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Golden Wheels recall a time when midgets were big

Posted in Racing by Terry Parkhurst | September 1st, 2008 | 3 Responses |

Open wheel midget racecars were scaled down Indy roadsters. (Photo courtesy of Fredrickson Classics)
Open wheel midget racecars were scaled down Indy roadsters. (Photo courtesy of Fredrickson Classics)

A DOHC 16 valve in-line four-cylinder engine displacing just 255 cubic inches, yet fully capable of producing 500 horsepower, normally aspirated, powers the “Zink Pink” Champ car of John and Barbara Nelson. Thing is, the car was built for racing way back in 1955. Honda wasn’t the first to exploit the full potential of four bangers. Offenhauser, who made the engine in the Nelson’s car, was doing that long before the S2000 ever made it to America.

Equipped with “Pent-roof” combustion chambers, so as to allow two valves on either side of the pistons, John Nelson says, “It’s a simple engine, but overbuilt in many ways. Dean Bonner, who used to run cars for Atlas Van Lines, told me it was capable of 1,000 horsepower, running a mix of about 20 percent nitro. That crankshaft in the bottom end was built that strong.”

The venerable Ford flathead (middle) shows up in some Golden Wheels racecars. (Photo courtesy of Fredericksen Classics)
The venerable Ford flathead (middle) shows up in some Golden Wheels racecars. (Photo courtesy of Fredericksen Classics)

Offenhauser also built the transmission, with three speeds forward. It looks somewhat like the transmission you’d find in a 1930s Ford model A.

“Champ cars started out using model A transmissions, since Ford had such good steel,” explained Nelson. The rear end is a Halibrand “quick change” transmission; so called because there is a removable center section, useful for swapping out different gears, for different track conditions.

And what about that color, so-called “Zink Pink”? Well, it is, in fact, the same color you’d have found on a 1955 Ford Victoria.

“The story is that, when A.J. Watson, who built this car for owner John Zink, he wanted to pick a color that would stand out,” explained Nelson. “He looked out the shop door and saw a 1955 Ford Victory and that was it. It’s now painted the same ‘Dusty Rose and Shawnee White’ it was then. Bill Seidelman, who did the paint for me, got the original color formulation from Ford.”

The Nelsons’ car is just one of many in Golden Wheels, a fraternity designed to keep alive and running the midget ¾ race cars that the likes of A.J. Foyt cut their teeth in. The drivers range in age from 45 to the early 80s. About half of them are ex-professional racers with championships in their background.

Nelson, whose age we didn’t ask, said, “My dad raced with Barney Oldfield.

I used to race on the streets. Then, I became president of a hot rod club, The Kings. My dad and I built a midget racecar that’s still in the club.

“The car I have now, had (actually) been converted into a midget racecar; it was 88 inches, when I got it. A section had been taken out of the frame. We – Bill Seidelman and myself – put a piece back in and now it’s back to 96 inches.”

The cockpit of most racecars in Golden Wheels are sans roll cages. (Photo courtesy of Fredrickson Classics)
The cockpit of most racecars in Golden Wheels are sans roll cages. (Photo courtesy of Fredrickson Classics)

The club consists of midgets, sprint cars, roadsters and one Champ car, that of the Nelsons. All of these machines are open wheel, oval track racing cars. Most have been restored to the era in which they were built, so they do not have roll cages.

Four-cylinder Offenhauser engines, Ford flatheads (valves not in the cylinder head), Chevrolet and Chrysler Hemi V8s, along with a variety of in-line six and four cylinder engines, can be found. There’s even a four-cylinder engine from a Chevrolet Vega in one car.

The racecar with the most unusual engine is Hal Schlegel’s 1946 Solar Engineering built midget with a Hal engine. There’s no connection between Schlegel’s first name and his car’s engine, other than mere coincidence.

“They’re rarer than hen’s teeth,” said Schlegel of the engine in his car.

The double-overhead camshaft Hal has two series 60 (Ford) connecting rod set-ups, welded together on each cylinder. The Hal four-cylinder engine had five main bearings versus an Offenhauser three.

The Hal engine was the brainchild of Harry Hosterman, who cast his own block after putting his own DOHC cylinder head on a four-cylinder model A block.

Schlegel’s car engine displaces more than the standard Ford block, but he isn’t sure exactly how much more. It is a “full Hal” with Hal block and cylinder heads and the pistons are “right up against the valves,” he explained.

Hosterman made some 220 cubic inch engines – the exact displacement of most Offenhauser midget engines – to compete with Offy on the track. Those 220 cubic inch engines were known as “Big Hals.”

Golden Wheels came into being in 1976, when the midget racer Pike Green, was told by another driver at a funeral, “We need to find another way to meet, other than this; according to John Nelson. That led to the formation of Golden Wheels, based in Washington State; but with members from throughout the northwest.

They visit tracks in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia, Vancouver. This year, there’s a race planned down in Arizona.

Golden Wheels has as it goals, not only keeping oval track racecars running for exhibition races, as well as static displays, but also to help needy families or retired racecar drivers, who had fallen on hard times.

“We now help Sunshine Acres down in Phoenix and local food banks,” explained Nelson. Phoenix was where Pike Green ended up, before he passed away himself, a few years ago.

Golden Wheels has had about 10 exhibition races scheduled for this year, so far. There were also static displays, usually held in conjunction with car shows.

The cost of gasoline and diesel fuel has impacted many of those in Golden Wheels ability to get their racecars onto the tracks. It led to the cancellation of one exhibition race in April, as they were not able to field as many cars as they wanted.

Now with the price of diesel and gasoline settling down a bit, things look better. There’s three more exhibition races, tentatively scheduled: the South Sound Speedway in Tenino, Washington on September 11-13; the Willamette Speedway in Lebanon, Oregon on October 3 and 4th; and finally, down at the Havasu 95 Speedway in Lake Havasu, Arizona on October 29-November first.

82 year old Mel Anthony, shown after a stint on the track in the John Zink Special, at a Golden Wheels exhibition race. (Photo courtesy Fredricksen Classics)

Consider this group proof that indeed, everything old is new again – sometime.

Golden Wheels web site is www.goldenwheelsfraternity.comTerry Parkhurst

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3 Responses

  1. Roger Grotewold says:

    Wow, this is a great article. It takes me back to my youth in the 40’s and 50’s. The very first race I ever attended was the midget races in Luverne, Minnesota when I was a boy right after World War II.

    I remember how the midgets used to throw dirt hight in the air when they went around the corners of the oval track. That was so impressive to me and I remember it like it was yesterday.

    The author of this article has done a masterful job of researching and interviewing the participants. It is obvious that his knowledge of the automotive side of these cars is extensive. It is fortunate that the details were outlined in such a descriptive and accurate manner. It certainly made the article more entertaining and enjoyable to read.

  2. Peter says:

    Very nicely written.
    What else can Terry write about?

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