By Forest Smith
Gaining popularity in the 1930s until around 1941 when the United States entered World War II, America was experiencing a new wave of exciting entertainment. Racing. From drag races to motorcycle stunts, these events brought people from far and wide to witness the gas-powered automobile in action. Out of all the ways to race the most far-reaching and easily accessible was the midget races. Motor Sports Magazine reported in 1938 that midget racing garnered an audience of over 5 million Americans around the country during the 1937 season. Contrary to their name, no little people participated in the event. It was the cars that were the midgets.
Midget cars were small buggies with open cockpits, exposed thin wheels, and powerful engines. (Hall, p. 249) Popular Science Monthly reported in May 1938 that many of the engines came from motorcycles, outboard boat motors, and ancient vehicles. These smaller cars ran on oval-shaped tracks a mere fifth of a mile long. This allowed the sensation to spread across the country as fast as tracks could be made; some were even indoors. The small oval arenas were made of dirt, cinder, or pavement and due to their size, forced the drivers to skid around the corners for most of the race. Motorsports Magazine reported in 1938 that a wooden bowl had been constructed in the Boston Square Garden. This wooden track proved hard to navigate even among master drivers.
The small buggies—affectionately named doodlebugs by fans—could reach speeds up to 60 mph on the straightaways. These little carts were dangerous and required both bravery and skill to pilot. Injuries were common among the racers as they would take the brunt of any rollover impact directly to their head and shoulders. As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune in 1941, Charles R. Winters, 22, died as a result of a tragic incident at the Utah State Fairground track. He lost control of his midget car and flew into a railing, sustaining fatal injuries. On August 14, 1941, the Tribune reported more injuries: Tex Sherwood sustained severe burns after his car caught fire and Mike Julian miraculously escaped injury-free after a crash that caused his car to roll five times and jump a fence.
Midget auto races were held in a flurry of heats, with as many as 30 cars participating in a single evening. Popular Science Monthly reported in 1934 that the events ranged from single-lap qualifiers to a 30-lap main event. The show would take place a mere 300 feet from the audience, creating an unprecedented connection between the onlookers and the racers. Motorsports Magazine interviewed a fan in 1938 who said, “I feel as though I’ve been racing with those fellows.”
Old footage really shows how exciting this sport can be. You feel very close to the action and can see the drivers wrestling with each other and their vehicles. It is no wonder that the sport spread around the country as fast as it did.
But midget racing was short-lived in the U.S. as big stock cars stole the spotlight from the petite midget cars after World War II. (However, midget racing remains popular in Australia to this day.) The Bonneville Salt Flats just outside of Salt Lake City became an epicenter for young speedsters to race their inventions. Some of the cars used on the Salt Flats take obvious influence from the midget cars that used to run the show.
Forest Smith is a senior at the University of Utah majoring in mass communication with a focus in journalism.
“Race Driver’s Final Rites Set for Friday,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 9, 1941, 1.
Jack Peters, “The History of Midget Auto-Racing in America,” Motorsports Magazine, September 1936, 29.
“Midget Auto Racing in America,” Motorsports Magazine, February 1938, 34.
Andrew R. Boone, “Racing Midget Autos,” Popular Science Monthly, May 1934, 26-28.
Advertisement, Midget Racing, Utah Chronicle, May 16, 1940, 4.
“Adair Drives to Stirring Auto Victory,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 17, 1941, 13.
“Tex Sherwood Returns to Midget Races,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 15, 1941, 21.
Hall, Randal L. “Carnival of Speed: The Auto Racing Business in the Emerging South, 1930-1950,” The North Carolina Historical Review 84, no. 3 (July 2007): 245-75.