Eat my dust
The Indianapolis 500 got its start in 1911 on a speedway surfaced in smooth, durable brick pavers. By 1932, the year a dirt track debuted in the little Oregon farming community of McMinnville, the average speed had increased from 74.602 mph to 104.144.
The Indianapolis oval encompasses more than 230 acres. In McMinnville, aims were less ambitious — a small oval of packed and oiled dirt about a mile west of Baker on West Second, with some bleacher seating.
The most sophisticated race cars of the day were all hand-built, one-of-a-kind creations. Seeking to emulate that, local race drivers and mechanics yearning to compete on the local oval built their cars essentially from scratch.
Souped-up engines, stripped down bodies and special components not found in mass-manufactured automobiles may not have made these homemade machines a threat to the brickyard speedsters of Indy, but they were way faster than anything on the street.
Francis “Frank” Fogard was one of the local need-for-speed demons. He worked for City Garage at Second and Evans, apparently as the manager.
City Garage doubled as a Plymouth dealership and had access to the latest in engine design. That probably didn’t hurt Fogard in his pursuit of performance.
In the 1933 Plymouth DeLuxe, which went on sale in late 1932, Chrysler Corporation introduced a 190 cubic inch flathead six with a downdraft carburetor. The flathead design proved so popular and reliable, it endured until 1959, a run of more than a quarter of a century.
Fogard persuaded the owner to sponsor his race car, which he dubbed “Oscar.” It featured a cartoon character on the hood, along with the credit, “From City Garage.”
City Garage pumped Standard gas. So the cylindrical gas tank directly behind the driver’s seat made bold reference to the company name on both ends, for the edification of fuel-minded admirers.
For some reason, Fogard decided to make Oscar a right-hand-drive vehicle. Given its narrow width and small bucket-style seat, the steering column could just as easily have been placed in the center.
One can only guess as to whether he wanted to be able to give someone a cozy ride or take Oscar overseas to compete in lively road and track action abroad.
How the accompanying photos and information came to light is an interesting story in itself.
Yamhill native Leonard Whitlow II, who enjoys local history, discovered the postcard-sized negatives in a small trunk. The trunk, stored in a garage, was given to him by a cousin.
It seems the cousin had married a nephew of Fogard’s second wife. That’s a convoluted connection, but it served nonetheless to reveal an interesting episode from McMinnville’s past.
Remember, the local track was developed only 82 years ago, so no one able to provide a first-hand narrative is still around. We must, perforce, rely on some supposition.
In perusing the bound archives of the N-R’s Telephone-Register predecessor from 1932, I came across a coincidentally connected auto racing story.
The county fairgrounds also featured a track at the time. The McMinnville Fire Department sponsored a series of races on that track in 1932, and they were much ballyhooed in the Telephone-Register.
In the paper’s edition of June 16, 1932, a front page story announced:
“First of a series of automobile races to be sponsored this summer on the old fairground race track here by the Fire department has been tentatively set for July 10.
“Two contests will probably be held on the initial bill, one for five miles and another for 25. Regulations will allow entrance of all four-cylinder autos prior to 1924 and all other cars built prior to 1918.”
On July 7, a front-page article headlined “Firemen’s Race Set for Sunday,” went on to say:
“At least 15 racers, and probably more, will be entered in the Firemen’s automobile contests to be held on the reconditioned fairground race track next Sunday afternoon.
“Many cars are being entered by local drivers, with the Sheridan, Dayton and Dallas fire departments likewise indicating they would enter competitors in the race.”
In its next edition, the Telephone-Register carried a story headlined, “Adkinson Wins Auto Contests.” It went on to tell readers:
“Frank Adkinson, piloting his speedster around the half-mile fairgrounds track at nearly a mile-a-minute clip, won first place in the first of the automobile races to be staged this summer. Adkinson made the 25-mile route in 32 minutes and 29 1/2 seconds.
“Twelve cars ‘went under the barrier’ at the start, but only five completed the race. The firemen last night decided to hold their second race on Sunday, July 31.”
On July 28, excitement over the upcoming race event edged into controversy.
“If present plans materialize,” the newspaper reported, “it is anticipated that a second 25-mile race will be added to take care of the increase in entries.
“A feud is also reported brewing between Frank Adkinson and Frank Johnson, who took first and second, respectively, last time, over the merits and possibilities of their machines.”
The followup story on Aug. 4 brought finality to that feud by announcing, “Johnson Wins Auto Contests.” The story under that headline reported: “First and only honors in Sunday’s Firemen’s auto races went to Frank Johnson, whose iron steed was the only machine to stand up under the grind. Fifteen cars were entered but 14 dropped out.”
There’s no mention of Frank Fogard in all this. But the entire undertaking does demonstrate the average American’s mounting enthusiasm for the automobile, despite the travails of the Great Depression.
The fire department announced the third and final race of the season would take place Sunday, Aug. 21. On that day, spectators witnessed an occurrence many who attend auto races claim they never hope to see — a crash with injuries.
‘Two Hurt In Auto Race Try-outs” trumpeted an Aug. 25 headline over a story reporting: “Frank Adkinson and Mark O’Dell of this city, testing a car which was to have been entered in the Firemen’s race Sunday afternoon, narrowly escaped death when the machine skidded while rounding the north curve, crashed into the city sprinkler on the track and rolled over.”
Both sustained multiple serious fractures and other injuries, but survived. Frank Johnson went on to win the 25-mile race in 32 minutes and 32 seconds, only 2-1/2 seconds off his previous best.
The fairground continued to see improvements over the years. As for the Second Street oval, it went from track to tract, making way for a manufactured home development in 1949.
And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — realizing that race cars in the 1930s had no seat belts or roll bars, much less air bags, safety cages and crumple zones. But then, they only went half as fast.
Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.