Silver Dollar Nationals

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chicago Whispers - Wayne Adams

Wayne Adams handles the microphone at Chicago's Raceway Park in the early 1960's. Adams would handle the track's "announcing chores" from 1947 through 1989, calling over 2000 race events. (Bud Norman Photo/Stan Kalwasinski Collection)

by Stan Kalwasinski
Munster, Ind. - Longtime Chicago area auto racing announcer, Wayne Adams, was honored at the 1997 National Driving Championship Recognition Dinner in Chicago. Adams received the Chicagoland Merit Award. This story chronicles Adams' racing career, but also is a historical look at racing in the Chicagoland area.

For over 40 years, Wayne Adams was involved, heavily involved, in the sport of automobile racing. For nearly a half century, Adams, a native of St. Joseph, Mo., was wrapped up in the sport of speed, not as a driver, car owner or mechanic, but as a member of the racing fraternity on the other side of the fence, first as a photographer, newspaper correspondent, later a scorer and then as a race track announcer eventually becoming one of the country's foremost short track auto racing announcers.

From 1947 through 1989, Adams handled the microphone duties, sometimes as many as four nights a week, at Chicagoland’s Raceway Park near the Chicago suburb of Blue Island, calling both midget and stock car action during more than 2,000 race programs. In addition to being a fixture at the south suburban speed plant, Adams penned countless race result stories, feature articles and his Midwest Whispers columns for the old Illustrated Speedway News out of Brooklyn, N.Y. during a period from 1940 until the newspaper went out of business in 1982.

"As a kid, from the time I was 10-years-old till I came to Chicago after I graduated from high school, I had a desire to see an auto race,” reminisced Adams recently. A 17-year-old Adams and his mother and step father lived in an apartment near 51st Street and Drexel Avenue, a block or so from the 124th Field Artillery Armory, a military training complex and the site of indoor midget auto races during the fall and winter months since 1934. It was the fall of 1936 and another Chicago indoor racing was beginning.

On Sunday evenings, a young Adams noticed a more than normal amount of cars parked up and down neighborhood streets with people leaving their vehicles and migrating towards the Armory. Adams asked somebody what were they having over there at the Armory and he was told auto races

"I went over there one Sunday night and saw midgets for the first time,” remembers Adams about his first taste of racing. “I was so enthused and so excited about the action that I saw there and that was it. That was the start of it. I never missed a Sunday night after that during the winter of 1936 and 1937.”

A full one-fifth of a mile dirt oval was laid out inside the military installation at 52nd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Long straight-aways and narrow corners provided fans and competitors alike with plenty of action. Smoke and fumes from the castor oil-belching little speed cars caused the building to quickly fill up with smoke. Near capacity crowds of between 3,000 and 3,500 fans packed the arena every night.

"The Armory was a much larger track than the (International) Amphitheatre,” reminisced Adams. “It was a big track and perfectly flat. They got around there in pretty good time. Gosh, they used to get a lot of cars. Guys from Detroit, St. Louis and Wisconsin would come in there and run. The smoke would get so bad some times that you couldn't see the people sitting on the other side.”

When the summer of 1937 rolled around, outdoor racing returned with the midgets running at Riverview Stadium, which was located just outside the grounds of Chicago’s famous Riverview Park amusement center at Western and Belmont avenues. Adams witnessed the competition on the flat fifth of a mile dirt oval which was perfectly flat and considered by many to have one of the finest racing surfaces in the country.

Adams’ parents got the “racing bug” and the threesome began chasing sprint cars throughout the Midwest, making long Sunday jaunts to watch the Central States Racing Association (CSRA) "stars and cars'" compete at places like Jungle Park in Rockville, Ind., the high banked speed bowls of Fort Wayne, Ind., Winchester, Ind., Dayton, Ohio and the half-mile dirt oval at Greenville, Ohio.

Locally, the Hammond Raceway in Indiana had opened for “big car” action with Raceway Park opening its gates for the first time in September of 1938. Adams had acquired an old German camera and became a racing photographer, selling 8 x 10, black and white photographs for 50 cents. Adams photographed CSRA races, along with midget battles at Raceway, in 1939 and planned to do the same again in 1940.

Early in the season at Raceway during the 1940 campaign, the track needed a scorer and Adams was asked to handle the job. Adams was the track's scorer for the balance of 1940 and again in 1941 and into 1942 until escalated World War II activity put a halt to all automobile racing in this country.

Late in 1940, Adams was approached by Illustrated Speedway News if he could start covering the Chicagoland racing activity for the popular racing publication. Adams' first byline in the paper appeared in December with his story covering indoor midget racing at the Amphitheatre with legendary Chicago midget driving ace, Wally Zale, winning the 100 lap chase coming back from a full two laps behind.

A big, powerful man, who manhandled his mounts to countless midget victories prior to World War II, Zale became close friends with Adams and was to be the best man at Adams’ wedding in 1942. Tragically, Zale and fellow racer, Frank Perrone, were killed in a devastating two-train, single-car wreck in April of that year.

During the War years, Adams was a member of the US Army and was a First Lieutenant in the Combat Engineers Battalion, serving one year in the Philippine Islands. Prior to his overseas duty, Adams married the former Grace "Boots" Stevens in November of 1942.

After the War, the Chicago area-based United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midget racing organization was born during the winter of 1946 and 1947 as a new sanctioning body for flat head engine-powered midgets was formed, breaking away from so-called “A” class of Offenhauser-powered midget cars and drivers.

Hanson Park on Chicago's northwest side was the site of UARA's initial event in the spring of 1947. A quarter mile cinder athletic track with cements stands for over 6,000 fans saw the UARA midget drivers do battle weekly during 1947. A dispute between UARA officials and the first night announcer resulted in UARA hierarchy asking Adams to announce the second event of the season.

Wayne Adams interviews the "legendary" Rex Mays in the infield of Soldier Field in 1947 prior to the track's annual Police Benevolent Race. Mays' driver Joe Garson sits in the car. (Stan Kalwasinski Collection Photo)

"From the time I started taking pictures at the races, I had a desire to announce a race,” commented Adams. “As a result, every time I went to the track I would listen to the announcer as best I could and try to pick up some of the good things and perhaps think about some of the things I didn't like so well. Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbock was the dean of auto racing announcers all over the country. He was considered number one. He was working Riverview, Raceway Park and most of the tracks around. I kind of liked the way Twenty Grand presented a race. I use to listen to him and thought maybe I could do it the same way he did it.”

Adams recalls the Hanson Park action as being a real thrill show with a half dozen or so flips a night occurring as drivers battled on the narrow, flat track. “People would be lined up for two blocks some nights waiting to get it,” said Adams thinking back. “It was a sensational show. It seemed like it was a sell out every night.”

Adams’ announcing career blasted off after doing his first microphone handling job at Hanson Park. New Raceway Park promoters, Nick and Pete Jenin, along with Blue Island midget speedster, Bud Koehler, were in the stands at Hanson during Adams' microphone debut. After the races, the Jenin brothers asked Adams if he would like to announce the midgets at Raceway on Saturday nights.

A week or so later, Art Folz, headman of Soldier Field midget racing promotions, got a hold of Adams and asked if he would like to handle the announcing at the Chicago lake front arena. In less than a month’s time, Wayne Adams, auto racing fan, photographer, writer and scorer, was Chicagoland's busiest track announcer, working every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.

"I remember the first Police Benevolent race at Soldier Field that I worked in 1947,” recalls Adams. “It was the last race of the season and they had 77,000 people for that midget race. I'll never forget that night. I was so scared. I was never nervous before, a little concerned maybe, but not nervous. But that night at Soldier Field, I walked out into the infield and there were about 30,000 people already there for time trials. Later that night, I thought here's a little boy from Missouri announcing in Chicago before 77,000. I really hit the big time.”

The 1948 season saw UARA branch out. The racing group, with Adams calling the action, visited numerous speed venues including Grand Rapids, Mich., Mendota, Streator, Peotone, Kankakee, Waukegan and Gill Stadium in Chicago.

"I announced over 100 race programs in 1948,” said Adams. “I was announcing five to seven times a week, sometimes doing one track on Sunday afternoon and another one that evening. I was also writing six to eight stories for Illustrated, plus doing my column.”

In addition, Adams was still behind the microphone and Raceway Park and Soldier Field. His Soldier Field announcing career came to an end part way into the 1948 season when Field promoter Art Folz told Adams he had to make a choice, either announce at Raceway Park or Soldier Field. Adams chose Raceway Park, a decision that would affect his life for the next 40 years.

Towards the end of the 1948 racing season, several exhibition stock car events were held at the quarter-mile dirt oval inside of Gill Stadium, a former girl’s softball arena on Chicago’s southeast side.

"Gill Stadium is where short track stock car racing got its start,” commented Adams. In the fall of ‘48, Chuck Scharf and Eddie Anderson brought out about a dozen cars from their used car lot and put on a little exhibition. That really touched off a spark.”

With midget drivers doing most of the driving, the purely stock cars with numbers painted on with water-based paint took off with fans screaming as headlights and windshields shattered, doors got smashed and fenders were knocked off..

"It seemed like the people screamed for a half hour after the 10-lap race,” remembered Adams. “The next week they came back again and pretty soon they (stock cars) had a night of their own at Gill.”

Raceway Park, along with Schererville (Ind.) Speedway (later renamed Illiana Motor Speedway), held stock car events also in 1948 with Raceway hosting the first of its annual 300-lap contests in late October. 1949 would see local tracks begin hosting weekly stock car events with fans clamoring to see the popular, wild and unexpected action.

Midget racing began to suffer in these parts with expensive cars, straight up starts, follow the leader racing and dwindling crowds beginning to takes its toll. Soon, the stock cars replaced midgets as the most popular type of racing in the area with midget events becoming fewer and far between.

Some highlights of Adams' career in racing include his first feature story in Illustrated Speedway News covering Zale’s win at the Amphitheatre, his calling the action in front of tens of thousands at Soldier Field, doing the announcing for live stock car races from Raceway Park on WBKB-Channel 7 television in 1954 and announcing and watching his son, Wayne Jr., win the novice division stock car championship at Raceway in 1966.

Looking back, Adams singles out Wally Zale, along with Tony Bettenhausen and local stock car aces, Bud Koehler, Bob Pronger and Bill Van Allen, as the best drivers he ever saw compete for one reason or another. Zale, perhaps, is Adams’ favorite due to his close friendship with the man and Zale's almost superman ability as a driver (more than 170 feature wins during in a three year period) during the early days of midget racing in the Midwest.

Adams' long-term involvement in the sport of auto racing allowed him to witness numerous changes on both the local and national racing scenes including the "glory days" of midget racing, the birth of local short track stock car racing, the decline and almost death of the midgets and the stock car mechanical revolution from simple off the street cars to the building up of “junkyard specials” and finally to the specially-built, for racing only, chassis and components.

"I don’t regret any of it,” commented Adams. “If I had to do it over again, I would do it all the same way, but there has to be an end to everything.”

Wayne Adams was recently inducted into the inaugural class of the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame.

Editor's Note: Special thanks to Stan Kalwasinski for letting MRA post this story. You can view more of Stan's writings on http://www.chicagolandautoracing.com/.

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