Auto racing has long been populated by colorful, eccentric and adventuresome figures. Arthur Sutton Sparks was one.
Quick-tempered, crusty and strident, he was an outlaw dirt-track racer, a movie stuntman and a fearless gambler at the card table and with his professional choices. Sparks did at least two stints in jail, yet created some of this country’s most innovative and successful race cars.
Born in Los Angeles in 1900, by his own admittance he was a hell-raiser in school, “…always fooling with cars and motorcycles.”
Restless, he floundered chasing a life direction. He managed to get through high school and tried college, but after two weeks at Berkley he met a 17-year-old in a Berkley drugstore, married her and booked a honeymoon cruise bound for the Orient.
With 10 grand in his pocket, given to him for college by his well-to-do father, the poker tables’ siren song beckoned. Before the ship reached its destination, Sparks had not only lost the $10,000, but another $3,000 borrowed from the ship’s purser as well.
Broke and unable to repay the loan when the ship returned to San Francisco, he was jailed. Hoping to teach him a life lesson, his father made him sit there for two months before bailing him out.
After that episode, Sparks enrolled in school once more, his sights set on becoming a doctor. That pursuit lasted only a short time, however, before he dropped out again.
He moved to L..A and while cruising Hollywood on his Harley an executive from the Famous Players-Lasky studio spotted the 6-foot, 200-pound Sparks and believed he would be perfect for a Will Rogers movie then being shot.
Offered $50 a day, Sparks launched his Hollywood stuntman career. He jumped motorcycles, crashed cars and walked airplane wings in 50 movies, including Howard Hughes’ epic, “Hell’s Angels.”
Skills acquired while “fooling around with cars and motorcycles” as a youth provided him a job teaching shop at Glendale High School. It supplemented his stuntman income, but also gave him use of the school’s equipment.
With it he built his first race car, including machining the parts he’d designed for the engine. He debuted as a driver with the car in 1927, but three crashes in four races convinced him to leave the driving to others.
In 1930, Sparks partnered with Paul Weirick to focus solely on racing. Weirick provided the funds and Sparks designed and built the cars. They were at the forefront of the exceptionally competitive racing at Legion Ascot Speedway, lightning-fast, five-eighths-mile paved oval.
With drivers such as “Stubby” Stubblefield, Bill Cummins and Rex Mays, the team won scores of races, set dozens of track records and captured three AAA Pacific Coast Championships.
That success inspired Sparks to try Indianapolis. He designed a car with a groundbreaking aerodynamic shape derived from data collected in Stanford University’s wind tunnel.
Dubbed “The Catfish” for its unusual appearance, Stubblefield pushed it to sixth in the 1932 Indianapolis 500 before a fuel leak stopped him on lap 178.
Sparks was in and out of Indianapolis competition over the next few years, mostly as a consequence of his drama-filled lifestyle. He spent a day in jail after a run-in with the IRS, served a two-year AAA suspension, and, after multiple disagreements with Weirick, sold his share of the partnership.
With those funds, Sparks created an Indianapolis car equipped with a powerful straight-six engine of his own design. Jimmy Snyder qualified it late, but topped the 1937 field by an incredible five mph and roared past 18 cars on the first lap. He took the lead and then broke early.
That attracted the attention of 23-year-old Chase Manhattan bank heir Joel Thorne. As eccentric as Sparks, Thorne once paid off a debt with a wheelbarrow load of pennies.
Thorne’s finances enabled Sparks to display his near-genius brilliance at creating fast, innovative cars, eventually winning the 1946 Indianapolis 500 with George Robson driving. It was Sparks and Thorne’s last venture together.
Sparks remained a force in racing until his death with his Forgedtrue pistons, used in every discipline of the sport and in the engines of 11 consecutive Indianapolis 500 winners.