THROUGH THE YEARS ... 1953
By Stan Kalwasinski
Santa Fe Speedway at 91st Street and Wolf Road near Willow Springs opened in May of 1953 with Highland, Indiana’s Kenny Boyer capturing the first stock car feature race. Built on the property of the old Santa Fe Park, which hosted picnics, horse, motorcycle and auto racing dating back to the late 1800’s, the new enterprise was headed by Howard Tiedt, whose father, Frederick, had founded the outdoor recreational spot originally. With 87th Street Speedway’s Eddy Anderson helping with the promotion, a number of 87th Street regulars, including ’53 titlist Bill Van Allen and Hammond, Indiana’s Red Duvall, were also visitors to Santa Fe’s quarter mile and half-mile clay tracks. Boyer was the track’s first stock car champion in 1953. A number of races were televised live by WGN TV with popular baseball announcer Jack Brickhouse handling the microphone for these TV events.
Three 200-lap long distance events highlighted the inaugural season at Santa Fe with Bill Clemans, Bill Moore and Fred Kasten picking up wins. Clemans, who eventually would move over the supermodified circuits of Indiana and Ohio, was a dominate force at 87th Street in 1953, giving Chicago area regulars fits with his little 1940 Ford No. 79. Unfortunately, Clemans of Mishawaka, Ind. would die from injuries suffered in a fiery crash at Canada’s Pinecrest Speedway in Woodbridge, Toronto in 1957.
Located at 6300 S. East Ave., Mance Park Speedway, in the western suburban town of Hodgkins, also opened up in 1953 with the fifth-mile dirt banked oval hosting stock car racing and other assorted events including midget, Crosley stock car and motorcycle racing in addition to rodeos, boxing and wrestling. Art Fehrman wheeled his 1941 Ford coupe to become Mance Park’s first stock car champion. After his driving career was finished, Fehrman became the track’s official starter. Getting the “itch” to do a little racing, Fehrman would put down his flags from time to time and jump into a car and run a heat race or two.
The Mance brothers, Bill, and Hal (Harold), built the high-banked oval next to their Mance Park picnic grove. Carrying the title of “home of the racing champions,” the speedway was called “Chicagoland’s fastest and highest banked track.”
Tom Pistone, wheeling a 1951 Pontiac, was the track champion for the twice a week stock car action at Soldier Field. A reported 38,000 fans turned out for the season opener at Soldier Field in May with Gene Marmor and his ’52 Buick winning the annual Chicago Park District Police Benevolent event.
Along with Soldier Field, Rockford Speedway and the quarter mile dirt track inside the famed “Milwaukee Mile” were part of Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane stock car weekly tour. Pistone was also the track champion at Rockford.
Raceway Park saw Bryant Tucker and his ’41 Buick cop top stock car laurels. Bob Pronger won the track’s 300-lap classic. Exhibition greyhound “dog racing” at the speedway caught the attention of city, county and state law officials.
Local drivers Don Oldenberg, Tom Cox and Pronger were winners on the Society of Autosports, Fellowship and Education (SAFE) “Circuit of Champions” stock car tour. .
In February of 1953, Pronger brought a fast 1953 Oldsmobile down South for the annual NASCAR-sanctioned competition on the 4.1-mile beach and road course in Daytona Beach, Fl. During the annual Speed Week action, the always fast and sometimes controversial Pronger and his “stock” Olds 88 blitzed the timing clocks on the Florida beach with a run of 115.77 miles per hour to set a new record and grab the pole starting spot for 160-mile Grand National event. The story goes that Pronger had a personal bet with fellow front row starter Fonty Flock, also in a new Oldsmobile, as to who would lead the first lap.
Both drivers sailed down beach door-to-door headed for the first turn. Pronger’s red Olds No. 46, running at better than a 100 miles per hour, hit the high-banked, spongy sand corner and crashed through the guardrail, flipping over and landing back on all four wheels. Pounding the flattened roof out with his fists, the 31-year-old Blue Island, Ill. racer continued in his smashed car and lasted a total of five laps, being credited with 51st position in the 57-car field.
Racing on the dirt half-mile, Bob Perrine of Wheeler, Ind. was the champion for the modified-style stock car action at Illiana Motor Speedway. Thursday night was the weekly night of racing with Perrine besting Bill Clemans in the final points tally. On his way to the championship, Perrine, who held the qualifying track record of 28.79 seconds, won the 50-lap Mid Season Championship race in August. The season finale saw “Happy Dan” Walters of Griffith win the 100-lap Season Championship ahead of Perrine and Bill Carr. Paul Russo, Duane Carter, Russ Klar and Pat O’Connor were winners of American Automobile Association (AAA)-sanctioned sprint car features, while Jack McGrath in a 1953 Hudson won a 200-lap AAA stock car event. A future stock car pilot, Michigan motorcycle ace Paul Goldsmith won the American Motorcycle Association-sanctioned Indiana State Championship on the Illiana dirt. Tony Lenti was crowned the champion driver of the United Auto Racing Association (UARA) midget racing organization.