FT. WAYNE, Ind. — In November, it was announced that the 23rd annual Rumble in Fort Wayne was being canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scheduled for Dec. 18-19 at the Allen County War Memorial Expo Center, the two-day program was to again feature midget racing on one-tenth-mile cement oval.
State and county guidelines forced the event’s cancellation.
“Our top priority is that of the well-being of our participants, staff and event attendees,” said Rumble promoter Larry Boos. “We all share the disappointment of this announcement, particularly at this late moment, but as we have said all along, some things are just beyond our control. Right now, our focus needs to be on working together to get this unprecedented virus under control. Truthfully, we would be selfish to think any other way.
“This year, the actual race is going to be that of a collaborative effort to reach a victory of health and safety for all.”
Fort Wayne and indoor midget racing seem to go hand in hand, dating back to 1953 when promoter Bill Lipkey hosted the first event at the Allen County Memorial Coliseum.
Going back in the history books, indoor midget racing first took place at the 124th Field Artillery Armory in Chicago on Nov. 18, 1934 with Indiana’s Harold Shaw the feature winner. The building still stands.
A veteran of pre-World War II midget action, Gene Force, of Richmond, Ind., won the first American Automobile Ass’n midget feature indoors at Fort Wayne, taking the checkered flag in the 40-lap headliner ahead of George Tichenor and Len Duncan.
A crowd of about 5,500 was reported to be on hand. A few weeks later, on Jan. 23, Duncan, the Pennsylvania standout, came back and won a 40 lapper.
The first year of indoor racing at Fort Wayne came to a close on Jan. 30 with 1952 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year Art Cross capturing the 100-lap season finale, ahead of Roy Newman and Gene Hartley.
AAA sanctioned the races through 1955, when the organization discontinued its involvement in auto racing at the end of the season in part because of numerous fatalities during the campaign.
Illinois driver Don Branson won the final AAA-sanctioned main event on Dec. 27, 1955, topping the 100-lap midget feature, ahead of Danny Kladis and Jack Bates.
About two weeks later, the newly created United States Auto Club sanctioned Lipkey’s Jan. 8, 1956, program — the first USAC-sanctioned event.
Hailing from nearby Roanoke, Ind., Gene Hartley, who had started four Indianapolis 500s, defeated Chuck Rodee with Hartley’s dad, Ted, finishing fifth.
Gene Hartley won the first three USAC midget features held indoors at Fort Wayne. Rodee, along with Chuck Weyant, were multi-time winners at Fort Wayne into the early 1960s.
There were no indoor races run in the Fort Wayne Coliseum in 1963 and ’64 as the facility was also home to the Fort Wayne Komets hockey team.
With auto racing and hockey sharing the building, the arrangement sometimes led to challenging logistical set up.
Mel Kenyon, who won seven USAC national midget titles, topped both races in 1965, starting a run of 25 straight years of winter action at Fort Wayne, which usually featured a 75-lap main event in early January, followed by a 100 lapper later in the month.
Gary Bettenhausen won three out of four Fort Wayne races during the 1975 and ’76 schedules. Five-time USAC midget champion Rich Vogler won five USAC main events at Fort Wayne as the 1990s approached.
On Jan.22, 1989, the last indoor event was held inside the old Coliseum building with Tom Bigelow taking the checkered flag.
No indoor racing was held in Ft. Wayne between 1990 and ’97. A new building, the Fort Wayne Exposition Center, had been built adjacent to the old Coliseum.
Indoor racing returned to Fort Wayne in December of 1998, with Kokomo’s Tony Elliott winning a 100-lap main event ahead of Jerry Nemire and Matt Westfall.
The Expo Center, or as it is now called the Allen County War Memorial Expo Center, became the home of the “Rumble in Fort Wayne” – a multi-day race program held in December each year, featuring full-size midgets, TQ midgets, mini sprints and go-karts.
USAC sanctioned a number of these events over the years with special event rules being in place most of the time.
Forty-two main events have been held since 1998, with Tony Stewart winning 11 times, making the Columbus, Ind., native – who won both 50-lap features in 2019 – the all-time winner in Fort Wayne indoor midget competition.
Hopefully, 2021 will see indoor racing return to Fort Wayne, Indiana.