Squeezed between the heyday of midget auto racing and the meteoric rise of weekly short-track stock car racing was hot rod racing.
Known as track roadsters in some areas, the stripped and chopped-down racing machines, mostly consisting of early day Fords with Ford or Mercury power and minimal safety equipment, seemed to popup overnight from coast to coast. California was a “hot bed” for the hot rods with the Midwest, including Chicago’s Soldier Field, being another highly popular location.
Long before his Indianapolis 500 fame with his STP-sponsored racers, Andy Granatelli and his brothers, Joe and Vince, operated Grancor Automotive in Chicago during the late 1940s. The brothers had been involved with Indianapolis 500 entries and a midget race car or two as they became a prominent distributor for speed parts for hot rodders.
During the summer of 1947, Andy Granatelli approached Art Folz about presenting a hot rod racing program inside Chicago’s mammoth lakefront arena — Soldier Field. Folz, who headed up the Chicago Auto Racing Ass’n promotional group, had seen big crowds at his weekly midget auto racing events on the flat, quarter-mile paved oval. At the time, Soldier Field boasted seating for more than 100,000 and was the go-to place for midget racing in the Chicago area.
On July 30, the hot rodders had a show of their own as Folz and Granatelli saw some 35,000 people show up for the races and the Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Ass’n was born. Jim Morrison was the winner of the 25-lap feature with Charlie Mayer and Joe Nestor finishing second and third. The purse was reported to be around $1,500.
One of the best to ever race out of the Hoosier State, Dick Frazier wheeled his hot rod to victory at Soldier Field on Aug. 27. Ralph “Smokey” Stover had fast time and finished second in the night’s 25 lapper. Inaugural hot rod race winner Morrison finished third. Before the day of interstate highways, the likes of Frazier, Morrison and others made the 220-mile or so one-way trip between Muncie, Ind., and Chicago.
A Chicago-area driver finally won a Soldier Field hot rod feature race during the third and final Wednesday night program on Sept. 24. Driving the Grancor V-8, Willie Sternquist, racing out of Evanston, Ill., won the 25-lap main event in front of a reported 10,000 fans, finishing ahead of Vince Granatelli and Gene Pyle.
The Chicago Tribune newspaper reported, “Four cars rolled over during the evening, but none of the occupants were seriously injured. Ray Erickson, Hal Rich, Mike King and Nick Karelas were treated by track physician, Dr. B.L Coniglio.”
Weekly hot rod racing on Wednesday nights and midget racing on Saturdays was planned for Soldier Field in 1948. Granatelli’s Hurricane operation expanded to an actual circuit with tracks such as Rockford Speedway and the quarter-mile dirt oval at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis., among the tracks hosting the Hurricane racers.
Ten hot rod programs were run at Soldier Field in 1948 with 30-year-old Frazier winning four feature races. California racers and future Indianapolis 500 winners Pat Flaherty and Jim Rathmann, along with future Indy-winning mechanic A.J. Watson, among others, had migrated to Chicago, being lured by the “big money” Granatelli was paying for his hot rod events.
On July 21, Frazier won a 25-lap feature over Pyle and Sternquist as more than 15,000 fans looked on. Frazier closed out the hot rod racing at Soldier Field in 1948 by winning the 50-lap season finale on Oct. 10, defeating Dick Rathmann (Jim’s older brother), Sternquist and Flaherty in front of 8,348 fans.
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