Editorial

Labor Day 1952.....
A weekend I'll never forget

 by Steven N. Levinson
September 2, 2002

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If you were to ask anyone where they spent Labor Day a year ago, or even 5 years ago, most people would be hard pressed to remember. For me however, I can vividly recall exactly where I was 50 years ago this past week-end. The events of that Sunday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio are forever seared into my memory.  This article is dedicated to the brave and talented drivers who participated in the 1950's AAA Midwest Sprint Car Championships, many of whom lost their lives.

Frank Funk's Track Record

Winchester Speedway Sometime around 1919 the track was built. By 1924 it became known as "Funk's Lake Speedway". Around 1937 it became known as Funk's Motor Speedway. Sometime in the late '30's or early '40's it became the either Funk's Winchester Speedway or Winchester Speedway.
Ft. Wayne Speedway Sometime in the late 1930's Funk operated , promoted or leased the track.
Jungle Park Sometime in the late 1930's Funk operated , promoted or leased the track.
Dayton Speedway Sometime in the late 1930's Frank Funk "remodeled" the track from it's original 5/8's configuration to a half mile. Actually, it was 210 feet longer than a half mile. He was, for a time, actively involved in it's race promotions.
Salem Speedway  He was consulted by Messrs. Summers and Roberts prior to construction by them.

Back then, Labor Day week-end always provided ample opportunities for promoters to stage racing events. This was the last week end before the start of the school year. And in 1952 the AAA National Championship "Trail" would make a Saturday stop in Detroit on the one mile dirt oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and then on Labor Day Monday return to the Duquoin State Fair for the annual 100 mile "Ted Horn Memorial ". On Sunday afternoon, the AAA Midwest Sprint Car set would run their annual "Dayton 100" on the treacherous "high banks" of the Dayton Speedway for 100 laps of non-stop, heart pounding and mind altering terror on a track built by Frank Funk, who also built Winchester Speedway, America's first dirt track, which along with The Milwaukee Mile and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, remain the oldest speedways in America still in operation today.

These were the days before "Corporate America" discovered auto racing. The days before drivers contracts and retainers; the days before NASCAR's Marketing/Manipulation infected the purity of the sport. It was a time when the AAA "National Championship" consisted of one mile dirt tracks and the Indianapolis 500. It was a time when the "Road To Indy" wound its way through the daunting half mile "High Banks" of Dayton, Ohio and Winchester and Salem, Indiana. They were called "The Hills". In contrast to the pastoral setting of Winchester's flat farm lands, and Salem's undulating southern Indiana hill country, the Dayton Speedway was located on Germantown Road in the more mixed use industrial section of Dayton's southwest side. That was not the only difference. Dayton was 210 feet longer than a half mile and, along with its 30-degree banked turns, made it even faster.

The Saturday race in Detroit was run in oppressive heat that made for a hard, slick surface with huge potholes and ruts. There were 33 entries for the 18 starting positions. Bill Vukovich won the race before a crowd of 9,582 fans and collected the winner's share of $2,400 from the total purse of $9,600.  Duane Carter, who was credited with 7th place, was involved in a serious accident and suffered a broken jaw and shoulder.

In contrast to the 33 entrants at Detroit, the following day saw a mere 19 entrants for the "Dayton 100",which was billed in the program as the "World's Richest Purse for Sprint Cars". Only the bravest of the brave made the overnight trek from Detroit to Dayton. Included were Jim Rigsby, Mike Nazaruk, Joe James, Bob Sweikert and Bob Scott.  Nazaruk and James were definitely "Stars" of the circuit. The event also featured past greats and local Dayton heroes like Travis "Spider" Webb and Carlyle "Duke" Dinsmore.  Star driver and fan favorite, as well as track record holder Jimmy Daywalt, Gene Force and midget ace Leroy Warriner were also there in addition to up and comers like Pat O'Conner and Eddie Sachs.

Troy Ruttman, the 1951 Midwest Sprint Car Champion and winner of the 1951 "Dayton 100" was not there because of serious injuries sustained two weeks earlier at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.   Ruttman, 1952 Indianapolis 500 winner, and Carter had been the "Senna and Prost" of the Midwest circuit from 1949 through 1951. Other drivers that day included, 1950 Indianapolis 500 veteran Jackie Holmes, Red Bales, Red Renner, G. Falor, Bob Denny and Paul Howe.


Rigsby at Winchester in June 1952, months before his death.

This was my very first AAA sprint car race. I was 9-years old. My parents allowed me to travel with a close family friend and neighbor. We boarded a Greyhound Bus in Indianapolis after midnight and arrived at the Dayton bus terminal early Sunday morning. From there we took a taxicab to the track. To say that I was excited was an understatement. I was going to see my heroes race at the famous (or infamous) Dayton Speedway in one of the biggest races of the year.

When we arrived at the track, the cars were already running warm-up laps and I could barely contain my excitement and enthusiasm. The track was very intimidating to say the least. It was very rough and bumpy with 30 degree high banked turns that had a sheer drop-off outside the retaining walls; it also had only a single-tiered wooden guard rail, less than two feet high, to contain the careening cars; the old covered grandstand and the billboards along the outside backstretch made for an eerie and foreboding venue.

The atmosphere was "electric." It almost seemed like a traveling circus or carnival. Simply stated, it had that air of anticipation where sudden and fortuitous things could occur at any second. After all, in the opening event of the 1952 AAA Midwest sprint car season held at Dayton on April 20th, Gordon Reid had the misfortune of losing control of his car coming out of the 4th turn and catapulting into the north edge of the spectator grandstand. It was a grisly affair costing both Reid and 3 spectators their lives.

As the drivers took their warm-up laps and time trials, my anxiety and excitement did not abate. I simply crossed my fingers, held my breath and prayed. Despite a few baubles with the cars trying to maintain traction while slithering around those high banks, qualifications and the heat races went off without incident as had the prior two events on June 1st and July 6th. I was starting to gain some composure.

The safety of tracks, cars and equipment was not a major issue. Tracks and drivers did what they felt necessary. Sprint cars were considered a hazardous activity. Beside the single tier guard rail, the cars did not only lack "Roll cages" they didn't even have "Roll Bars". You knew that the slightest mistake could have devastating consequences. The track record set in May of 1951 by Jimmy Daywalt was 19.808 (98.09 MPH). Considering that the 1952 Indianapolis qualifying mark was 138 MPH, set by Freddie Agabashian's Cummins Diesel, the Dayton track was very, very fast. That's why the Indianapolis car owners believed that if a driver could master Dayton's high banks, he could surely handle the speeds at the Speedway.

13,000 people packed the stands for the start of the race on August 31st with Gene Force taking pole position with a time of 20.405.  Alongside in the front row was Jim Rigsby in the Dale Estes Spl.# 37 (owned by his father Bob Estes - see related article, "Remembering Bob Estes").  Joe James and Mike Nazaruk were in the second row. My memory today is a series of images and flashbacks because at that time my heart was pounding and my nerves were standing on end.

The start of the race was a blur of speed and noise...the fury, the chaos...the bravado! It was indescribable. Somehow they made it through the first turn...the first lap, the drivers got a little more breathing room.



Rigsby hooks Force's wheel, the car digs  in (top photo) and goes airborne (bottom photo) like nothing I ever saw before or since.

Then IT happened!  During the 5th lap, the leader Gene Force got "loose" going into the third turn. Jim Rigsby, following closely, dove to the inside to attempt a pass for the lead. Rigsby's right front wheel climbed over Force's left front wheel which unsettled Rigsby's car. It bounded left, then righted itself. In the process, the underpan hit the foot throttle and bent it, causing the engine to race wide-open.

In a split second, to the stunned horror and disbelief of the amassed crowd, the car abruptly shot up the 3rd turn banking and like an airplane on take-off, sailed over the single-tiered guard rail by 20 feet and landed in a cabbage patch some 200 feet from the track. Then came the tell-tale plume of black smoke that signaled the hushed crowd of the obvious. The crowd's collective sigh was now interspersed with mumbled inaudible gasps. There was nothing to say.  I gathered up what was left of my 9-year-old emotional defense mechanisms and went into denial over what I had just seen. But I knew that no one could possibly survive that accident. The law of physics would prevail.

After the race, which was won by "Iron Mike" Nazaruk, we went down to the pit area. I saw Jimmy Daywalt and got his autograph. Daywalt, unlike Rigsby who was groomed on the California dirt tracks under the auspices of the California Roadster Association (C.R.A. as were many west coast drivers of his time) was weaned on the Midwest high banked asphalt.  Daywalt had a soft spoken, quiet reserve about him. Many women considered him a heart throb because of his baby face good looks. On this late afternoon, I saw a very reflective, contemplative and far off gaze in his eyes.

When we reached the bus terminal that evening, no amount of my self denial could change the news on Dayton's WLW-D TV news. Rigsby, the 28 year old commercial lobster fisherman from Lennox, California had lost his life in the crash.

The Greyhound Bus trip home for me was subdued and painfully sad. I had seen the dark side of the sport that I loved. The next morning's Indianapolis Star erased any of my remaining self denial." Jim Rigsby, Speedway Racer, Killed in Ohio". The article did not even mention that Mike Nazaruk had won the race. However, it did bring forth some strange and cruel ironies. Rigsby had been the slowest of the 33 qualifiers for the 1952 "500". The 32nd slowest qualifier, Johnny McDowell had been killed in a practice crash for the June 8th "Rex Mays Classic" held at The Milwaukee Mile. Ironically, The Milwaukee Mile track was paved for the first time with a layer of crushed limestone topped with bituminous concrete in 1954. Surprisingly, however, the track record of 102.13 MPH, set by Jim Rigsby on that June 8th, 1952 day on dirt, stood until June 7, 1959, five years after the track was paved. Johnny Thompson broke the record on that day with a lap of 34.775 seconds, an average speed of 103.521 MPH.

It further pointed out that on June 29, 1951, the slowest three qualifiers for the 1951 "500" had all been killed on the infamous "Black Sunday." Cecil Green and Bill Mackey in successive qualifying accidents at the Winchester Speedway, and Walt Brown at the Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania.

I had just experienced my own Black Sunday and I would soon learn that racing, as well as life, goes on. It was Monday September 1, 1952 and the "Championship Trail" had to make their date at the Duquoin State Fair for the annual "Ted Horn Memorial". The fans were awaiting their heroes. Chuck Stevenson won the race on his way to the 1952 AAA National Championship. He would retire in later years. Mike Nazaruk, Joe James , Pat O'Conner, Bob Sweikert and Bob Scott made the overnight trip from Dayton. Oh yes, Bill Vukovich, Jack McGrath, Bobby Ball, Bill Schindler, Manuel Ayulo and Jimmy Reece also participated at Duquoin that day, but not Jim Rigsby.

The 1950's have often been described as a time of innocence in America. But in racing, it was a dangerous and sometimes cruel period in the history of our sport. Sadly all of the drivers (listed in the paragraph above) lost their lives in racing accidents.

There are a few select drivers like Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Parnelli Jones, AJ Foyt and Steve Chassey, who raced at Dayton during the 1960's and 70's with USAC and are still alive to talk about it.  If you ever have a chance, stop and ask them what Dayton Speedway was like.  There was nothing like it prior to its construction, and nothing like it since.  The track closed years ago, and today has been converted into a dump site, but it still remains hallowed ground and a field of dreams and memories of the brave and talented drivers who participated in the 1950's AAA Midwest Sprint Car Championships.

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