It’s late-September of 1947, and the sun is shining down on the small city of Winchester, Indiana. For the city’s residents, this will be no sleepy Sunday afternoon, as race teams and fans of the “big cars” have converged upon the White River Township for a program of entertainment featuring daredevils who risk life and limb in quest for a relatively small amount of money and a trophy. Among those out-of-towners infringing upon the serenity is Spider Webb.
These days, things are looking up for Spider. On September 7, he won the American Automobile Association (AAA) Midwest sprint car feature at Ohio’s Dayton Speedway. On the 14th, he took the checkers at Indiana’s Salem Super Speedway. Now, one week later, the series is in action at the other treacherously high-banked speedplant completing the trio known as “The Hills,” Frank Funk’s oiled-dirt oval.
As his competitors are pushing off onto the track for warm-ups, Spider has found a comfortable place for a nap not far from Leach Cracraft’s Offy-powered mount, likely nursing the remnants of a hangover resulting from a night of drinking and debauchery.
As usual, the rough and tumble Webb is bypassing hot laps. “They don’t pay nuthin’ and you risk tearing up your car,” he says. And, despite always skipping opportunities to feel out the track, Webb is a notoriously good qualifier.
The high banks are his specialty. And, his preferred groove is just inches from the outside fence atop the steep banking, where most competitors dare not tempt fate. He’s quick to explain that since many of his fellow-drivers opt to keep some distance between their right wheels and that ominous barrier, it leaves a lane open for him to power by on the outside.
And so, as engines fire to life and excitement builds throughout the facility, Spider Webb closes his eyes and tunes out for a few moments of rest.
It was on October 9, 1910 that Lucy Webb gave birth to a baby boy who her and husband Paul would name Travis Leon. As they looked into the eyes of their innocent newborn, the couple could not have known that the fifth of their six children would grow up to be a hellraising icon in the rough-and-tumble world of auto racing.
Paul, a cabinetmaker by trade, moved his family west from their home in Joplin, Missouri to settle in Los Angeles, California in 1923.
At age 17, Travis climbed behind the wheel of a Ford Model-T at the Muroc dry lakes and began making speed runs. He quickly became addicted to the sport, and it was at one such event that he acquired his nickname.
As his car owner was filling out the entry form, he pondered whether Travis Webb was a fitting name for his driver. The owner threw out some suggestions, including the first name “Cob” as a possible alternative, but Travis quickly dismissed the suggestion. Ultimately, the two decided upon “Spider” Webb and the nickname was born. Despite such a memorable moniker, which helped cement his place in racing history, many of his closest friends referred to him as “Webbie.”
Having run over 100 mph in a straight line, Webb found himself looking for the next thrill. He found it at southern California’s dirt oval tracks; in particular, Alhambra’s Legion Ascot Speedway. While not ready to take on Ascot’s headliners of the day – including such luminaries as Rex Mays, Wilbur Shaw, and Ernie Triplett – he was content to compete in the support division alongside fellow-rookie Ted Horn.
It was early in 1936 when Webb received a letter from Norm Witte with the Central States Racing Association (CSRA), a group that sanctioned races primarily in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Spider had no idea who Witte was, but was intrigued by the letter. Oregon racer Jimmy Wilburn had relocated to California and had been competing at the same ovals as Webb. Witte had lined up two car owners (both future Hall of Famers) – Ralph “Speedy” Helm and Ralph Morgan – with quality Big Car rides, one for Wilburn and one for Webb.
Morgan’s driver, defending CSRA champion Sherman “Red” Campbell had been killed in his Morgan/Miller Special during a botched start at Winchester on May 30, 1937. Joie Chitwood and Iggy Katona had both spent time behind the wheel, but the teams never jelled. Morgan set his sights on Wilburn, who had notched quite a few feature wins on the west coast. Meanwhile, Helm, who hailed from Sidney, Illinois, was also looking for a new shoe and Witte had suggested Webb.
Both Webb and Wilburn accepted the offer and the duo relocated to Indianapolis and became roommates in an apartment on Delaware Street that had been secured by Morgan. But it didn’t take long for a rift to form between the two.
With rent due on the apartment and both drivers out of money, Webb informed Wilburn of a race in Columbus, Indiana. However, Ralph Morgan’s car wasn’t ready to race. Webb lined up another ride for Wilburn, but Jimmy informed his roommate that Morgan didn’t want him driving for other car owners and refused the offer. Webb won the race in Columbus and paid the rent, but parted ways with Wilburn as a result. The incident was the catalyst for a longstanding feud between the two – one which race announcers often did their best to capitalize upon.
It was Everett Saylor who would claim the 1937 CSRA championship, but in 1938 Webb took the checkers in the Southern Ascot opener as well as Winchester’s season-finale, and finished ninth in CSRA points, while Wilburn earned the series championship.