Chicago’s Soldier Field Enjoyed A Rich Racing History

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    From 1935 until 1968, Soldier Field, now the home of the Chicago Bears, hosted midget auto races, hot-rod races, demolition derbies and stock-car racing. The first midget auto race at the “Field” was on a cinder track inside of the huge stadium on May 19, 1935.

    A few events were held after that initial program, but some “big plans” were laid out for June 1939. The American Automobile Ass’n sanctioned the World’s Championship Midget Auto Races on a $25,000-to-build, quarter-mile, high-banked, wooden board track that was erected for the five-race series. California’s Ronnie Householder won the 100-lap series finale.

    The old cinder track was replaced by a new clay oval in 1941, but World War II erupted and racing came to a halt.

    After WWII, Soldier Field became a midget racing “hotbed.” The Chicago Auto Racing Ass’n, headed by Art Folz, paved the quarter-mile track in 1946 and weekly midget racing was presented for a number of years.

    With hot-rod and stock-car racing gaining popularity, weekly midget racing at the arena became a thing of the past, although “spot” dates featuring AAA and, later, United States Auto Club speedsters were part of the summer schedule.

    Hot-rod racing was introduced in 1947 when Andy Granatelli staged an event in July. A crowd of around 25,000 gathered to watch the competition. Granatelli became part of the track’s promotional team through the mid 1950s. Racing under Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Ass’n banner, future Indianapolis 500 winners Pat Flaherty and Jim Rathmann were among the early winners.

    When stock cars replaced the “short-lived” hot-rod craze in 1950, Rathmann grabbed back-to-back titles. Over the years, it has been said that a lot of Granatelli’s races were “staged.”

    Staged or not, the racing provided fans plenty of thrills with some of the largest crowds in short-track racing history witnessing the competition every year. Chicago’s Tom Pistone won three-straight stock-car championships from 1953 through 1955. Pistone went on to compete in NASCAR.

    From 1946 through 1958, the annual Chicago Park District Police Benevolent Ass’n Gold Trophy Race was the track’s biggest annual event with thousands of fans attending.

    NASCAR racing came to the big stadium in 1956 as three “national championship” events were held. Pistone and Curtis Turner won Convertible Division events with Glenn “Fireball” Roberts scoring a Grand National victory. “Skippy” Michaels, soon-to-be NASCAR star Fred Lorenzen, Don Oldenberg, Bryant Tucker, Sal Tovella and Whitey Gerken were other stock-car champions at the raceway over the years.

    By 1960, the racing had lost some of its luster with weekly crowds beginning to dwindle. A series of USAC-sanctioned stock-car events were held in 1967, but the big crowds were a thing of the past. Four events were held in 1968 with Tovella having the honor of winning the last late-model feature held there June 9, 1968.

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    Stan Kalwasinski
    Stan Kalwasinski has been involved in auto racing for nearly 50 years as both a writer and photographer. He has a particular interest in Chicagoland auto racing — primarily stock car racing. Look for him at tracks in the Chicagoland region of Illinois.