Early Chicagoland Midget Auto Racing

By Stan Kalwasinski


            Local midget auto racing celebrated its 70th birthday in November of 2004.  The following story details some of the early events.

            Coming into prominence in California in 1933, auto racing’s newest craze, midget auto racing first appeared in the Chicago area in late October of 1934 when an exhibition race program was presented at the old Calumet Speed Bowl in what is now known as Lansing, Ill.

            Located southwest of the corner of the current intersection of a 170th Street and Torrence Avenue, the Speed Bowl was described as a dirt oval with four turns and four short straight-aways and being slightly under a half-mile on the inside.  Jack Leech was the promoter and in 1933 the track was the scene of a series of race car and stock car events, part of the area’s World’s Fair celebration.  The property was originally developed for greyhound dog racing and was known as the Calumet Kennel Club.  The State of Illinois never adapted legalized dog racing and the property sat idle for some time.

            With the racing under the direction of M.L. “Mike” Popp of Milwaukee, a trio of fellow Milwaukee residents put on the exhibition of speed.  Ralph McDaniel, driving a 45 cubic inch Austin-powered, 70-inch wheelbase midget was the winner of the first heat and the feature event as fans and participants braved a cold northwest wind.  Johnny Chuchada, driving a Henderson motorcycle engine-powered midget, won the second and fourth heats and finished second in the feature.  The final member of the threesome, Gene Popp finished second in the first event and won the third. 

            According to H.B. Overstreet in the November 1, 1934 issue of the National Auto Racing News Edition of The Bergen Herald, the forerunner of National Speed Sport News, “Immediately after the race, Mr. Leech began making plans to construct a midget track for next season.  His plans are to cut the speed bowl down to 1/5th of a mile with 10-foot banks.”

            Right after this first event, plans were being made to hold the first-ever indoor midget auto races in the country with the Chicago-based Midwest Indoor Auto Racing Association planning to present the indoor event at Chicago’s 124th Field Artillery Armory at 52nd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on November 18.

            Harold Shaw of Indianapolis, a veteran racer and a relief driver in the Indianapolis 500 in 1933, piloted Floyd “Pop” Dreyer’s newly created Dreyer Special to the victory in the 15-lap main event on that opening Sunday night.  Leading from the start, Shaw, wheeling Dreyer’s Indian motorcycle engine-powered mount, defeated Chicago’s Jimmy Snyder in the feature.  Cy Drew came home third, followed by inaugural “Chicago District” winner McDaniel. 

            The Armory track was about a fifth of a mile dirt oval with a little dust and smoke being part of the evening’s entertainment.  Before the end of the year, Snyder, Wally Mitchell and repeat winner Shaw would pick up feature victories inside the military facility, which is still in existence to this day.  Snyder’s victory came on Thanksgiving Day evening during which Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly waved the flag for the start of the first event.  With the legendary Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbock handling the announcing duties, Milwaukee’s Tony Willman finished second to Snyder on Thanksgiving.  Snyder was reported to have won five of the 11 races held that night. 

            Snyder, who would compete in the Indianapolis 500 on five occasions, was one of the area’s top drivers, setting a new qualifying track record at Indianapolis in 1939.  The Chicago resident would finish second in the ’39 500, driving for millionaire sportsman Joel Thorne.  Snyder began racing at the old Evanston Speedway in 1932.  Tragically, Snyder lost his life at the age of 31 in a midget auto racing crash at Cahokia, Ill. on June 29, 1939, less than a month after his best 500 finish.

            Ready to take off, midget racing in the Chicago area was ready for rapid growth.  More indoor races would take place during the early part of 1935 with the International Amphitheatre, the Chicago Riding Club and the Chicago Stadium also holding events.  The ’35 outdoor racing season, Chicagoland’s  first full summer of midget racing, was just around the corner.