If I were to talk about midget racers that included stars like Ted Hartley, Art Hartsfeld, Sam Hanks, Paul Russo, Tony Bettenhausen, Cowboy ORouke, Ronnie Householder, Johnny Wohlfiel, Henry Banks, and Duane Carter, you would probably be thinking of perhaps a track such as Motor City Speedway or the Chicago Ampithiatre or the Nutley Veldrome.
Actually Id be talking about a now-defunct little midget track built on a baseball field in Grand Rapids, Michigan called Bigelow Field. You say that you never heard of it? That doesnt surprise me. Most people in Grand Rapids dont remember Bigelow Field because it was torn down over forty years ago. The track sat on the northwest corner of 39th street and South Division. A McDonalds and a Laundromat are now sitting on that corner.
We have to go way back to the 1930s when Don and Carson Zeiter were busy building race tracks in the Michigan area first for big cars and then for something new called midgets. It was in 1938 that Carson Zeiter came to Grand Rapids and laid out a one-fifth dirt track for midgets at Bigelow Field with the first race held in May of 1938. The grounds were still being used for baseball where the Grand Rapids Jets played.
The Zeiter promotion ran through the season of 1939. Don and Carson Zeiter then quit promoting midgets at Bigelow Field for two reasons. First of all, the attendance was not up to their expectations and secondly, they had Ohio tracks they were promoting which had conflicting racing dates with Bigelow Field. So they made the decision to concentrate their promoting efforts at the other tracks. 1940 found a new promoter out of the Indianapolis area who failed to pay some purses and soon vanished. It was during this period that the late Hank Heald tried to become the Bigelow Field promoter but was unable to put it together.
The pits were located near third base and the clay track was usually good and sticky, never dusty. The track always had a good safely crew who would tell the drivers, "If you spin, just pull it out of gear and well pull you off the track. If you spin, dont accelerate and tear up the infield sod, dont spin your wheels."
Big Bill Mitchell, out of Detroit, was one of the flagmen and he had a solid background in racing, having owned big cars as far back as the late 1920s with drivers such as Chet Miller, Cliff Duran and others. Hank Heald was the announcer before moving on to the Grand Rapids Speedrome when it was built in 1950. Charley Herman announced from 1951 till the closing in 1953.
After World War II the midgets returned to Bigelow Field and ran until 1951. The midgets returned again in 1953, until the grandstands burned. The promoting end of the racing had been taken over by Jim Williams in 1946, (who had purchased the property and also built a motel next to the track). The Great Lakes Racing Association was sanctioning the races.
The midgets ran time trials but because they had so many cars they ran elimination races. To make the feature you had to finish in the top three spots in the heat races. Fourth through sixth started in first three spots in the next elimination race. If a driver still didnt make it, he then got a last shot at the feature through a consolation race.
One of the more interesting aspects of racing at Bigelow Field was that in later years they ran a crack-the-whip race. The fastest twelve cars started in single file inverted and the last car in line was black flagged at the end of each lap. This lasted until one night Ray St. Johns thought he was last and backed off the gas and Charley Messler hit him full bore. Nobody was hurt, but both cars were badly tore up. That was the end of the crack-the-whip.
Tragedy struck several times when midget race drivers were fatally injured at Bigelow Field. Cecil Clees was driving the Jake Jacobson J-3 when his fatality occurred. Ralph Reel lost his life during qualifying one night. Reel had just bought his first Offy engine from Johnny Pawl. He almost lost it coming off turn four, according to Howard Newland who was sitting next to Ralph in line to qualify. Howard tells it this way. "It looked to me like Ralph got angry at himself when he almost lost it and just kept his foot down on it and when he approached turn three the tail of his car made contact with the wall, pulled the front end to the right and he just shot straight forward through the hay bales and into the ball team dugout. The dugout roof fell and caught him in the throat and the rest is history."
Big Bill Spears had a close call once when coming out of turn four. He was crossed up and broke loose. Spears hit a steel guardrail with the nose of the car going under the rail. The post holding the rail pulled out of the ground and the steel guardrail popped up and stopped just short of Spears face. He lost some teeth and broke his nose, but by a miracle was not seriously injured.
Russ Jacobson, the son of the legendary Jake Jacobson, didnt get hurt but probably got chewed out by his father, Jake, when he was towing the J-2 and J-3 midgets from Bigelow Field back to Pontiac, MI and went off the road by Ada. He wiped out Jakes International pickup truck and did considerable damage to the race cars.
Not all accidents ended up badly. Ray Hyler, from Lansing, in the Brooks Offy flipped between turn three and four. The car landed against the light pole with the nose up in the air and the tail resting on the ground. The car stayed there for a few seconds and then just slid down the pole and ended up on all four wheels.
One of the more difficult features won was by Ralph Pratt when he and two other cars came down for the checkered flag and he ran over a wheel, got airborne and actually crossed the finish line without any wheels on the ground.
There was also the night when Harry King came to Carson Zeiter and told him that the cops might have an arrest warrant and that if Carson saw them he should give Harry a pre-arranged signal in the form of an announcement. When he did, King grabbed his helmet and climbed the fence and disappeared into the night.
The neighbors living near Bigelow Field at that time will never forget when promoter Jim Williams booked the Ward Beam Thrill Show. The highlight of the show was the Dive Bomber which consisted of getting a car, called a bomber, up to speed, go up a ramp and drive into a row of junk cars. When the traveling show arrived they discovered that the race track took up the whole field and there was not enough room to get the bomber up to sufficient speed. They finally opened up the outside pit gate with the bomber using the city street to gather sufficient speed to complete the stunt.
Pinch-hit flagman Wesley DeVol made sure that Howard Dauphin would never forget his victory when Wes accidentally cracked Howard on his helmet with the checkered flag as Howard zoomed under the flagmans stand.
Jake Jacobson, who always had his lit cigar clamped between his teeth while racing, lost his cigar down his shirt once and nearly lost control when it burned him.
Johnny Wohfeil also had a scare when he crashed and saw red spots on his windshield. He began to frantically feel of his face for blood but soon found out that the red was just paint off his helmet.
Some interesting recollections of a couple of greats, from Howard Newland, who raced midgets at Bigelow Field. "Ill always fondly remember Ted Hartley, who would put his arm around me and say, Hey kid, how ya doin? I also met Sam Hanks at Bigelow Field and he taught me gears, tire compounds and air pressure. He was Mr. Nice Guy! He always treated people, including drivers, great. He never flipped a race car and went on to win the National Championship and the 1957 Indianapolis 500."
Newland continued, "The outboards had a loud scream. Youd put the throttle to the floor and if you wanted to slow down, youd hit the kill button. Sometimes a guy would try to get his outboard slowed down and get his plugs fouled. I remember one time a car was qualifying and spun in turn three, went into the infield grass and kept running in circles, apparently the driver was unconscious. Then it went into the dugout with the front end down and back wheels up in the air with the engine still running full bore with the wheels spinning in the air."
Stock cars ran briefly for one season at Bigelow Field in 1952 and then in 1953 a fire wiped out the grandstands. Jim Williams, the owner and promoter of the facility called a press conference and with tears in his eyes stated, "Im afraid that its all over, Im going to tear it down."
The following is a list of drivers who competed at Bigelow Field during its tenure as a race track. Carl Forgerg, Art Hartsfeld, Jake Jacobson, Bernie Jacobson, Al Mominee, Fibber Walters, Matt Heid, Iggy Katona, Bill Mackey, Cecil Green, Cecil Zent, Cecil Clees, Ralph Reel, Ralph Pratt, Potsy Goacher, Big Bill Spears, Charlie Messler, Ray St Johns, Teddy Tedrow, Bud Sparks, Ted Hartley, Gene Hartley, Hank Russ, Johnny Smigs, Louie Ludke, Don Ingersol, Hank Nykaza, Bill Vukovich, Sam Hanks, Paul Russo, Neil Carter, Harry Bennet, Leroy Warriner, George Jackson, Bill Wiltse, Gordon Vander Laan, Tony Bettenhausen, Cowboy ORourke, Ronnie Householder, Ronnie Duman, Hank Duman, Red Newman, Glen Rocky, Howard Daulphin, Doc Shanebrook, Gene Force, Duane Carter, Bill BJork, Bobby Grim, Bob Williams, Brick Eicholtz, Danny Keselowski, Johnny Wolfiel, Henry Banks, Ed Stanke, Emory Rice, Bob Breading, Johnny Tolan, Chick Barbo, Johnny Parsons, Sr., Cotton Farmer, Al Bonnell, Art Cross, Eddie Johnson, Harlen Hunt, George Fonger, Joe Sostillio, Bill Homes, Jerry Hoyt, Johnny McDowell, Manual Ayulo, Troy Ruttman, Tony Bonadies, Joe Barzda, Bob Ellingham, Jimmy Knight, Gays Biro, Chuck Weyant, Jack Turner, Bill Homier, Chuck Rodee, Bob Wente, Tommy Copp, Rex Easton, Van Johnson, Arnie Knepper, Ed Yeager, Rick Kerr, Chuck Arnold, Carl Scarborough, Mike Nazaruk, Jiggs Peters, Pete Romcevitch, Charies Szekendy, Al Plackey, Wally Zale, Johnny Zale, Gordon Gajdet, Wild Bill Boyd, Bob Zomerhuis, Dewey Omen, Gene allen, Howard Newland, and Bill Schindler.