Philadelphia Midget Racing in the 30's and early 40's

By Steve Bubb


It is hard to picture the city of Philadelphia as the center of racing. But, back in the late 1930s the city of Philadelphia was the hot spot in the world of midget racing.  Race teams from across the country would tow to Philadelphia to race at the two race tracks located inside the city limits. The two tracks, Yellow Jacket Speedway on G Street in Frankford, or at the National Stadium, provided some of the best in midget racing action.

On May 24, 1938 the new Yellow Jacket Speedway opened.  Built by George Hamilton, promoted by Wally Sechrist, the track was a quarter-mile dirt surface.  This speedway replaced the old Yellow Jacket Speedway.  The track had Philadelphia to itself, holding midget events on Tuesday and Friday nights.  AAA sanctioned the racing. 

Shorty Sorenson dominated the early action at Yellow Jacket winning five of the first eight races.  Paul Russo and Tommy Hinnershitz had feature wins during that span.  Hinnershitz would be the next hot driver winning two of the next four features.  Frank Beeder and Ed Staneck would also capture victories.  Paul Russo would become the next driver to beat winning three in the following six weeks.  Carl Hattel also had success winning two during the span while Wesley Saegesser would win one.

The final seven shows would find Paul Russo and Wesley Saegesser each winning two mains.  Single wins went to Tony Willman and Ed Staneck with one show falling due to rain.  The victory for Staneck came in a 150-lap marathon. 

Yellow Jacket started the 1939 season off as the only show in town but that would change in June.  For 1939 Yellow Jacket, once again under the direction of Wally Sechrist, would be in action on Monday and Thursday nights.  AAA was the sanctioning body for the midgets.  Paul Russo won the first race of the new year.  Bill Schindler won in week two then Wesley Saegesser went on a tear winning the next three.  Schindler stopped the Saegesser run by winning the next two.

Following the two wins by Schindler, the next five events found five different winners.  Buster Warke, Harry Felton, Duke Nalon and Perry Grimm scored wins.  The other winner was Sam Hanks in a feature that showed how drivers came from across the country to race at Yellow Jacket.  The top three finishers in the main, Sam Hanks, Mel Hansen and Paul Swedburg were all from Los Angeles.

It was at this point that a new rumble was being heard in the city of Philadelphia.  On June 28, 1939 a new track came to life in the city along the Delaware River.  National Speedway, a fifth-mile asphalt track, roared to life staging Wednesday and Saturday night Central States Racing Association Midgets.  Located in the former Phillies Ball Park, the track was also known as the Gardens.  Now the city of Philadelphia had four nights of midget racing.

Johnny Peterson would win the very first race at National.  Dee Toran and Ted Hartley would win the next two.  Johnny Peterson came back to take wins in three of the next five shows.  Dutch Schaeffer and Charlie Miller would also win during that time.  For Miller it was the start of many feature wins in Philadelphia. 

Doc Shanebrook, Johnny Swier, Ted Hartley, Ted Tappett would visit victory lane at National before Charlie Miller would take win two.  This would be the start of a hot streak for Miller.  Over the final seven shows on the National asphalt, Charlie Miller would win four.  The other winners during the final seven weeks would be Ted Hartley, Dutch Schaeffer and Johnny Peterson.  Peterson's win would come on the final night and that would be a big 100-lap championship. 

Back at Yellow Jacket, they were in the last half of their racing season.  Joe Garson won two straight shows.  Up next would be twin 50-lap mains for the midgets.  Morris Bower and Paul Swedburg won the two 50s.  The last seven shows for the midgets at Yellow Jacket would find single wins going to Harry Felton, Ernie Gessell and Babe Bower.  Mel Hansen and Tony Willman would have two wins each.  The one checkered for Willman was a 75-lap championship.

1940 found big changes taking place at the two speedways.  The first big change came at Yellow Jacket.  The dirt surface was paved over for 1940. Next, Yellow Jacket promoter Wally Sechrist announced that he was going with ARDC as the sanctioning body, thus dropping AAA.  With AAA out at Yellow Jacket, National quickly made AAA their sanctioning organization.  Yellow Jacket would race Monday and Friday while National went with Wednesday and
Saturday.

At National the first race went to Tommy Hinnershitz.  Doc Shanebrook and big car star Bill Holland won the next two shows.  Charlie Miller won the following two followed by a three-race win streak by Doc Shanebrook.  Ted Hartley ended Shanebrook's streak but the next week Shanebrook was back in victory lane.  Tony Willman, Jimmy Jackson, Henry Banks and Johnny Peterson won taking National to the midway point in the season. 

Over in Frankford, rain took out the first show but after that it was all Slim Sipler for the first several weeks.  Sipler won the first three before Ted Tappett captured a win.  Sipler was back in victory lane the week following.  Ernie Gessell would win races six and eight with a win by Ernie Gessell sandwiched between.  Len Golen and Bill Schindler had single wins before Ted Tappett took two in-a-row bringing Yellow Jacket to the midway point of their season. 

Back at National Jimmy Jackson won his second of the year with George Fonder winning the next two.  Tony Willman would take two of the next three with a win by Ted Hartley in between.  Joe Garson captured his first win of the year with Charlie Miller winning the next week.  Garson would be back in victory lane after Miller's checkered.  Charlie Breslin would win his first two of the year the next two weeks followed by a win by George Fonder.  The last two shows of the year would be championship events.  The first was a 100-lap affair with Charlie Miller the victor.  The last race of the season was a 60-lap event and that was taken by Johnny Peterson.

Yellow Jacket started the second half with a win by Bill Schindler.  Bub Walker won his first of the year while Charlie Miller left National to snare a Yellow Jacket win.  Bill Schindler was back in victory lane before Ted Tappett took two in-a-row.  Ernie Gessell won the final race of the year, a race with an odd story to it.  The show was advertised as a 75-lap event. The drivers refused to come out on the track.  They went to the promoter and said they wanted either the show to be cut to 50-laps or race 75-laps and increase the purse.  The promoter decided to go with a 50-lap race instead. One other show was held at the end of the year at National.  Roadster racing was big in the Philadelphia suburbs and the hot rods staged one race at National.  Tony Saylor won that feature.

The 1941 racing season began as the war was going on in Europe.  Yellow Jacket would run on Monday night with the ARDC Midgets.  At National they were going with two nights of racing.  Staging shows on Wednesday and Saturday, AAA was back as the sanctioning body.

At National it appeared that 1941 would be the George Fonder - Charlie Miller show.  They dominated the racing action for most of the season. George Fonder started the season with three straight victories.  Charlie Miller would pick up his first but one week later it was Fonder winning number four.  Charlie Miller would follow that up with win two. 

The fans at National would get a two-week break from the Fonder  - Miller show.  Dave Randolph would captured a win and the next week it was Joe Garson in victory lane.  The next nine shows would belong to Miller and Fonder. Fonder won andMiller won the next week.  Fonder came back and captured a 100-lap affair with Miller winning the following week.  George Fonder was back with two in-a-row before Miller duplicated that feat with two straight of his own.  George Fonder stopped Miller's two-race streak with another win.

Over at Yellow Jacket that racing was wide-open.  The first repeat winner would come in week five.  The first four shows were won by Harry Felton, Henry Banks, Bill Holmes and Johnny Swier.  Henry Banks would become the first repeat winner of the year.  Ernie Gessell would take his first of the season one week later.  That win would come in a 100-lap main.

Mike Josephs would capture two straight and that was followed by two in-a-row for Ted Tappett.  The next week National staged twin features for the midgets.  Feature number one went to Bill Schindler.  The second main went to Henry Banks.

National closed out the year with some new faces in victory lane.  Johnny Pierson the next two shows with Lloyd Christopher doing the same with two straight.  Shorty McAndrews would win his only National main the next week. The last four features found a known face in victory lane.  George Fonder would win three of the four.  The other driver to win during this four-race period would be Dave Randolph.

At Yellow Jacket it was Ted Tappett becoming the driver to beat.  He won his third of the year before pulling off a big win one week later.  That show would be twin features.  Ted Tappett won the first show and came back to win the second one.  Down to the final four shows, Henry Banks would win two. Bill Schindler would have a single win and Ernie Gessell closed out the 1941 season with a win in a 100-lap event.

1942 came with the clouds of war hanging over racing.  While many of the big car tracks closed due to a shortage of fuel, midget racing continued on. Many of the midget tracks had stockpiled fuel and were going to race as long as the fuel held out.  Yellow Jacket would run on Monday nights while Jack Kochman had National racing on Saturdays.

Dutch Schaeffer won the first race at Yellow Jacket.  Len Duncan, Mike Joseph, Dave Randolph and Ray Nestor won the next four features.  As the government decided to shut down racing on the east coast, Yellow Jacket ended the short 1942 year with a big show featuring ARDC versus AAA in Twin 50-lap features.  Dave Randolph won the first 50 lapper and Len Duncan took the second main.

At National George Fonder picked up where he left off the year before by taking the first feature.  Doc Shanebrook, Jeep Colkitt, Johnny Jars and Johnny Pierson won the next four.  Charlie Breslin was the driver to beat as he won three of the next four.  George Fonder had the single win during that four-race span.  Racing at National came to an end as Johnny Pierson won a 100-lap main.

The 100-lap feature would be the final event held at National.  Following the war racing returned to Yellow Jacket Speedway and would stay at the Frankford track until the end of the 1950 season.  1949 would find the midgets being fazed out at Yellow Jacket and the stock cars became the main division. In 1951 a new Yellow Jacket Speedway would be built on the front side of the famed Langhorne oval. 

It should be pointed out that during this span of time another midget race was held in the city of Philadelphia.  At St. Joseph's College a AAA midget race was held.  Two were scheduled with the first falling to the weather.  The second was won by Jim McCarron.  The race was held on the 1/4-mile cinder track at the St Joseph College stadium.  There was an odd twist to this race.  According to an advertisement and an article I found on the race, this event was open only to those drivers that had some type of "higher education." 

- Steve Bubb

Be sure to check out Steve Bubb's weekly column in Area Auto Racing News

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Last Updated: 01/26/2009 10:46 PM