A Tribute to
Art Cross
by Rich Boteler

Art Cross - Winner of 10 Feature events in 1947

Art was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on January 24th, 1918. When he got to be 18, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living. He saw an ad about a Midget racecar for sale and even though it was an out dated car at the time, he decided to buy it. He and a few of his young friends set up a makeshift track in a rarely used parking lot. One day a racecar owner stopped by and took an interest in what these young lads were doing and invited them to go race at Long Island. With nothing better to do and a motorcycle engine for power they decided to go try it. Art was nominated to drive the car and this was the beginning of a racing career that took him to tracks all across the country, including four races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  
Most of his Midget career he drove for car owner Roscoe ‘Pappy’ Hough. Roscoe owned five Midgets, and they were referred to as the ‘five little pigs’, and he carried all of them from track to track on one double deck trailer. Most weeks they would race six or seven nights a week and on many occasions they would run a Sunday afternoon show at Yellow Jacket Stadium in Philadelphia and then head to Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa. to race Sunday night, making it an eight event week. They raced at places like Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia; Dover, Delaware; Williams Grove, Pennsylvania; Patterson, New Jersey; Danbury, Connecticut and Buffalo, New York. There were times when they would head to the Midwest and race at the Cincinnati Speed Bowl and at Kokomo, Indiana. A check of the records for top three finishes of all time at the Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, N.J., shows Art second only to Bill Schindler, with Bill having 52 and Art 47.
Pappy Hough's 5 Little Pigs

Another track they raced at was the Nutley Banked Board Track. In telling about this racing, Art told how they tried various types of face shields, but being open at the top and bottom, they would still get splinters in their eyes and had trouble with them fogging up and blowing up over their helmets etc., so the shields never did much to help protect the driver's eyes and face.

In 1941, Art's racing career was interrupted by World War II and he spent the next three years in numerous countries in Europe as a Tanker. He was wounded in action during ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ and was awarded the Purple Heart. After his release from the Army, Art continued his racing career, again driving Midgets and cars he describes as being similar in size to a Sprint Car. He raced with ARDC at tracks throughout the Northeast. He related that he had a pretty good Ford 60 and when the offy engined cars got popular they had a separate class for them. He could win or run second in the Ford division, which would make him eligible for the offy feature. He’d run third or fourth in the offy feature and thus make more money each night. Making $15 or $20 a week was good but getting $30 or more was better he said with a grin.

Art and Margaret Cross today
One night after the races at Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, a mutual friend introduced Art to a gal that was at the races as a spectator. Art told her "you look like the girl I want to marry". They started dating and on April 11th, 1946 they were married. Art says when he makes up his mind about something he usually does what he has set out to do. For fifty-six years Margaret has been a loving and supporting wife. Their marriage produced two Daughters and one Son, six Grandchildren and they are currently awaiting the birth of their first Great-Grand Child.

During the late 40's, the Stock Cars were becoming more and more popular in the Northeast. Ted Tappett, Tony Bonadies and Art were asked to race with these Stock Car guys and they raced two shows on Long Island. As Art tells it, these Stock Car drivers didn't care too much for us Midget guys and it was obvious they were going to take us out any way they could. Because of the intentional wrecking, Art didn't care for driving the Stock Cars very much. So in 1949 they migrated to the Midwest. They ended up in LaPorte County, Indiana.

At one point they left their belongings at their Indiana home and went scouting out west for a possible new home. They made a stop in the Texas Panhandle and Margaret liked it and said she thought she’d like to live there. But it didn’t take Art long to decide it would be a dustbowl and they ended up back in the same place they left. After over fifty years they still reside in a farm like setting in rural Rolling Prairie, between LaPorte and South Bend. Running with AAA, they raced at tracks in Kokomo & Lafayette, indoors at the Ft. Wayne Coliseum, the 16th Street Speedway across from the Speedway, Moline, Illinois and Soldier's Field in Chicago as well as others.

On a rare afternoon off from racing, Art went by the big Indy Motor Speedway while the 35th Indy 500 was running and got up on some scaffolding that some fans had put up. This allowed them to watch the racecars turn laps at I.M.S. without paying to go in. As Art watched, he thought to himself, ‘I can do that’. This was May 1951 and the next year he did just that!

Art Cross in the Bowes Seal Fast Special
Art explains that the big deal in those days was to get a test drive and he had a friend that got him in the seat of Carl Scarborough’s racecar for some test laps. He was a full mile per hour slower than what Carl had been running and not very impressive. However when Carl got back on the track as he entered turn one, he spun and hit the wall. Art says he knew he had drove it as quick as it would go and stay straight and he turned to the car owner and told him ‘if you want to go through turn one backwards, Carl is your man’. But he didn’t have to do any more to get the ride as Carl returned to the garage and retired from racing, for the time, anyway. He just walked up and said ‘see ya next year’ and I had my ride. Driving the Bowes Seal Fast Special #33 owned by Ray Brady in 1952, Art qualified at 134.280 m.p.h., good enough to start the race from the 20th spot.

When he took the checkered flag in 5th place, completing the full 200 laps, this earned him the 1st ever Award of Rookie of the Year at I.M.S. and secured himself a place in the Speedway’s Hall of Fame.  His race speed of 124.2 m.p.h. also made him a member of the Hundred Mile an Hour Club.

In 1953 he drove the Springfield Welding Special #16 for owner Bessie Paoli. At the time, Bessie was the only female Indy Car owner. Art qualified at 137.310 m.p.h. and started the race outside fourth row. He finished the race in 2nd place behind his good friend Bill Vukovich, Sr., again finishing the full 200 laps and averaging over 126 m.p.h. This was one of the hottest 500’s ever, air temperature of about 100 degrees. Many of the drivers had to have relief during the race but Vuky and Art completed the full race without help. This is where Carl Scarborough got out of the car and was overcome by heat exhaustion, collapsed and later died at the infield hospital. With the passing of Ernie McCoy last year, Art is the only surviving driver to complete this race without relief.

Art telling a story about Vuky, says he would come down to your pit, not say a word but with his hands folded in back of him, he would look over this and shake his head in a negative way and then look at that and again shake his head. He’d leave the pit and the crew would be looking all over the car to find what Vuky had seen wrong with the car. ‘Vuky had a lot of guys beat before we ever got on the track, just by playing these mind games’, Art said with a chuckle. Vuky once said that ‘Art is probably the best driver amongst us, especially on pavement’, a mighty big compliment from one of the greatest drivers of all time. Art admired Vuky to the highest degree and obviously the feelings were mutual.

Another story Art related to us was when another car owner asked him to shake down their car to see if he could help them figure out why they weren’t going faster. This was a common practice in those days. Art took the car out and after his third lap, and just getting the feel of the car, the car owner was out at the pit wall calling him in. Art came off the track and got out of the car and in a very disturbing voice, asked why they didn’t let him get the car up to speed. The car owner explained that he was a half second quicker than the regular driver already and he could have the ride if he wanted it!

Margaret shared a story also, saying that she could tell when Art was at race speed just by looking at him in the car. When he sort of got hunkered down in the right side of the car and his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, and his jaw was off to one side, I knew he was ready to go!

After a few hours of stories and memories, we were afraid maybe we were wearing Art & Margaret out. So when I asked if they were getting tired, Art said “no, I’m good to go till four o’clock”. Later when the coo-coo clock on the wall let us know it was four, Art said, “it’s Happy Hour. I don’t do a lot of drinking, nor smoke, nor chase wild women but at four everyday if I’m not driving, I feel that I’ve earned two beers”. To continue, we both had a beer (my wife was doing our driving) and when we left, Art was drinking his second one.

His third race at Indy, Art drove the Bardahl Special #45 owned by Ed Walsh, started from the 27th position and while Vuky won his second consecutive 500, Art came home 11th. He was credited with leading 8 laps of the race and again finished the full 500 miles. This year he also ran at the Darlington Speedway, starting 17th and finishing 6th. The other Champ Car race he ran was at the Milwaukee Mile where he started 3rd and finished 5th. He was also going to run at Springfield, but Art admits he wasn’t the greatest on dirt and when the car owner had a chance to put a noted dirt racer in the seat, Art simply bowed out of the way and went home.

For his fourth and final Indy 500, Art drove the Belanger Motors Roadster #99, owned by Merle Belanger and Tiny Worley. Art started the race in the 24th spot and finished 17th. He led 24 laps of this race but broke a rod in the engine and finished only 168 laps. This is where he met Jigger’s Dad, Frenchy Sirois, who was a mechanic on the car. Art and Frenchy and their wives became very close friends, and shared many days together away from racing. To this day, Art and Jigger remain good friends, exchange Christmas cards and try to get in a visit each year. Of course, this was a very sad day for racing as Vuky lost his life in an accident while leading the race. This could have been his fourth consecutive Indy Victory, since he was leading the race in 1952 with only nine laps to go before the steering broke, and then having his two wins in ’53 & ’54.

Three months after his final Indy, Art drove what was to be his final race of his career. They were at the Milwaukee Mile and Art started 11th. He got the car to working good in the outside groove and drove to the lead. Soon he spun out going into turn one. After restarting at the back he again moved to the front of the pack and then he ran out of gas. The crew had put a can in between his legs with a gallon of gas in it for such happenings but he couldn’t get the gas to pick up to the engine. After his pitstop for gas, he again moved through the pack and finished in the 4th position. Quite a day, Art says with a smile 

But as he got out of the car that day he knew he was going to hang up his helmet. He tells that many folks thought he quit because of losing his friend Vuky at the Speedway earlier in the year. But while this saddened Art a lot, he was tired of being away from his wife and children. He wanted to be a husband to Margaret and a Dad to his kids. He returned to his home with no regrets of leaving his racing career, while still in the prime of his driving years.

After working for twenty years as a heavy equipment operator, Art retired and lives a comfortable life with Margaret at his side. His memory isn’t what it once was but he stays in pretty good health. He does sleep with oxygen at night, but this is about the worst of his living conditions. Margaret seems to be very spry and watching her face as Art told his stories, you could see the pride she had in her eyes.

When I asked him about driving cars with no roll bars, he said he was rather tall and stuck out more than most drivers but he really didn’t think about it. In fact, the first car he saw with a roll bar, he had to look it over pretty good to figure out what it was for. And to my question about being upside down in a racecar, his answer was “not in an Indy Car but too many times in a Midget”. He told of one lengthy recuperation period, when he wasn’t able to walk and had many broken bones.

They used to go back to the Brickyard for Month of May functions like the Hall of Fame Banquet and Hundred Mile an Hour Club Dinner. But since he sleeps with oxygen, this makes for harder travel. And they are quick to point out that the atmosphere in Indy has changed so much. When going back and seeing the old guys we raced with, we enjoyed it, even though we were never in the social group, like being invited to private bar-b-ques etc., but that was fine with us. With the invasion of foreign drivers, it’s just not the same. He does relate that Arie Luyendyk was very nice to him when they met. Arie told how he respected what they went through in the early racing years and told him, “he didn’t understand how they did it”. He was very complimentary to Art’s driving career.

Margaret chimed in with the story about well after Art’s retirement, they were at the track and Art walked by young Vuky and young Bettenhausen. One asked the other “do you know who that guy is”? When he was told, “that’s Art Cross”, he said “WOW, I wonder if I could talk him in to shaking down my car”. Quite a compliment to Art’s driving ability.

When I asked who his favorite competitors were, he used the word ‘idol’ when he mentioned Bill Schindler. And of course he mentioned Vuky, also Tommy Hinnershitz and Johnny Ritter. Since many of the drivers are gone, one he remains good friends with is Johnny Boyd. He likes NASCAR better today than the open wheel races on TV. His favorite driver from the modern era is Geoff Bodine. In 1992, Art was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Back in the early sixties, this writer had the honor of meeting Art at the Sirois home. The biggest thing I remember about that meeting was how friendly Art had been to me that day. After this visit with Art and Margaret, my wife and I came away with the same feelings and so many memories of a great afternoon. We certainly enjoyed the visit and hope this story will share some of Art and Margaret’s life with whoever reads it. Before we left, Art presented me with a picture of him and his Rookie of the Year car and autographed it for me. I am SO PROUD of this picture! Many thanks to Art & Margaret for sharing an unbelievable afternoon with us and for letting me write this story about his racing career! Here’s hoping you have many good, healthy years remaining together!

I need to give credit here to two friends of mine that helped me with newspaper articles, photos and other information, that has made this story much more complete and hopefully more interesting. THANKS!! To Jigger Sirois and Tom Avenengo.

Comments about this story can be sent to RacerRich

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Last Updated: January 26, 2009 10:45 PM