Remembering Gene Marmor

Remembering Gene Marmor

by Stan Kalwasinski

Gene Marmor was one of the best in Chicago area stock car racing – his record speaks for itself.  Marmor passed away on November 23 at the age of 87.

Born in Chicago on March 12, 1930, Marmor attended high school at Lane Tech on Chicago’s northwest side.  Into cars, Marmor had his own car by the age of 17 and was into hot rod racing soon after.  No. 6 7/8 was on the side of Marmor’s car for the 1947 hot rod racing at Soldier Field.  The season consisted of three hot rod racing programs during the summer amongst a heavy schedule of weekly midget auto racing at the huge sports arena on the shores of Lake Michigan.

“It was a ’32 Ford frame with a ’47 Ford engine that was hopped up,” recalled Marmor many years later about his first race car.  “It was a ’30 (Ford) Model A body that the roof was cut off.”

In a 1948 Soldier Field program, Marmor was listed among the hot rod competitors for the Wednesday night races, driving car no. 6.  The hot rod events were officiated by Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Association.  By 1949, stock cars joined the midgets and hot rods on Solider Field schedule with the stock cars becoming the most popular draw

In 1950, Marmor’s name began popping up in the race result stories from Soldier Field.   Marmor finished fourth in the 25-lap stock car feature race at Soldier Field on July 1, 1950 behind race winner, Jim Rathmann, who would go on to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1960.  Late in the 1950 season, Marmor set a new track record for 12 laps, circling the Soldier Field flat quarter-mile pavement in 4:21.19 minutes.  A third place finish in a 25-lap feature race on July 22, 1950 was one of Marmor’s best efforts during the season.

Those early stock car battles at Soldier Field, under the watchful eye of Granatelli and his Hurricane Racing officials , were full of competition with the likes of Rathmann, another future ‘500’ winner (1956) – Pat Flaherty, Gil “Skippy” Michaels, Willie Sternquist, Lou Fegers, Herman Jordan and Tom Pistone, among the drivers in action.

1951 saw Marmor turn in a second place finish behind winner Jordan on August 1 before over 22,000 fans.  Marmor had led the first 16 laps.  A fifth place finish on June 20 was another good run for Marmor, who also won a heat race and the “backup” race that evening.  Marmor posted a feature victory at the Rockford Speedway in a four-door  ’51 Ford in July of 1951.  Soldier Field, Rockford and Milwaukee’s quarter-mile dirt track at the fairgrounds were the weekly stops for Granatelli’s Hurricane group.

Wheeling a ’52 Buick, Marmor claimed his first stock feature race victory at Soldier Field on July 19, 1952.  The Chicago Tribune reported…Gene Marmor captures race on Lake Front.  “Gene Marmor of Chicago, who last week lost out by half a car length to Tom Pistone in a Soldier Field stock car race, last night turned the tables on Pistone, beating him by about the same margin and capturing the feature event in 8:30.94 for his first major victory of the season.  The triumph snapped Pistone’s string of four straight victories.  Third place in the 28 car field went to Skippy Michaels of Cicero.  Bill Moore of Mundelein was fourth, Lou Fegers of Glenview fifth.  Attendance was 19,334.”

Marmor turned in several other “top three” feature finishes during the campaign, including finishing second in the track’s Season Championship 50-lap finale on September 27.  Michaels would claim overall track championship honors that season.

In 1953, Marmor started the season off with a bang at Soldier Field as he won the track’s annual Chicago Park District Police Benevolent race on Sunday afternoon, May 10.  The opening race program of the season saw Marmor and his 1952 Buick No. 14 defeat Larry Odo and Pistone in the 25-lap headliner before a reported crowd of 38,078.  Marmor passed Odo for the lead on lap 20.  Art Kelly handled the flagging duties that afternoon with Chuck Teeple doing the announcing.  Chicago area television personality Kay Westfall presented Marmor the winner’s trophy.

The May 13, 1953 issue of National Speed Sport News carried the headline “Gene Marmor’s Buick 1st In Soldier Field Opener.”

Later in the year, Marmor shared twin 20-lap feature honors with fellow Chicago racer Kenny Netzel on Sunday night, August 30.  A few nights later, September 2, Marmor was again a feature winner, this time sharing twin 20-lap honors with Pistone during the final Wednesday night racing card of the season.  Newcomer Fred Lorenzen was the winner of the amateur race that evening.  Pistone would claim track championship honors, his first of three in a row.

Marmor was a feature winner at Soldier Field on June 6, 1954.  The Chicago Tribune reported, “Gene Marmor of Chicago led for the final three laps to win the feature stock car event at Soldier Field last night, as 10,192 watched the program.  Marmor was clocked at 5:55.93 in the 20-lap race.  Ken Paulsen of Stone Park, Ill., was second, and Lou Fegers of Glenview was third.  The lead changed hands five times.  Marmor and Larry Odo of Chicago scored triumphs in the heat races.”

Late model stock car racing was going to be introduced to Chicago race fans at Soldier Field and at Chicago’s 87th Street Speedway in 1955.  Andy Granatelli would again be handling the promotional chores at both tracks under the new title of the Chicago Auto Racing Association.

In a “fresh” 1955 Chevrolet No. 55, Marmor won the season-opening Park District Police Benevolent 50-lap race at Soldier Field on May 28, 1955 for his second career victory in one of the area’s biggest races.  A crowd of more than 60,000 were reported to be on hand.  Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Chicago TV personality Lee Phillip presented Marmor the winner’s trophy.

Marmor won again on August 27 at Soldier Field and finished third in the track’s 100-lap Season Championship race on September 3 behind winner Odo and runner-up Pistone.  Pistone would claim his third straight Soldier Field driving title.  Marmor won back-to-back feature races at 87th Street Speedway on June 21 and June 28.  Pistone would be named the speedway’s track champion for the ’55 season.

In the shadows of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the new O’Hare Stadium opened for the first time on June 17, 1956.  Located just southwest of the intersection of Mannheim and Irving Park Road, the high-banked quarter mile paved speed plant would host racing through 1968.

At the age of 26, Marmor would claim his first stock car track championship in 1956, taking top honors at O’Hare ahead of Tom Cox and Fred Lorenzen in the final points rundown.  One of Marmor’s O’Hare Stadium victories would a 25-lap victory on September 23 as Marmor set a track record for the distance of 7:04.11 minutes.

Soldier Field action would see Marmor among the top competitors during the season that saw NASCAR sanction the racing.  Marmor would win the track’s 100-lap Season Championship race over Lorenzen, who would take the overall track championship honors at the “Field.”

Marmor again was the track champion at O’Hare Stadium in 1957.  Marmor and his ’56 Chevy No. 5 won a total of 13 feature races and defeated Tom Cox and Ken Paulsen in the final standings.  In July, Marmor moved ahead of Cox into the points lead at O’Hare.  Winning the 50-lap Mid Season Championship and four consecutive feature races in August helped propel Marmor to the track title.

Running a limited schedule at Soldier Field, Marmor finished third behind winner Pistone and runner-up Bill Brown in the 50-lap Police Benevolent race on June 1, 1957.

Marmor finished second in the point standings at Soldier Field in 1958 behind Indiana’s Don Oldenberg, who claimed his second consecutive title.  Marmor won a 25-lap main event on July 5 ahead of Harry Simonsen and Red Swanberg.

Fred Lorenzen was the track champion at O’Hare Stadium in 1958, ending Marmor’s two years of dominance.  Marmor won a 100 lapper at O’Hare in late August and a season-ending 200-lap battle on October 1, finishing sixth in the standings at the end of the year.  Marmor would finish third the final points of the Chicago City Series that pitted drivers from O’Hare, Soldier Field and Raceway Park in a special three-race series with a special feature race at each track.  Louisville, Ky., native Bill Lutz was the “City Series” champion ahead of Lorenzen, who won the features at both O’Hare and Soldier Field.  Bill Van Allen won the series event at Raceway Park.

1959 saw Marmor win the 25-lap/80-mile Midwest Stock Car Championship race at the Meadowdale International Raceways in Carpentersville.  The 3.27-mile sports car road racing track opened the previous year and this special stock car event closed out the ’59 season on a cold, windy, Sunday afternoon – October 11.

Marmor wheeled his ’57 Chevy No. 5 to the victory, taking the checkered flag with a half-mile margin over Pistone, Don Odell, Fred Hoff and Roy Czach.  Henry Martin of the Chicago Tribune reported the cars being clocked at 115 miles an hour down the long straightaways.  Marmor covered the distance in one hour, two minutes and 40 seconds for an average speed of 78.260 miles an hour.  Earlier in the day, Marmor captured the trophy dash.  He took home the major share of the $5,700 in prize money.

Although not scoring a feature win, Marmor would finish second in the final point standings at O’Hare in 1959, trailing champion Bill Lutz in the final tally.  No racing took place at Soldier Field in 1959 as the arena was the site of the summer-long Pan American Games.  Sanctioned by Frank “Ham” Lobaza’s Short Track Auto Racers (STAR) association, a 100-lap feature at the Rockford Speedway on July 4, 1959 saw Marmor take the checkered flag ahead of Roy Martinelli, Whitey Gerken and Bud Koehler.

Unable to qualify in two previous attempts, Marmor made his first United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car appearance at the “Milwaukee Mile” on August 23, 1959.  Grabbing second fast time among a field of 40 or so entries in his ’57 Chevy, Marmor didn’t last too long as engine woes put him out after 37 laps.  He was credited with a 39th place finish.

The second Fair race at Milwaukee on August 27 was rained out after Marmor posted eighth fast time.  He came back and ran the “Milwaukee Mile” season finale on September 20, finishing 17th after starting seventh.

1960 saw Marmor competing in NASCAR Grand National competition, appearing at the Daytona International Speedway in February for the second annual Daytona 500 at the 2.5-mile “superspeedway.”  Marmor was behind the wheel of the Skinner Brothers-owned ’59 Pontiac No. 71.  Marmor finished eighth in the qualifying race after starting 30th.

On Valentine’s Day, Sunday afternoon, February 14, Marmor started 16th in the 200-lap/500-mile event and finished 29th, completing 184 laps.  He competed again at Martinsville, Va., on April 10, starting 28th and finishing 11th in the Skinner Brothers entry.  His final NASCAR appearance of his career occurred on June 19 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Again driving for Frank and Richard Skinner, Marmor started 25th and finished 49th in the inaugural World 600.  Marmor completed only 24 laps until engine problems sidelined him.

Marmor made several appearance in the Skinner Brothers-owned ’57 Pontiac at O’Hare in 1960.  He concentrated most of his efforts for the USAC stock car racing season at the one-mile paved Milwaukee oval.

Getting a brand new 1960 Chevy from Hoskins Chevrolet in Chicago, Marmor set fourth quick time for the 200 miler at Milwaukee on July 24.  He finished third, completing all 200 laps and collecting $2,201 for his efforts.  He competed in the August 21 200 lap battle, qualifying 19th fast, but coming back to finish fifth.

The final two races at Milwaukee were not too kind to Marmor as he was unable to finish either race.  Despite competing in only four races during the 1960 season, he would finish ninth in the final USAC standings at the end of the year.  Marmor competed in 12 USAC races in 1961 and finished 17th in the points.  Three sixth place finishes highlighted the year, including a sixth place run in his 1960 Ford No. 10 at Milwaukee on August 17.

Marmor gave his old ’60 Chevy to Whitey Gerken to drive at Milwaukee on September 17, 1961.  A longtime friend, Gerken, once part of Marmor’s pit crew, had wrecked his rapid ’61 Chevy at an earlier race at Milwaukee.  Putting Gerken’s “409” engine into Marmor’s older Chevy, Gerken would go on to win the 250 miler that Sunday afternoon.  After the race, a proud Marmor stood to the side as Gerken accepted the victor’s laurels.

Marmor fell to 41st in USAC points in 1962, making only six starts but turned in two fifth place finishes.  He competed at O’Hare and ended up seventh in the standings with no feature wins.  Marmor finished fifth in O’Hare’s first annual American 500 on August 11.

Always among contenders, Marmor nailed down another O’Hare Stadium late model crown in 1963 as the speedway invoked a “convertibles-only” late model rule.  Skip Barzano, Jim Lisner, John Whiteside and Richie Barz were among those who worked on Marmor’s No. 5 cars.  Barz would eventually work for Petty Enterprises in NASCAR competition.   Marmor guided his Gene Marmor Automotive-sponsored ’63 Chevy “ragtop” to 16 feature wins during the ’63 campaign, including the opening day 25-lap main event, a 100 lapper on June 15, another 100-lap battle on July 5 and a 200-lap win on August 31.   Erik Johnson and Bill Lutz finished behind Marmor in the points.

The action at O’Hare was full of competition and the racing sometimes got heated up.  Fierce rivalries developed between drivers with Marmor battling the likes of Erik Johnson and Roy Martinelli repeatedly.  Bumping and banging were part of the game and the 1963 season was no exception.  After one night of spinning and tangling, Marmor, along with Johnson and Martinelli, were barred for two weeks.

Early in the year, Marmor won a feature race at Soldier Field.  The 1963 local stock car racing season pretty much came to a close with the Mid-American 100-Mile Championship scheduled for the Meadowdale International Raceways for September 29.  Featuring a majority of O’Hare regulars, the event saw Marmor heading the entry list.

Getting tangled up with Bill Finley during early practice laps, Marmor’s No. 5 was badly wrecked with Marmor and his crew working furiously for several hours getting the car ready to go for the afternoon’s action.  Marmor battled with Chicago driver Rick Kleich in the trophy dash, but his Chevy fell to the wayside in the main event as Kleich won the race.

Marmor made several starts in USAC stock car action at Milwaukee in 1963, wheeling a ’61 Ford No. 49 to a 15th place finish on July 14.

Marmor put together a new ’64 Chevy convertible for the 1964 season at O’Hare Stadium with him scoring two feature victories and finishing sixth in the points.  Bill Lutz won the track championship in Marmor’s old ’63 Chevy convertible, which carried Lutz to 10 victories.  Marmor was chasing Lutz at the checkered flag as Lutz won the track’s third annual O’Hare American 500 on August 1, 1964.  With the 1964 racing season coming to a close, Marmor was ranked the all-time career winner at O’Hare with 140 wins, including 41 feature victories.

Marmor closed out the ’64 season by winning the second annual Forest City 200 at Rockford and taking twin feature wins at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville, Ind., in October.

Marmor pretty much moved his racing efforts to the Rockford Speedway in 1965, winning the track title at the high-banked, quarter-mile paved oval.  Marmor was a consistent feature winner during the season, battling with Bob Chapman and Whitey Gerken for the title.  Marmor won a 75 lapper on July 5 ahead of Chapman and Gerken.  He was on top of the standings by early August, trailed by Chapman, Gerken, Joe Shear and Danny Bellard.

Marmor clinched the Rockford title by winning the 200-lap Season Championship race in September.  Marmor was the front runner for 121 of the laps.  Starter Jack Heiman flagged Marmor the winner with Bill Lutz finishing second and Bellard third.  A big portion of a $20,000 point fund and a new car awaited Marmor.

The father of five and living in River Grove, Marmor wheeled his ’64 Chevy convertible, powered by a 427 cubic inch engine, again pretty much at Rockford in 1966.  Marmor won several feature races at Rockford during the season and was involved in a high speed crash on Memorial Day.  Marmor came right back and won on June 4, but did not win again a Rockford until September 9.

After his September 9 victory, Marmor said, “It kind of lifts a man’s spirits.  After a lot of crashes and bent fenders and twisted frames, when you win something it makes you feel better.”

Earlier in the year, Marmor would win a feature race at Soldier Field, which was being promoted by Bill Earnest of the Rockford Speedway.  His June 24 victory would put him into the season points lead.  However, Whitey Gerken would finish the season strong and win the title for the “short season” Friday night action.

Marmor made several starts in USAC competition in 1967, grabbing a ninth place finish at Illinois’ DuQuoin State Fairgrounds on September 3.  He was 12th in the 1968 USAC standings with a second and third place finishes to his credit.  He made 19 races in 1969 in his ’69 Chevelle GMX No. 50 and came home ninth in the final points tally.  A sixth place finish at Milwaukee on July 13 was a highlight of the year.

1970 was Marmor’s final full-time USAC season, competing in 11 races in his Chevelle No. 9 and finishing 25th in the points.  He finished fourth at the Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna, Wis., on June 5 for his best finish of the year.  In 1968, Marmor had won several “open competition” events at the Kaukauna oval.

Marmor competed in a few USAC stock car races in 1971 and 1972.  He came back and ran seven USAC events in 1975 in a ’74 Camaro No. 55.   Four races in 1976 and one in 1977 brought down the curtain on Marmor’s USAC career.

In 1979, Marmor turned race promoter, putting on a three-race dirt track late model series at the Sycamore Speedway.  Whitey Harris, Al Schill and Iowa’s John Connolly scored feature wins, but Arnie Gardner took home overall honors of Marmor’s Fastrak Racing series.

Marmor’s two sons, Don and Darrell, had racing careers themselves.  Don Marmor was the six cylinder division champion at the Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Ill., in 1973.  Running Chicago area short tracks for a number of years, Don Marmor moved to Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) competition in the 1980s.  He was pretty much a regular on the circuit for six seasons, finishing sixth in the ARCA standings in both 1987 and 1988.  Marmor was among a group of drivers that qualified over 200 miles per hour at Talladega, Ala., in 1987.  A serious accident at Georgia’s Atlanta International Raceway in November of 1988 ended Don Marmor’s racing career.

Darrell Marmor made a name for himself in late model dirt track competition in the 1980s, competing at tracks like Santa Fe Speedway and the Kankakee Fairgrounds Speedway.  He was the late model champion at Kankakee in 1985.

Gene Marmor was inducted into the Illinois Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2012.