Monday, May 22, 2017

Can our readers help solve 
a Hank Blum chassis mystery?  

The Hank Blum story by Kevin Triplett

7/31/17 updated with detailed photos of the chassis to hopefully identify this car

The aircraft industry and specifically Lockheed Aircraft was fertile training ground for mid-century race car builder and fabricators. Legendary car builder AJ Watson worked there and met engineer Henry “Hank” Blum  from Studio City California who along with fellow Lockheed engineer Leroy Payne “engineered” the original AJ Watson “Pots and Pans Special” championship car officially known as the “City of Glendale Special.” The city did not actually have anything to do with the program, but Watson’s shop and many of Watson’s buddies including Blum that helped and chipped in parts and money lived in and around Glendale.

Dick Rathmann qualified the car 18th for the 1950 Indianapolis 500-mile race but finished 32nd after the crankshaft broke in the Offenhauser engine built with other team’s cast-off parts. Hank Blum, Payne, Jud Phillips and Ronnie Ward among others worked as Watson’s volunteer crew which had better results at Milwaukee and Langhorne, before Joe James replaced Rathmann as the driver when the team picked up sponsorship from Lincoln Mercury dealer Bob Estes.  

1951 Joe James drove the “Pots and Pans” machine at Indianapolis but finished last with a broken driveshaft. James drove nine more races in 1951 for the Watson/Estes combination and followed Watson when he went to work for the Jack Zink team after the 1951 Detroit race. In 1952 Jim Rigsby qualified the Estes sponsored Watson upright in third starting position and finished 12th. In 1953, Don Freeland crashed the “Pots and Pans” machine on lap 76 in turn four.  

It is unclear when he built it, but in 1956 Hank Blum entered his own “long wheelbase” Wayne headed GMC-powered chassis, which could race as either a championship car or a sprint car. The car was entered in a May 25 1956 sprint car race for Chuck Hulse held on the Willow Springs road course. Hulse qualified the Blum car more than 2 seconds a lap faster than the next qualifier, but after he won the feature by over a lap, he was penalized for a jump start and placed second behind Danny 'Termite" Jones.

1956 news photo provided by Lee Hulse

Hulse obtained a United States Auto Club (USAC) license and drove the Blum car in the Pike’s Peak Hill climb. In the first of the Pikes Peak sanctioned non-points race, Hulse failed to finish his run up the mountain. 

Chuck crashed 1/4 of the way up the hill and landed upside dangling above a huge drop off. Chuck now 90 years young, say "it could have been worse."  

The #77 “Blum Engineering Special” returned to Pikes Peak the following year for driver Frank Sanborn who finished ninth, as he drove in place of Hulse who raced instead at a CRA (California Racing Association) sprint car event.  

Betty and Chuck Hulse at Pikes Peak in 1958
Photo provided by Lee Hulse

Over the winter of 1957-1958, Watson was itching to make more money by building additional cars beyond what the Zink team needed, and in a financial partnership with Hank Blum built a roadster chassis “on spec” which was entered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway under Blum’s name.

The new roadster was sold to Lee Elkins and Dick Rathmann proceeded to put the ‘McNamara Special’ on the pole position for the start of the 1958 Indianapolis ‘500.’ On race day after a confusing start procedure with the 33 cars leaving single file from the pit area, Rathmann and Zink’s driver Ed Elisian eliminated themselves involved in the notorious turn three first lap wreck that took the life of Pat O’Connor.  

In 1958 at Pike’s Peak Hulse returned as the driver of the Blum/GMC car and finished eighth, then the ‘Blum Engineering Special’ missed the starting field at Sacramento. During 1959, after Hulse had trouble finding a regular CRA ride, Blum pulled the chassis out of storage and Hulse won CRA two features.

First 1959 CRA win victory lane photo
provided by Lee Hulse 

Those victories which earned Hulse a shot in the new Roger McCluskey-built 270-cubic inch Offenhauser powered Alex Morales-owned “Tamale Wagon” with which Hulse captured the 1959 CRA championship.  Hulse and Blum used the same “combination” chassis configured as a championship car at Sacramento and Phoenix but they missed the show at Phoenix and broke early during the race at the old California State Fairgrounds track.

In 1962,  Hank Blum used a set of drawings he had engineered for Watson to build his own 4-torsion bar suspended dirt car chassis which appeared as the #78 ‘Blum Engineering Special’ for Chuck Hulse at the Hoosier Hundred , Sacramento and Phoenix , the three final dirt track races on the 1962 USAC Championship trail.

Hulse recorded two top ten finishes and liked the car’s handling so well that when he signed to drive for the “Dean Van Lines” team for 1963, he convinced team owner Dean and his chief mechanic Clint Brawner to lease the Blum chassis and it appeared in seven 1963 USAC races with a second place at the Phoenix season finale.  

Over the winter of 1963-1964, Blum sold the chassis to the team of Sid Weinberger and Frank Wilseck and it was raced the “Weinberger Homes Special” in early 1964 by Johnny White. "Rookie" driver Gordon Johncock drove the car in four races later in the 1964 season after White crashed a sprint car at Terre Haute in June 1964 and was permanently paralyzed  

Also during 1963 Hank Blum and body man Wayne Ewing, a Watson employee, teamed up to build a new roadster chassis for Al Dean. There is some confusion as this car is referred to at various times as a “Blum” but more often as a “Ewing” and was driven in 1963 by Chuck Hulse which meant that all of Hulse's races in 1963 were behind the wheel of a Blum chassis. In 1964 and 1965 the Dean Van Lines Special Blum/Ewing roadster was driven by a young "rookie" named Mario Andretti.  

The original 1962 Blum dirt car chassis was driven as the “Weinberger Homes Special” by Johncock and Roger McCluskey during the 1965 season, then at the 1965 USAC season finale at Phoenix it was apparently leased to Al Dean and it was driven by Bud Tinglestad as the “Dean Van Lines Special” as an insurance entry. The car was a back-up for Andretti to take over if he encountered trouble in his regular Brawner Hawk. Andretti finished second in the Hawk and captured the 1965 USAC driving championship as Tinglestad finished fifth.

Chuck Hulse drove the 1962 Blum/Offenhauser with "Dean Van Lines" colors at the 1966 season opener at Phoenix as he returned from a two-year layoff due to an eye  injury and finished third.  Later in the year the 1962 Blum chassis was returned to Weinberger colors and  driven by Bobby Unser in four races who finished three of those races in the top five. In 1967 still in Weinberger Homes colors, Johnny Rutherford drove the 1962 Blum chassis in four dirt races and scored one top five finish.

The pilot of the Weinberger/Blum car for the 1968 and 1969 USAC seasons was Larry Dickson.  in 1968 he entered four races with the Blum chassis, qualified for three races and finished in the top 10 all three times, with a best finish of second place at the Springfield Mile, which matched the 1963 Phoenix race as the car’s best-ever finishes.  In 1969, Dickson qualified for four dirt starts in the Weinberger Blum chassis and scored two top five finishes.
The 1962 Hank Blum chassis as raced
by the Mataka Brothers
Photographer unknown

After the 1969 season, Weinberger dropped out of USAC racing and sometime later the Blum Chassis was sold to the Mataka Brothers, William and Ed of New Jersey who raced the car still Offenhauser powered as the “Raceweld Special” for three USAC races in 1971, driven by Joe Saldana and in one race by Jerry Karl. The 'Raceweld' Blum chassis appeared in four USAC races in 1972 driven by Saldana for the first race and then the rest of the season by Carl Williams.

In 1973 Arizona’s “Bronco” Billy Shuman drove the Raceweld car in three races but failed to finish any of them. Joe Saldana returned to the seat for the 1974 season, but it unclear whether the Blum chassis was still Offenhauser powered that season.  The 1962 Blum dirt car chassis was apparently retired by the Mataka brothers after the 1974 Hoosier Hundred. 
During its 12-year USAC racing career, the 1962 Hank Blum chassis was driven by some legendary names Rutherford, Johncock, Bobby Unser, Saldana and Dickson, and the other lesser-known Hank Blum-built chassis were driven by Chuck Hulse and Mario Andretti, mighty accomplishments for a man who was an aircraft engineer and not a full-time race car builder.   

Now for the mystery – by Tom David

David Tom the current owner of the pictured car bought the car from Ken Hillberg in 2016 after it had been restored during the period of 2000 to 2002. The restoration work was done using the original chassis and included the roll bar, seat, fuel tank, Halibrand steering brakes, wheels, quick change rear, and several other parts. Hillberg acquired the car in a trade with Jim Travis who found the car in the car in the mid-1990's at a swap meet in Southern California.  At that time the car had a distinct "Silver Crown" appearance with a bolt on cage that utilized the existing main hoop as a welding point. 

These restoration photos were provided by David Tom

There are no known photos of the car as it was found by Travis but we have a few of restoration photos as the car neared the completion. It is a 96" wheelbase car restored as a transverse leaf spring front, but there are clearly signs that it could have been a four link front at one time. The owner Mr. Tom was told that it was a Grant King car.

There is evidence on the chassis that there was significant damage in the left front at one time, therefore the Grant King claim may originate from King making repairs to the car at one time which include the replacement of the axle.  A Grant King style fiberglass engine cover fiberglass nose and aluminum grill were used in the restoration which also used a fiberglass Edmunds sprint car tail was used with 4 inches being added to the front to make it appear as a Champ car tail.  

The hand-formed aluminum fuel tank appears to be original to the chassis and pre-dates the use of a bladder although there is now a bladder in the tank. The aluminum seat is claimed to be original to the chassis.  The seat has cutouts for a "Sam Brown" belt although it has been modified for a later five-point system and right shoulder bolster support. 

Detailed photographs of the
engine installation from David Tom
The car had a Chevrolet small block engine installed when David Tom got it but that engine clearly does not optimally fit into the chassis.  The upper frame rails (front) force the Chevrolet engine to be mounted about 1.5 inches too high to enable the removal of the spark plugs.  Mr. Tom believes the chassis was originally built for an Offenhauser engine and no attempt was made to reform the upper chassis bars.  

The owner David Tom suspects that this may be the first Hank Blum car built in the nineteen fifties which raced with CRA (as a sprint car) and as a USAC championship car at Pikes Peak. Unfortunately neither Mr. Tom nor the author has had any success locating period photographs of the first Blum chassis which could be used to help identify this car.

7/31/17 UPDATE Here are some newly found photos that show details of the car's construction

Can any of our loyal readers help verify the identity of this car?  Contact the author with tips and leads at

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dieselpunk roadster update

Readers may recall that in December we introduced you to to the latest creation from the fertile mind of  Tom McGriff of Mac Miller’s Garage  - the “Dieselpunk roadster” a race car inspired by the ‘art deco’ era locomotives powered by a four-cylinder diesel engine.

We are proud to share an update – McGriff has obtained a Toyota KZ-TE  4-cylinder 183 cubic inch single overhead camshaft turbo diesel engine with 2 valves per cylinder and electronically controlled fuel injection. From the factory, the intercooler equipped version of the KZ-TE engine produced 145 horsepower and over 250 ft/lbs of torque. 

Tom is currently consulting with turbo diesel experts in Indianapolis to adapt this powerplant for use in the “Dieselpunk roadster.”    

graphics provided by Mac Miller's Garage 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Buzz Barton - Winner
By Galen Kurth
A racing legend passed away quietly a few years ago.  He was a champion, a character in an era full of characters, and a survivor of one of the toughest, grimmest eras in racing history.   He was a racer, in every sense of the word.  He was Emmett “Buzz” Barton.

Emmett was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma in October of 1916 and drove his first race in California in the mid-1930’s.  That’s where he picked up the nickname, and just to set the record straight, the first and original “Buzz Barton” was a diminutive silent movie actor who specialized in westerns.  Emmett’s distain for his own first name helped the nickname stick.

Barton’s driving career really took off back in Oklahoma after spending WWII driving trucks on the west coast.  A midget circuit popped up, centered on Oklahoma City’s Taft Stadium.  Houston, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Kansas City also had weekly shows, and Buzz remembered putting over 2200 miles a week on his tow car.  “We’d be putting new tires on my Packard about every month,” he recalled in a 1995 interview.

In those pre-interstate days, travel wasn’t much fun, but there were enough characters around to lighten the drives once in a while.  “One time, we came up behind Tex West’s car, parked on the shoulder, and his race car had bounced off the trailer.  He had this big stick and was beating the car, yelling ‘you jumped off the damned trailer you *&^^#@@, now jump back on!’  The kid he’d picked up to help asked if maybe he could ride with us the rest of the way to Houston.”

One thing about Buzz up front: you won’t see many direct, unedited quotes from him.  Listening to him tell a story would make a Drill Sergeant blush, but that’s the way he’d always been.  It probably cost him some rides and a few deals along the way, but if you didn’t like the way he talked, he had a solution for you.  Don’t listen.  Was he popular with his fellow drivers?  Probably not, but they all respected him.   Ask someone from his IMCA days about Buzz, and they’ll sort of laugh, maybe shake their head, and say something like, “yeah, old Buzz…..” then go silent.  When they do talk about him, though, it’s obvious they all knew the same Buzz Barton.  He didn’t change anything for anybody.

Buzz won the Taft Stadium and Oklahoma state midget titles in 1948, driving for Jack Zink, then moved into the Gibson Offy out of Kansas.   He’d always qualify with a big cigar in his teeth, sort of an extra digit when his hands were on the wheel.  He’d won enough that he was usually booed during time trials, but he didn’t worry about it.  “They’d boo me, and I give ‘em the finger, but after the races you couldn’t load the car for all the people wantin’ autographs” was the way Buzz remembered those days.

He went East in 1951, driving a stretched midget sprinter, and finished ninth in the AAA Eastern Division.   Reading and Williams Grove were his favorite tracks, but the circular dirt mile at Langhorne earned a rare distinction from a man who raced anything, anywhere: “I hated that place.  That %*#@+ was a killer.  It beat you up, and the dirt off your left front was always hitting you in the face so you couldn’t see.” 
Strangely, his name also shows up on the IMCA winners list for the first time in ‘51, with a victory at Winchester’s high banks.  He got his first champ ride at Syracuse that year in another Kurtis midget, stretched all the way to 96 inches, finishing tenth. 
Buzz Barton's official 1952 Indianapolis Motor Speedway photograph
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway collection
in the IUPUI University library Center for Digital Studies

Buzz eventually tried to qualify for twenty-six champ races, generally driving uncompetitive cars.   That includes the 1952 and 1953 “500’s” where, according to Buzz, he “didn’t stand a chance.  I got one up to qualifying speed once and broke the crankshaft.”   How tough was it to get a decent champ car ride back then?  In 1952, he failed to qualify at Milwaukee, so he was pitting for another driver, Andy Linden.  Linden caught fire during a pit stop and was burned. 
Buzz pulled him out of the car and over the wall.  “Then I grabbed my helmet to sub for Linden, but when I turned around, that S.O.B. Potsy Goacher was driving off with the car, and it was still on fire!” Buzz did manage a third at Williams Grove in 1958 for his best finish in twelve starts, but he pulled the plug on his AAA/USAC career that same year.

“We pulled a real high qualifying number at the Hoosier Hundred, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance.  I went to (Duane) Carter and told him I wanted to withdraw.  I didn’t have the equipment to run with those guys, and it was stupid trying.  IMCA was running that night, and I went with ‘em.  Never went back.”

Things nearly turned the other way, though.  After future Indy winner Rodger Ward jumped to the Wilke team for 1959, team owner Roger Wolcott needed a driver for his famous 8 Ball cars.  He offered the job to Buzz, but before they could close the deal, Wolcott died and the opportunity was gone. 
One other chance had come early in Buzz’s career when a very drunk car owner named Alan Chapman had given Buzz a check for $100,000 and told him to buy a first class racecar.  “I tore the check up,” Buzz remembered.  “The next day, Chapman’s secretary called and wanted to know what I’d done with the check.  That check would have been good, too, but I couldn’t do that.”

The IMCA was probably where Buzz belonged.  A brilliant machinist and self-taught mechanic, he was perfect for the barnstorming, “fix it yourself and race it” style of the traveling group.  His low tolerance for BS also fit better with Frank Winkley’s crowd.  “If you had a problem with Winkley, you had it out with him right there.  Hell, one time in Shreveport, we went at it right in front of the grandstand.  I mean, we got it on, just beating on one another.  Half an hour later, he apologized and that was it.”

Buzz had one of his best runs with Diz Wilson, who ran a team of yellow Offy sprinters.  “I was on a deal for $400 a day from Winkley.  Most of the guys were getting $50 or $100.  Now, that wasn’t $400 plus, but I was guaranteed that much.”   The IMCA ran two types of races in those days -- the big fair dates and what were called “still” dates, or stand-alone races. 
Winkley would provide a dozen or so cars, more or less by invitation, and stage a race.  Were the races fixed?  “No,” Barton states, “they were legit, except no matter what, Bobby Grim always set fast time.  He could just putt around the track and STILL start on the pole, and that meant a lot on those dry-slick tracks.”  Winkley didn’t really care who won, as long as four or five cars finished under a blanket. 

Then it was down the road to another race, sometimes the same day.   If you stunk up the show, you might not get invited to the next still date.  That fit in with Buzz’s philosophy of car preservation:  “Drive hard until you get the lead, then just fast enough to stay in front.”  Former Wilson teammate Al “Cotton” Farmer remembered those races, too.  “Buzz and I would talk before the race, and I’d ask if he wanted the inside or outside.  Then we’d get going, and he’d realize sometimes I had the better groove, and he’d try to get where I was supposed to be.  Then we’d really start racing!”

The IMCA was the steppingstone to USAC in the fifties and early sixties, and Buzz got to see all the young talent trying to move up.  If you could beat Buzz, and Grim and Pete Folse, you might get a ticket to the big time.   Parnelli Jones, for instance, did the job in the Fike Chevy, and wound up at Indianapolis.  Buzz enjoyed racing Jones. “You could run all day, side by side with Parnelli, and have no problems.  Now Jim Hurtubise, he was crazy.  You never knew WHAT he was going to do.”  

Buzz stuck with the IMCA, winning races and finishing consistently high up in points, but he could never get past Hector Honore’s black deuce for the championship.  He was second to Grim in 1957 and to Folse in 1960 and 1961.  He won consistently at places like Lincoln, Nebraska, Hutchinson, Kansas, Des Moines, Iowa, St Paul, Minnesota and Knoxville. 
The only year he missed the top ten was 1962, when he took time to recover from getting thrown out of a flipping car at Jacksonville, Florida and run over.  He was an absolute wizard with Offy engines and won the last IMCA feature ever credited to a growler, in February of 1965 at Tampa, Florida.

Barton had known former driver Joie Chitwood for years, and finally went to work for the Florida-based Thrill Show promoter in the mid-60’s.  “I did the precision driving and stuff, but I never did the head-on crashes or any of that stupid #@&@*” remembered Buzz.  When Chitwood decided to go endurance racing with a team of Camaros, Barton went with him, preparing the cars and co-driving with Joie’s son in the longer races.  In the 1968 Daytona 24 hour race, they finished seventeenth overall and fourth in class.

Buzz kept racing and building cars through the 1970’s, slowly cutting back to spend more and more time in Florida until finally, in 1981, he ran one last sprint car race in Minnesota and hung it up.  “I was getting married again, and she didn’t want me racing anymore, so I just gave it up,” he stated.   Sixty-five probably wasn’t a bad age to call it a career after driving sprint cars in six (!) different decades.

Barton eventually returned to Oklahoma and lived very quietly on the Oklahoma side of Lake Texoma.   He didn’t like to be bothered, but he’d talk racing if you got him started.   Local sprint car driver and machinist Kenny Butler remembered Buzz coming into his Kingston, Oklahoma shop one day.  “I had the race car there, and he looked it over, but he didn’t say anything.   He never even said who he was.  Somebody told me after he left that he was Buzz Barton.” 

The trophies and photos were long gone, and he didn’t much care for a lot of what he saw in today’s racing.  “Most of those guys are crazy,” he opined. “Every race is just one crash after another.  They ought to have to build and fix the damned things.” 
Arthritis kept him from going to his induction into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2001, when Farmer subbed for him, and it restricted his race viewing to television only.  Those early days in racing took a toll even on the ones who walked away.  The last two years or so, he became a virtual recluse, apparently not wanting anyone to see him in his weakened state.
Names from the past came to mind slowly, if at all, and it frustrated him.  Locked inside his head were more memories than most people could imagine, from racing in the 30’s to the era of winged sprints, from Wilbur Shaw to Doug Wolfgang. 

Not all those memories were good, but Emmett “Buzz” Barton survived when so many others did not.  He made a good living out of racing for fifty years, and that may be the best way to remember him.  By whatever standards you want to apply, he battled an unforgiving sport longer than just about anyone, and he won.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bill Jones’ Legacy
By Galen Kurth
with additional editing by Bart Stevens

Bill Jones was born in Jennings, Oklahoma July 25, 1923 and passed away in San Antonio Texas on March 14 2017.  As a boy, he lived with family friends Roy and Bernice Wilkerson, who ignited his life-long interest in motor sports. Roy worked on outboard-engine boats and midget race cars, and Bill learned the trade on the lakes and dirt tracks around Oklahoma.

During World War II, Bill served with the 349th Aviation Battalion, Army Air Corps, as a C-47 crew chief, dropping parachutists and supplies on numerous fronts in Europe and North Africa. He survived two crashes, but one knee was so badly damaged after a crash in Paris he had to be brought home for surgery before the war ended.
Bill Jones in front of his speed shop
Bart Stevens collection

Bill was drawn to Taft Stadium, a mecca of midget racing after the war. That eventually led him to Indianapolis, where he was first a mechanic in 1950 and 1951 for Oklahoma City business owner M.A. Walker's team, then in 1952 as crew chief for the Jack Zink team and driver Jimmy Reece. Returning home, he owned one of the first speed equipment shops in Oklahoma. He ventured into car building, creating a two seater sports car, the Sierra. Ten were eventually sold. Bill and local racer Bob Eichor also co-owned a short-lived drag strip which was washed away in a flood.

Race promoter Ray Lavely then hired Bill as his chief steward for races at Taft Stadium, then expanded his duties to become part of his promotional team at State Fair Speedway and Lakefront Speedway in Kansas City. General Motors offered Bill the position of Regional Sales Manager for Buick and after a time moved him up to the same position for Cadillac. One final move took him to San Antonio in 1960 to work for Intercontinental Motors, the Southwestern U.S. importers of Volkswagen and Porsche cars.

It was here that Bill became involved in SCCA Racing, as he campaigned a Porsche Speedster for several years on the SCCA circuit. Charles Urschel and Tom Slick, the owners of Intercontinental Motors, wanted to take a race car to the Indy 500, and this led Bill back to Indianapolis in 1964, again with Jack Zink, as a crew member for driver Jack Brabham

In the late 1960's Bill opened an auto dealership with VW and Porsche in south San Antonio. After many successful years Bill sold the dealership then he and son Bob opened Jones Autowerks, specializing in repairing and restoring classic Porsches. When San Antonio decided to stage a street race in 1986, featuring the high-powered sports cars of the International Motor Sports Association, it was only natural that Bill would be one of the primary organizers and a mainstay for the entire four years of the race's existence. .

Bill was a member of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimer's Club and stayed close to his racing friends. In the early 1990's he helped organize an Oval Track Racers Reunion in San Antonio, bringing together his many friends from all aspects of auto racing. This annual event, still going strong, became a meeting place for active and retired racers, plus those interested in the restoration of old race cars. This was another area Bill excelled in, restoring many cars, working either with Bob or with business partner Jerry Weeks in Indianapolis.

Bill was described by one customer as “the most meticulous man I've ever met” and right up until his passing, he was sought out for advice and information on the correct way to restore or repair vintage cars and engines. Throughout his life, Bill received many honors for his accomplishments and contributions to one organization or another, but what he was proudest of was his family. Bill married Virginia Dubour in 1944 and they were truly a team until her passing in 2013. Bill Jones is survived by his daughter Marylou Morales of Dallas and son Bob Jones of San Antonio who remained the center of their parent’s lives no matter what else they were doing.

Bill Jones’  memorial service will be held on Tuesday March 28, 2017 at 2:00 pm at First Baptist Church of San Antonio located at  515 McCullough Avenue, San Antonio, TX 78215  Phone:(210) 226-0363

Monday, January 16, 2017

Date announced for the
Columbus Racers Reunion
Greg Littleton has announced that the 2017 Columbus (Indiana) Racer Reunion will be held this year on March 25th.
This is must-see FREE event for racing history fans with displays of vintage race cars and memorabilia well as vendors selling those hard-to-find items inside a heated building on the Bartholomew County 4-H grounds 
Click on this photo to get all the details

Monday, January 9, 2017

“Fabulous” Freddie Agabashian
photos and article by Tom Motter


     Northern California has produced many auto racing stars in the past 3/4-century, but none ever shown more brilliantly than Freddie Agabashian.


     Born in Modesto, California, August 21, 1913, his family moved to the Los Angeles area and later still, to the East Bay Area community of Berkeley.  His racing career started while he was still a student at Berkeley High School.


     Fred’s first races were in modified street roadster races held at Oakland, San Jose, and Calistoga in the early 1930’s[1].  At that time local auto clubs such as the Oakland Auto Club and the R.P.M. Club of San Francisco were promoting most of these roadster races in northern California. The Oakland Auto Club held most of its races on a half-mile track cut within the one-mile Oakland Speedway in San Leandro.  San Jose’s 5/8- mile dirt track was popular with the roadsters as was the ½-mile fairgrounds track at Calistoga.


     In 1933, Bay Area newspapers were reporting Aggie’s successes in roadster competition at San Jose’s 5/8-mile track.  His battles with Johnny Fannuchi were often mentioned in press stories of ’33 and ’34.  In August 1934, Aggie suffered his first serious injuries in a racing crash.  On August 19th, The San Jose Mercury News reported “Fred Agabashian of Berkeley, 21, sensation of the San Jose Speedway, was inured seriously here in today’s time trials when his car overturned, pinning him beneath it.  Agabashian suffered a jaw fracture, severe lacerations of the head, several missing teeth and internal injuries.”


     By 1935, Aggie had expanded his racing interests to include competing with the A.A.A.’s Pacific Coast “Big Cars”. 1935 and ’36 were the last years that A.A.A. sanctioned races at the Oakland Speedway and Aggie was by then a regular competitor at these events.  The 1935 Pacific Coast Point Standings list Aggie in 38th position.


    In September 1936 Agabashian married the former Mable Nyman, a high school sweetheart and it was probably at this point that he decided to confine his racing to northern California.  No doubt Aggie could have placed higher in the A.A.A. point standings but his decision to race “close to home” and never to venture too far from the Bay Area excluded him from a number of the A.A.A.’s major point races.  It wasn’t until 1947, his first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that Aggie did any racing outside of California.


     Aggie was a regular victor at the big car” races held during 1936 at the Oakland Speedway (then sanctioned by the American Racing Assoc.).  He eventually won seven straight main events at that track.  These winning ways continued at Oakland through ’37.  1936 was also the year the Aggie added midget racing to his list of racing endeavors.  He was a regular at San Francisco’s Motordrome as well as the Emeryville track, all races sanctioned by the newly formed N.C.M.R.A (Northern Calif. Midget Racing Assoc.).


     In 1937 Aggie captured the N.C.M.R.A. midget racing crown in northern California, culminating a two-year effort in the “small” cars.  He continued racing big cars, roadsters and even stock cars at races held mostly at the Oakland Speedway.  1938 and ’39 continued to be big racing years for Aggie as he continued his winning ways in midgets, big cars and an occasional stock car race. 


     By 1940, big time racing on the west coast was beginning to wind down.  Looming war clouds in Europe were beginning to have a telling effect on auto racing in this country.  On the west coast, particularly in northern California, inter-association strife between Charlie Baker’s S.T.A.R. organization and Joe Banzi’s N.C.M.R.A. had so severely split the midget owners and drivers that there just weren’t enough cars and drivers to put on a quality race for any one promoter.


      Two of the street-modified roadster clubs (Oakland Auto Club and the San Francisco R.P.M. clubs) consolidated and formed the Bay Cities Roadster Racing Association[2] in 1939 and within two years began sanctioning midget auto races, primarily held at the Vallejo Recreational Ball Park. 


     With the Emeryville, San Francisco and Neptune beach tracks now gone, there was no more weekly racing being held in the Bay Area.  Only the Oakland Speedway was racing and these were held on a sporadic basis only.  By 1940 Freddie Agabashian had pretty much “retired” from auto racing.


     In July 1942 the Federal Office of Defense Transportation (O.D.T.) decreed that all auto racing in this country would be banned for the duration of World War II.  This Act was an attempt to preserve the countries use of rubber and gasoline, two commodities crucial to the War effort.


     On September 21, 1945 Bay Cities Racing Association once again began racing midgets in northern California.  It was a short (12 races) season and the pre-war star, Freddie Agabashian was missing from the line-up of those twelve races. He was still in “retirement”!


     With the start of the regular 1946 season of midget racing, car owner, Jack London, debuted his “hot” Roy Richter-built, rail frame, V8-60 midget that had recently been brought up from southern California.  In the cockpit was none other than Freddie Agabashian!


     Thirty-three cars flashed by the timing lights at Bayshore Stadium[3]during qualifying on April 7, 1946.  When the evening’s events were over, it was Petaluma’s hard-driving Ed Normi who had won that initial Main Event.  116 races latter, on October 27, the 1946 season came to an end, and it was Freddie Agabashian, driving the Jack London, Number 2X, who had won the championship by winning thirty five Main Events and finishing over a thousand points ahead of second-place finisher Fred Friday. He had won over 30% of the races run that season!


     When the 1947 BCRA season began Freddie had a brand new midget and a new car owner.  George Bignotti, a Daly City florist, supplied Aggie with a new, state-of-the-art, Kurtis Kraft midget and Aggie proceeded to repeat his success of 1946.  After a season that went 154 races, Aggie won 27 Main Events and, once again, won the BCRA championship.


     In 1947, Aggie departed from his long-time rule of not leaving the Bay Area to go racing.  Bay Area auto dealer and race-track owner, Ross Page, made an offer to him to drive the Ross Page entry in the ’47 Indianapolis 500.  The temptation was too great and Aggie left for Indianapolis to have his fling against the top drivers in the nation. He finished a creditable ninth in his first attempt at the “500”.   


The winning team of Agabashian and Bignotti was back for the 1948 BCRA midget racing season.  Not only did this potent combination repeat their 1947 performance by winning the ’48 Title, they also went to Mexico City in February 1948[4] for a seven race series and won the so-called, “Aztec Championship” as well.


     Again, in 1948, while leading the ’48 BCRA title chase, he headed back to Indianapolis to compete in his second “500”.  Unfortunately, Aggie, in the same Ross Page entry, was forced out on the 48th lap due to oil leaks.


     In 1949 Aggie began to cut back on the number of races he participated in.  He had made a good deal of money in racing and it was time to enjoy some of it.  He still participated in BCRA midget races, coming in 7th in the final point standings for the season.  1949 also marked another high point in his racing career.  Driving for another famous Armenian, J.C. Agajanian, Agabashian won the inaugural “Golden State 100” Championship, Big Car race held at the old State Fairgrounds in Sacramento in October.  The fact that Agajanian, the car owner, was also the promoter of the prestigious race made the win even more significant. In winning this “West Coast Classic” Agabashian proved once again that he indeed was one of the biggest stars in auto racing.  In ’49 he again competed in the “500” but once more was forced out after 38 laps with mechanical trouble.


     1950 was Aggie’s last year in the midgets.  He drove only occasionally with BCRA during the ’50 season and finished in 29th spot at season’s end.  He was, however, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the annual “500” Classic.  Driving a brand new Kurtis Kraft car, Aggie qualified second only to go out of that race after 64 laps with a plugged oil line. 1951 saw him qualify in 11th position and finish in 17th, out after 109 laps with clutch problems.


     In 1951 Aggie made headlines at the “Speedway” by qualifying a conceptual diesel powered race car that was larger and heavier than anything that had ever been seen at the Speedway.  The car, powered by a Cummins Diesel engine, had been built by Frank Kurtis specifically to accommodate the diesel engine.  Freddie’s pole setting, qualifying speed of over 138 mph was a new record!  Unfortunately, during the race, the supercharger intake clogged at 71 laps, forcing him to drop out of the race.


     Aggie raced in each Indy “500” for the next seven years, ending his racing career in 1958 when he failed, for the first time, to qualify a car for the annual race.  His best finish at the Speedway was in 1953 when he came home in fourth spot. 


     After his active racing career was over, Freddie worked for the Champion Spark Plug Company and their Highway Safety Program[5].  This public relations concept placed famous racing drivers at high schools, military bases and business’s throughout the country, talking about safe driving practices.  They had no more congenial personality than Fred Agabashian!  He also spent a number of years as a “color-commentator” for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, as a commentator for the “500” race.


     “Fabulous Freddie” was many things: A great racing driver, a devoted family man and in particular, a great spokesman/ambassador for the racing community.  His genuinely likable personality was infectious.  When he entered a room, he was immediately the center of attention.  His years of racing experience were put to good use in many ways.  At the Speedway Aggie was considered a mentor to many of the new drivers.  He had the ability to be able to show and tell rookie drivers what they might be doing wrong or how to do it better and faster.  In a word: He was respected!


      I was fortunate to be able to witness Freddie’s last ride in a race car.  On August 12, 1983, the Western Racing Association (a group of old-time racers running exhibition races in restored, vintage race cars) were a part of the contemporary midget racing program at the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds track in Antioch.  Agabashian happened to be in the grandstands that afternoon and when his curiosity got the best of him he ventured down to the pit area to look over the W.R.A.’s restored versions of classic midget race cars from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. 


     The vintage race cars were actually running exhibition races on the quarter-mile dirt track as an added attraction to the regular midget racing program of the night. 


     It didn’t take too much coaxing to get Aggie to just “sit in one of them” for a moment.  He was right at home!  When it was suggested to him that he might want to put on a helmet and strap into the midget and take a few laps he jumped at the chance.  A dozen vintage midgets took the green flag to start a 10-lap race for the old-timers with Aggie starting in the back of the pack.  It had been, after all, a long time ago that Aggie had competed in a midget race.  Thirty-three years earlier in fact.  The green flag dropped and all twelve of the vintage midgets were once again fighting for the number one position.  What a sight!  Twelve beautifully restored midgets, gleaming with new paint and chrome, once again roared down the front straightaway, disappearing into turn one in a cloud of dust. It had all of the excitement and color of those early days of midget races.  Not too many fans in the grandstands knew that Aggie was in the number 48, Bob Hansen Offy,  but there he was working his way towards the front, just like he’d done many times, many years ago.  At the white flag (signifying one lap to go), Aggie was in fourth spot, charging hard.


     As the leaders came out of turn four, heading for the checkered flag, Aggie made his move to the outside of the track, up against the crash wall.  The scream of the four-cylinder Offy racing engine could just barely be heard over the roar of the crowd as they watched the #84 car blast down the front straightaway, rear tires spraying dirt, front wheels turned slightly to the right to correct for the fact that the race car was speeding forward in a slightly sideways position.  As the flagman dropped the checkered flag, only those of us in the pits knew it was 70-year-old Freddie Agabashian who had just won another midget main event. 


     When Aggie pulled the race car into the infield after a cool-down lap, I was standing close by and was able to watch him reach down, pull the car out of gear, shut off the fuel valve and hit the ignition shut-off switch; all moves that seemed to have been made “naturally”.  They were, of course; he’d made them all, hundreds of times, years ago.   It was only when he pulled down the goggles, un-snapped the helmet and looked up with that famous grin on his face that we knew Aggie was back!  He had been gone from the sport for a long, long time and it was good to have him back.  He belonged there!


In 1984, the Bay Cities Racing Association inducted Aggie into their BCRA Hall of Fame.


     I saw Aggie just one more time after that, in August 1988.  The Napa County Fairgrounds track in Calistoga was one of those tracks that Aggie had raced on back in the 1930’s in those early street roadsters.  He was just visiting at the race track, enjoying himself and like he was prone to do, made a visit to the infield to chat with his old friends with the vintage racers.  I like to think that he recognized me but it was probably my race car that reminded him of one that my Uncle Earl used to drive in those days when he and Aggie used to compete with BCRA.  He came over and we chatted a bit about those by-gone days.  A photographer came by, recognized the familiar Agabashian smile and took a picture of Aggie and me alongside my restored vintage midget.


     Fred Agabashian passed away the next year, on October 13, 1989.  The bright light from the racing star that had shown so brilliantly in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s had finally flickered out.


      In 1994 he was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

[1] Before the completion of the Oakland Speedway in September 1931 there were apparently a couple of “impromptu” street roadster races held there. The personal account of Henry Schroeder (an Uncle of  race historian, Don Radbruch) recalls that Freddie Agabashain did participate in at least one of those events. As a spectator, Schroeder recalls hearing the announcer (using a bullhorn) referring to Freddie and having a terrible time pronouncing his last name.
[2] Even though the B.C.R.R.A. was incorporated as a modified roadster racing only organization, it was quickly determined that most of its members had an interest in a resumption of midget racing in northern California. By 1941, B.C.R.R.A. was sanctioning midget racing and in 1943 they revised their corporate by-laws to include midgets. For those interested in a complete history of the Bay Cities Racing Association, please see BCRA, The First 50 Years (The Official History of Bay Cities Racing Association) by Tom Motter, Published by BCRA, 1990.
[3] Bayshore Stadium, located behind the Cow Palace in South San Francisco, had been a pre-war dog-racing track.  California legislation had banned pari-mutual betting on dog racing in 1935 but the grandstands and facilities were still there. It didn’t take much to convert the track to allow for midget racing.  That venue lasted until 1949 when the property was sold for a drive-in movie site.
[4] Aggie, still mindful of his desire not to go racing at the expense of his “home life”, took his wife and two small children with him on the Mexico City trip.
[5] Other northern California racing drivers that participated in this program were Bob Veith and Johnny Boyd. All three of these drivers were “graduates” of Bay Cities Racing Association midget racing.