Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Bobby Ball Memorial

Bobby Ball

By Kyle Ealy

Phoenix, Ariz. – The Bobby Ball Memorial was a tribute to a young driver who had a promising racing career snuffed out at the age of 25.

Bobby Ball started his racing career in roadsters, competing in the Arizona Roadster Association. The skinny 6-foot-1 inch, 140-pound driver won so much and so often, promoters begged him to back down.

He switched from roadsters to midgets, which in 1949 and 1950, was sweeping the nation. Once again, success came naturally, with Ball winning the Arizona State Midget Association championship in 1949 and ’50.

In 1950 he got his first opportunity to get behind the wheel of an American Auto Association (AAA) championship car. Competing in the 100-miler at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, Ball won the pole and led the race until a crankshaft sent him to the sidelines.

That performance got Ball to Indianapolis in 1951. Driving the Blakely Oil Special, he barely qualified for the 33-car field, but made the most of it, charging from his 29th starting position to finish fifth. Great things were predicted for this young driver.

His run on the 1952 championship trail continued to fulfill his potential. He scored a victory at San Jose and had seven more top-five finishes.

The 1953 season was full of expectations but on January 4, at a midget race in Los Angeles, Ball was involved in a multi-car crash. He would survive but suffer massive head injuries. He fought off death for more than a year but finally succumbed on February 27, 1954.

In October of 1954, it was decided that the traditional 100-miler held every November at the Arizona State Fairgrounds’ one-mile dirt oval would be aptly named The Bobby Ball Memorial.

To give a little background on the race itself, the event started on November 11, 1948. Under the sanctioning rules of the American Auto Association (AAA), Rex Mays would win the inaugural event.

Jimmie Davies would take the second annual event on November 12, 1950, while Johnnie Parsons would follow with two wins in two years, November 4, 1951 and November 11, 1952. Tony Bettenhausen would win the fifth annual event on November 11, 1953.

The Bobby Ball Memorial would get the green flag on November 7, 1954 but wave the checkered flag on November 8.

The race would be halted at lap 28 to water the track and then suspended after 35 laps because of excessive dust. Gordon Betz, a AAA supervisor for the western zone, decided the dust was a danger to drivers and decided to put a halt to the race. At the time, Jimmy Bryan, the hometown favorite and defending national AAA champion, had a quarter of a lap lead on Sam Hanks, the 1953 AAA national champion.

On Monday afternoon, the green flag waved again but it was Manuel Ayulo of Burbank, Calif., jumping ahead of Bryan and taking the lead. Ayulo would continue to lead with Bryan in tow until lap 89 when Bryan powered past Ayulo and led the final 11 miles to score the victory.

Bryan’s win paid $2,500 but more important to Bryan was winning the race named after his good friend Bobby Ball. He won the race in 1 hour and 6 minutes.

Ayulo settled for second place while Bob Sweikert of Hayward, Calif., who led the first 3 laps of the race, finished third. Andy Linden of Los Angeles grabbed fourth and Sam Hanks took fifth.

Jimmy Bryan accepts his trophy after winning the 1955 tragedy-marred Bobby Ball Memorial.

Tragedy would come to the second annual Bobby Ball Memorial on November 6, 1955. Jack McGrath of Los Angeles, a 35-year-old driver who held track records at Indianapolis, was killed when his car when into a spectacular flip on the 86th lap of the 100-mile race.

McGrath was running third when his car struck a heavy shoulder in the turn and sprang into the air. Witnesses said his front axle folded. Sadly, the accident happened only 14 laps away from the end of his dirt track career. Before the race McGrath had stated that the Bobby Ball Memorial was his last race and he was entering private business in 1956.

The race stopped, after 97 miles and four cautions was won by Jimmy Bryan, the defending champion, in 1 hour and 9 minutes. Bryan collected $3,100 of the $12,100 purse.

Johnny Thomson of Springfield, Mass., took runner-up honors, George Amick of Los Angeles was third, Andy Linden, now of Indianapolis, fourth and Pat O’Conner of North Vernon, Ind., finished fifth.

The other news of the day was the American Auto Association’s decision to end its 46-year run of championship racing. The AAA stated that there was too much emphasis on speed, power, and driver endurance and those objectives were not in line with AAA’s safety program.

1956 Bobby Ball Memorial program

Now under United States Auto Club sanctioning, George Amick would stop Jimmy Bryan’s domination of the Bobby Ball Memorial when he scored the win on November 12, 1956. Amick, driving Lindsey Hopkins’ Offenhauser, started on the pole and led all 100 miles.

Bryan started ninth in the 18-car field and gradually worked his way into contention behind Amick but ran out of steam at the end and settled for second. Jimmy Reece of Oklahoma City was third, Andy Linden finished fourth and Johnny Tolan of Norwalk, Calif., rounded out the top five.

Finishing second in the Bobby Ball Memorial not only didn’t sit well with Jimmy Bryan but his hometown fan either. So, both Bryan and his followers walked out of the Arizona State Fairgrounds happy on November 11, 1957, after Bryan won a hard-fought victory on the one-mile dirt oval.

Jimmy Bryan and Pat O'Conner in victory lane after the 1957 Bobby Ball Memorial. O'Conner said afterwards,"I could hear that sonofabitch coming and I decided that if he wants to win that bad, he can have it." - Ron Rose Collection

Johnny Boyd of Fresno, Calif., would lead the first 55 laps from his outside front row starting position. Pat O’Conner would slip by Boyd on the next lap and lead defending race winner George Amick and Bryan. Bryan would break a three-way scuffle and take the over the lead on lap 70.

Bryan would continue to lead with O’Conner right on his bumper every lap. It was a tight duel the rest of the way, one the two-time national champion almost lost.

Bryan, attempting to lap Jim Rathmann of Miami, Fla., on lap 98, was forced wide and crashed through several posts, tearing out sections of railing in the process. O’Conner sped by Bryan and took the lead, but Bryan managed to recoup, and with chunks of fence spewing from his racer, chased O’Conner down, pass him on the white flag lap, and win by a car length at the wire.

Bryan’s winning time was 1 hour, and 9 minutes and he collected $3,183 for his efforts. With the victory, Bryan earned his third national championship, his second under the USAC banner. Pat O’Conner would settle for second with Boyd in third. Art Bisch of Phoenix finished fourth and Johnny Tolan took fifth.

1958 Bobby Ball winner Jud Larson (left) congratulates newly-crowned USAC national champion Tony Bettenhausen.

Tony Bettenhausen and Johnny Thomson were racing for a national championship and Jud Larson was just racing to win. Larson would do just that, winning the 100-mile Bobby Ball Memorial on November 11, 1958. Bettenhausen would finish five seconds behind Larson and clinch his second national championship (1951 – AAA, 1958 – USAC).

A crowd of more than 8,000 were greeted with intermittent showers in the morning which delayed time trials but by race time the event was run in near-perfect weather.

Larson grabbed the lead on the first lap, but first place was juggled back and forth between Larson and Bettenhausen until the Tampa, Fla., hard charger tucked it away for good on lap 31.

But Larson had to hustle to keep ahead of Bettenhausen and Thomson, a 150-pound lightweight from Boyertown, Penn. Thomson started 10th in the field of 18 but was in the lead pack by lap 10. On lap 80, Thomson passed Bettenhausen for second place, and trio battle lap after lap for the lead, often crossing the start/finish line in a dead heat.

On lap 87, engine trouble knocked Thomson out of contention and Larson started opening a wider margin over Bettenhausen and was never in trouble the rest of the way. The victory earned the crew-cut blonde $3,730 of a $12,090 purse.

Larson also broke George Amick’s two-year old race record of 1 hour and 5.20 minutes with a new time of 1 hour and 4.41 minutes.

Bettenhausen’s second-place showing gave him the USAC national title, the first driver ever to win a title without winning a race.

Eddie Sachs of Center Valley, Penn., squeezed his way up from his 13th starting spot to finish third, A.J. Foyt of Houston, Tex., driving Jimmy Bryan’s old car, took fourth and Rodger Ward of Los Angeles was in fifth.

Tony Bettenhausen would charge from the outside of fourth row to win his second Phoenix 100-miler on October 18, 1959. The victory in 1 hour and 49 minutes was worth $2,250 to the two-time national champion.

Bettenhausen appeared in the top-five after only six circuits ad moved up to fourth by lap 10 when polesitter Lloyd Ruby of Houston, Tex., lost control, tagged the guardrail and flipped four times. Ruby was unhurt, but his car was destroyed.

Bettenhausen would pass Rodger Ward on the lap 15 restart and settle in behind race leader Len Sutton of Portland, Ore., and Don Branson of Champaign, Ill. On lap 43, Sutton was forced to leave with ignition problems, giving Branson the top spot.

Bettenhausen would trail Branson for three laps before pulling past him for the lead. From there, it was all Bettenhausen behind the wheel of the Lindsey Hopkins Special. Branson would keep the pressure on Bettenhausen but by the time the lead duo caught up with the tail-end of the field, Bettenhausen extended his margin. At one time, Bettenhausen would have an 18-second lead and at the finish, he was ahead by more than six seconds.

A.J. Foyt, wheeling the Dean Van Lines Special, moved into fifth when Sutton dropped out, worked his way to the front and finished second. Rodger Ward was third followed by Gene Force of New Madison, Ohio, and Branson.

In the winner’s circle, Bettenhausen spent several minutes washing the dust from his throat and cleaning up before accepting kisses from his wife. “More water,” were his first words, but, he was soon talking freely. “After I got in front, I didn't have much trouble, although I did wear out a tire and have to slow down towards the end,” he said.

1960 Bobby Ball Memorial program

A.J. Foyt would be in the thick of the chase for the USAC national crown in 1960 and when the 25-year-old driver won the annual Bobby Ball Memorial on November 20, it clinched his first national driving championship.

The Houston, Tex., speed demon would take the lead on lap 25 and never relinquish it en route to victory before a crowd of 10,000. Rodger Ward, only 120 points behind Foyt when he entered the contest, was never a factor, finishing 10th in the race and placing second nationally in points.

The race started with Al “Cotton” Farmer of Tucson, Ariz., taking the lead from his outside front row starting berth. He would hold that lead for the first four circuits before Jim Hurtubise, of North Tonawanda, N.Y., who started fifth, took over the lead.

A.J. Foyt won the Bobby Ball Memorial in 1960.  

Foyt started on the inside of the fifth row, moved to fifth place by lap 5, and had worked his way to the front to threaten Hurtubise’s lead by lap 22. On lap 25, Foyt powered past Hurtubise for the lead and never looked back, finishing the race in 1 hour,7 minutes, and 21 seconds.

As the finish was posted, a protest was filed on the order of finish. Behind Foyt at the checkered was Don Branson, Jim Hurtubise, and Wayne Weiler of Phoenix. Weiler was running second when misfortune struck on lap 99 when his rear end went out, bringing up the question whether the race was over before he quit running. After discussion among officials, it was determined the order of finish would stand.

Numerous spin outs and accidents left only 9 of 18 starters at the finish. Foyt earned $2,955 of the $11,820 purse.

1961 Bobby Ball Memorial program

Al Keller of Greenacres, Fla., never saw the new set of tires and other prizes for setting fast time at the Bobby Ball Memorial on November 19, 1961. Less than a half hour after hearing the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines”, Keller lay dead under the wreckage of his machine after a violent crash. The only movement was the spinning of the wheel which landed on atop a chain-link fence in the infield.

Keller’s tragedy was “one of those things” race fans sensed was coming. The track surface was lumpy on the south side of the track and slick on the north. Almost as soon as the race started, the surface began to break up, developing ruts and spewing clods under the 100 miles per hour wheels of the 18 competing cars.

On lap 41, Keller skidded out of the north turn and lost control. He went end for end, then his machine went broadside in the air and continued to flip violently, landing on top of the chain link fence.

Astonishingly, official slowed but didn’t stop the race. The flagman gave the field the one lap to start signal and to resume speed. It was explained later that the wreck was in the infield and not blocking traffic.

But when other cars floundered through the north turns on the restart, the race was stopped on lap 49. A capacity crowd of 10,000 then went through an hour and a half delay as the track was repaired.

With attention focused on the wreck, few fans saw Parnelli Jones of Torrance, Calif., pass race leader Rodger Ward on lap 45 for the lead. Along with defending winner A.J. Foyt, the trio had waged a furious feud for 40 laps, lapping the entire field.

When the race finally resumed, Jones almost met disaster, spinning in the first turn and losing almost four seconds to Ward. Jones would get the lead back on lap 65 and maintain the lead until lap 89 when officials halted the race because of darkness and deteriorating conditions.

Jones, piloting J.C. Agajanian’s Willard Battery Special, earned $3,539 of the $13,727 purse.

Jones was followed to the finish line by Ward, Don Branson, Jim McElreath of Arlington, Tex., and Al Farmer. After being in contention early on, Foyt developed engine problems on lap 55 and retired for the day.

Ward was hostile about the track conditions afterwards. “Worst track I’ve ever run on,” remarked the former Indy 500 champ. “And I’ve run on a lot of ‘em.”

Elmer George's car dives over the guardrail and into the crowd of spectators during the '62 Bobby Ball Memorial.

Disaster would strike again at the Bobby Ball Memorial on November 19, 1962. Elmer George of Speedway, Ind., would lose control of his racer in the north turn and flip over the guardrail and into an overflow crowd of spectators, bring abrupt termination to the race after 51 laps. The accident happened almost directly opposite of where Keller had met his fate the year before.

George was severely cut around the head and shoulders and 22 spectators were taken to area hospitals for minor injuries but fortunately, no one was killed. The accident occurred on lap 49, but the flagman waved the field around for two more laps to make the race official, then stopped all cars.

After George was dragged from his capsized racer, and the injured removed, USAC officials and promoter Mel Martin announced the race could not continue because of the damage caused to the guardrail in front of the grandstand.

Victory and the $4,800 prize went to Bobby Marshman of Pottstown, Penn., hustling his Hopkins Special into the forefront on lap 30 after a tight duel with polesitter and defending winner Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt.

The three had made a runaway of the race and had lapped the entire field by lap 21. Foyt was running hot on Marshman’s tailpipe when the accident occurred. Jones got bogged down in traffic chasing Marshman and was some five seconds behind Foyt when the race was concluded.

The win was the first of the season for Marshman who noted in victory lane, “I’m glad it was stopped. My car was worn out and I don’t think I could’ve held A.J. off for 50 more laps.”

Johnny Rutherford #46 and Chuck Hulse #10 lead the field to start the 1963 Bobby Ball Memorial.

Rodger Ward, driving the Robert Wilkie Offenhauser, would win the Bobby Ball Memorial 100-mile race on November 17, 1963. Ward passed race-leader Chuck Hulse of Tucson, Ariz., on lap 30 and won by a five-second margin.

There was one second of excitement as Ward powered past Hulse for the top spot, but the final 70 miles were a foregone conclusion as the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner drove a near-perfect race, earning his fifth win of the season on the USAC championship circuit.

A crowd packed to the rafters, 15,000, watched a race technically perfect, but what the Arizona Republic described as “offering less wheel banging than a Sunday scramble for a choice picnic table.”

Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth, Tex., set fast time, touring the mile in 36.62 seconds. Hulse was second with 36.95 seconds and Ward was ninth fastest with a time of 37.82 seconds.

Hulse, driving the Dean Vans Lines Special, jumped into the lead with Rutherford following and by lap 6, Ward was already in third and closing fast. Ward moved quickly past Rutherford and chose to follow Hulse until the 30th mile when Hulse drifted high in turn four and Ward cut under to take the lead as they roared down the front stretch.

Ward would slip in and out of traffic, building a seven-second lead over Hulse. Rutherford’s power plant went sick on lap 89, allowing Jim McElreath to move up and finish in third. Parnelli Jones and Roger McCluskey of Tucson, Ariz., rounded out the top five.

Unlike the previous two years, the track held together well although turns two and four were badly rutted by the time the race came to an end.

The ‘63 Bobby Ball Memorial would be the last on the one-mile dirt oval of the Arizona State Fairgrounds. The state fairboard was already facing $1,200,000 in damage suits filed by spectators injured in the 1962 race. Mel Martin, the long-time promoter, proposed paving the one-mile dirt oval, but in the end, the commission decided it wasn’t worth the time or investment.

The race would move to the new one-mile paved oval Phoenix International Raceway for the 1964 race.

The following drivers won the Bobby Ball Memorial at PIR…

1964 – Lloyd Ruby
1965 – A.J. Foyt
1966 – Mario Andretti
1967 – Mario Andretti
1968 – Gary Bettenhausen

In 1969, the race was changed to the Bobby Ball 200 with Al Unser winning. In 1970, the race was shortened to 150 miles and renamed the Bobby Ball 150. Swede Savage would win that race.