Saturday, 7 June 2003
No this headline is not in relation to an American military coup. It is actually in reference to the occasion in May, 1948, when a troupe (not troops) of 20 U.S. midget auto racing drivers, that included Frank Brewer, Carl “Rosie” Roussel and Jack Stroud, arrived in London for a ten week tour, to demonstrate the mighty midgets before the British public, in the hope of reviving the sport there.
For a few years during the 1930’s, the English version of midget car racing enjoyed a healthy period, particularly from 1935 to 1938. The man responsible for launching the sport in England was Jean Reville, who not only built the first cars (an unbelievably primitive example of automotive construction) and their most dominant driver as well, but also a master of marketing monopoly. Apparently if you didn’t drive a Reville manufactured “Gnat”, you just didn’t race. As a matter of interest, the very first “International” midget drivers to tour Australia were England’s Jean Reville, Bud Stanley and Ralph Secretan in season 1935/36, with these basic unconventional “Gnats”. To their credit the design of the later model “Gnat” midgets were a vast improvement over the earlier types.
Gnats In Action.
However in 1937 Harry Skirrow built an updated example of the unique four wheel drive midgets which then seemed to be the extent of English midget engineering. By the same token the Skirrow acquitted itself well in International competition in both New Zealand and Australia, driven by English import Bill Reynolds, from 1938 to 1941. But unlike the rapid progress of American and Australian technology ( and later on, New Zealand ) in design and individuality of midget race cars, which encompassed a wide variety, one was hard pressed to find English examples beyond the “Gnat” and “Skirrow” . As rapidly as midget racing in England had reached it’s peak in the mid 1930’s, it inexplicably had faded into oblivion prior to the start of World War 2.
Skirrows Duel For Lead.
The phenomenon of the post war boom in American midget auto racing, when all over, spectators were able to attend every night of the week and speedway’s attracted huge crowds, it was natural that entrepeneurs looked for new fields to spread their product.
Among the most ardent followers of the mighty midgets were stars of the silver screen and night club entertainers , who were blessed with having the famous “Gilmore Stadium” right in tinsel town’s own back yard. Regular clientel included such names as Victor McLaglan, Carole Landis, Donald O’Connor, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Spike Jones, Helen Greco and Rex Harrison. In fact some of these, such as Turner,Landis and Jones, even owned or sponsored a midget. It is here where the English invasion of the U.S. mighty midgets really began.
Australia`s Jim McMahon In Spike Jones Special.
In 1948 Lana Turner was recently married to millionaire business tycoon H.J. “Bob” Topping and one of the vanguard of celebrities who were avid fans of midget car racing When a syndicate consisting of Bert Friedlob, Henry J. Topping Jnr and Norman Hanak formed the “World Midget Automobile Association” in early 1948 to take a team of midget racing drivers to England, Miss Turner and her “sweater girl” image became an integral cog in the promotional and marketing machine of the corporation. Also the glamourous movie actress Eleanor Parker who was the wife of Bert Friedlob, too provided considerable enhancement to the “WMAA” publicity team in London.
In March 1948 Norman Hanak began drawing up “WMAA” contracts and signing on twenty (20) drivers to be transported to England enmasse via ship, the “S.S. Panama” together with twenty (20) V8-60 engined midget race cars, plus officials and mechanics. (NB. An interesting clause in the bottom line of the agreement stated “In case of accidental death while participating on the track under this contract, the corporation agrees to pay designated beneficiary One Thousand Dollars ($1,000)” )
Also on board the ship was all the equipment required to stage midget car racing, including 8000 gallons of methanol racing fuel, 800 gallons of oil and 500 tyres. Then 17000 feet of hardwood timber, 2000 feet of wire netting, plus kegs of nails and screws needed in the construction of safety fences. In addition it also contained a complete machine shop with valve grinding machines and an entire range of spares for rebuilding engines, as well as lathes, welding plant and air compressors.
The troupe of drivers comprised Frank Brewer, “Rosie” Roussel, Noel Coath, Fletcher Pierce, Jack Stroud, Frank Armi, Al Hendrix, Joe Kennison, Byron Counts, “Inky” Ingram, Chauncey Crist, George Richardson, “Speed” Boardman, Dan Harrison, Sam Dockery, Art George, Bill Martin, Fred Hatfield, Barney Dana and Kelly Johnson. Racing was conducted under the rules of California’s United Racing Association which sanctioned meetings at Gilmore Stadium, L.A. Coliseum, Fresno’s Airport Speedway, Balboa,San Diego; Bakersfield, Saugus’s Bonelli Stadium, Sacramento’s Hughes Stadium and the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
WMAA Drivers In Publicity Pose London.
For the London tour three sports stadiums comprising Stamford Bridge (home of the Chelsea soccer club), The Valley (Charlton Athletic football ground) and the Walthamstow Stadium greyhound track, were contracted to conduct two race meetings each, per week, for a period of ten weeks. The itinery was scheduled in the following order. Stamford Bridge, Tuesday & Thursday; Walthamstow Stadium, Monday & Friday; The Valley, Wednesday & Saturday. The inaugural meeting to take place at Stamford Bridge on Thursday, May 13, featured International teams racing representing England, (captained by Frank Brewer), France, (captained by Art George), Belgium, (captained by Frank Armi) and USA, (captained by Jack Stroud). That all twenty team members spoke with American accents was not lost on the English public. Promoters soon realized that the “International” contest was making little impression, so changed the teams to a more local image that spectators could relate to .The same drivers comprised the original teams but were renamed Stamford Bridge, Charlton F.C., Walthamstow and American Athletic Club. It still didn’t retrieve the fading interest that was soon to ruin the outcome of the “WMAA” tour.
Programed Midget Teams.
Tracks were laid down consisting of a mixture of crushed bricks and dirt, as a base, with a three inch covering of cinders, which as discovered was not very conducive to midget auto racing and cars had difficulty in gaining traction. Some years later, one of the U.S. midget troupe, Noel Coath, wrote “That’s not the way to build a track. Our cars couldn’t get any bite and during racing drivers often got hit in the face with bits of brick” !. After the disappointment of the season opener at Stamford Bridge, an urgent meeting of drivers, management and technicians took place that night to discuss what could be done to improve and relay the track for the following Tuesday’s races at the venue that lasted until 4am Friday morning ! The troupe were scheduled to open the Walthamstow season at 7.30pm that evening. Problems existed also at the other two venues with similar track conditions that plagued the company.
As a consequence of the poorly prepared tracks, drivers could not reproduce. their best form and the midgets were unable to perform to their absolute capabilities. Whereas regular followers of the sport in America, Australia and New Zealand are well aware that midget auto racing is one of the world’s most thrilling spectacles, unfortunately the English crowds did not get to witness what the “WMAA” promotion zealously promised in newpaper publicity headlines. However it was reported that the meeting at Walthamstow on night two, (where Chauncy Crist hit the fence, landed upside down and was taken to hospital with a broken collarbone), was an improvement on the previous night at Stamford Bridge. The British press gangs, always quick to target any such unfulfilled fanfare, cut the enterprise to pieces with a tirade of negative newspaper criticism. The crowds which had filled the opening two meetings to capacity, (50,000 at Stamford Bridge and 25,000 at Walthamstow (which was the largest crowd for any single sporting event at the venue), rapidly declined, until the promoters were forced to cut their losses and brought the season to a premature halt after only five weeks of the projected ten week tour. The second meeting at Walthamstow for instance , the crowd had dropped by 15,000 and interest dwindled by May 31 to such an extent that only two thousand spectators attended .
Capacity Crowd At Charlton.
In hindsight it also must be remembered that the British crowds that initially attended the meetings were not familiar with midget car racing, only being attracted to the extravaganza by the well orchestrated marketing publicity and including the presence of two of the world’s leading female film stars in Lana Turner and Eleanor Parker. Midget car racing certainly had no influence on the regular supporter base of the motorcycle speedway League racing, as evidenced by the fact that while Walthamstow’s record breaking opening crowd on Friday, May 14, was in attendance, the nearby Harringay solo team still had their usual crowd of 18,000 fans. So from where was the crowd drawn that did (obviously out of curiosity) go to see the “mighty midgets” ? Not apparently from regular speedway followers, but maybe football fans and the various motor racing formula’s.? Here possibly is where the midget entrepeneurs should accept a proportion of the onus for the projects failure. One of their major selling points was to stress that the midgets were capable of top straightline speeds of 130 mph and would average 75 mph around the speedway track. There is no argument there from most of the knowledgable fans where midget racing is a regular favourite. Excepting that no account was given to the size of the English tracks being used and the condition of the type of track surface being employed. For instance, the track at Walthamstow was laid on the inside of the dog track which was 440 yards. This would make the midget car track much less than the average quarter mile tracks normally used in midget racing; closer to one fifth mile or less to hazard a guess. Add another minus for the poor track surface and there is no way that a show could be put on as would be the norm on the regular speedways of America, Australia and New Zealand. It would appear that the “WMAA”
oversell had amounted to overkill !
Joe Kennison, Fletcher Pierce, Noel Coath, Rosie Roussel and Frank Brewer at Stamford Bridge.
The condemnation was hardly fair to the drivers whose talent and courage was unquestionable. Particularly such as Frank Brewer, a top favourite whose illustrious career embraced three countries, or Jack Stroud, winner of championships in Iowa and Illinois. Other well known drivers such as Carl “Rosie” Roussel, Frank Armi, Al Hendrix, Inky Ingram and Art George could not be blamed. Obviously circumstances prevented the entire troupe from displaying their best performances. But it mattered not that certain sports critics, taking their first look at midget racing, became overnight experts and disregarding all relevant circumstances were relentless in their campaign to denigrate the sport. One such English sports writer even advised readers in his newspaper column’s screaming headline to “Dodge em” !!
Having made the decision to cancel the remainder of the tour, Bert Friedlob courageously informed a press conference, published in the Mercury & Post of June 10, “In light of experience gained the promoters have decided to return to Britain and commence on a new footing next year”. But any such further project never did eventuate.
Rosie Roussel (40) and Fletcher Pierce (100) Leading Field.
However if the “WMAA” corporation ever really wanted to indulge in a successful enterprise they should never have contemplated going to England, but would have been wiser to spend their 100,000 Pound English currency investment on a tour of Australia instead, where they would have been welcomed with open arms. The 69 year history of Australian midget auto racing, which was inaugurated in December 1934 at Melbourne’s Olympic Park speedway, is nearly as extensive as that of the USA which gave birth to the sport in July 1933, from where Australia followed their path of the mighty midgets. Therefore this country was already in tune and accessable to accept a venture such as that of the “WMAA’s”. In 1948, three American midget drivers in Perry Grimm, Cal Niday and George Williams were already in Australia in January and another twenty (20) U.S. midget drivers (or even ten ), would have really put the icing on the cake. What is more they would not have had a hard time trying to sell their product. Already a speedway drawcard in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, there were enough local star midget drivers to provide a ‘fair dinkum’ International teams event and tracks like Kilburn, Maribyrnong, Sydney Sportsground and Brisbane Exhibition would have proved the ideal venues to perfectly showcase “the roar of the mighty midgets”. And oh yes, Lana and Eleanor would have been more than welcome too!!
(Grateful acknowledgement is extended to “Rosie” Roussel and Noel Coath for their assistance in providing Speedcar World with material used in this article. Also to Garry Baker for his technical expertise in enhancing archival material).
Montage Of 1948 London Newspaper Headlines.
The Barn Where Midgets Were Maintained.
Action At Walthamstow.
Midgets Transported To Tracks By Fleet Of Trucks.
Midgets Send The Cinders Flying.
Rosie Roussel London 1948.