Bob Pronger - Biography
By Stan Kalwasinski
Over the years, there have been countless stories, some true, some fictious, about Chicago area stock car driver Bob Pronger. But one thing is for sure, Bob Pronger could drive a stock car.
Whether driving his one-of-a-kind Chrysler 300 convertible, his rapid-running Oldsmobile on the beach at Daytona, a big Cadillac or wheeling one of Dave Roulo’s fast No. 3 Chevelles, Pronger was a top-running competitor in the “give no quarter, take no quarter” game of stock car racing.
Pronger won 148 feature races during his career at Chicagoland’s Raceway Park, where he was the late model track champion in 1961 and again in 1969. The 6’5” tall Pronger won main events at numerous other tracks throughout his racing career, which spanned from 1949 until 1971.
Pronger was born in Blue Island, Ill. on January 22, 1922, attending high school there and using his height to good advantage, playing center on the basketball team. He was among those who witnessed the first stock car races at Raceway Park in 1948.
A 27-year-old Pronger entered the sport of speed in June of 1949, wheeling a 1940 Mercury in the stock car “wars” at Raceway Park. Quickly getting “up to speed,” Pronger, racing on the old Championship Stock Car Club circuit, which included Raceway, racked up main event victories at Anderson, Ind., Springfield, Ill., Peoria, Ill. and at the then-dirt Raceway short quarter-mile.
The 1950 season saw Pronger get off to a fast start, grabbing five early-season feature victories in his ‘49 Mercury No. 151. Pronger’s “on fire” pace slowed as the season progressed with Pronger finally finishing fifth in the final point standings behind champion Hal Ruyle, Bud Koehler, Don Odell and Bob Meyers with a total of six wins to his credit.
Becoming a paved track shortly after the new season began, Raceway Park hosted 66 stock car events in 1951 with Pronger grabbing 19 feature wins and finishing second in the standings behind champion Bill Van Allen, who won the title by a tight margin over Pronger, who sat out several year-end races due to severe damage to his car. Among his victories were two 100-lap battles—the Mid Season Championship and the Season Championship contest. Pronger had a fast, but controversial, 1950 Mercury, which was outlawed by track officials before the season came to a close.
Pronger even tried his hand at midget racing at Raceway in 1951, squeezing himself into a small open-wheel car and winning a consolation race that night. Because of his tall frame, Pronger’s midget racing career was short-lived—one night, one victory!
Pronger wheeled an Oldsmobile at Raceway Park in 1952, winning the 100-lap Memorial Day Classic. He would win a total of eight feature races and finish second in the points behind Koehler, who would become Pronger’s “arch rival” during their many years of competition at Raceway Park. During this time, he joined the Society of Auto Sports, Fellowship, and Education (SAFE) late model circuit and began racing at tracks throughout the country.
In February of 1953, Pronger burst upon the national racing scene as he established record-shattering qualifying marks in NASCAR Grand National competition on the beach at Daytona Beach, Fla. After setting new “measured mile” records for two-way and standing-start runs, Pronger in his ’53 Oldsmobile 88 turned in a qualifying effort of 115.77 miles per hour to earn the pole position for NASCAR’s 160-mile event on the 4.1 mile beach/highway course.
Prior to the big race, Pronger told Speed Age magazine, “I ordered the car from an Oldsmobile dealer in Michigan approximately three months before Speed Week. I received the car after it came off the assembly line in Lansing, Mich. and drove it home to Blue Island. I took it (the engine) apart then and honed the cylinder walls, allowing .004 inch clearance. NASCAR rules permit .060 inch oversize bore, but mine isn’t that way. Bore and stroke are stock. I used the tires that came with the car—760 x 15 with 70 pounds of pressure. That is the way the car was set up for the speed trials.”
Years later, former NASCAR official and racing historian, the late Bill Tuthill wrote, “Pronger rolled into town that year (1953) unannounced with a new Oldsmobile. There were rumors of thievery in Detroit and an Oldsmobile engineer seemed to be more than ordinarily interested in the car.”
Tuthill commented that Pronger’s car was never inspected after his record runs and was going to be disqualified. Pronger pleaded ignorance of NASCAR’s proceedings and officials decided to let him run with the understanding that his engine would be available for inspection immediately after the race.
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.
Bob Russo, Speed Age Staff Writer, reported, “Fonty gunned his Oldsmobile into the lead as the field headed for the North turn. Pronger was second by five car lengths, Fonty, track wise to the treacherous curve, shut off and went through on the inside. Pronger, a rookie to the Daytona course, hit the turn fast and drifted high. Flock made the turn and headed into the backstretch, but Pronger’s red and black Oldsmobile (No.46) crashed into the outer guard rail and rolled down the embankment. More cars were entering the turn and a traffic jam developed but everyone got through safely except Pronger. His car did a double roll over and landed on its wheels. Pronger was unhurt and, after a hasty examination of his battered automobile, rejoined the competition.”
Suffering a busted radiator, Pronger last only a total of five laps and was credited with 51st position in the 57-car field.
In Tuthill’s story, Flock was quoted as saying, “I knew he was faster than me and there was no way I could outrun him with pure speed. But I thought that if I could get the starting jump, I might be able to hold him off.”
The car was never inspected and reported to been sold as a total wreck. Pronger returned to Raceway Park for the summer in a variety of cars—a ’39 Buick, a ’39 LaSalle and a ’53 Olds and made off with 12 feature wins. One of his victories was the track’s annual 300-lap Classic, which he won by a margin of four laps.
In 1954, Pronger showed up with a ‘54 Cadillac for Daytona “Speed Week” but the car was found to be illegal by NASCAR inspectors. Pronger and his blue Cadillac Coupe DeVille became frontrunners on SAFE’s Circuit of Champions late model tour, winning nine races in 37 starts with his Cadillac. Among Pronger’s victories were wins at St. Louis’ Oakland Stadium, Anderson, Ind., Raceway Park, Soldier Field, Buffalo, N.Y., Canada’s Pinecrest Speedway in Ontario and Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium. An additional win came on the dirt at Canfield, Ohio in Midwest Association for Race Cars (MARC) competition, which was the forerunner of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA).
Pronger was part of SAFE’s all-convertible Circuit of Champions “All Stars” circuit in 1955, starting the season wheeling a ’55 Chrysler 300 convertible No. 300, but switched to a ’55 Chevy convertible by mid-season. On July 13, Pronger, after setting fast time, captured a 50 lapper in his Chevy at the Cincinnati Race Bowl, a high-banked quarter mile paved oval. He used the same Chevy “rag top” to grab two feature wins at Raceway Park.
With the SAFE merging with NASCAR late in 1955, Pronger competed on NASCAR’s Convertible Division circuit in 1956, making 12 starts and finishing 29th in the standings. His best finish was a third place run at Lakeside Stadium in Kansas City, Kan. in Don Oldenberg’s ’55 Buick. Pronger was not among the “top 50” in the final NASCAR convertible points in 1957. The following year, Pronger only made one start in the NASCAR convertible ranks, finishing an impressive fifth on Daytona’s 4.1 mile beach and road course after starting 27th in his ’57 Ford.
Putting a roof on his Ford, Pronger ran the 160-mile Grand National race a day later in ‘58. Starting 45th and finishing 37th, Pronger fell out of the race with a broken right front wheel. The lanky Pronger can be seen standing next to his disabled mount in various still photos and video of the finish of the ’58 race—the final one on the beach/road course and won by Paul Goldsmith.
NASCAR records show that Pronger made a total of only nine NASCAR Grand National starts from 1951 through 1961, including the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 in a ’58 Ford. Pronger, along with other Chicago area frontrunners—Koehler and Red Duvall, competed in the Motor City 250 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit in 1952. Duvall and his ’51 Packard finished 19th in the 47-car field with Koehler getting 26th in a ’51 Nash (his only NASCAR start) and Pronger finishing 39th after starting fourth in a ’52 Nash Ambassador. Later in the year, Pronger would compete in the “Darlington 500” at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway with engine woes knocking him out of the 66-car field. Pronger, in a ’52 Olds 88, No. 46, started 15th and was credited with 54th place.
Official records fail to show Pronger running the Daytona 500 in 1968. Purchasing Buddy Arrington’s ’67 Dodge Charger before the race, Pronger raced to an 11th place finish.
Pronger was ranked 17th in the final late model standings at O’Hare Stadium in Schiller Park in 1957. He ran only a “handful” of events at Raceway Park in 1958, sweeping both “legs” of the Labor Day Twin-50 Classic and finishing second behind Bob Williams in the track’s annual 300-lap season finale. He scored nine wins at Raceway in 1959, including a 100-lap Short Track Auto Racers (STAR) Championship race, besting Koehler and Arnie Gardner. Pronger posted five more wins in 1960. It was during this time that he began competing on the old United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car circuit. Pronger was the seventh ranking driver in the 1960 USAC standings, competing in six of the nine USAC races held that year. Pronger used a 1960 Chevy and a 1960 Ford during the season, turning in two “top six” finishes.
In 1961, Pronger put it all together, capturing the late model driving championship at Raceway Park, which was only minutes from his Blue Island home. Teaming up with car owner Bob Roeber, Pronger wheeled the Bill Furyama-wrenched, B&B Auto Repair-sponsored ’56 Chevy to the title, winning 23 feature races along the way. One of his victories was his second career Raceway Park “300” which he won by a margin of three laps over Stash Kullman.
Failing to win a feature race and running a limited schedule, Pronger finished 21st at Raceway the following season. He competed in 11 USAC races in ’62. He raced to seven feature wins in 1963, including capturing both 50 lappers on the Fourth of July in his B&B Auto Repair ’62 Ford. Pronger was ranked ninth in the final points. Not ranked among the “top 20” drivers at Raceway in 1964, Pronger still made off with four features—all of them coming in one night in late September during one of the track’s Monza Classic events. Pronger was behind the wheel of Bill Cornwall’s ’64 Chevy during the post-season special.
Wheeling Dave Roulo-wrenched cars, Pronger finished fourth in the points in 1965, winning eight feature races and seemingly chasing champion-to-be Ted Janecyk all season long. He was victorious in the 100-lap Season Title race in ’65. Pronger won two features at Raceway Park in 1966 and also won a couple at Indiana’s Illiana Motor Speedway in a rapid-running gold Chevelle No. 1. Pronger came home sixth in the points in 1967, winning four feature contests at Raceway.
“Big Bob” opened the 1968 local racing season in fine fashion by winning the “season opener” at Soldier Field in early May. Purchasing Rick Kleich’s black ’65 Chevelle #50 before the races began, Pronger, wearing a heavy black top coat, held off a challenging Joe Shear to score the win. Pretty much inactive for the balance of the season, Pronger went “winless” at Raceway.
Teaming up again with Roulo, Pronger won an impressive 13 feature races in Roulo’s P&C Auto Parts-sponsored ’67 Chevelle No. 3 at Raceway in 1969 and was crowned the track champion that year. Most of his victories came with Pronger wearing his “trademark” white shirt and black tie while racing. The following season saw him wheel Roulo’s familiar black and orange ’67 Chevelle to 14 feature wins, finishing fourth in the standings behind track champion George Hill, Koehler and Kullman. The 49-year-old Pronger was off to a great start in 1971, winning eight early-season feature races at Raceway in addition to scoring victories at Illiana and at the new Grundy County Speedway in Morris.
Reported to be involved in automobile “chop shop” activities in the Chicago and northwest Indiana areas, Pronger disappeared on June 17, 1971 after being last seen at the Rainbow Restaurant on 127th Street in Calumet Park where he ate breakfast that morning, as he had almost every morning for the last 16 years or so.
Pronger was reported missing on June 22 by his family after he failed to show up to drive Roulo’s ’70 Chevelle. Pronger had told police that someone had tried to kill him in his Blue Island apartment early last month. He also told police that shots were fired at him on two occasions as he drove to Raceway Park.
A few weeks after his disappearance, a body, believed to be that of Pronger, was found near Griffith, Ind. The body was never positively identified. Prior to his disappearance, Pronger was reported under subpoena to appear before a Federal Grand Jury in Chicago investigating an interstate auto racket in which cars are stolen and torn down with the separate parts later being sold. It is believed that Pronger was the victim of a Chicago mob “hit.”
As the years have passed, the tales and stories about Pronger have seemingly become more plentiful and full of color and racing lore, making him a true racing legend. Legend or not, Bob Pronger was one heck of a stock car driver.