The passing of Sam Hanks last week was more than the death of a great race driver. He was perhaps the last link to the golden era of midget auto racing in Southern California, a time before air conditioning or TV when watching midget racers at Gilmore Stadium was what many people did on warm summer nights.
Gilmore Stadium ran midget races on its quarter-mile oval from 1934 to 1950, but it was in the years before World War II, when Hanks, Bob Swanson, Bill Betteridge, Curly Mills and Pee Wee Distarce were names as familiar to Angelenos as Mike Piazza, Vlade Divac, Jim Everett and J.J. Stokes are today that racing flourished.
There were no Dodgers, Lakers, Rams, Raiders or Kings here. The only Angels were in the Pacific Coast League. There was no Dodger Stadium, no Sports Arena, no Forum, no Disneyland.
USC and UCLA played football in the Coliseum. The Rose Bowl was used only on New Year's Day or for junior college football, and minor league baseball was played at Wrigley Field in what is now Watts.
A favorite place for sports action was the corner of Beverly and Fairfax, where Gilmore Stadium, Gilmore Field and the Pan-Pacific Auditorium filled the area now occupied by CBS Television City.
Gilmore Stadium was the site of annual postseason professional football games, in which the likes of Bronko Nagurski, Dutch Clark, Sammy Baugh and Mel Hein played against Southern California all-stars before Dan Reeves had brought the Rams to Los Angeles.
Hank Luisetti, Jackie Robinson, Lee Guttero and Ralph Vaughn played basketball, Sonja Henie skated and John Polich played hockey at the Pan-Pacific, where the Igloo Room was a favorite sports hangout.
But it was the "mighty midgets," as they were known in the '30s and '40s, that were headline news when they raced every Thursday night. In 1937, the year Hanks won the track championship, capacity crowds of 18,000 were on hand through the summer at Gilmore Stadium.
For a few years, it was possible to watch midget racing every night of the week--at Atlantic Speedway in South Gate, Culver City, Huntington Beach, Loyola, Colton, San Bernardino, Balboa Stadium in San Diego, and on occasion, the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl.
In 1947, a midget-record 65,128 spectators were at the Coliseum when Hanks out-drove Duke Nalon, Duane Carter, Mack Hellings and Bob Pankratz in winning a 250-mile race on a board track.
Hanks started his career in 1935 at Gilmore Stadium and won 22 races there before WW II caused the track to close for four years. When it reopened in 1946, Hanks was campaigning his midget racer and stock cars in the Midwest and East Coast, but he never forgot his roots.
"Winning national championships in both the champ (Indy) cars and midgets, and winning the (Indianapolis) 500 in '57 were all highlights in my career, but the years I raced my own midget as car owner, driver and mechanic hold a special place in my heart," he said a few years ago.
A memorial service for the Alhambra Thin Man, who would have been 80 next Wednesday, will be held Saturday at noon in the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys at Sherman Way and Valjean Avenue.
Motor Racing Notes
ORANGE COUNTY FAIR--Three nights of racing, all free with paid admission to the County Fair, are scheduled this weekend. Speedway motorcycles will run the Fair Derby in their usual spot on Friday night, three-quarter midgets of the United States Auto Club's western region will race on Saturday night. Motorcycles with sidecars and quad ATVs are on Sunday night's bill.
STOCK CARS--Sportsman drivers of NASCAR's Winston Racing Series will headline main events Saturday night at Saugus Speedway and Cajon Speedway in El Cajon. Dennis Wooldridge of Riverside is the Cajon sportsman leader with seven victories. . . . Street stocks and IMCA modifieds will race Friday night at Ventura Raceway. . . . Modified V-8s and legend cars will share the spotlight Saturday at Kern County Raceway.
SPEEDWAY BIKES--Four U.S. riders will try to qualify for the World Speedway Final in semifinal rounds Sunday in Prague, the Czech Republic, and Bradford, England. Defending world champion Sam Ermolenko of Cypress, American Final winner Greg Hancock of Costa Mesa and Billy Hamill of Monrovia will ride in Prague. Josh Larsen of Balboa will be at Bradford. The finals are set Aug. 20 in Vojens, Denmark.
SPRINT CARS--The second half of the Sprint Car Racing Assn.'s first full season gets under way Saturday night at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. Rip Williams, with three victories, holds a two-point lead over four-time winner Ron Shuman. Mike Kirby, 1993 California Racing Assn. champion and the winner of the last SCRA race at Manzanita, is also entered.
INDY CARS--Jerry Hauer, former director of the Indiana Emergency Management Agency, has been named by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George to develop an organization to manage, direct and promote a new auto racing series beginning in 1996. Hauer, 42, will work closely with the United States Auto Club, which sanctions the Indianapolis 500. The series will be in competition with the current Indy car series sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc.
MISCELLANY--Portions of Carroll Shelby's collection of racing cars and memorabilia will be included in the Newport Beach Classic & Collector Car Auction from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Hyatt Newporter Hotel in Newport Beach. . . . Brian Tracy, former vice president of sales and development for the National Hot Rod Assn., has been named to direct the NHRA's new broadcasting department.