At 19 Art Sparks thought he had the world by the horns. He had 10 grand in his pocket, a 17-year-old bride, and was on a ship bound to the orient.
He loved to gamble, and not only lost his $10,000 nest egg in the onboard casino, but another $3000 borrowed from the ship’s Purser as well. Unable to repay the loan, he was jailed when the ship docked in the US, sitting there for three months until his well-to-do father, teaching him a life lesson, finally bailed him out.
That episode was a precursor of Sparks’ drama-filled life. Eventful. Adventuresome. A gamble that sometimes paid off, but often didn’t.
As a Hollywood stuntman, he appeared in 50 movies, including Howard Hughes’ epic, Hell’s Angels. While teaching shop at California’s Glendale High School, he used the school’s equipment to build his first race car; including machining the parts he’d designed for the engine.
He debuted his creation in 1927, driving it himself until a series of consecutive crashes convinced him to leave the driving to others.
Focused on design and fabrication, Sparks’ cars were at the forefront of the wildly popular, highly competitive racing of the late 1920s at legendary Legion Ascot Speedway. Success there led him to Indianapolis in 1932 with a car of his own design.
Dubbed the “The Catfish,” for its swoopy body shape, dictated by data from Stanford University’s wind tunnel, Stubby Stubblefield had it up to sixth before a fuel leak stopped him on lap 178.
Sparks was in and out of Indianapolis competition over the next few years, partly as a consequence of his drama-filled lifestyle. He spent a day in jail because of a run in with the IRS, served a two year AAA suspension, and, after multiple, raging disagreements with his partner, bought him out.
On his own Sparks was free to build the Indianapolis car he’d always wanted. Powered by a straight-6 engine of his own design, Jimmy Snider out qualified the 1937 field by five miles per hour in the car, passed 18 cars to take the lead on lap three, before breaking early.
Sparks was cantankerous, irascible. So when he entered into a lifetime contract with 23-year-old, equally eccentric Chase Manhattan bank heir Joel Throne, the racing community was shocked and amused.
As expected, the “lifetime” contract was short lived. Yet, Throne’s finances, for a time, enabled Sparks to display his near-genius brilliance, creating fast, innovative cars. In 1939 Snyder returned in one of them, set a new track record in qualifying, and finished second. In 1946, George Robson drove another Sparks’ designed car to victory. It was Sparks and Thorne’s last venture together.
Sparks continued racing through 1949, then reinvented himself as a businessman. He developed a superior, lightweight, strong racing piston, and sold thousands, in every form of the sport, through his company, Fordgedtrue Pistons.
American racing has long been applauded for its colorful, eccentric, yet creative figures. Art Sparks was one.