“Crazy track” was Paul Russo’s description of the former bicycle racing track in Nutley, N.J. The track may be OK for bicycles, Russo thought … but midgets? Crazy!
From its opening day in 1933, the Nutley Velodrome had been successful and profitable. But a strike, squabbling owners, and a decline in bicycle racing’s popularity caused the track to cease operating after the 1937 season.
At the same time, midget racing was fresh and exciting. The small but popular midgets were in their ascendency. That opened the door for young “boy promoter” Jack Kochman to propose, and then secure, a contract to promote midget racing at the wooden oval.
The track was then described by New Jersey resident and historian Crocky Wright as being a seventh of a mile in length, with banking of 45 degrees in the turns.
By the way, those turns were 16 feet high!
According to Wright, “It was impossible for anyone to reach the top of the track in the turns without crawling.” With contract in hand, Kochman set April 3, 1938 as opening day.
Right from the outset, racing was fast and furious … with a glimpse of the dangers ahead.
Newark Ledger reporter Tony Marenghi summarized the track’s first race with this bold report: “15 HURT IN SPILLS AT MIDGET AUTO DEBUT. Midget racing is off to a horrifying start in these precincts. The homicidal hare-and-hound chase made its debut at the Nutley Velodrome yesterday with two electrifying accidents, one of which saw a car hurdle over the guardrail and the high banking, past the grandstand stretch and landing over the first row of spectators.”
Driver Ken Fowler’s car had crashed over the outer safety barrier and into the fencing where it was stuck, dangling in the air above the bleacher seats.
But that didn’t trouble the fans. Spectators remained plentiful throughout the season, averaging 8,000 per race. The drivers, who came from across the land, were also many in number.
The home-built midgets were powered mostly by outboard, motorcycle or Offenhauser engines. The fastest drivers could lap the tiny oval in an astonishing seven seconds.
Midget racing at the Velodrome, termed by one reporter as “sheer spine-tingling thrills,” was catching on fast.
On the track, it didn’t take long for New Jersey home-boy Eddie Staneck and Chicagoan Paul Russo to establish themselves as the men to beat. Competition between the two was the highlight of the track’s 44-race season.
Red Redmond and Ernie Gesell, among other drivers, were also competitive and scored their share of the wins. Kochman’s hope for hard and fast racing was succeeding.
But things happen. Prior to the Aug. 17 event, a fan gifted Russo and fellow driver Henry Banks with a bag of peanuts. In spite of the longstanding racers’ jinx associated with peanuts in the pits, the track announcer made fun of the episode over the track’s PA system, eliciting much laughter among the crowd.
Disappointed with the fans’ response, and out of respect for the jinx, both drivers angrily withdrew their cars prior to the feature.
At the conclusion of the Aug. 28 race, four gun-wielding bandits stole the night’s gate receipts, a loss of $4,500. A track guard fired two shots at the fleeing robbers.
The Oct. 9 race produced the closest racing of the year. With only three races left on the schedule, Russo and Staneck were locked together in the contest for the track’s championship. The two were wheel-to-wheel for all 35 laps, with Russo checkering first.
However, along with the thriller that day came horror. New Jersey’s Charlie Heliker tangled with a competitor and “flipped three times, was crushed and burned to death in full view of 7,000 spectators.”
It was the Velodrome’s first fatality.
By season’s end, friendly combatants Staneck and Russo found themselves tied for the track’s title. Seizing an opportunity, promoter Kochman made great play of staging a circus-like match race.
As it had been all year between the two adversaries, the race was another red-hot duel, with Stanko winning this one and emerging as the 1938 track champion.
As the 1939 season opened, hopes for a safe year were high. However, events that occurred in the year’s third race on April 2 dashed all hopes.
Detroit’s Johnny Ritter checkered first, with Bill Schindler in hot pursuit. But Ritter’s hard-fought second victory of the year would be overshadowed by dreadful accidents involving Tommy Hinnershitz and Henry Guerand.
Hinnershitz rode out a breathtaking triple-flip that resulted in a hospital visit. Although his frightful accident and demolished car were unsettling, his injuries were not as serious as feared. But Guerand’s horrific accident could only be described as gruesome.
New Jersey’s Guerand was overtaking three cars when he slammed into the steeply-banked outside guardrail. He was thrown partially out of his car and, as reported, “Seven thousand spectators gasped, some fainted and others were semi-hysterical.”
The tragedy fueled numerous investigations and inquires, including one by a Grand Jury. Tempers were hot.
Indictments were threatened. Following many arguments, both pro and con, the Grand Jury ruled that “the Velodrome, branded as a death trap, should be condemned as dangerous and unfit for auto racing.”
Racing was then banned. However, court challenges and rebuttal arguments continued until July 9, when the court, surprisingly, reinstated the track’s license.
With that, the green flag would fly again.
Following the three-month hiatus, drivers and fans were anxious for racing to resume. As expected, the resilient and dedicated fans again populated the bleachers.
Although newcomer Duane Carter won the July 9 event, Johnny Ritter, in his Elto-powered midget, was becoming the dominant force. He eventually finished the year with seven victories and the year-end title.
Meanwhile, Carter was beginning to make a name for himself. Along with Mel Hansen, each would earn four victories during the truncated year. Last year’s stars, Staneck and Russo, were non-factors.
But tragedy must be served. During the Aug. 26 program, popular Californian Karl Hattel became the Velodrome’s third and final fatality.
Hattel smacked the fourth turn guardrail. His helmet was torn off and his head struck the rail. He was knocked unconscious and died from a fractured skull.
This final episode was too much to bear. It put an immediate end to all racing at the Velodrome. Kochman, after a spirited but futile attempt to hold a tribute race in Hattel’s honor, dropped his request. The storied track was then shuttered.
Finally, in 1942 the ill-fated and rotting crazy track was demolished.
Crocky Wright, who bore witness to the Velodrome experience, put his thoughts to word as follows:
“Never before, or since, have race fans witnessed such an awe-inspiring spectacle. Words can never describe the sight of six screaming outboards, smoke and flames belching from their exhausts, roaring around the seventh-of-a-mile banked saucer.”