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A Little Giant Behind Wheel

Danny Oakes, the king of West Coast midget racing in 1940s, is still light on his feet and looking sharp at 91

November 02, 2002|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 1946, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, the Angels were in the Pacific Coast League, the Rams were preparing for their first Los Angeles exhibition game and Primo Carnera was wrestling at the Olympic.

The hottest ticket in town? The mighty midgets, race cars in miniature.

In one week in August, the noisy little thunderbugs drew 65,000 in the Rose Bowl on a Tuesday night, 17,000 at Gilmore Stadium on Thursday night and 65,128 in the Coliseum on Saturday night.

Danny Oakes, Dapper Dan to his legion of fans, was one of the mightiest of the midget drivers. He was second that week at both Gilmore and the Rose Bowl, but had already won the 1945 Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. And in 1947, he was to become the dominant midget car driver on the West Coast.

Dapper Dan is still dapper. Not on the race tracks -- he is 91, after all -- but on the dance floor.

"I liked being called Dapper," said Oakes, who once wore silk shirts and pressed white trousers while driving Johnny Balch's blue and white midget at Gilmore. On one occasion, the team showed up in knickers.

His eyesight is failing, but as he says, a twinkle in his eye, about his weekly dancing at Golden Sails in Long Beach, "I've been jitterbugging since the days at the old Palomar and the Palladium. I might not be able to see 'em like I used to, but I can still feel 'em." Oakes is believed to be the only living driver from the era of Legion Ascot Speedway, the "Home of the Grim Reaper," as John Lucero labeled it in his book, "Legion Ascot Speedway."

"I started driving [full-sized roadsters] at the old Legion Ascot sometime in 1932 and I raced there until the place closed," Oakes recalled. "I lived in Santa Barbara and John Gibson, a friend of mine there, put together a Model T chassis and said if we could get a motor, we could go racing at Ascot. That was a long ways from Santa Barbara but I liked the idea.

"We built a Ford flathead with a Winfield head and off we went. I never drove with the big boys at Legion Ascot, I never got past the consies [consolation races]. Most of the time I was a tail-ender in them."

At Ascot, where the big, lumbering roadsters raced over a pock-marked, five-eighths-mile high-banked dirt oval, all Oakes wore for head protection was a cloth helmet under his goggles.

As old-time driver Peter DePaolo once said, "The only value of a cloth helmet was that when you went by the pits, if you were bleeding, the crew could see it."

Drivers were so macho that when Wilbur Shaw -- later a three-time Indy 500 winner -- wore a helmet for the first time at Legion Ascot, he was roundly booed by spectators and called "chicken" by his fellow drivers.

There were no roll bars, much less roll cages, as midgets and sprint cars have today.

"If you flipped, you were likely a goner at Ascot," Oakes said. "To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd live to see 50. Now look at me.

"Worst accident I had there was when the right rear wheel came off on an old Model T Ford and the axle dug in the dirt. The car did a three-quarter spin, but didn't tip over. Mighty lucky."

Ascot was closed in 1936 and it was a year or two before Oakes was back in a race car.

"Midgets were just getting hot, but I'd never driven anything but big roadsters," he said. "I got the itch when I heard an [Offenhauser] engine for the first time. I thought, 'What the hell is that?' I tell you, that Offy was a great engine."

Oakes and a cousin pieced together a midget in Santa Barbara and Oakes drove it for the first time on the horse track at Pomona. Then they decided to tackle Gilmore Stadium, already secure in its reputation as the nation's premier midget car track.

Gilmore Stadium was a half-mile dirt track built specifically for midget racing, although it also was used for football games. A Thursday night tradition was 18,000 fans filling the stadium for midgets.

"In those days, if you drove a midget you could keep busy and earn a good living," Oakes said. "There were races nearly every night. We would run at Long Beach, Atlantic, Santa Maria, Huntington Beach and sometimes Balboa in San Diego. That was a long haul from Santa Barbara.

"But Gilmore was the ultimate. It was always the best kept track in the country. The only one that compared with it was 16th Street Speedway in Indianapolis, across the street from the big track. All the hotdogs in the country raced there, because it was close to Indy."


The Biggest Win

Winning the 1945 Turkey Night race was the most prestigious accomplishment of Oakes' career, although at the time he didn't think it was that big. It was the first major race after World War II, though, and Gilmore and all the other tracks had been closed from 1942 through 1944.

All the equipment was old. Even the race tires had been sitting in garages for three years.

"I got a lot of notoriety out of that win," Oakes said. "More today than I got back then.

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