(This story is based mostly on memory; even the black-and-white photos are not from Richwood. Please forgive any errors of fact.)
Eleven years before I was born, my father saw the USA in his Chevrolet.
Vernon Thomas graduated from business school in 1929 and became the bookkeeper at Short Shoemaker's Chevrolet dealership in the town of Falmouth, Kentucky, about 35 miles south of Cincinnati in racehorse country. In 1936, he bought a yellow Chevrolet coupe and set out with a buddy to drive to California. He arranged to sell the car in Los Angeles and return home by train.
Nowadays, those of us who travel on airplanes or tall elevators have learned that when our surroundings get quieter, we should swallow and clear our ears. But this was 1936.
Six years after I was born, cars of that era came back into our lives in the form of hot rods.
As new arrivals in Richwood, Ohio, in 1953, we discovered that not far behind our house on South Franklin Street was the Richwood Fairgrounds, and at those fairgrounds, starting that summer, there was auto racing. Since my father was the new Chevrolet dealer in town, it seemed like a good idea to get involved with these events. He became the public-address announcer and continued at least through the 1956 season.
The Richwood Fairgrounds has a half-mile oval for racing harness horses. On the west side is a grandstand, with a stage between it and the finish line. In the infield, set back from the finish line, there used to be a square building that provided an elevated view for the harness-racing judges. Painted on the side of this judges' tower facing the grandstand was an advertisement for Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet.
In the 1950s, the infield of the harness track contained another track, a quarter-mile oval for hot rods. I've added a reconstruction of that smaller oval to this 2012 Google Earth view of the fairgrounds. Like the harness track, the hot rod track had a dirt surface, but it was banked about 10° in the turns and had light poles at various points around its inner edge so that races could be held on Friday nights.
In the few
feet between the finish lines of the two tracks, flagman Art Stainer
from Marion set up his little platform with a rack of
different-colored flags to signal the cars. He also had
pushbutton switches for a set of three light bulbs: red,
yellow, and green. Art's wife was the official scorer; she sat
farther back, on the rectangular concrete stage between the harness
track and the grandstand. Also on that stage was the
public-address system, with my father at the microphone and me
sitting alongside to watch.
As a six-year-old in 1953, I loved watching the cars roar around the track when Art waved his green flag. My father made me a plywood box about the size of a cigar box with a set of holes drilled in the top. I colored paper "flags" and attached them to dowels that fit in the holes, so that I had my own set of play flags: green to go, yellow for caution, red to stop, blue with a yellow stripe to allow the faster car to pass, black to get off the track, white for the final lap, and of course the checkered flag for the finish.
I played at running around our yard, making vroom vroom sounds. We moved in 1954 to a house that had a slight embankment on its east, and suddenly my play track had a novel feature: the backstretch was higher than the frontstretch, so that I had to run uphill through Turns 1 and 2 and downhill through 3 and 4.
But the real track was better. There was the smell of coffee and hot dogs on cool nights, mixed with the smoke from Mrs. Stainer's cigarettes. During intermissions, there was rock and roll on the PA system (my father was not the one who chose the music); I remember songs like "Little Darlin'" and some early Elvis.
The cars were modified stock cars, mostly coupes from the late 1930s and early 1940s with lowered roofs, welded-shut doors, roll bars, and other modifications including souped-up engines. They couldn't get up a lot of speed on the tiny oval, but you could hear them a mile away because they did make a lot of noise. (With one exception, a plum-colored Studebaker with the number V painted on the side. We called it "Roman Five." Old V, whose muffler had not been removed, cruised along smoothly but never was in contention.)
One night, my father and I watched some mechanics doing the welding on one car to modify it into the hot rod called B-40. As it turned out, B-40 went on to win a lot of races. But then Todd Gibson (who had married Brenda Cramer, the daughter of our across-the-road neighbor Arby Cramer) came along and dominated the field. I remember his car as number 10, painted pink at first, later silver, powered by an airplane engine that spit out blue flame from the side-mounted exhaust pipes.
On a Friday, the hot rodders would bring their machines into the fairgrounds on trailers and unload them in the pits, which was just a dimly-lighted grassy area outside Turn 3. The racing began with time trials: laps against the stopwatch to determine starting positions. Then there would be a series of ten-lap heats. Sometimes there was also an "Australian Pursuit Race," in which the fastest cars started from the back of the pack instead of the front. In this event, any driver who was passed had to drop out of the race, until either ten laps were completed or the driver who had started last managed to eliminate all the cars ahead of him.
Another event with a lot of passing was the Winners' Handicap, featuring the cars that had placed well in the heats, winners starting from the back. The cars that had lost in the heats went into the Consolation race. And then the evening concluded with a 25-lap Feature. When it was over, Art handed the winning driver the checkered flag. Holding it out the window, he made a victory lap of the track while the flash photographer in the infield snapped his picture.
I believe that one time an endurance race was held, maybe 100 or 200 laps, on a weekend or holiday afternoon, and I watched at least part of it from the grandstand. That event was unusual in that the drivers actually had to make pit stops. It seemed long and boring. I was glad to see Art finally hold up the crossed flags that indicated the halfway point in the race, but the drivers still had a long way to go.
There were crashes, of course, but I don't recall any serious injuries, even in one spectacular end-over-end down the front straightaway. The tumbling car chased Art from his flagman's stand and came to rest on the harness track.
A more typical tangle that I recall involved two cars. One liked to take the "low groove" around the inside of the turns; the other liked to swing wide to the top of the banking. The cars were running fairly close together, with the "low" car leading. But on one lap, the "high" car got a good run off Turn 4 and, coming down the front straight, got inside the "low" car to challenge him for position. This isn't going to work, I thought, as they went into Turn 1 side by side. Sure enough, the "high" car slid up the banking into the "low" car and knocked it right over the top of the banking, off the track and down to the grassy harness-track infield.
After a few years, I began to grow up, and the hot-rod track went away. Todd Gibson and his family are still in racing, but the infield at the local fairgrounds is now smoothly landscaped, with no sign of all the "iron" that used to roar around there on Friday nights.