More than 15,000 race fans pack Tulsa Oklahoma's State Fairgrounds centre each year for five nights in January to watch 275 Midgets broadslide around a clay surfaced quarter mile track seeking one of 24 spots in the "A-Main" the final of what's dubbed this sport's Super Bowl but aptly named, given the heat generated, The Chili Bowl.
They come, as have generations before them, to watch one of North America's true grassroots motor sports that, since its birth eight decades ago, has brought the excitement and drama of wheel-to-wheel racing to small-town tracks across the continent. And served as a stepping stone to racing stardom, most recently for the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and John Andretti, but in an earlier time Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford.
Today's United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget is a brutally simple device, a 900-pound, minimally bodied and wingless, 10-foot-long assemblage of steel tubing suspended on solid axles front and back and powered by a methanol burning engine making 350 hp and capable of propelling it to 150 mph.
But it's not really very much different in its essentials from the late 1940s Midget pictured here and owned by P.R. (Bud) Clarke of Kingston, Ont., which itself closely follows the pattern established when the first Midgets were developed in the early 1930s.
The Midget race car's origins are a little murky but Barb Hellyer of the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame in Wisconsin says they evolved as a counterpoint to the so-called "Big Cars" that dominated racing at the time and would later become the 800 hp-plus and flamboyantly be-winged Sprint cars of today.
The first seem to have appeared on the West Coast as scaled down versions of the big cars that, "some ladies would play around with on the California ranch of a movie stunt cowboy," says Hellyer. "Then the next thing you know the men are racing them." And it didn't take long before these "midget" race cars were running for real with the first official events staged on the Loyola High School track in Los Angeles in 1933.
"It was something that started as a lark and turned into a sport," says Hellyer, who's been involved with Midgets since the 1950s. Midget racing soon found its way east, and was then enthusiastically discovered by the Australians who called them Speedcars. They were raced on usually short dirt and paved ovals.
During the sport's 1930s heyday, races were run on the West Coast seven nights a week year round at venues such as the Los Angeles Coliseum, and tracks were drawing crowds of 30,000-plus says Hellyer. "Men could make a living racing Midgets then," she says and some cars were sponsored by Hollywood stars.
Midgets "brought racing to the people" with events held on fairground tracks and in stadiums in their own home towns with tickets going for a quarter or 50 cents, says Hellyer, explaining its rapid increase in popularity.
Then the Second World War interrupted things, but Midget racing saw a strong resurgence in the late 1940s. Its popularity dwindled with the advent of cheap stock car racing in the 1950s, however, although not in Australia where it continues to be a fan favourite today.
Despite ups and downs in North America it still has a strong following and a full calendar including events for vintage machines like Clarke's, which the retired construction superintendent added to his collection of old wooden racing boats and some 40 outboard motors, plus a 1950 Ford Tudor, last summer.
Purchased from a fellow outboard motor and car enthusiast in New York, the car appears to be in close to original condition and from a small brass dash plaque from a New Jersey racing association dated 1949 Clarke surmises it competed in East Coast events.
Clarke's Midget appears to have been born of the sport's post-war return and was probably built by the Solar Aircraft Company of San Diego which, in an effort to diversify after wartime orders dried up briefly, got into the race car business building Midgets in kit form. Solar, which was the parent of Ryan aircraft which produced Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, produced a dozen pilot kits in 1945 and in 1946 about 100 production kits before concentrating once again on aircraft components.
The kits included basically the frame and the hand-formed aluminum bodywork to which the builder added front and rear suspension and a powerplant, according to Clarke.
The suspension on Clarke's car is by Model A axles front and rear on leaf springs with friction dampers. The motor is a Ford V8-60, the small 136 cubic inch displacement version of the company's famed flathead, with power upped by various tuning tweaks and a pair of Stromberg 97 carbs. Its drive is transmitted via an "in-and-out-box" a single gear transmission with no clutch (you have to push it to start it), to the welded and locked Model A rear end.
Why did a "mostly" old racing boat enthusiast buy a Midget vintage circle track racer. "It's just such a neat little car," says Clarke. And it is. It's easy to imagine it, that little V-8 rasping and barking, its driver (held in the open cockpit by a canvas lap belt), all arms and elbows, banging wheels with a packed field of rival racers on a tight little bull-ring track some hot summer Saturday night half a century ago.