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The Story of Midget Auto Racing at Cherry Park
By Rusty Pinney

Cherry Park in Avon CT was like most any fairground that dotted the landscape in rural America in the first part of the 20th century. They all had regional or county fairs that brought together the people of the surrounding communities for exhibition and competition. The centerpiece of almost any fair was horse racing which took place on a dirt oval usually a half-mile in length. Horse racing was held in conjunction with the 4H fair every year in Cherry Parks case. As automobiles gained wider usage competition was inevitable, (its been said that the first auto race took place the very minute two of them met on a street).  Auto racing rapidly gained popularity and soon supplemented or replaced horse racing altogether at these fairground tracks. The cars that competed in these fairground events were known as sprint cars or big cars usually built from castoff Ford model T and model A components. As time went on these cars became more specialized and expensive.

The beginning of the eastern midget craze...

Although midget cars had been built as far back as the mid to late teens it is generally accepted that 1933 was the year that midget auto racing was born. A group of men built some small versions of racing cars on the west coast that resembled the Indianapolis racers of the day. These machines were based on motorcycle or outboard boat engines and used mostly for exhibition purposes but as more were built the outcome was certain (see above comment). The interest soon spread to the east coast and the first organized midget auto race in the region took place at Olympic Park in Irvington NJ in 1934. By the mid 30's the sport became wildly popular and tracks were popping up everywhere almost overnight. Because of the car’s small size, the tracks could also be smaller and races were held at municipal stadiums, ballparks and even indoor coliseums in cities with large populations. This also meant that races could be held year round as was the case in New York City with the Bronx coliseum and Kingsbridge armory. Midget auto racing became the most popular sport in America in the years just before and after WWII with tens of thousands of fans attending races seven nights a week.

The sport explodes...

If the years before the war were good then the years after were best described as unbelievable. When the war ended and the national ban on motor racing was lifted in Sept. 1945 some12000 fans turned out for the first race held on the east coast at Freeport Stadium on L.I. New York. The Race was won by the extremely popular one-legged driver, Bill Schindler driving the Caruso Offy. Racing soon resumed to a seven night a week schedule and was drawing more fans then ever, often as many or more than major league baseball. As more drivers returned home from overseas duty the sport just kept growing and new venues were constantly being sought to aid in that growth

The circuit and Cherry Park...

People in and out of the racing game could not ignore the huge amounts of money that were being generated by the sport and areas that had fairground facilities that were used only a handful of times a year were ideal for this purpose. In early 1946 a group formed as Canton - Avon Speedways Inc. met with respected race promoter Ed Otto, who had been promoting racing at Charter Oak park in Hartford CT. (and later went on to help found NASCAR), along with representatives from race sanctioning body the American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) to conduct midget races at Cherry Park. The choice of both Otto and the ARDC was a good move because it gave the track a trusted promoter and one of the largest and most prestigious racing organizations in the eastern United States at the time. Otto, at that time was one of the biggest promoters on the east coast running races from CT. to FLA. He was known for fairness with competitors and fans alike. The American Racing Drivers Club, founded in 1939 and based in New York City controlled nearly all the racing activity in the eastern United States during this period running three separate circuits on the east coast. All ran seven nights a week with many tracks running twice a week, Cherry Park operated on Sun. and Wed. Nights in the summer months and Sun. afternoons in spring and fall. Because of midget racing’s popularity drivers in the club were nationally known figures similar to those in other major league sports. During the heyday of 1947 the club payed out two million dollars in total purses. Under Otto’s stewardship the Cherry Park group determined that the existing half-mile track would be unsuitable for midgets so a one fifth mile track was laid out. This was done to keep the action tight and close to the fans and because this was the size track midgets typically ran on. Otto also increased seating capacity by 3600 by purchasing steel grandstands found in San Antonio Tex. These were erected along the backstretch and to the north of the main grandstand for a total seating capacity of 7000 people.

1946.  Gold plated asphalt. Life along RT.177 would never be the same....

The first race was held on a dirt surface before 8000 fans on Sun, July 28th .The crowds that came to witness this event and others to follow created a steady line of traffic from RT.44 in Canton and to RT.4 in Unionville. People that lived along RT.177, known as Lovely St. had to keep their windows closed in the summer on race nights because of the dust and noise of the traffic. Later, to smooth the traffic flow, fans leaving the track used both lanes of the road to go either north or south. A sound car was used to warn people not to park on the side of the road or they would be towed.  Those that owned property surrounding the fairgrounds made tidy sums using their land as parking lots charging 25 cents a car. The Distin family who owned the lot across the street to the south of the track even installed lights, many roadside refreshment stands also popped up as well.
The first race was won by Bill Schindler in the new Caruso Offy. The announcer calling the action was WTIC radio personality Bob Steele. Famed automotive stylist Virgil M. Exner paced the main event with his Studebaker Indy car. He was head styling engineer at Studebaker at the time. The second scheduled race Aug 4th was cancelled because work on the new paved surface was not completed. As a side note, Morgan Monroe the publicity director for Cherry Park called the sports desk at one of Hartford’s daily newspapers to ask if a predicted crowd of 10,000 for the next event was a record for a sporting event in the Hartford area. He was told that it was awful close but a boxing match with Primo Carnera at the East Hartford Velodrome held the record. Racing resumed on Wed. Night Aug. 11 again won by Schindler with 10,500 in attendance. Racing continued on Wed. and Sun. nights until Oct 7th then ran on Sun only. Schindler went on to score two more features that year other winners were Ted Tappett, Ray Nestor, Art Cross, Georgie Rice and Farmington CT. resident Johnny Carpenter. The big winner that year however, was Chet Conklin of Danbury CT. who not only won the Atlantic States Championship race but also won the Downey trophy that went along with it in front of 10,300 fans. William Porter Downey editor and publisher of the Farmington Valley Herald newspaper sponsored the trophy. This three foot tall award was quite a sensation and was displayed in Collinsville at E.J. Smith Co. Doyle’s Drug Store in Simsbury, Gramp’s Drug Store in Unionville and the offices of the Farmington Valley Herald that year. The Atlantic States Championship (the first after the war) was held at different tracks in the east each year since 1936 and because of Cherry Park’s outstanding success was chosen this year. Governor Raymond E. Baldwin opened the event and most amazing was that Conklin won the 50 lapper starting from last place. The only serious accident that year occurred on Sept. 1st when Springfield MA driver Dick Bower was permanently paralyzed when his car flipped on the forth lap of the B heat race. A total of thirteen races were held that year from July 28th to Oct. 20th with purses in the $ 4,000 range and top attendance of 11,000 fans with a total of 80,000 fans for the year, more than any other sporting event in Conn. The track record holder was Georgie Rice.

1947, the best of times and the sport matures . . .

The season finally opened on May30th after five consecutive rainouts. Dutch Schaefer won the opener in the Buck Wheeler Offy with 11,000 fans looking on. Twenty three races were held that year the last being the Oct.19th 100 lapper won by “Little” Johnny Ritter in his new Kurtis Offy, (he brought the car out the week before). Top scorers this season were Bill Schindler, (Caruso Offy) and Johnny Ringger, (Wheeler Offy) and Georgie Rice (Curtis Offy #8 and Bourgnon Offy #1) with four each Ted Tappett with three. Chet Gibbons, two and one each by Rex Records and Lloyd Christopher, (Both in Tony Caccia’s team Offy’s #1 and # 9) Chet Conklin (Hull V8) Jerry Jerome, V8. Controversy took place one night as a rule on tires was instituted to give the Ford powered cars a more competitive chance against the Offy’s this delayed the race but the Offy’s still dominated. Johnny Ringger took the championship and the Downey trophy presented by W. P. Downey himself. Injuries this season involved Rex Records of Stamford CT. who ended up with bruises when he tangled with Bill Schindler for the lead on July 6 and Bill Dils who suffered a crushed vertebra in another crash. Ralph Lund and Sparky Belmont were also injured in crashes. Purses remained steady and attendance figures of 9500 to 11,000 weekly were pretty much standard. The track record was broken by Chet Gibbons on July13 by a full 3 seconds. Novelty was also part of the program as a bicycle race between former boxing champs, announcer Bob Steele and Bill Williams of Winsted took place, Steele lost. 

1948, could things get any better...or not...

April 18th opened the season and was greeted with standing room only crowds and a full field of top competitors Ted Tappett (Curtis #8) scored his first of two that year but the top winner was Schindler (Caruso # 2) with nine. Tappett however was running up the score elsewhere on the circuit and the two battled for the ARDC championship for the rest of the season. Georgie Rice (Bourgnon #36) was in with three. Two for Lloyd Christopher and one each for Bill Baker, Steve McGrath, Dutch Schaefer, Tony Bonadies, Mike Nazaruk and Rex records. This was the year for records as well. On Sept. 26 the crowd went wild when rookie driver Johnny Ford set a new track record and defeated Steve McGrath and Al Keller in his heat race.
On Oct. 10 another record was set when 22 Offy’s signed in at the pit gate for the season ending 50 lapper the most ever at an eastern track.
Sadly, the track also claimed it’s first fatality on July 25th when a crash claimed the life of Bill Kilpatrick, even worse was the fact that he was the father of six children and made front page news in national papers to the point of calling for a ban on fathers of large families from competing in auto racing. The top ARDC scorer of the year was Bill Schindler winning his 53rd race of the season by taking the fifty-lap event, however Georgie Rice came out on top for the track title. Rain claimed three dates.

1949, The beginning of the end...

It was clear that after the ‘48 season that something had to be done about the Offy “parades” the solution was inverted starts, all Offy’s in the back. Still, crowds had obviously fallen (although less than at some other tracks). Sun, Apr. 3 opened with 6000 on hand who watched Schindler pick up where he left off the year before. The following week Apr. 10 it was announced that stock cars would be given a tryout only 16 cars came and of them 5 did not start. Next week it was business as usual as Bert Brooks (New Britain), copped the main, his first of two. Mike Nazaruk took down three, Oscar Saunders and Lloyd Christopher with two each, Christopher taking the Aug.14 100 lapper. Tony Bonadies, Steve McGrath, Charlie Ethier, George Flemke and Nick Fornoro all notched one each. No racing was scheduled on Aug.21st or 28th . Mike Nazaruk won on Sept 4th. On Sept.11th stock cars were the scheduled attraction when it became clear that this was what the fans preferred.

1950 The year of transformation...

At the beginning of the year it was obvious that midget racing was on the decline. Ed Otto as well as other promoters started scheduling more stock car races and only four dates were held for midgets that year. April 9th opened the season with George Flemke in his own # 78 taking the win over Russ Klar and Bert Brooks in the Hagedorn #9. April 16 rained after the third heat but marked the first time New England superstar Johnny Thompson competed at Avon. Apr. 23rd was a wash out and I have no record that the Apr. 30th race was even held.

Conclusion and thoughts...

Much has been written about midget racing’s post war decline, overexposure, the advent of television, bickering between sanctioning bodies, the popularity of stock cars, Offy parades and the prima donna attitudes of some of the competitors. It appears to me that all of these factors played a role to varying degrees as well as changing times. Post war America experienced the most rapid period of growth, prosperity and technological change in its history and people were hungry for the new and different. Midget auto racing was a stepping stone in all this by bringing racing to the people rather than the other way around Tracks were built in populated areas so people didn’t have to travel long distances to see racing. This alone contributed greatly to midget racing’s popularity. Those that wanted to go to multiple tracks per week, (and there were many that did), still didn’t have to travel a great deal because of the close proximity of venues and the fact that most ran two nights a week. In Connecticut you had, Avon, Sun. & Wed., Thompson, Sun. afternoon, Bridgeport, Mon., West Haven, Thurs., Danbury or West Springfield MA on Sat. with others in NY, NJ and PA filling out the week. The men that ran midgets in those days were treated as celebrities as most were nationally known. It didn’t happen overnight but midgets became part of the feeder system to the big time. Some of the top drivers that ran at Cherry Park went on to race in the Indy 500 they include:
Bill Schindler, ‘50 to ‘52 best finish 13th
Mike Nazaruk,2nd ‘51
Al Keller,11th ‘58
Art Cross,2nd ‘53
Len Duncan, 31st’54.
Johnny Thompson, 3rd ‘59
Bert Brooks
Johnny Carpenter
Also making the big time in international sports car racing was Ted Tappett whose real name was Phil Walters after becoming the first Riverside Park stock car champ. Phil went on to join Briggs Cunningham and teamed with other Connecticut resident John Fitch won the 2nd 12 hrs. of Sebring in 1953. They also finished 2nd twice in the 24 hrs. of  Le Mans. Georgie Rice also served on the team. Fitch became the first American contracted to drive F1 for Ferrari but retired on the spot after witnessing the horrible 1955
crash at Le Mans that killed 85 spectators. Most agree he was one of the best race drivers America ever produced.

About the author

Rusty Pinney was born and raised in Canton CT.  He was first introduced to auto racing by his mother during a visit to Plainville Stadium at the age of six.  The seed was planted - beginning a life long love of motor racing.  As a teenager, he built and raced stock cars at Riverside Park in MA. He followed that with kart and midget racing throughout New England.  Rusty is currently involved in vintage midget restoration, with a completed car in the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing (EMMR) in PA.  As an accredited racing historian he has provided his wide-ranging knowledge to museums, restorers and film documentaries. He enjoys sharing the information he has acquired and continues to research the post WWII eastern midget auto-racing era.