Although the cars were miniature, the thrills were on a grand scale.
Engines roared, dirt flew, vehicles collided, fans cheered and smoke drifted into the stands.
Midget auto races provided an exciting experience under the floodlights at the Akron Rubber Bowl in the 1940s and 1950s.
Drivers from across North America competed in the local races, which were so popular that they often attracted larger crowds than some of the stadium’s football games.
Cleveland promoter Don Zeiter leased the Rubber Bowl for the weekly events and laid out a one-fifth-mile oval track with elevated turns. Crews placed bales of straw between the track and concrete stands to absorb the impact of crashes, and installed a hub rail to keep racers off the field.
About 1,500 drivers competed on a national circuit of more than 800 speedways. Good drivers earned $200 to $300 a week during peak racing months. They needed every penny because midget cars cost roughly $8,000 to build — about $62,000 today.
“Those cars were shaped just like the Indy 500 cars — only much, much smaller,” said Stan Hensley, 78, of Green. “That’s why they called them midgets, I guess.”
As a youth, Hensley had a summer job as a popcorn vendor at the races. He roamed the 35,600-seat stadium, walking up and down the steps while shouting “Popcorn! Popcorn!”
“I think at the end of the night, I’d probably make about $2 to $3,” he said. “That was in the late ’40s, so it was worth a lot more then than it would be now.”
It was a great job because he got to watch the evening races — and he got paid.
“The midgets I remember well,” he said. “They would draw a pretty good crowd.”
More than 10,000 people attended the eight-event program when the races debuted in June 1941 at the Rubber Bowl. It cost 65 cents for general admission, $1 for box seats and 30 cents for children.
Paul Russo, of Kenosha, Wis., an Indianapolis 500 driver, won the 20-lap, 10-car main event by holding off Al Bonnell of Erie, Pa.
In the minds of young fans, midget racers were giants. Among the well-known drivers were Bouncin’ Bennie Emerick of Dayton, Barney “Widget Midget” Barnes of Columbus, Missouri Madman Ralph Pratt, Iron Duke Nalon of Chicago, Johnny Wohlfeil of Detroit and Howdy Grant of Pittsburgh.
Popular local racers included Bobby Orr, Earl Hopkins, Clarence La Rue, Gays Biro and Al Silver. Orr was known as “The Racing Millionaire” because his family owned Akron Motor Cargo Co.
“I remember one driver in particular, Wes Saegesser. He was a one-armed driver,” said retired Akron Public Schools educator Andy Calderone, 85, of Ellet. “A real nice guy. As friendly as could be.”
Saegesser, a native of San Antonio, Texas, won a 20-lap feature race over Detroit’s Art Hartsfield when racing resumed in August 1945 following a three-year hiatus in World War II. A year later, attendance peaked at 20,000.
Calderone worked at the Rubber Bowl as a ticket taker in the late 1940s, a job that was a lot messier than anticipated.
“The thing I remember when I was taking tickets at the main gate, dirt would fly over the fence at the west end of the track,” he said. “By the time the night was over, I was covered with mud.”
Dr. Robert J. Hemphill, 87, of Bath Township, remembers going to the races in the early 1940s. He and his Norton pals would pile into a car and drive to Akron.
“It was really exciting. We all had a big time.”
The midget cars typically used Ford V8 or Offenhauser engines, but those “Offies” could be awful because they burned castor oil.
“So they’d go around that track and that stuff would smoke,” Hemphill said. “You could hardly see the cars.”
Retired Akron educator Dan Hayes, 89, who also worked at the Rubber Bowl, recalls the sequence of events in races.
“Everybody would run two or three laps on their own to get a time, which would determine their starting position,” he said. “That’s the way they would start. It might have been two guys in a row when the race started. And, boy, that’s when the fun began!”
Crashes were fairly common. Cars collided, spun out, flipped and smashed. Drivers suffered cuts, fractures and burns. Known as “doodlebug jockeys,” midget drivers swerved in and out of traffic at top speed for a chance at glory.
“They really could skid around those corners,” Hayes said. “They would almost go sideways.”
Tragedy struck in 1947 when a 12-inch wheel flew into the stands after a midget car crashed into a railing. World War II veteran George V. Chupek, 26, a paratrooper who had survived the Battle of the Bulge, was hit in the face and killed instantly.
Roaring and cheering
Harold “Sam” Bryan, 88, of Mogadore, a retired maintenance worker for the city of Akron, said that he and his wife, Shirley, enjoyed going to the races several times a year. He can still hear the engines roar and crowds cheer.
“If their favorite driver was ahead, they would jump up and down and scream,” Bryan said. “My wife liked to go to the races. She was hollering just the same as everyone else.”
Al Silver was one of the crowd favorites. He would usually hang back four or five cars before making his move.
“He was always coming up from halfway back and taking the race,” he said.
The 1948 opening of Barberton Speedway and other Ohio tracks took away business from the Rubber Bowl. The stadium added stock cars, midnight runs and other events, but the small track had trouble competing with facilities that were built for racing.
When fans started going elsewhere in the 1950s, the Rubber Bowl waved a checkered flag on midget races.
Hensley took a good look around a year or so before the stadium closed in 2008.
“I was thinking. ‘Boy, this is pretty small for car races in here,’ ” he said. “But they had them in there.”
This year, a Canton company bought the old bowl for $38,000 and hopes to establish a professional football franchise there.
“It’s interesting now to see what’s going to happen to it,” Calderone said.
No matter how much the stadium is renovated, memories will continue to revolve around midget auto races of the 1940s and 1950s.
“It was exciting to see these guys run around there,” Hemphill said.
“It was fun to watch,” Hayes agreed. “It was an interesting thing.”
“I enjoyed the races,” Bryan said. “I’d like to see them start back up again.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.