Torrence Midget Speedway

by Stan Kalwasinski

            Torrence Midget Speedway, or as it was more commonly known—Torrence Speedway, enjoyed a short run, better yet a brief run, that only lasted two months.  The 1/5-mile dirt speedrome, located in a then unincorporated area of Cook County, Illinois, south of Chicago, was the scene of the relatively new sport of midget auto racing from mid-July through mid-September of 1936.  Considered by many as “one of the most elaborate midget tracks in the country,” the speedway was nothing more than fire-ravaged scene after a mysterious, late-night fire destroyed the property after the track’s final racing program was held on September 17, 1936.

            The speedway property was originally the Calumet Kennel Club as a number of enterprising gentlemen developed the site with the idea that greyhound dog racing would be legalized in the state of Illinois .  Part of the development was an impressive $80,000-to-build, 7,000-seat capacity grandstand built of steel and concrete to accommodate would-be bettors.  It is unclear whether actual dog racing was ever held at the site, but the whole idea of dog racing in Illinois went down the tubes as the Illinois Supreme Court outlawed dog racing on May 10, 1930.  Members of the court probably didn’t have too hard of a time deciding the fate of dog racing as tracks in Cicero and Thornton at the time were reported to be controlled by the infamous Al Capone.

            Sitting dormant for a number of years, automobile racing was introduced to the premises around 1932 with local promoter Jack Leech presenting a number of stock and race car events on a square-shaped dirt track that measured slightly under a half-mile in length.  The Calumet Speed Bowl was described as a dirt oval with four turns and four short straightaways.  Races were held there in 1933 as part of the area’s World’s Fair celebration. 

            Early newspaper ads gave the location of 169th Street and Torrence Ave. , but the speedway was actually situated southwest of the present intersection of 170th Street and Torrence Ave. , which is now part of the Village of Lansing .  Out in the country back then, the track was located more precisely between 171st and 172nd streets, bordered by Calhoun Ave. on the east and Yates Ave. on the west.  The track property was just west of the present day, five-story Royal Bank building, which is located at 17130 S. Torrence Ave. 

            Coming into prominence in California in 1933, racing’s newest craze, midget auto racing first appeared in the Chicago area in the fall of 1934 when an exhibition race program was presented at the Speed Bowl on October 28.  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 (NARN) 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.”

The track again sat dormant until the summer of 1936 when it was announced that a new midget race track was set to open in the Chicago area.  Promoters Ed Rippe and Ben Diamond were ready to open the gates of their new Torrence facility on Saturday evening, July 18.   It’s unclear how much involvement Jack Leech had with the remodeling of the facility, but press releases stated that E.H. Ashdown, a Chicago area engineer, was involved with the project with the track now measuring a fifth of a mile and having 15-foot banked turns. 

            With some 3,000 in attendance, opening night saw Chicago favorite Jimmy Snyder wheel his Auburn No. 1 midget to victory in the 20-lap feature race, defeating Paul “Dago” Russo, Ted Tetterton and Harry Lewis.  Years before becoming the official starter of the Indianapolis 500, Willis “Bill” Vandewater handled the flagging duties on that inaugural night with legendary Midwest racing announcer Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbock keeping the fans informed over the P.A. system.  Other officials included checker (scorer) Harold Smith and Harold Fosdick, “the Father of the Electric Eye,” as the official timer.  Early Chicago area racing photographer Loren Tutell was on hand to document the action, which included local racer “Chick” Beverlin taking out 20 feet of guardrail during one of the races.

            Wally Zale, “the Human Cyclone,” started his winning tear at Torrence on July 25, grabbing top honors in the 25-lap headliner ahead of Snyder, Tetterton and Russo.  Zale, wheeling his green-colored, outboard-powered No. 9 mount, was almost unbeatable on the Torrence dirt.  Zale set a new qualifying track record on August 8, posting a lap of 16.56 seconds, which erased Emil Andres’ old standard of 16.62.  A week later, Snyder lowered the qualifying mark to 16.42, but it was Zale, who won the 25 lapper.  A near capacity crowd was on hand as more than 5,000 “free” tickets were distributed in loaves of bread sold at local grocery stores.

            An ad in The Hammond Times newspaper promoting Torrence Speedway proclaimed auto races every Saturday night with speed, thrills and spills.  Nationally famous drivers would compete in seven events of speed, daring and bang-up action.  Admission prices were 55 cents and $1.10.

            Zale won again on August 22 and August 29, telling area racing writer Overstreet that he was “barred” from two Ohio tracks because the speedways called for “closed competition” racing.  The August 29th show was the Mid Season Championship/Chicago Cubs Sweepstakes with Zale besting Marshall Lewis, Andres and Art Hartsfeld in the main event as members of the Chicago Cubs baseball team watched the action.  That night Zale drove the former Paul Russo-driven No. 15 as Zale’s regular “ride” was badly damaged days earlier in St. Louis .  Harvey Mayor Frank Bruggemann presented Zale his winning trophy.

            Zale’s winning streak came to an end on September 5 as Robert “Shorty” Sorenson won the feature race, defeating Everett Rice, Marshall Lewis and Karl Hattel.  Zale seemed to be on his way to another victory until a flat tire on lap 19 slowed his pace while leading.  The “rough and ready” Zale still finished fifth in the evening’s headliner, which was ironically the last feature race ever held at the speedway.

            Rain caused the September 12th date to be canceled with officials announcing that there would be racing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, beginning September 19.  Promoters Rippe and Diamond announced that the nights’ racing would feature something entirely new to midget racing.  Plans included staging several handicap events in which profit shares of the drivers’ possible winning would be sold—pari-mutuel style.

            The evening of September 19 arrived with a full field of midget “cars and stars” on hand with a “poor crowd” of some 250 people in attendance.   Among those on the premises were members of the County Highway Police, who had warned officials that no gambling would be permitted.  The promoters quickly abandoned the idea of pari-mutuel betting and considered postponing the event until Saturday night.  The Saturday races had been well attended all season long.

            After a conference with several drivers, it was decided to give the patrons, who had braved a chilly night, an exhibition of match races in which most of the cars on hand took part.  The crowd was informed that their rain checks would be honored on the following Saturday night.  The likes of Warren, Russo, Gessell, Mel Wainwright and Zale were winners of the five-lap contests with some of the drivers acting as flagmen for the events.  After these races, drivers, mechanics and officials were invited to partake in refreshments and sandwiches, which were courtesy of track management.

            After everyone had apparently left the speedway, it is reported that a night watchman discovered a fire in a room where the track telephone was located.  Trying to put the fire out himself with an extinguisher, the watchman apparently abandoned his attempt and ran to a nearby farmhouse to call the local fire department.  Fire fighters from several communities responded to the alarm, but it was too late.  The fire lasted well over three hours and consumed practically everything in its sight, including the grandstands, a ballroom, a piano and the track’s 100-foot bar.  In a matter of hours, the Torrence Midget Speedway was destroyed.

            A racing driving school was held there later in the fall, but no attempt was ever made to rebuild the speed arena.  Rippe, Diamond and the track’s president John Ashdown were interviewed by authorities about the fire, but nothing was ever officially determined.  Over the years, it was rumored that one of the drivers set the fire, but it was never proven one way or the other and the individual, always mentioned in the stories, has passed on.  Ed Rippe reappeared on the local racing scene in 1938 as one of the driving forces of a new speedway being built— Raceway Park near Blue Island .

            Over 70 years have passed since the last race was held at Torrence and those who were there get fewer in number each year.