THROUGH THE YEARS ... 1959
By Stan Kalwasinski
Opening for the first time the year before, Meadowdale International Raceways in Carpentersville provided the Chicago area with big time road racing action as the 3.27-mile road course hosted three major sports car events during the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays.
On May 31, Milwaukee ’s Jim Jeffords wheeled his Nicky Chevrolet-owned purple Scarab to victory in all three 32-lap “heats” during the Memorial Day weekend action. Texan Lloyd Ruby finished second in the overall point standings with Augie Pabst coming home third. The 32-year-old Jeffords won again on July 5, grabbing victories in all three “heats” of the 444 kilometer sports car race. Jeffords and his $75,000 Scarab bested Pabst and Ruby in the final standings.
The 25-year-old Pabst was the winner of Meadowdale’s sports car finale on September 6. A reported crowd of 52,632 saw Pabst grab overall honors in the 164-mile chase that was run in two “legs.” Ruby, who was a winner on Saturday, grabbed the first “leg” on Sunday with Pabst, behind the wheel of the Meister Brau-sponsored Scarab, taking the win in the second “leg.” Veteran Indianapolis 500 driver and former Soldier Field stock car champion Jim Rathmann was injured in a crash during one of Sunday’s heats. Suspension problems put both Jeffords and “500” winner Rodger Ward out of the first heat, scratching them from further competition that day. Ward, wheeling his Leader Cards-sponsored, Offenhauser engine-powered, midget, set a track record during time trials, getting around the Meadowdale course with an average speed of 92.271 miles per hour.
The Meadowdale season closed on October 11 with Gene Marmor winning an 80-mile late model stock car race. The 29-year-old Marmor wheeled his ’57 Chevy to victory with a half-mile margin over second place driver Tom Pistone. Don Odell, Fred Hoff and Roy Czach rounded out the top five in the event that was originally rained out on October 4. Starting on the pole position of the front row, Marmor led every lap of the event, turning in a winning average speed of 78.260 miles per hour. A crowd, estimated at 12,000, braved cold, windy conditions to watch the action.
Louisville , Kentucky ’s Bill Lutz was the late model stock car champion at O’Hare Stadium in Schiller Park . Lutz drove his Tom’s Standard Service-sponsored ’57 Chevy to the title ahead of Marmor, ’58 O’Hare titlist Fred Lorenzen, Don Oldenberg, Whitey Gerken and Bryant Tucker. Rookie Neil Houston, Kenny Paulsen, Tom Cox and Red Duvall rounded out the “top 10” in the standings. Lutz’s rapid-running ride was the same car that Lorenzen used to capture the O’Hare title the year before.
Lorenzen made off with his second straight United Auto Club (USAC) stock car crown, capturing six wins in 13 starts during the year in his ’58 Ford. One of Lorenzen’s big victories was his September 20th score at the “Milwaukee Mile” as he beat Rodger Ward and Jimmy Bryan for the $3,700 first prize money. Another local USAC racer, Elmer Musgrave and his ’57 Pontiac won the circuit’s 100-lap chase on the dirt at California ’s Ascot Stadium on November 15, besting Rodger Ward and Les Snow.
Bob Williams of Chicago was the champion in the late model ranks at Raceway Park near Blue Island . Using a ’56 Ford for his title run, Williams posted 13 feature wins during the campaign, besting “arch rival” Bud Koehler in the final points tally. Finishing behind the leading duo were Bob Pronger, Ray Young, Bill Van Allen and Harry Simonsen. Koehler, the four-time stock car champion at the “World’s Busiest Track,” captured 17 main events at Raceway during the season, including the track’s annual 300 Lap Classic. Koehler and his ’58 Studebaker Hawk made off with top honors in the 300-lap battle ahead of Williams and “Legs” Whitcomb. Ed Kilpatrick was the top man in the track’s “novice” division, besting Lyndal Adams. Over 300 drivers registered for the competition at Raceway, which was under the direction of the Auto Championship Racing Association and its President, Joe Uzelac.
Koehler was the late model champion at Mance Park Speedway in Hodgkins. Arnie Gardner, who won the track’s season-opening 30-lap feature on April 12, kept the battle tight with Koehler most of the season. Koehler won the track’s 50-lap Spring Championship race on May 31, while Bob Pronger and his ’57 Ford won annual Emma C. Mance Memorial 50 lapper over Koehler, Harry Simonsen, Gardner and Whitcomb.
Ken Finley and Rich Clement were “co-track champions” in late model stock car action on the dirt at Santa Fe Speedway near Willow Springs. Clement was the winner of the track’s 100-lap season-ending finale. Besides Clement and Finley, other feature winners at Santa Fe during the season included Ken Boyer, Mal Lane , Don Waldvogel, Ernie Van Duser and Bud Koehler.
Eddie Stillman was the modified division champion on the dirt at the Waukegan Speedway, while Jim Birks was the stock car titlist at the Rockford Speedway. No racing was held at Soldier Field for the first time since after World War II as the Pan American Games were held at the giant lakefront arena during the summer.
Bob Tattersall of Streator was the driving champion in the midget ranks of the United Auto Racing Association (UARA), using Tony Saylor’s midget to score numerous victories. Finishing behind Tattersall in the final points were Bernie Wilhelmi, Danny Kladis, Russ Sweedler, Johnny Riva and George Sellery. Tattersall, UARA’s 1956 champion, got off to a quick start by winning UARA’s season opener at Joliet on May 9. Tattersall was tough to beat on the flat, dirt-surface, Joliet track, winning several 50 lappers during the season. UARA midgets competed indoors at Chicago ’s International Amphitheatre during the year’s “Speed Festival.”
With Chicago Auto Racing Association leasing the track, Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville , Ind. was the scene of a series of Untied States Auto Club (USAC) midget races during the season. Illinois native Don Branson won the “opener” on Friday night, June 5, taking home top honors in the 50-lap feature. Before the season was over, Harry Molenaar’s big half-mile dirt oval would see Gene Hartley grab two wins with Chuck Weyant, Bob Wente and Rodger Ward each claiming one. On August 15, Ward would defeat Tony Bettenhausen, local favorite and the 1958 National Indy Car Champion, in a special five-lap match race at Illiana in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 fans. Midgets of the Midwest Car Owners and Drivers Association also competed at Illiana with Bob Ellingham winning a 25-lap feature race ahead of Johnny Slowiak and fastest qualifier Don Boorse on June 12.
Ward won the Indianapolis 500 on May 30 with Bettenhausen turning in a solid fourth place finish. Ward would be the “National Champion” in ’59 with Bettenhausen finishing in the runner-up spot. Former Soldier Field stock car star Jim Rathmann came home second in the “500” with ex-motorcycle racer Paul Goldsmith claiming fifth spot. Other familiar names in the race included Paul Russo (ninth), Gene Hartley (11th), Chicago ’s Pat Flaherty on a “comeback” run (19th), Dick Rathmann (20th), Don Freeland (22nd), Don Branson (24th) and Chuck Weyant (28th).
“Big cars” of the Mississippi Valley Championship Circuit (MVCC) were in action in the area. On June 12, Bernie Wilhelmi of Joliet wheeled Leo Melcher’s Chevy-powered sprinter to victory on the dirt at the Kankakee Fairgrounds oval, defeating ’52 UARA midget champion Ken Rubright and Red Hoyle in the 20-lap main event. The MVCC “cars and stars” returned to Kankakee for a 50-lap Mid Season Championship race in July with Rubright wheeling his Merle Heath-owned Chevy V8-pwered car to the victory. Kokomo , Ind. driver Kenny Wines won a 20-lap MVCC feature event at Illiana on August 1. Another Indiana pilot, Ray Duckworth was victorious during MVCC’s second appearance at Illiana on September 19 with Duckworth defeating Dick Raiza and Johnny Riva.
Finishing eighth in the inaugural Daytona 500, Tom Pistone would win his first career NASCAR Grand National race at Trenton , N.J. on May 17. The 30-year-old, 5’4” – tall Pistone would wheel his Rupert Safety Belts-sponsored ’59 Thunderbird to the victory in the 150-mile chase over Cotton Owens and Lee Petty. Later in the season, Pistone would claim top honors in a NASCAR Convertible Division event, scoring a 500-lap/250-mile victory at Martinsville , Va. , winning the Old Dominion 500 in his ’59 T-Bird “ragtop” on June 7. Pistone would finish ahead of Larry Frank and Joe Lee Johnson. Lee Petty finished sixth, while Richard Petty finished seventh.
“The Tinley Park Express” – Tony Bettenhausen would bring down the curtain on the 1959 racing season, driving Howard Linne’s midget to victory in the annual USAC-sanctioned Turkey Night midget race at California’s Gardena Speedway on November 26.