The History of Sprint Car Racing — Mission Impossible
By Gene Crucean
Some say the commotion started in the dirt … with thunder and lightning, bent iron … with sweat and blood, screams of pain … and with shattered beer bottles. As legend has it, sprint car racing was born on that day.
While this fable is ripe with color, it is not very convenient for historians who have debated the genesis of sprint car racing for many years. Midget racing, the sibling of sprint car racing, neatly traces its origin to a single day, June 4, 1933. That’s when the first organized midget race was held in Sacramento, California. Even though experiments with smaller engines in smaller chassis had been undertaken for years prior to 1933, midget racing came together in a professional and organized way on that date.
For sprint car researchers, however, the genesis conundrum remains unresolved. The difficult task is complicated by the subjective nature of the term itself. Does “sprint car” refer to a specific machine, separate and apart from the Indianapolis 500 and championship cars of the day? Or, does it define a shorter distance, all-out, racing format? Let’s look back.
Auto racing came to America on Thanksgiving Day, 1895. On that blustery fall day, Frank Duryea, driving a gasoline powered machine of his own design, defeated five competitors in a 54 mile road course event over the snow covered streets of Chicagoland. Those of us who occasionally travel those same congested streets today can confirm that Duryea’s average speed of 7 mph will forever stand as the track record. A year later in 1896, the first recorded oval track race was held on a one mile dirt track in Cranston, Rhode Island. In this thriller, a five lapper which featured steam, electric and gasoline powered vehicles, A.H. Whiting pushed his electrically powered open wheeler to victory at an average speed of 26.8 mph.
Nine years after Duryea’s victory in Chicago, auto racing achieved national recognition as a sport when the Vanderbilt Cup races began in 1904. Contested on the streets of New York City, the event brought Europe’s premier cars and drivers together to compete against America’s best. At the time, Europe was well ahead of America in all aspects of auto racing. The 283 mile Vanderbilt Cup events were hugely popular and received widespread publicity. In fact, it might be argued that William K. Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt Cup’s namesake and the forward thinking entrepreneur who proposed and funded the successful events, is the patron saint of American auto racing. Away from New York and Chicago, however, racing’s growth was taking place on the dirt ovals in rural America. A short time later when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 American oval track racing had come of age. And, with the inaugural 500 mile “Decoration Day” event in Indianapolis in 1911, oval track racing had its own national centerpiece.
In those early 20th century years, the prestigious 283 mile Vanderbilt and Indianapolis 500 mile events were the center of the nation’s attention. But, racing at the grass roots level in America was continuing to proliferate steadily on horse racing tracks and county fair ovals. Regional competition, although generally informal and unorganized, was being contested over much shorter distances and on tracks much shorter than the 2.5 mile oval in Indianapolis. Gradually sprint car racing, without any specific identity albeit, was slowly beginning to take the shape and form that we see today. Simultaneously, the term sprint began to take on significance as a defining factor in the media of the day. Sprint races, unlike the longer distance Vanderbilt and Indianapolis 500 events, were short distance, all-out races that rarely, if ever, required pit stops for fuel, wheel repairs or driver changes. In an advertising poster for a 1922 AAA (American Automobile Association) race at the two-mile Cotati, California board track a “50 mile sprint event” was promoted in addition to its 100 mile “National Championship Event”. And, in a press release announcing its 1937 schedule, the Readville, Massachusetts dirt oval reported “all programs to be of the sprint variety”.
During the same time, the AAA began to crown a national championship titlist. The AAA was then the premier early day sanctioning organization, much like NASCAR is today. The AAA’s first driving champion was Dario Resta in 1916. Resta earned his title by accumulating points at races which were over 100 miles in distance and on tracks of at least a mile in length, including the Indianapolis 500. Thirteen years later Louie Meyer used the same point format to earn the 1929 driving championship. That same year, the AAA also designated its initial non-championship titlist, Mel Kenealy, who was crowned the Pacific Coast champion. The AAA’s use of the confusing term non-championship was used to differentiate Kenealy’s title from their top-tier or championship circuit title which Meyer had won the same year. Unlike Meyer’s title, however, Kenealy’s was earned mostly by winning points in sprint races on shorter tracks like that glitzy and glorious five-eights mile oval near Los Angeles, California, the American Legion (Ascot) Speedway. He also earned points in races at other regional venues such as San Jose, Fresno and Banning in California and at Phoenix, Arizona. Although Fresno and Phoenix were one mile ovals, all of Kenealy’s point-paying races in 1929 were of distances shorter than the 100 miles generally required by AAA for their championship division. The important distinction here is that while Meyer won the AAA’s championship title, Kenealy won the non-championship crown. As an aside, the United States Auto Club (USAC), which has continued the tradition of crowning sprint car (nee non-championship) titlists, identifies Kenealy in their historic narrative as the nation’s first sprint car champion.
Although it is comforting for those of us who harbor an affection for sprint car racing to think that by crowning Kenealy champion, the AAA sought to acknowledge and develop a popular and highly regarded form of regional, open wheel, short track competition. It is more likely, however, that they recognized the business value of generating streams of income from expanded sanctioning fees. And with so many of the west coast drivers moving on to Indianapolis and achieving national recognition, the ever autocratic AAA also sought to wrap their controlling fist around yet another form of American auto racing.
In any case, we can gather from our discussion thus far that in elder times the term sprint clearly referred to races of shorter distances than those of the of the AAA championship races of the day. Sprint did not yet define a specific type of racing car. In fact, with the exception of the engines the cars that raced in non-championship or sprint races were similar to, and often interchangeable with, those that competed at Indianapolis and on the AAA’s championship circuit. But defining equipment specifications were in the offing.
When Kenealy won his sprint title in 1929 the AAA had no chassis or engine displacement specifications for their non-championship circuit. Without a set of “specs” for non-championship cars, the cars involved in sprint racing were similar to most racing cars across the land. The AAA’s chief competition was then provided by the popular and ubiquitous International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) which also campaigned single seaters on dirt track ovals across much of the country. Like the Pacific Coast circuit (and also for that matter, the non-championship cars competing in the AAA’s eastern and midwestern states), the IMCA had no engine displacement formula. It did not adopt limits until 1948. Had Indianapolis not mandated tiny 91.5 cubic inch engines in 1926, both Pacific Coast and Indianapolis cars, which were also single seaters until 1930, would have been generally interchangeable.
Further, with no engine displacement limits in place for Kenealy’s Pacific Coast circuit, the 220 cubic inch Miller, which was the predecessor of the famous Offenhauser, was dominant. When Indy bumped their displacement limit from 91.5 cubic inches to 366 inches in 1930, many 220s ran successfully with the Indy cars in the 500. In fact, a four cylinder 220 powered Bill Cummings to victory in 1934. Later, the 220 gave way to the 255 inch Miller. At the same time, however, the AAA had no displacement cap published for those cars competing on the dirt tracks of the championship trail. While the cars racing at Indianapolis were limited to 91.5 cubic inches, the cars running the rest of the championship races on the circuit had no displacement limits.
With no engine displacement limits on the championship dirt tracks, concerns were growing over behemoth engines, costs, and the dangerous and ever increasing speeds. Even non-championship or sprint car drivers were dying all too frequently on Ascot’s treacherous oval. Reacting to the problem in 1933, the AAA Contest Board established a displacement cap of 366 inches for championship dirt cars, matching the limit at Indy. At the same time, the AAA set a limit of 220 cubic inches for its non-championship machines, that is, those cars racing in short distance or sprint races on the Pacific Coast circuit. The following year, 1934, the AAA further reduced Pacific Coast engines to 205 cubic inches. However, the non-championship cars competing on the AAA’s eastern and midwestern circuits were unaffected by these displacement limits and continued using engines that matched the 366 cubic inch cap at Indianapolis.
With the AAA’s engine displacement ruling in 1933, a sprint car as we might define it today, was effectively born. The cars that competed in short-track, Pacific Coast sprint races, became separate and apart from the championship cars that raced at Indianapolis and on the Championship Trail. Wheel bases had already begun to shorten in order to improve handling of the cars on tracks shorter than the miles. Now, with an engine displacement limit that differed from championship cars, sprint cars definitively emerged as a separate class of auto racing machinery. Indianapolis cars, along with those of the championship trail, now had a little brother.
At some uncertain time in the mid-1930s the term big car began to find its way into the mainstream media. Big car was, of course, used to identify cars bigger than midgets, which were growing in popularity nationally. The term also referred to a single seater during a time when Indy was again running two-man cars. In the early 1950s the term “sprint car” emerged as a media convenience, referring to cars with engines smaller than their Indy or championship brothers and which raced in shorter events, usually on half mile tracks. It was a generally understood that sprint cars would be found racing across the land on fairgrounds ovals. The AAA first referred to the term sprint in 1951. In a narrative discussion of their non-championship divisions in their 1951 annual, they explained: “Non-championship is the term applied to sprint racing; the class between midget and championship speedway cars.” It’s fair to say that at this point in its evolution, sprint car racing had achieved its current identity, i.e. a separate class of open cockpit, open wheel, racing machinery which raced in short distance racing events on oval tracks. The confusing and cumbersome terms non-championship and big car had finally and permanently morphed into sprint car.
When racing resumed after World War II, the displacement limit for sprint cars was bumped back to 220 inches. The eastern and midwestern circuits finally followed suit. It was a wondrous time when the legendary Offy reigned supreme until it was ultimately defeated by the stock block Chevy V-8 in the early 1960s. Many long time sprint car fans can recall the glorious battles between Offy stalwarts AJ Foyt and Don Branson and Chevy interlopers Parnelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise. Going forward, engine displacement limits continued to be adjusted while roll bars became roll cages. Ford, Mopar and wings eventually came along. Over time, these ingredients have blended harmoniously to produce the remarkable 410 cubic inch machines that we continue to appreciate today.
As we can see from this essay, fixing a date for the first sprint car race or identifying history’s first sprint car is an impossible mission. There was no singular birthing moment for that mythical commotion in the dirt or those screams of pain. What is clear, however, is that sprint car racing evolved in parallel with all other forms of domestic racing. In fact, sprint car racing’s DNA can be traced all the way back to that first oval track race on Cranston’s dirt mile in 1896. Perhaps one might wish to make the argument that all present forms of oval track racing are the offspring of sprint racing. In any event, the history and evolution of sprint car racing is clearly the history of American automobile racing.
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