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AAA Transition to USAC
When the calendar
flipped to begin 1955, the American Automobile Association began its 54th
season as the major sanctioning body for auto racing in the United States. AAA ran racing with an iron hand and
drivers with aspirations of competing at the Indianapolis ‘500’ were forced to
work their way up the AAA sanctioned ladder of midget and sprint car events
before receiving authorization from AAA officials to compete in the most
prestigious race in the country.
After Danny Kladis copped the opening 100-lapper in the Allen County War
Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, IN and Chuck Rodee became the 1955 AAA Indoor
Midget Champion, the 1955 season was off and running.
As the outdoor
season began the ’55 campaign turned dark when Larrett ‘Larry’ Crockett was
fatally injured in a AAA sprint car event on the dirt mile at Langhorne on March
20. During the Crockett Memorial at
Langhorne on May 1, 1955, veteran Mike Nazaruk had his Ted Nyquist Offy sprinter
at the front of the feature field, but made contact with the outside rail and
suffered fatal injuries during the vicious series of flips which ensued.
Larrett Crockett, Charlie Engle Offy 31
Mike Nazaruk, Ted Nyquist Offy 29
PA, March 20, 1955
PA, May 1, 1955
When the open
wheel elite convened at Indianapolis,
veteran driver, Manuel ‘Manny’ Ayulo, was fatally injured during a practice
crash on May 16th. With
many competitors believing bad things come in threes, there was hope to finally
get some positive press for auto racing’s jewel on the schedule, the Indy ‘500’. These hopes were dashed when two-time
and defending Indianapolis
champion, Bill Vukovich, was killed pursuing his third straight Indy win. Despite the tragedy, Bob Sweikert
drove the John Zink Offy to victory in the ‘500’ and parlayed his Indy success
into the 1955 AAA National Championship.
Sweikert added a third crown in 1955, also notching the AAA Midwest
Sprint Car championship, the only man to ever claim three AAA titles in the same
Manuel Ayulo and Bill Vukovich were both killed
at Indy in 1955. Ayulo in practice –
he was not wearing his seat belt and his pockets were full of wrenches and
Vukovich while leading the ‘500’ in search of his third consecutive Indy win.
Sweikert won the 1955 '500' driving John Zink’s Kurtis 500D roadster #6
Vukovich fatal at Indy was big news in the United
States, two events in Europe
shocked the racing world. On May 26th,
Alberto Ascari, the 1952 and 1953 World Champion as a Suderia Ferrari driver,
crashed to his death in practice for the Monza, Italy
Grand Prix. Ascari had qualified a
Ferrari for Indy in 1952 and was well-liked in the states.
Alberto Ascari qualified his Ferrari 19th at Indy in 1952, finished
31st, 40 laps.
loss of Ascari, the 23rd running of the French Grand Prix
d’Endurance, known better in the states as the 24 Hours of LeMans, June 11-12,
1955, made world headlines, just 35 laps into the event. After race leader, Mike Hawthorn,
received a late signal to pit, he made an adroit right to enter pit lane,
assisted by the new disc brakes on his Jaguar D-type. Lance Macklin, driving a slower
Austin-Healey 100 which Hawthorn had just passed, swerved to the left to avoid a
collision because he couldn’t match the braking power of the Jaguar. The maneuver put the Healey in the
path of Pierre Levegh’s #20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, which made contact with
Macklin’s left rear and catapulted into the main grandstand at 150 mph. Front end suspension parts, sheet
metal, and even the engine separated from the chassis and knifed through the
crowd. The fuel cell burst into
flames and ignited the remains of the car’s magnesium alloy body causing a fire
in the grandstand, which spread when firefighters attempted to use water to put
out the flames. In the end, Levegh
and 83 spectators were pronounced dead at the scene with upward of 120
spectators injured. The world’s
newspapers had a field day.
Pierre Levegh’s #20 Mercedes-Benz takes flight at LeMans, June 11, 1955.
Three views of the horrific LeMans crash scene.
successes in 1955, Bob Sweikert did not escape personal tragedy in 1955. He owned his own two-car AAA sprint
car operation and his sprint car teammate, Jerry Hoyt, was fatally injured on
the Oklahoma City half mile dirt on
July 10th as he chased his boss in the opening heat race. Hoyt was the Indy pole winner in 1955
and had married only two weeks before his fatal crash.
After six months
of horrific press for the sport of auto racing, U.S. Senator Richard Neuberger,
Democrat, Oregon, rose before his colleagues on the floor of the senate on July
12, 1955 and said, ‘Mr. President, I think the time has come to forbid
automobile racing and similar carnages in the United States. I doubt if there is as much bloodshed
in Spanish bullrings as today is occurring on automobile race tracks in this
country. Now, even women racing
drivers are getting killed in fiery and dreadful wrecks......I believe the
time has come for the United States to be a civilized nation and stop carnage on
racetracks. The deaths on our
highways are sad and tragic, but at least they are not purposely staged for
profit and for the delight of thousands of screeching spectators.’ As the national sanctioning body for
professional racing the country, AAA was thrust into the middle of the
On August 3, 1955
Andrew J. Sordoni, president of AAA, released this statement: ‘Upon completion of the schedule of
events already undertaken for the year 1955, the AAA will ‘disassociate’ itself
completely from all types of automobile racing in the United States.' After the initial shock of the AAA
decision, many in racing circles saw this development as an opportunity, rather
than a dilemma.
Motor Speedway owner, Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman called a meeting on August 10th
at the Board of Health Auditorium in Indy for all racing personnel affected by
the AAA withdrawal. 216 men from all
corners of the country attended, realizing they were now responsible for their
Ober, of the Speedway, IN Magistrate’s Court, presided over the meeting and
presented a plan to form a new organization, with representation from drivers,
owners, mechanics, and promoters, plus a representative from the Indianapolis
Speedway, another party, vitally interested, but not directly involved in
racing, and a member of the present AAA Contest Board to provide continuity.
After a short
recess for deliberation, the groups returned to the meeting with their
representative choices. Drivers
chose 20-year veteran Duane Carter (Sr.), owners tapped Bob Estes, owner of a
Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Inglewood,
and veteran sprint and championship owner, promoters nominated Tom Marchese,
head of the Milwaukee,
WI mile operation, and Herb Porter was voted to
represent the mechanics. Not
surprisingly, Tony Hulman was the Speedway representative, Col. Arthur
Herrington, president of the current AAA Contest Board, was chosen, and Judge
Ober became the ‘interested party’ on the new board.
All the men
selected realized the responsibility they had accepted. Judge Ober was named the chairman of
the committee and outlined their objectives as 1) raise the capital necessary to
launch a nationwide sanctioning body, 2) develop competition by-laws for the
conduct of midget, sprint, late model stock, championship, and sports car events
which will be ratified by their membership of drivers, owners, mechanics, and
promoters, 3) develop rules for all levels of competition, investigate an
affiliation with the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in Europe,
and examine criteria to improve track safety for sanctioned tracks, 4) develop
an organization to enhance the future of American auto racing through a
nationwide public relations program.
While the details
of the new sanctioning body were being developed, America’s
professional racers completed the 1955 AAA schedule. Only the death of popular Jack
McGrath during the running of the Bobby Ball Memorial championship car race at
the Arizona State
Fairgrounds in Phoenix
on November 6th marred the rest of the season. When the dust settled, Tommy
Hinnershitz had won his fifth career AAA Eastern Sprint Car championship,
‘Cactus’ Jack Turner from Spokane, WA repeated as AAA National Midget Champion,
and Frank Mundy won the 1955 AAA Late Model Stock Car championship.
Popular Jack McGrath was fatally injured at
on 11-6-55. Oley, PA’s Tommy
drove his Miracle Power Offy #2 to his fifth AAA Eastern Sprint Car title.
Jack Turner won his second consecutive AAA
National Midget championship in 1955. Frank Mundy topped
the AAA Stock Car division in 1955.
Over the final
four months of 1955 Judge Ober and his committee tackled each of their
committee’s assignments and their efforts were ratified by the men they
represented. Bob Estes is credited
with proposing the name of the new sanctioning body - the United States Auto
Club, i.e. USAC, and when Gene Harley drove Ray Bolander’s #8 Offy midget under
the checkers at the Coliseum in Fort Wayne, IN on January 8, 1956, the event was
USAC sanctioned. The new sanctioning
body presented a full season of racing in 1956 and is still sanctioning races
sixty seasons later.