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One-Legged Race-Car Driver Killed in Exhibition

February 18, 1988|DONNA DOWLING | Times Staff Writer

A one-legged, 73-year-old Port Hueneme racing car driver has died after crashing in an exhibition race at the Willow Springs track in Rosamond.

Cal Niday, who had been racing with one wooden leg since he was 17, was injured Sunday during a race of vintage sprint and midget cars when a driver lost control and spun into his 1960 midget car, causing it to flip and spin. He was taken to Antelope Valley Hospital Medical Center and pronounced dead two hours later.

Niday, who had survived a near-fatal crash at the Indianapolis 500 in 1955, was well-known in the racing community. In 1986 and 1987, he was president of the Western Racing Assn., a group of 330 antique-car racing enthusiasts.

"He would come out with one leg and compete with everyone and do so well," said Walt James, a friend of Niday's and a member of the association. "He really was a respected driver, always a top competitor. He would have never quit. He was always ready to go racing."

Niday's wife, Elsie, witnessed her husband's last lap Sunday.

"He was doing what he wanted to do," she said. "That was his life. He loved racing from the time that he was a little boy."

Born in Turlock in the San Joaquin Valley, Niday developed a passion for speed early in life. He was known for his speed on the football field and was recruited to play for the University of Washington. In his spare time, Niday would race roadsters and motorcycles.

In 1937, on a stint with a motorcycle daredevil group, Niday lost his leg when his bike slipped off a ramp and toppled onto him.

For a year, Niday worked as a hairdresser in San Francisco before deciding to pursue midget-car racing. He began working in the pits for midget-car racer Duane Carter, preparing and cleaning race cars. Carter took Niday on barnstorming tours, and soon Niday captured a fragment of the race-car spotlight by setting midget-car time-trial records in the Southland.

In 1940, in Gilmore Stadium, Niday was introduced to Elsie, who was brought up watching her brother, a midget-car driver, and traveling the racing circuits. In 1944, the Nidays had a son, Gil, who now lives in San Diego with his family.

Niday went on to race in Australia, where he won the 1947 and 1948 Australian midget-car racing championship titles.

When he returned to Los Angeles in 1947, he was heralded as "one of the top button-mashers in the business" by a Times sports columnist. But more formidable accomplishments were yet to come.

In 1953, Niday took his first run at the Indianapolis 500 but finished 30th after encountering mechanical problems. His second year he drove unrelieved to 10th place. His qualifying time of 140 m.p.h. in 1955 vaulted him into the elite "140 Club," a group of the 500-miler's top racers who had surpassed the 140-m.p.h. mark during the international event.

It was Niday's third ill-fated run at the 500, in 1955, that nearly cost him his life.

"That last Indianapolis race was quite a day," Niday said in a Times article published a year after the race. "I had already seen Bill Yukovich crash to his death. I was zooming along in third position with 21 laps to go. I didn't dream I was next."

Unconscious for 3 Weeks

But Niday's front axle cracked, catapulting his car into a cement wall, then bouncing back into the infield in flames. His face, arms and leg were badly burned. His diaphragm and lung were punctured. His skull was fractured. He was unconscious for three weeks.

"I couldn't help but get a kick out of the fact that while the rest of me was burned, the fire hardly licked at my wooden leg," Niday said. "It's as good as new."

Despite his efforts to dismiss the accident, Niday spent four months hospitalized as the rest of his frail body recuperated. When he left the hospital, he weighed less than 100 pounds. But it did not take long for the avid racer to discover a new way to pursue his sports car passion.

In 1957, Niday and his family moved to Hawaii, where he opened a high-performance sports car engine and muffler shop. For the next 13 years, he built and raced cars on the islands. In 1972, they moved to Port Hueneme to continue building and rebuilding racers for himself, friends and customers.

'Always . . . Daredevils'

Even in retirement, Niday was consumed with racing. He and his wife recently had planned to pack up their motor home, hitch up a trailer with a race car and traverse the country in search of car races.

"We fall in love with people, not professions," said Lyla Parsons, widow of race car driver Johnnie Parsons and longtime friend of the Nidays. "There are always going to be daredevils. And there are always going to be people like Elsie and me who love them."

Even after his fiery crash at the 1955 Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Niday refused to abandon the wheel.

"That's the chance you take," he said after the accident. "I knew that when I went into this game. And I went into racing because I was determined to prove that a wooden leg is no handicap.

"Now that I'm back on my feet, I'm giving a lot of thought to racing. I'd hate to give it up. Funny thing about this sport, you just hate to get away from it."

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