Introduction to Midget Car Racing

Exciting, nimble, and a bit risky – that’s the essence of midget car racing. Midget cars, closely related to sprint cars, have been a beloved fixture on dirt tracks nationwide for ages. Yet, despite their rich history, these compact powerhouses remain a mystery to many. So, what exactly is a midget car, and how did they zoom into the racing world? Let’s dive in!

What is a Midget Car?

Tony Stewart at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals

A midget car is the heart of midget car racing, as they are designed and engineered for speed, agility, and performance on short tracks. They emerged during the Great Depression, offering an accessible and more affordable form of racing when economic hardships limited people’s ability to buy full-sized cars.

A typical midget car is small, with a significantly shorter wheelbase and lower weight compared to most other racing vehicles. The design is minimalist: an open-wheel car with a basic chassis and a small cockpit large enough to accommodate the driver. Here are its specs:

  • Size and weight: Midget cars typically have a wheelbase of about 66 to 76 inches and weigh around 900 to 1000 pounds, including the driver. This is significantly less than most racing cars, contributing to their nimbleness and speed on short tracks.
  • Engine: At first glance, midget cars might remind you of go-karts due to their small size and tight wheelbase, weighing in at about 900 lbs. But don’t be fooled; these little vehicles pack a punch with engines that churn out 300-400 horsepower – far more than your average go-kart. These midget cars boast powerful 4-cylinder engines and a direct drive system. They often feature a quick-change differential setup in the rear, like the popular Winters unit.
  • Speed and acceleration: These cars can reach speeds of up to 100 mph or more on short tracks, with acceleration being a key feature. Their ability to go from zero to top speed in a few seconds is unparalleled in many other forms of car racing. This is why midget car racing is thrilling and literally fast and furious.
  • Suspension and Tires: The suspension in midget cars is simpler than in more complex racing machines. They are equipped with coil-over shocks, allowing quick adjustments to suit track conditions. The tires are wider and have a larger contact area to provide better grip during high-speed turns.
  • Fuel: Midget cars typically run on methanol, which has a higher octane rating than gasoline. This choice of fuel contributes to the car’s performance and is a distinguishing factor from many other racing categories.

History of Midget Car Racing

European Auto Speedway Championship

Early Days

Midget car racing traces its roots back to the United States in the 1930s. The first official midget car race took place on June 4, 1933, at the Loyola High School stadium in Los Angeles. This initial race marked the start of what would become a thrilling and widespread sport.

In this sport, the midget car is the star: a small yet powerful single-seater vehicle, typically weighing about 700 pounds with a wheelbase between 65 and 75 inches. This compact design and high power made them incredibly fast but also somewhat dangerous, prone to rolling over. 

In the early days, many drivers custom-built their cars using various engines, including Harley and Indian V-twins and the popular Ford V-8/60. These cars had solid axles at both ends, and the front engine powered the rear wheels through an in-and-out box. Starting a midget car was a unique process, often requiring it to be pushed or towed around the track to get the engine running. Over time, safety improvements like roll bars were added.

By August 1934, midget car races were being held at Hinchliffe Stadium, attracting notable racers like Ted Horn, Bill Schindler, Roscoe “Pappy” Hough, and Rex Records. Hinchliffe wasn’t just a venue for midget car racing; it hosted various motorsports from its inception, thanks largely to Ed Otto. He, along with his partner John Kochman, paid $150 a night to rent the stadium for races.

Formation of Organizing Bodies

Midget car racing quickly turned into a regular weekly event, starting from August 10, 1933, under the oversight of the Midget Auto Racing Association (MARA), the sport’s first official governing body.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) Contest Board began to officially approve midget races nationwide in 1935, despite some pushback from independent racers and tracks. When the AAA stopped sanctioning races in 1955, the United States Auto Club stepped in to become the leading authority for midget car racing in the U.S. Also, NASCAR had its own midget racing division from 1952 to 1968.

Rise in Popularity in the US and Australia

These races weren’t just limited to Los Angeles; they rapidly spread across the United States and even went international, reaching Australia by December 1934 at Melbourne’s Olympic Park and New Zealand in 1937. Initially, midget car races took place on board tracks, commonly used for bicycle racing, but later moved to purpose-built speedways like the Gilmore Stadium. This shift led to a proliferation of tracks across the US, with Angell Park Speedway in Wisconsin being a notable example.

By the late 1930s, midget car racing had become a staple in major markets like Boston and Indianapolis, with drivers racing up to eight times a week. Three to five races a week were standard, even in less prominent regions. Connecticut, for example, had 31 oval tracks dedicated to the sport, though only four remain today. Midget racing became a widespread and affordable pastime across America, with fans regularly flocking to see their favorite drivers in action.

What made midget car racing popular is not just the thrill it offers but also its accessibility to drivers. It offered real competition, with many drivers building their own cars. The sport’s versatility shone through as races took place on a variety of tracks, from dog tracks and baseball fields to fairgrounds and even indoor venues. Tracks varied in size and surface, ranging from quarter-mile lengths to larger ovals and materials like dirt, blacktop, concrete, and board tracks like New Jersey’s Nutley Velodrome.

During this time, midget car racing, or more popularly known in Australia as “speedcar racing,” quickly gained traction in the Land Down Under, with its first championship held in Melbourne in 1935. This sport enjoyed widespread popularity, especially during its ‘golden era’ in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Australian promoters, including Kym Bonython of Adelaide’s Rowley Park Speedway and Empire Speedways, who managed the Brisbane Exhibition Ground and Sydney Showground Speedway, frequently brought in U.S. drivers like the well-known Jimmy Davies. 

During this time, events were often billed as “world speedcar championships” or “world speedcar derbies.” Speedcars were a major draw in Australian speedway, attracting up to 30,000 fans in Sydney and over 10,000 in Adelaide and Brisbane.

Post-War Boom

The sport’s popularity continued to soar after World War II. Veterans returning from the war, equipped with mechanical skills and a desire for adrenaline-filled activities, found a perfect outlet in midget car racing.

During this era, drivers became local heroes, often known by catchy nicknames like “Moneybags Moe” Gherzi and “The Iron Duke” Nalon. The competition intensified, especially with the advent of the Kurtis-Kraft midget paired with the powerful Offenhauser twin-cam four-cylinder engine. This combination dominated the tracks, offering up to 110 horsepower compared to Ford engines’ 60-80 horsepower. Although this increase in power raised the cost of competitive racing, it also helped launch many drivers to more prominent racing series.

Decline in the 50s and 60s

However, the 1950s and 60s saw a gradual decline in midget racing’s appeal. The growing popularity of jalopy racing and the widespread adoption of television in homes diverted public interest. Although there were still fast Kurtis-Offy midgets drawing crowds, the number of venues and races started to dwindle.

Midget Car Racing Today

Speedcar racing remains a popular sport in Australia, with major events like the Australian Championship and the Australian Speedcar Grand Prix, which started in 1938. The Speedcar Super Series, along with various state championships, draws large crowds, often around 10,000 people.

In December 2013, the POWRi Midget Racing introduced a 16-event Lucas Oil POWRi Midget World Championship, which lasted until June 2014. This championship saw drivers compete in New Zealand and Australia at the start of the 2013–14 season, finishing in the United States.

In the Northeast of the United States, midget car racing also saw a rise in popularity, thanks in part to racers like Bill Schindler and events at venues such as Hinchcliffe Stadium.

Even if it’s not as popular as before, midget car racing still holds a special place in American culture, attracting both hobbyists looking for an exhilarating weekend activity and those who pursue it as a professional career. With events like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosting a two-night USAC event on a track built inside the infield for NASCAR week, it’s clear that midget car racing will continue to be a cherished and enduring sport.

Safety Developments for Midget Cars

The midget cars of today, with their advanced safety features and performance enhancements, are a far cry from their early counterparts. The original midget cars were more like patchwork creations, assembled from various parts, like discarded motorcycle engines, outboard motors, and even old car engines. Because of this, these cars can be risky to drive. Essentially, the racers competed on tracks about a fifth of a mile long, often reaching speeds of 60 mph, sliding around sharp turns while kicking up dust and roaring with their makeshift engines.

The races were often held on improvised wooden plank tracks, sometimes just fifteen feet away from the audience. Cheap to build but costly to maintain and unsafe, these tracks led to serious accidents. Safety measures were basic, making the standby ambulance a frequent necessity. Despite the dangers, midget car racing quickly became hugely popular, consistently attracting large crowds of enthusiastic fans. But with the media dubbing them “murderdromes” and the growing popularity of dirt track racing, the dangerous wooden tracks fell out of favor.

Nowadays, midget car races mostly take place on dirt tracks, though asphalt tracks are also used. The races are short, typically around 40 miles in total, on tracks ranging from a quarter to a half-mile in length. Given the small size of these cars, it’s no wonder they’re not found on larger tracks.

Other recent advancements in safety in midget racing include:

  • Roll cages – The design and materials of roll cages have improved to provide maximum protection while minimizing weight.
  • Advanced fire suppression systems – Newer fire suppression systems are more effective and quicker to activate, providing better protection for drivers in the event of a fire.
  • Data acquisition systems – Some midget cars are now equipped with data acquisition systems that monitor various parameters of the car and driver.
  • Crash data analysis – In midget car racing, the use of crash data analysis is now popular. This involves studying crash incidents to understand dynamics and improve car designs and safety gear accordingly.
  • Enhanced driver suits and safety gear – Driver suits and safety gear are also improved. In terms of materials and design, it offers better fire protection and comfort without compromising mobility.
  • Safety training and education – Unlike in its early days when anybody could join, midget car racing today requires safety training. Drivers and teams are receiving better training and education regarding safety protocols and emergency response.

The Unique Challenges and Skills Required for Midget Car Racing

Midget car racing poses a unique set of challenges that require a distinct set of skills from drivers. The compact and lightweight nature of the cars, combined with their powerful engines, means that handling and control are paramount. Drivers must possess exceptional reflexes, precision, and an ability to read the track and their competitors quickly.

The short tracks and close competition require drivers to be aggressive yet calculated in their overtaking and defensive maneuvers. There’s little room for error; races are often won or lost on split-second decisions. Drivers must also be adept at adapting to varying track conditions, as dirt and paved tracks can change significantly throughout an event.

With different-sized tires, various shocks, and a chassis full of adjustable elements, midget cars are surprisingly technical. The power-to-weight ratio is crucial, so drivers need a deep understanding of every aspect of the car. Imagine 400 hp propelling a 900 lb car – it’s a combination that demands complete mastery and adds to the thrill of the sport.

Additionally, the physical demands of midget car racing are intense. Drivers must maintain control of a high-powered vehicle while enduring significant G-forces, all within the confined space of a small cockpit. This requires not only physical stamina but also mental toughness. Check out the legendary drivers in the history of midget car racing.

The Impact of Midget Car Racing on the World

Midget car racing has evolved significantly from its early days with the Midget Auto Racing Association (MARA), growing from just eight cars and drivers to multiple associations in the US. Prominent groups like the American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC), the United Midget Racing Association (UMRA), and the main governing body, the United States Auto Club (USAC), now steer the sport.

Interestingly, many of today’s NASCAR stars, including Tony Stewart, Terry Goff, Tate Martz, and Jeff Gordon, began their careers in midget racing. Even racing legend Mario Andretti was a midget car racer in the early 1960s! Despite their diminutive size, midget cars have made a substantial mark in the racing world.

Midget Car Race Events Around the World

While most popular in the United States, midget car racing has notable events around the world. Here are some of the most significant midget car race events around the world:

United States

  • Chili Bowl Nationals (Tulsa Expo Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma): This is one of the most prestigious midget car racing events in the world, attracting top drivers from various racing disciplines.
  • Turkey Night Grand Prix (Irwindale Speedway, California): This is a traditional event dating back to 1934 that is known for featuring some of the best midget car racers.
  • Fireman Nationals (Angell Park Speedway, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin): A prestigious event in the United States, known for its competitive field and rich tradition in midget car racing.
  • Four Crown Nationals (Eldora Speedway, Allen Township, Ohio): This event features multiple forms of sprint and midget car racing, making it a highlight for fans of various types of short-track racing.
  • Hut Hundred (Terre Haute Action Track, Terre Haute, Indiana): A historic race that has been a staple in American midget car racing, known for its challenging 100-lap format.
  • The Rumble in Fort Wayne (Allen County War Memorial Coliseum Expo Center, Fort Wayne, Indiana): A unique indoor midget racing event, offering a different racing experience for both drivers and fans.

Australia

  • Australian Speedcar Championship (Rotates on various tracks throughout Australia): This is a major midget car racing event in Australia, showcasing top Australian and international drivers.
  • Australian Speedcar Grand Prix (Rotates between tracks throughout eastern Australia): This is one of Australia’s most prestigious midget car racing events, and is known for attracting top Australian and international drivers.
  • Magic Man 34 (Perth Motorplex Speedway, Kwinana Beach, Western Australia): A race held in memory of Michael Figliomeni, known as the “Magic Man,” celebrating his contribution to the sport.
  • Grand Annual Sprintcar Classic (Premier Speedway, Warrnambool, Victoria): Although primarily a sprint car event, it often features midget car races.

New Zealand

  • New Zealand Midget Car Championship (Rotates on various tracks throughout New Zealand): A significant event in the New Zealand racing calendar, attracting a mix of local and international drivers.
  • World 50-lap Classic (Western Springs Stadium, Auckland): A popular race known for its challenging 50-lap format.

United Kingdom

  • Brisca F2 Stock Cars (Rotates on various tracks throughout United Kingdom): In the UK, midget car racing takes a slightly different form with stock car racing. The Brisca F2 events are among the most popular.

Japan

  • Suzuka Midget Car Racing (Suzuka Circuit, Suzuka, Japan): This event showcases midget racing in an Asian context, blending local and international racing styles.