The South Bend Motor Speedway has been a place for racing for the past 70 years!
South Bend Motor Speedway was a “hot bed” for weekly midget auto racing after World War II. Located some two, three miles west of South Bend on Highway 2 (Western Ave.), the high-banked, quarter-mile, paved oval opened on Friday night, August 23, 1946. The South Bend Auto Racing Association, headed by Joe Kovatch and 13 others including race drivers Charlie Van Acker and Charlie Szekendy, built the track over a two-year period.
“Oh, I lived and breathed that South Bend Motor Speedway back then,” said Kovatch in a 1999 interview. “We wanted to build a high bank quarter mile track that would separate the men from the boys.” Kovatch, who was known for his mechanic skills, passed way in 2004 at the age of 94.
Chicago's Ted Duncan, the evening's fastest qualifier, won the “Class A” 25-lap feature race that opening night in his Johnny Pawl-owned, Offenhauser-powered No. 17 with Bob Muhlke, Frank Burany, Gus Klingbiel and early contender Pete Romcevich chasing Duncan to the checkered flag. Some 8,000 fans attended the inaugural race program with many standing in the infield to spectate as a field of 25 cars saw action.
With the first racing program in the books, the association switched weekly racing at South Bend to Thursday evenings to avoid conflicting with high school football. The likes of Duncan, Muhlke and Tony Bettenhausen, all from the Chicago area, were Thursday night winners with Romcevich winning on September 22 when racing switched to Sunday afternoons. Bettenhausen, Romcevich and Klingbiel were Sunday afternoon winners with Mike O'Halloran winning the season finale on October 27. Wisconsin's Gus Klingbiel was named the speedway's first track champion.
It was more weekly midget racing in 1947 with the track pretty much hosting a Friday night schedule. Approximately 6,000 fans watched Tony Bettenhausen, piloting Rudy Nichels' black No. 1, win the season-opening 25-lap main event over Mike O'Halloran and Bob Muhlke. California's Ronnie Householder was named the speedway's champion with O'Halloran again claiming the season finale on October 27. On August 8, Householder set a new qualifying track record of 13.31 seconds.
Mel Hansen won the American Automobile Association (AAA)-sanctioned midget racing season opener on May 7, 1948. Hansen, Henry Banks, Lloyd Axel and Johnnie Parsons were AAA winners before the track broke ties with AAA because of a shortage of cars for the Friday night shows. The speedway switched to the Midwest Car Owners and Drivers Association with Don Brennan of Orland Park, Ill., winning the feature race on July 9. A member of the U.S. Marines during World War II, Brennan and his Jimmy Triplett-owned No. 54 won a total of eight feature races, including four in a row, at South Bend in 1948. Brennan was killed in a crash at Lincoln, Ill., on September 23 and was named the speedway's midget champion posthumously.
Sunday afternoon, July 4, 1948, saw the Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Association, headed by Andy Granatelli, appeared at the South Bend oval with California's Jim Rathmann winning the feature in his Ford Model T hot rod, powered by a powerful Mercury engine. Willie Sternquist, from Evanston, Ill., wheeled his black No. 66 hot rod to several feature wins with Chicago racer Ray Erickson winning a hot rod 25 lapper on August 15.
AAA midgets returned to the South Bend oval in 1949 for Saturday night competition. California driver Gordon Reid won the opening feature race on May 14 as 3,500 fans looked on. A full season of midget racing took place with Colorado's Johnnie Tolan winning the 50-lap season finale on September 10 over Indiana drivers George Tichenor and “Potsy” Goacher. Rocky Johnston of Granger, Ind., was crowned the speedway's midget racing champion.
Hot rods, under the banner of the Midway Stock Cars Association, raced at the track on Tuesday nights in 1949. Michigan racer Dick Morley, along with Bobby Beeson, South Bend's Ralph Klinker and Ebe Yoder were front runners in the hot rod action. Morley won the 50-lap hot rod season finale on September 27 ahead of Klinker and Johnny Nisely. Yoder, of Goshen, was the hot rod champion.
Stock cars, or “hard tops” as they were called, made their first appearance at South Bend on Sunday afternoon, September 18, 1949. Rusty Hartman of Fort Wayne closed out the stock car season on October 2, taking the feature race checkered flag ahead of Pete Peterson and Dick Brown. Another Fort Wayne racer, “Lucky” Long was the day's fastest qualifier with a lap of 16.99 seconds.
Hot rods and stock cars competed on a weekly basis at the speedway in 1950 with the stock cars replacing the weekly Saturday night midget racing. With track president Alton Milliken and manager Walter A. Redmer heading up the speedway, “Rut” Ralston of Goshen was an early-season Tuesday night winner in the hot rods.
Dick Morley of Kalamazoo, Mich., closed out the season on October 29 by winning a 200-lap race, going non-stop and winning the lion's share of a record $5,000 purse. Morley, who set fast time during time trials the day before, started on the pole position and took starter Bill Kelly's checkered flag ahead of Paul Huntsberger, Bob Malcolm, Les Williams and Frank Cool. 30 of the 33 starters were reported to be running at the finish. Others notables in the field included Ebe Yoder, Bob Newton, Ralph Klinker, Bob McLean, Oscar Fay and the Chicago area's Lou Fegers. South Bend's Bob Paul won the 25-lap semi feature.
Season championship trophies were awarded between races with Ebe Yoder receiving the “Class A” trophy for hot rods and Ralph “Cowboy” Likes the “Class B” trophy. For the stock cars, Russ Brown was the “Class A” champion for the Fort Wayne Racing Association with Joe Baer being named the “Class B” titlist. Dick George was the “Class A” champion for the Southern Michigan Racing Association with Les Williams taking the “Class B” crown.
Gary, Ind., driver Pete Romcevich won the lone AAA midget race on June 21 as he bested Joe Sostillo and Johnnie Tolan.
The first five years of racing at the South Bend Motor Speedway were in the record books with more competition, action and thrills to come.
***Thank you to the South Bend Tribune newspaper and to auto racing historian, the late Bill Hill, for being sources for most of this information.