Little But Fierce: The Storied History of Midget Cars
High-powered. Lightweight. Dangerous. Yes, midget cars are the perfect embodiment of everything a racecar should be. Surprised? Allow us to explain. As a close relative to sprint cars, midget cars are a long-running dirt track favorite across the country. But despite their long and storied history, many people are still unfamiliar with these small but mighty racing machines. Where did they come from? How long have they been around? But first, what the hell is a midget car anyway?
More Than Meets the Eye
More often than not, when people first see midget cars, they immediately associate them with go karts. Understandable, given their compact size, tight wheel base, and an overall weight of around 900 lbs. But these little racers are often packing an engine capable of 300-400 horsepower. Quite a bit more than your average go kart, wouldn’t you say? That’s right, midget cars have some seriously radical 4-cylinder engines linked up to a direct drive setup. Out back, you’ll find a quick-change differential setup; something like a Winters unit is typical.
Contrary to what many may believe, midget racing has been around for a long time. The sport got its start in 1933 at the Loyola High School Stadium in Los Angeles under the regulation of the Midget Auto Racing Association (MARA), and quickly picked up steam on the West Coast, eventually becoming both a national and international success. In fact, in the first year following the birth of midget racing, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK began taking part in the sport.
Backyard Mechanics Helped Form the Sport
While today’s midget cars come fully equipped with a bevy of safety features and impressive performance mods, the original little monsters were more Frankenstein than Iron Man. A 1934 article from Popular Science Magazine reports that “Discarded motorcycle engines, outboard motors, and engines from ancient cars provide the power for these sensational racers.” The article, which you can access in full here, goes on to detail vehicle and track requirements, the dangers faced by the “daredevil drivers,” and even some quick interviews with a few of these old time thrill-seekers. In short though, racers competed on a track that was a fifth of a mile long, sometimes reaching speeds of 60 mph “before skidding around flat turns as their wheels churn the earth and their junk-pile engines roar the songs of power.”
These races took place on makeshift tracks sometimes as close at fifteen feet away from onlookers. And the standby ambulance got plenty of use, as the safety precautions were rudimentary at best. Regardless, the sport was a smashing success, continually drawing big crowds of excited spectators.
Little Cars with Big Impact
Today, we find multiple associations in the midget racing segment, as the sport has come a long way from its MARA roots of eight cars and drivers. Some notable US-based associations include the American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC), the United Midget Racing Association (UMRA), and the primary sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club (USAC). Additionally, many modern day NASCAR drivers actually got their start in racing within the segment. That’s right, racers like Tony Stewart, Terry Goff, Tate Martz, and Jeff Gordon all have a history in midget racing. Even the legendary Mario Andretti raced midget cars back in the early 1960s! Despite the name, midget cars left anything but a small footprint in the world of auto racing.
And while midget cars may be tiny—make no mistake, they are fierce. They have loads of intricate workings within their small packages. With four different-sized tires, four different shocks, and a chassis littered with adjustable features, it’s almost hard to believe just how technical these cars really are. The power-to-weight ratio makes understanding each and every aspect of a midget car extremely important. When you have 400 hp pushing a 900 lb car, there is absolutely no room for anything but complete and total comprehension—a thrill factor that draws many to the sport.
Strides in Safety for Midget Cars
In the early days, midget cars were often driven on tracks built of wooden planks. While this style was cheap to construct, it was expensive to maintain—and terribly unreliable. While flying splinters and wooden shards might increase the thrill for some, for many competitors it led to death or disfigurement. After the press began referring to these tracks as “murderdromes” and the dirt track racing began drawing spectators’ attention, the dangerous wood tracks were no longer used.
Today, midget cars are most commonly driven on dirt but also can run on asphalt tracks. The races are particularly short and generally last around a total of about 40 miles. Tracks vary in sizes, running from a quarter of a mile to a half mile length. As small as these cars are, it’s no surprise they aren’t found on much larger tracks.
Midget racing has a special place in the hearts of many Americans. Some are hobbyists with one of the most exciting weekend activities to partake in, while others are able to make a racing career out of it. With the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gearing up for a two-night USAC event taking place on a track being built on the infield for NASCAR week, it’s safe to say this sport will stick around and be celebrated for a long time.
Midget cars are small-but-mighty racecars with a long history. But despite being a dirt track favorite, many people are unfamiliar with their story.
TIME MACHINE: The midget car racing boom in Eastern Iowa
Big ‘Offy’ engines powered little cars
Midget racing started in California in the 1930s, but it was most popular in the decades after World War II.
The first midget auto races appeared in Eastern Iowa in 1946 at Ce-Mar Acres. Names of midget car racers — such as Johnny Hobel and Dick Ritchie — showed up regularly on The Gazette sports pages.
In 1950, the races were being held at Hawkeye Downs as part of the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association. In 1951, the midgets were added to the All-Iowa Fair schedule.
The cars in the 1950s and 1960s were often powered by Offenhauser, or “Offy,” engines. The cars were small, the engines big. It was dangerous racing them.
Our family’s relationship with Offys and midget racing began when our uncle, Howard Langton, and Adolph Trachta opened the Rapids Body and Fender Co. in 1956 at 1245 F Ave. NE.
The shop offered auto and truck rebuilding, glass and trim work, paint jobs, frame straightening and so on. All of those skills were essential for Langton’s other interest: keeping his midget race cars on the track.
In the first years, Langton’s midget Offy — painted red and white and sporting the number 65 — was driven by local champion Dick Ritchie, winner of five Iowa championships.
On July 16, 1960, at least seven Offys entered the midget race at the Downs, but only one was from Iowa — the Langton car driven by Ritchie
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In May 17, 1961, Langton and Ritchie worked with mechanics up to race time but couldn’t get the car to work. The feature race went to Todd Barton of Madison, Wis.
By May 20, though, the car was ready for an open race that included Offenhausers, Fords and midgets powered by new compact engines. The drivers were from Kansas City, Sioux City, Lincoln, Neb., and Minnesota.
Ritchie finished third in the second heat, but the Offy suffered a broken axle and couldn’t race in the feature. That race went to Bill Horstmeyer of Madison.
Langton reported his car was in top shape for the July 15 races, but that race and one on July 22 were called off because of rain. The race was finally held July 29. Ritchie was involved in a collision with another racer and finished 10th in a damaged car.
On Sept. 18, Ritchie led the field in the 25-lap feature race until the final lap, when Tod Barton of Madison passed the Langton Offy. That was the end of the partnership with Ritchie.
From 1962 Onward
The 1962 midget racing season was supposed to start May 26. Langton hadn’t picked a driver yet for his No. 65 Kurtis Craft that was able to be powered by two engines, an Offenhauser and a V-60, a stock block engine that appeared to be performing well in meets.
The season was canceled in 1962 because of continued rain postponements. It was the same year the Langton-Trachta business partnership ended and Langton became sole owner of Rapids Body and Fender.
Midget racing seemed to disappear from the Cedar Rapids area for the next few years, although in 1963, a slate of races was scheduled for East Moline, Ill., with former Cedar Rapids driver Red Hoyle competing.
Then, on June 26, 1965, two veteran drivers — Langton and Willard Yates — dueled in a special midget race in the Saturday night races sponsored by the Mid-Continent Racing Assocation at Hawkeye Downs. Langton won, even though Yates had been rated third in national midget rankings.
Another win followed on July 22 at the Hawkeye Speedway in Blue Grass, Iowa.
TIME MACHINE: The midget car racing boom in Eastern Iowa Big ‘Offy’ engines powered little cars Midget racing started in California in the 1930s, but it was most popular in the decades after