and another flag-to-flag feature success, this time without the boos, as the (relatively) slim crowd got its fair share of excitement, with several more accidents in the heats and consy, and some good scraps for position behind Winn. Fowler eventually finished runner-up to him twice, with Doc MacKenzie taking third in the main event from the New York state trio of Kessler, Hank Gritzbach and Otto Burdick, the latter also winning the third heat. Other heat winners included Lloyd Vieaux from California and Ben Shaw from New Jersey (consy), while the local fans once again rooted in vain for their favourites: Russ Spohn had been injured during the same Langhorne event that put Mrs. Concannon on a hospital cot, and entered his Chrysler special for a teenage rookie at Reading, racing with a forged licence: Ted Nyquist. The local product didn't disgrace himself, nor his car owner, by qualifying 24th in a field of 32, and looked to be a bright prospect for the future. Three places lower in the ranking, Tommy Hinnershitz had improved his lap time to 32.6", but the message was clear: he needed a more competitive car! No point in risking life and limb in a home-built Tin Lizzy, when a teenage boy can outrun you even in a half-decent mount. Tommy knew he had much to learn, both as a driver and as a mechanic - better to tackle one problem after the other...

During the summer, Hinnershitz succeeded in landing a "ride" with the team of Allentown car owners Paul Kolson and Sandy Novak, who campaigned an old, apparently circa 1925 rocker-arm Model T Fronty-Ford that had seen quite a bit of success during the old days of the NMRA, with drivers like Ben Shaw (who probably built it in the first place) and Malcolm Fox, it seems. Later, Bob Sall and Bill Neapolitan may have used it in AAA competition, before Kolson got it and gave it to Doc MacKenzie, who did quite well with it during the 1931 season, including a fourth-place finish at its owner's hometown fair. The Doc soon moved on to find better rides, and Kolson put a young driver from Harrisburg into the car, but Ted Kline found the going a bit tough, although he did manage a sixth-place finish with it at the Reading Fair in 1932. Still, by the following year it had become clear that the "old nail" was no longer competitive, and Kolson failed to attract a driver with decent credentials, so giving it to a freshman with lots of desire seemed like a good idea at the time. And young Tommy grabbed this opportunity by the scruff of the neck, placing in several heat races and even qualifying for one main event, at Lehighton in the fall. This was hardly a breakthrough, no kidding, but at the very least it afforded him the chance to get some racing mileage under his "hoofs", and avoid the very public embarrassment of "loading up" immediately after the time trials again and again, with only a few "hot laps" in the warm-up practice period to show for. This was payback time, in a currency that was essentially priceless: confidence! Confidence in himself, in his abilities as a driver, and in pushing a car relentlessly to its limits, without the ever present thoughts (for an owner-driver) of time and money spent on repairs. That was worth far more than the fifty, perhaps sixty or seventy dollars of winnings he made during the year, or the one-and-a-half dozen points scored for a ranking just inside the top 100 drivers of the AAA Eastern Circuit, however welcome they may have been as an indication of his presence amongst the "big boys", and his modest progress.

And speaking of points, the competition for the Eastern Circuit championship was warming up nicely as the teams and drivers reconvened at the Reading Fair in September, although Billy Winn for one had lost contact with the leaders after crashing at Afton in the Southern Tier of New York in mid August, slightly injuring himself. He was out for only about a month, but that was enough for Hannon and Sall to draw away considerably, and make it a "two-horse race", as the events were now coming thick and fast - Afton had been round 23 of the championship, and Winn didn't reappear until the Altamont race on the Friday before Reading, round 39! At the time of the accident, Hannon still had a lead of about 200 points over Sall and Winn, who were just about even, and a goodly 100 markers ahead of the pack, led by Jimmy Patterson, Lloyd Vieaux, Bob Hahn and Doc MacKenzie. Ken Fowler, Lloyd Broshart and Tee Linn completed the top ten at the time. Both Sall and Hannon scored about 300 points during Winn's enforced absence, but it had been noticeable that the New Jerseyan was beginning to gain the upper hand, winning six races (including Afton) against two for Hannon - the only reason why the latter was still keeping his edge was that one of his wins came at a point-laden 50-miler at Langhorne, a race that Sall had passed up on, knowing full well that Hannon and his (Gus) Strupp/Miller (marine) were nigh unbeatable at the "Big O". At the half-mile tracks, such as Reading, however, Sall was beginning to look unbeatable!

Nor was it Sall alone who was taking away valuable points from the "Conshohocken flash", as the Altamont race had actually been won by Midwesterner Johnny Gerber, who had invaded the Eastern Circuit with his two-car team from Iowa during the summer months. Sall had managed to pass Winn on the last lap for second, with his new team mate Chuck Tabor fourth, and Hannon down in fifth after crashing in the fast heat and needing the consy to qualify for the feature. Still, he had to overtake four Indy 500 veterans to climb that high in the ranking, with Chet Gardner, Fred Frame, Doc MacKenzie and Freddie Winnai following him home, showing the class of the field during this part of the season! Of those, only Frame and Gardner gave the Reading event a miss, but their absence was hardly noticed with the added entries of Joe Russo (in Deacon Litz's two-man Indy car), Harris Insinger (in the potent Drake/Winfield), Lloyd Vieaux, Ben Shaw and Maynard Clark. The latter was usually driving Gerber's second car, but this was laid up with an engine failure the previous weekend, so he drove Leo Krasek's fine little car, twice a winner at Reading in 1932 with Bryan Saulpaugh up. Winn broke the absent Frame's track record in qualifying by one fifth of a second (28.0"), and Sall equalled that time a few minutes later, with MacKenzie and Gerber (both at 29.0") pushing Hannon (29.2") back into fifth, once more. Russo, Clark (both at 29.6"), Insinger, Tabor and the surprisingly competitive Ted Nyquist (all at 29.8") completed the top ten, with Vieaux (30.2") leading the rest and Hinnershitz (32.2") once again out of it, after making 24th time in this high-class field (less than a second slower than Winnai, by the way, who also missed the cut!).

The heats went pretty much "according to plan" (i.e. qualifying times), except for Winn who spent about half an hour in the pits, trying to cure a minor engine ailment, finally getting ready in time to join the field for the third heat, and winning that in record time (4'45.0") to show that it would be foolish to count him out already, the same way that Sall had overcome engine trouble during hot laps to strike when it really counted. Minutes later, Nyquist delighted the hometown folks by winning the consy and taking the last transfer spot, thus making sure that it would be the ten fastest cars from the time trials that would start the tenth Greater Reading Fair Classic over the new distance of 30 laps, 15 miles, before "one of the largest crowds in the history of local racing". Sall jumped into an immediate lead, but Winn was right there on his heels, and after four laps of intense pressure slipped by going into the first turn. For four more laps, the New Jersey title hopeful kept within striking distance, but then Winn started to widen the gap, and by half-distance was more than five seconds clear of his pursuers. In the meantime, Hannon had been coming up through the field, and by lap 20 was putting the pressure on Sall, with Russo and Clark close behind - terrific stuff! But, try as he might, Hannon was unable to pass Sall, and with the laps ticking away he became impatient, even reckless: finally, on the penultimate lap, he made an all-out attempt that failed, putting him into the fence, for the second time in three days - quite clearly, Sall's charge was beginning to "rattle his cage"! MacKenzie continued to impress by passing both Clark and Russo during the closing stages, and finishing a strong third behind Sall, who made up another 20 points on Hannon. But it clearly had been Billy Winn's day in the sun, as he crossed the finish line some fifteen seconds ahead of the field for his third straight main event at the Reading Fairgrounds, and his fourth overall. Undefeated at the local track for a full year now, he also held the track records for 1 lap, 10 laps and 30 laps (14'44.8"), with only the 20- and 40-lap marks missing, still held by the late Bryan Saulpaugh. Hail to the new King of Reading!!

King or not, there was no way in the world that Winn was going to overhaul Sall and Hannon in the point standings, so it was left to those two to fight it out on the homestretch of the racing season. The next Saturday, Hannon again wrecked his mount, this time during hot laps at Mineola on Long Island, and it even put him in hospital, if only for the weekend. Meantime, Sall beat Chet Gardner and Maynard Clark (back in the Gerber) in New York, then finished second to Joe Russo the next day at Woodbridge to move within 100 points of the Pennsylvanian! Neither had much luck over the following two weekends, but then Sall rattled off a series of four wins in a fortnight in the Carolinas to take a pretty decisive lead in the standings going into the final meet at Richmond, Virginia, on a bitterly cold Armistice Day: 1054 points to 1010, meaning that Hannon pretty much had to make a clean sweep with Sall failing to score - it didn't happen. The new champion was crowned even before the main event started, and thus Sall couldn't have been too disappointed by retiring after leading up to half distance, while Winn was there to pick up the pieces, and his tenth feature of the season. It also netted him the Hankinson Circuit Championship, and with it a $1,000 purse, as well as third in the AAA Eastern standings, albeit far behind Hannon, who closed his season with a third-place finish behind Ken Fowler, who himself secured third in the Hankinson ratings behind Bob Sall, the new Eastern Champion.

Edited by Michael Ferner, 25 April 2013 - 20:20.


#34 Michael Ferner

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Posted 25 April 2013 - 20:49

Reading Fairgrounds, part 10: The Midget Revolution

Most authors and fans will tell you that the first ever Midget race was run on June 4 in 1933 at the Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, California, but that is a bit like saying that Christopher Columbus discovered America, and ignoring the many hundreds or even thousands of generations of early settlers coming from Asia. And much like the theories about early American settlement, the real history of Midget racing in the USofA is still far from fully researched and resolved, as is, in fact, the question of what constitutes a "midget racing car" in the first place!

#35 Calhoun

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Posted 26 April 2013 - 03:06

You may be interested in a few pictures of Tommy Hinnershitz from my archives.

Posted Image

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#36 Michael Ferner

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Posted 26 April 2013 - 13:21

Yes, thank you! Somewhat poignant to see Tommy standing in the mall that replaced his home track, seventy years after it all began, and only one-and-a-half years before his death. I wonder what his feelings were when he went shopping!!

The action shot is from 1957, the last year Tommy drove his own Hillegass/Offy; and Thomson is in the Traylor=Beal/Offenhauser. Probably the season inaugural on March 31, or possibly the Mike Nazaruk Memorial in June - either way, Johnny won the main event.

#37 Nigel Beresford

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Posted 27 April 2013 - 08:57

Yes, thank you! Somewhat poignant to see Tommy standing in the mall that replaced his home track, seventy years after it all began, and only one-and-a-half years before his death. I wonder what his feelings were when he went shopping!!


Probably utter depression. The Reading Fairgrounds Square Mall was a dreadful, drab, ugly and soulless place. The only good thing about it was the road that ran past it to Nazareth.

Edited by Nigel Beresford, 27 April 2013 - 08:59.


#38 Calhoun

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Posted 28 April 2013 - 02:35

Mr. Beresford is correct about the Mall.
On the couple of occassions that I had the pleasure of speaking with Tommy, he was anything but depressed. He could share remarkable details about races that happened 40-50 years ago. His race accounts always seemed to include "...and then I went to work."

He carefully signed a can of Miracle Power I brought along as a joke. It has pride of place in my display case.

What a delightful person.


#39 Michael Ferner

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Posted 11 December 2013 - 21:11

Reading Fairgrounds, part 5: AAA comes to Town

(...)

 

Before the AAA boys returned for the annual fair in 1929, one other competitive event took place on the Reading Fairgrounds, directed by former AAA driver and promoter Edmund G. "Eddie" Yost, who arranged for the purchase of eight "1929 model stock cars" (a Ford, Chevrolet, Whippet and Plymouth each in the "$800 class", and a De Soto, Essex, Durant and Pontiac each in the "$1,000 class") for local amateur drivers to compete in several races, along with other races for motorcycles and cars for "non-professional drivers", including a 10-mile "free-for-all" as the main event. The meeting took place on Independence Day, and apparently was part of a small series, as a similar event was staged at the neighbouring Allentown Fairgrounds on Labor Day. Despite extensive publicity, the meeting attracted "only" 5,000 spectators, and was never repeated. Reports of the races were heavily slanted towards the competing touring cars, with but little attention given to the racing cars, but it appears that our Tommy was a winner in one of the 5-mile preliminaries. The main event may have gone to former AAA and NMRA driver Bill Sauerhoff of Delaware.

 

Update/correction: the Independence Day meet in 1929 was won by Bill Shoop of York, Penna., and not Bill Sauerhoff! Possibly driving in his very first race, Shoop defeated no-name drivers Paul Lesisko and Paul Mohr in a Chrysler special, making the 10 miles in 11'54" (50.4 mph). Future Chrysler special driver, Russ Spohn won two of the six touring car races in the Chevrolet, but lost out in the 5-mile final to the Ford after an accident. Both Shoop and Spohn would become regulars of the AAA Eastern circuit the following year. And yes, Tommy Hinnershitz, all of seventeen years old, won the Model T race, 10 laps in 7'44" (38.7 mph), from unknown David Wales and Clarence Hiester (probably, in fact, future Central Pennsy "outlaw" Duer Hiester or Heister) - the first of many, many trophies for the Laureldale kid!! :) :)



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#40 sramoa

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Posted 08 February 2014 - 20:57

Do you have got results from 1929 and 1931 Reading Fair events?



#41 Michael Ferner

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Posted 09 February 2014 - 11:00

See post #27, last paragraph. That's all I currently have.

Edited by Michael Ferner, 09 February 2014 - 11:00.