By Kyle Ealy
Cedar Rapids, Iowa – The American Auto Association or as we know it today, AAA, was heavily involved in auto racing from 1904 to 1955. It was known as the AAA Contest Board. Modern day Indy-car racing traces its roots directly to it.
All the races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during that time were sanctioned by AAA, including the Indianapolis 500.
The majority of American Auto Association races were held on the East coast. Very rarely, did they cross the Mississippi River.
Starting in 1950, however, it was announced that two Midwestern tracks would play host to AAA-sanctioned auto race. One was the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, and the other, Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The Hawkeye Downs race would take place during the popular All-Iowa Fair, August 12, 1950.
The promoter of the race was none other than Sam Nunis of Reading, Penn.
Nunis, who promoted approximately 75% of the auto racing programs sanctioned by AAA, would have 12 or 15 “big-name” drivers under contract each year, and wherever Nunis went, so did they. Chances were, one of those drivers was the Indianapolis 500 champion.
And who didn’t want to see the Indy 500 champion at your local track?
Sure enough, when cars and stars pulled into Cedar Rapids a few days early, the 1950 Indianapolis 500 champion, Johnnie Parsons of Van Nuys, Calif., was the driver drawing the most attention. Along with Parsons was Tommy Hinnershitz of Oley, Penn., Lee Wallard of Altamont, N.Y., who finished sixth in the 500, Duane Carter of Detroit, Mich., the “One-Legged Wonder” Bill Schindler of Freeport, N.Y., and Andy Linden of Los Angeles, Calif.
An estimated 5,200 jammed the grandstands despite threatening weather all day long. Parsons, the defending AAA national champion was picked to have a red-hot duel with Hinnershitz. Hinnershitz, the Eastern AAA champion, drove “Big Red”, a powerful Offenhauser which the late Ted Horn had piloted to 25 consecutive triumphs and 83 records.
But when the “racing bugs” were making their picks, no one mentioned a 20-year-old wild-driving speedster from Long Beach, Calif., Troy Ruttman.
The feature stared as expected with Parsons leading, Duane Carter in second, Hinnershitz in third and Ruttman in fourth for the first 11 circuits.
Ruttman made his bid on the next lap, passing Hinnershitz at the start/finish line and remaining there until lap 23. Then the youth shot ahead again, passing Carter on the curve to grab second and then sticking himself to Parsons’ tail.
Fate then played her hand as Parsons’ $14,000 Offenhauser developed rear-end trouble on lap 24 and had to drop out, only one lap from the finish. Ruttman had to only coast home to collect the top prize.
The fifth event of the afternoon, involving two cars in a match race, turned out to be a three-car race instead. The 19 drivers were assembled facing the grandstand, with two contestants to be picked by applause of the audience for each man.
The fans couldn’t decide between Parsons, Hinnershitz and Ruttman, so Sam Nunis gave in to public acclaim and let all three race. Ruttman also won this 3-lap event, coming from third to first on the last lap.
Joey Ray, the only known Negro in big car racing at the time, failed to make the feature as did Jerry Hoyt of Indianapolis. Hoyt, the youngest competitor at 21-years-old, drove the only racer in the field which had competed in the 500-mile event in May.
Great weather brought a huge mass for the seven-event program, with Fair officials estimating the crowd at 7,800.
Joe Sostilio would get those spectators on their feet during qualifying as the Boston, Mass., speed merchant would set a new world’s record for a flat half-mile dirt track when he was clocked by the electric eye at 22.88 seconds. The former world record was 23 seconds flat, and the old Hawkeye Downs mark had been set by Ruttman the year before.
In addition, Sostilio would proceed to set a new Hawkeye Downs’ mark in the first heat, going 8 laps in 3 minutes and 16.48 seconds, breaking Johnnie Parsons’ one-year-old mark of 3 minutes and 20.57 seconds.
Parsons would win the second heat, Buzz Barton of Tulsa, Okla., the third heat while Sostilio would win the 3-lap match race. Gene Force would grab top honors in the consolation.
Unfortunately for Sostilio, the afternoon would end on a sour note. Having won everything that he entered, he was a heavy favorite to win the 25-lap Sweepstakes race and for the first 10 laps of that race, it appeared he would.
Sostilio was well ahead of his teammate Parsons when he began to slow considerably. Parsons sped by him as did Mike Nazaruk and Joe James. That’s when things took a turn for the worse…
Sostilio’s car suddenly caromed off the track, crashed through the two-foot-high retaining fence, and then smashed through the 10-foot wooden fence at the southwest corner of the track.
Fortunately, his car did not overturn, permitting the driver to suffer only a few skin burns. Sostilio was obviously shaken up-quite a bit by the accident. He was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital where he was treated and released.
Afterwards, Sam Nunis said the accident was caused by a faulty steering mechanism. Tire tracks on the west curve showed that Sostilio’s car never made the turn – there were no skid marks. Sostilio had a quarter of a lap to go when he crashed.
Parsons would take the victory followed by Nazaruk, James, Duane Carter and Ed Adams of Tampa, Fla. After Parsons had crossed the finish line and was circling the track, he stopped his car on the west curve and ran to help Sostilio.
The 22-year-old, 250-pound Lynwood, Calif., driver, the latest winner of the Indianapolis 500, was taken to Mercy Hospital with a crushed right arm, head injuries and severe lacerations in an unusual accident that saw his Agajanian Special #98 crash over the guard rail on the East turn of the Hawkeye Downs track.
The accident occurred while the cars were preparing to start the second heat, and at a time when the big Offenhauser’s were moving only at a 15 mile an hour clip.
Heading into the backstretch, Ruttman’s car failed to make the turn, broke through the guard rail and plunged down an embankment, overturning.
The young man who survived 500 grueling miles earlier this year at Indianapolis, was pinned under the racer, and his boot was cut away before he could be removed.
Other serious crashes were narrowly avoided during the afternoon program on a track that was full of holes, caused by last week's 100-mile stock car race, and in generally bad condition because of the week’s irregular weather.
The condition of the track was such that it slowed down more than two full seconds during the time trial period. Cars that had been turning rounds in the 24-second bracket during hot laps driving couldn't get below 26 seconds during the trials.
Track conditions played havoc with some of the name drivers, including Pat O’Conner of North Vernon, Ind., and former IMCA champion Frank Luptow. Such veterans as Tommy Hinnershitz and Johnnie Parsons, narrowly avoided crashes when their cars rocketed out of bad holes on the treacherous turns.
James, who also competed in the 1952 Memorial Day classic, did a stellar job in the first heat as he worked to the front from the fifth spot. As a result, the Van Nuys, Calif., pilot found himself on the pole in the feature, and he never relinquished that spot.
Gene Force of Richmond, Ind. passed former national AAA champion Henry Banks of Compton, Calif., to take second place, but he lost ground all through the 25-lap feature to James.
Sadly, Joe James would lose his life a little over two months later in San Jose, Calif., race.
Some new Midwestern dirt track stars such as Roy Newman and Paul Russo, both of Hammond, Ind., Ira Collins of Centerville, Ind., Larry Crockett of Columbus, Ind., Bill Earl and George Lynch, both of Indianapolis, had signed up to rival the “500” notables.
Eastern stars making their first appearance at Hawkeye Downs were Johnny Thomson of Springfield, Mass., and Wally Campbell of Trenton, N.J., and Eddie Sachs of Bryn Mawr, Penn.
A trio of youngsters had also signed up; Jimmy Daywalt of Wabash, Ind., who had finished sixth at the Memorial Day Classic; Jimmy Bryan of Phoenix, Ariz., and Bob Sweikert of Los Angeles.
Some of the tried-and-true favorites were back as well, including four-time Eastern AAA king Tommy Hinnershitz, former 500 winner Johnnie Parsons, Joe Sostilio, and Duane Carter driving the brand-new $15,000 Miracle Power Special.
When the big day finally came around, once again, it wasn’t the winner who stole the headlines…this time it was the promoter, Sam Nunis.
Minutes after Bob Sweikert rolled to victory in the 25-lap feature event, Nunis shocked everyone when he instructed race announcer Chris Economaki to inform fans that, because of poor support, that he and his promotion would not return to Hawkeye Downs in 1954.
Nunis’ complaint was 6,500 fans were not enough to support the Sunday afternoon field, which included 14 Indianapolis 500 drivers and a record-breaking 16 Offenhauser’s among 21 cars which timed.
All-Iowa Fair officials, AAA officials and the drivers themselves disgusted with the PA announcement, gave quick assurances that Nunis was speaking only for himself, and not for the Association.
Soon after, Johnnie Parsons, Duane Carter and Tommy Hinnershitz – three of the top stars – gave assurances to Fair officials that they were ready to return in 1954 – with or without a promoter.
“We don't want to give the fans the wrong impression about AAA,” Hinnershitz explained.
One official pointed out that Nunis had received his guarantee of $5,500 “which was what his own contract called for.” A report on Nunis' conduct has been forwarded to AAA offices in Washington, D.C.
Otherwise, Sunday's program was outstanding, despite a poor track that was built up under Nunis' direction. In the time trials, seven cars timed under 25 seconds and eight more were in the 25 second bracket.
Even in the final 25-lap event, with the track slowing noticeably under the effects of the week's hottest afternoon sun, Sweikert averaged 27.4 seconds a lap.
Sweikert, an up-and-coming young star, started outside in the front row, but fell off the pace in the early laps. He had to pass Jerry Hoyt a third of the way along for the victory. Jimmy Bryant, moving up last, wound up in third place.
Jimmy Daywalt, fresh off his Rookie-of-the-Year performance at the Indy 500, had his troubles with the Agajanian #98, the same car which Troy Ruttman was seriously injured at the Downs the year before. He failed to place in heat race, and then lost out to Duane Carter in the consolation. As a result, he didn't qualify for the feature.
Former 500 champ, Johnnie Parsons, had first approached Fair officials about promoting the races the same day that Nunis had announced he wasn’t returning. After some negotiation with officials and permission from the AAA Contest Board, it was announced that Parsons and his new partner, newspaper editor Bob McGovern of Elizabethtown, N.J., would be in charge.
Jim Lamb, secretary of the AAA Contest Board told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “This new promotion team knows a lot about racing and is enthusiastic. I’m certain that Parsons and McGovern will give the fans a creditable performance.”
Parsons would show up August 17, 1954, five days before the big event for some pre-race publicity. The soft-spoken Parsons had promised a star-studded field for the race and indeed, he would deliver.
Back again were veterans Tommy Hinnershitz, Duane Carter, Mike Nazaruk, Pat O’Conner, Eddie Sachs, Bob Sweikert and Jimmy Bryan, the runner-up in the ’54 Indianapolis 500.
A trio of newcomers would join the field, Duke Nalon of Chicago, one of the big names in Indianapolis 500 history as the driver of the famed Novi Special. Ed Elisian of Oakland, Calif., was another Indy standout as was Elmer George of Speedway, Ind.
Also entered was Danny Kladis of Chicago. Kladis, who was a relief driver in Indianapolis Speedway testing, but was better known in Eastern Iowa for his midget driving. Kladis won several Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association (MMARA) titles in the famed Lund #39 midget.
All in all, 19 Indianapolis 500 drivers were in attendance with 14 Offenhauser’s competing.
When Parsons was asked if, he too, would compete in the Sunday afternoon races, he replied, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to drive Sunday. This promoting gig is more of a job than you’d think.”
Parsons would be well-rewarded as 8,500 race fans packed the grandstands, appreciative that the popular star had brought racing back to the All-Iowa Fair.
Even a three-hour wait as the muddy track was worked into racing condition, couldn’t deter their enthusiasm. The long wait would be well worth it as 14 cars put on one of the greatest features ever witnessed in Eastern Iowa.
A standing room only crowd watched Don Freeland, a 29-year-old driver from Los Angeles, win the 25-lap feature in the last 100 feet.
Veteran Tommy Hinnershitz, the four-time Eastern AAA champion, jumped into the led on the first lap and held it for more than 24 circuits before Freeland virtually threw his Offenhauser into the lead and won by three yards.
Freeland and three other AAA stars - Bob Sweikert, who won the title a year ago: Andy Linden and Jerry Hoyt - all fought Hinnershitz for the lead in a great five-car battle on a mud-logged track.
The fight for third and fourth were just as heated as Freeland led home the field of Offenhauser’s in 11 minutes and 3.51 seconds.
The soggy track, which produced a half dozen spinouts and considerable motor trouble, kept preliminary events from being good races. The preliminaries were such that few fans were prepared for the tremendous feature race that took place in the gathering darkness.
Besides the field of 14 “500” stars signed by Parsons and McGovern, Joe Sostilio and former Speedway winner Troy Ruttman were on hand for the races. Also, in attendance was Tony Hulman, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whose car was in the field, driven by Eddie Sachs.
Parsons was pleased to say the least with his first promotional effort and immediately afterwards, told Fair officials that he would return for the 1955 All-Iowa Fair.
Bob Sweikert, ’55 Indianapolis 500 winner, would headline the AAA races on August 21, 1955.
Sweikert, who had won the All-Iowa Fair title in 1953, would be joined by familiar cast, including Tommy Hinnershitz, Duane Carter, Pat O’Conner, and Andy Linden, who had finished sixth in the “500”.
Eddie Sachs of Greensboro, N.C., was also another driver returning. Sachs, as colorful off the track as he was on it, would be behind the wheel of Mari Hulman’s “Pink Deuce”. The 26-year-old speedster was quickly becoming one of the top-rated drivers on the AAA circuit.
A trio of newcomers would be making their first appearance at Hawkeye Downs as well. Jack Turner of Seattle, Wash., who had dominated racing on the West coast and was the 1955 AAA national midget champion would be there as well as the Indy 500 Rookie-of-the-Year Al Herman of Allentown, Penn. Herman finished seventh in the Memorial Day Classic. George Amick of Los Angeles would be also be in the field, driving the Bob Estes Offy. Amick was subbing for the defending winner, Don Freeland, who injured his hand in a racing incident a few weeks earlier.
Eddie Sachs would start on the pole position, take the lead on the initial lap, and lead the rest of the way in the 25-lap main event. Sachs’ winning time was 11 minutes and 47.50 seconds behind the wheel of the Cheesman Offy.
Sachs was followed home by Bob Sweikert who pulled out all the stops in an effort to get by Sachs but could never get closer than a few car lengths.
Sachs, who gained his pole position by winning the first heat, started out like he was going to make a runaway of the feature. He built up a good lead during the first five laps, but from then on Sweikert began to slowly whittle down his advantage.
Sachs smartly kept his car as far inside as possible so as not to give any ground to Sweikert. When it looked as though Sachs might lose his lead, he just opened up the throttle a little more and asserted his authority.
Tommy Hinnershitz would start eighth but quickly make his way to the front. He shot into third place on lap 13 and it appeared that he was well on his way to passing both Sweikert and Sachs, but the hardware store operator couldn’t catch either and stayed right there in third.
Newcomer Buddy Cagle of Tulsa, Okla., was fourth and Jack Turner, who set the quickest time of the day with a 23.68 second clocking, finished fifth.
Unfortunately, 1955 would be the end for the American Auto Association. Their biggest star, Bill Vukovich, died at the ’55 Indianapolis 500 and after a tragic accident at the Le Mans Grand Prix the same year that killed 83 spectators and injured 170 more, AAA dissolved their Contest Board and decided to focus solely on the safety aspect of the company.
Starting in 1956, Frank Winkley and his Auto Racing, Inc., promotion would supervise races at the All-Iowa Fair under the International Motor Contest Association banner.