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South Bend Midget Racing History; Story/Photos by Stan Kalwasinski

South Bend Motor Speedway – Rich History of Midget Racing

By Stan Kalwasinski

South Bend, Ind.—With the reported sale and apparent demise of South Bend Motor Speedway this year, many still remember that the high-banked, quarter-mile, paved oval was developed and built with the idea of midget auto racing in mind.

After a year or two of planning and construction, the track opened on Fright night, August 23, 1946.  Chicago’s Ted Duncan, the evening’s fastest qualifier, won the “Class A” 25-lap feature race that opening night with Bob Muhlke and Frank Burany chasing Duncan to the checkered flag.  Some 8,000 fans attended the inaugural race program with many standing in the infield to spectate as a field of about 25 cars saw action.

Feature winners that first year, besides Duncan, were Muhlke, Burany, Tony Bettenhausen, Pete Romcevich, Mike O’Halloran and Gus Klingbiel, who was named the champion at South Bend in 1946.

The South Bend oval, run by the South Bend Auto Racing Association, Inc., and president Joe Kovatch, saw weekly midget racing again in 1947, 1948 and 1949 with the American Automobile Association (AAA) being part of the sanctioning picture in ’48 and ’49.  A tiff between AAA and South Bend management because of short entry fields saw the track’s sanctioning body being switch to the Midwest Car Owners and Drivers Association in early July of 1948 with AAA returning in 1949.

Ronney Householder was crowned the track’s midget champion in 1947.  Householder, who would head up the Plymouth/Dodge factory stock car racing effort In the 1960s, set a qualifying track record of 13.31 seconds in 1947 that would stand for almost 10 years.

Bob Muhlke was the champion in 1948 and Rocky Johnston in 1949.  Posthumously, Don Brennan was named the honorary champion for 1948 as he was leading the points standings with eight feature wins, including four-in-a-row, to his credit.  Brennan was involved in a crash at Lincoln, Ill., on September 23 with injuries proving fatal the next day.

Hot rods and stock cars became the track’s weekly attraction in 1950 with Gary, Indiana’s Pete Romcevich grabbing top feature race honors during the only AAA midget program at the speedway, held in June of 1950.

Byron Fisher was a midget feature winner at the speedway on May 30, 1952 in a Great Lakes/Midwest Car Owners racing program.  The AAA circuit returned to South Bend in 1955 with Jimmy Knight, Jack Turner and Shorty Templeman grabbing top honors in 50-lap main events.  Knight set a new qualifying track record on July 12, 1955, zipping around the South Bend oval in 13.11 seconds.  Chuck Rodee lowered the mark during the August 16th show with a “sizzling” lap of 12.80 seconds.

In 1956, the new United States Auto Club (USAC) took over from AAA the sanctioning of major open-wheel, oval track, racing.  Eddie Sachs won the 50-lap feature race during USAC’s inaugural visit to the quarter-mile speed plant on June 13, 1956.  Other USAC winners at South Bend in the 1950s included qualifying record-setter Rodee, Templeman, Norm Hall, and Rex Easton.

Having become a popular place for weekly stock car racing, the South Bend oval was a regular stop for the USAC midget series during the 1960s and into the early 1970s with Chicago native Chuck Rodee winning four USAC main events.  Rodee’s victory on August 28, 1965 was a 100-lap battle, celebrating the track’s 20th year of operation.  Rodee drove Michigan City car owner Ed Loniewski’s #87 to the win ahead of Bob McLean and Bobby Grim, giving Rodee a record four USAC wins South Bend.

More USAC winners at South Bend included Russ Congdon, Allen Crowe, Cliff Spalding, Les Scott, local speedster Bob McLean, Mike McGreevy, Chuck Arnold, Mel Kenyon, Henry Pens, Dave Strickland and Russ Gamester.  Strickland scored back-to-back USAC feature wins in 1970 and 1971 with his ’71 victory being the last USAC national program held until 1988 when Gamester captured a 40 lapper on April 17, 1988 ahead of Johnny Parsons and Kenyon.  Danny Pens whistled around the South Bend quarter-mile that day in 12.042 seconds to establish an all-time USAC midget qualifying mark.

The Car Owners Racing Association (CORA) was active at South Bend in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Les Scott, Joe Roush, Bill Humphreys and Mike Fedorcak were some of the CORA winners.  A National Alliance of Midget Auto Racing (NAMAR) event, sanctioned by CORA, was held at South Bend on September 11, 1981 with midget racing newcomer Brad Hulings scoring the 30-lap win.  The ARCA Midget Series and the All American Midget Series also saw action at South Bend in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.  Rich Vogler was an All American winner at the speedway in 1988.

The Kenyon Car Midget Series and the USAC Ford Focus/Regional midgets also saw action at South Bend in the early part of the new century with the likes of Bobby East and Chris Windom scoring victories.

The Illinois-based Illini Midget Series first visited the South Bend oval in 2016 with Lamont Critchett scoring the victory during the October appearance.  Jordan Caskey, who today is part of the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team, is the all-time Illini winner at South Bend with seven victories.

Over the years, a lot of open-wheel midget racing has taken place at South Bend Motor Speedway with a “who’s who” of racing scoring victories ever since Ted Duncan posted the first midget feature win at the speedway in 1946.

Editor’s Note: The following is from the current posting on the South Bend Motor Speedway website…

The season kicks off Saturday April 27th with the spring “Get Sprung” Night of Destruction with all the hard hitting action.  Then on Friday May 24th and Saturday May 25th it’s the Green, White, Checkered Finale weekend. (Details coming soon).  This will be the last racing event at South Bend Motor Speedway. Be there as the checkered flag falls for the final time at the World’s Fastest Quarter Mile. The future might be uncertain but one thing for sure you do not want to miss this last chance to spend some time camping with your friends and getting your backside trackside one last time at South Bend Motor Speedway.  We have five Nights of Destruction scheduled: April 27th, May 18th, July 6th and September 7th.