Over the last few years vintage racing has become more and more popular with racefans. There is no denying that these drivers of these historic machines were the true heroes of our sport. Many times they would disregard safety, and simply raced because they loved to do it. Our very own tech editor Bobby Kimbrough has ventured onto a project that we wanted to make you aware of. Bobby had the opportunity to drive a vintage midget at the dirt track at Willow Springs, and ever since then has been bitten by the bug to own one of these racers. After speaking with him numerous times and seeing the clear passion he has for these machines we knew we had to document his journey with this build.
The popular 90’s music band Bare Naked Ladies discovered a social movement that was migrating to classic products, and on their “Maybe You Should Drive” album, the band included the song “Everything Old is New Again.” The album title and song title seemed more than appropriate for my latest project car, a vintage 1950’s Kurtis Kraft midget racecar clone.
Midget car racing is a relative newcomer to the open wheel racing scene when compared to Sprint cars and Champ cars, but the affordable little cars became one of the stepping stones to higher profile racing. Along the way, these race cars and their drivers became so popular that new heroes were made. As a result, midget auto racing continues to prosper to this day, and the vintage midgets are making a huge resurgence back into the racing scene.
I was given the opportunity to get behind the wheel of this Shilala midget last Thanksgiving at the Walt James Memorial race at Willow Springs. Refusing to get out of the car after the practice session, I was completely hooked. Building one of these vintage racecars would become my obsession.
Officially recognized as starting on August 10, 1933 at the Loyola High School Stadium in Los Angeles, Midget Auto Racing thrived on small board tracks and tiny dirt lots until the purpose built Gilmore Stadium was built in 1934. Spreading like wildfire to dirt tracks that were springing up across the country, the popular midget race cars found adoring fans around the world. Initially at Australia at Melborne’s Olympic Park in 1934, the mighty midgets went on to carve their reputation on every continent.
I was first introduced to the vintage midgets at Perris Auto Speedway when the “Rolling Museum” of the Western Racing Association was on the undercard of one of the USAC/CRA Sprint Car races. Stopping to talk with the drivers and crews of these timeless machines, I was fortunate enough to meet Dale and Rick Eriksen, owners of the #51 Shilala midget. A few more meetings down the road and I was rewarded with the opportunity to drive the Eriksen’s midget at Willow Springs on the dirt track named after the WRA founder, Walt James Stadium.
The Justice Brothers Museum has one of the largest collections of Kurtis Kraft midgets in the world.
My involvement took a bigger interest when we were invited to tour the Justice Brother’s Museum in Duarte, California. Ed Justice Jr. showed a few of us around the museum and gave us the background on every car in the buildings. We later found out that the Justice Brother’s museum has one of the most extensive collections of Kurtis Kraft Midgets in the world. At that point, I knew I was going to build one!
The company built midget cars, quartermidgets, sports cars, sprint cars and USAC Championship Cars. It was founded by Frank Kurtis when he built his own midget car chassis in the late 1930s.
Kurtis Kraft created over 550 ready-to-run midget cars, and 600 kits. The Kurtis-Kraft chassis midget car featured a smaller version of the Offenhauser motor. The National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame describes the combination as “virtually unbeatable for over twenty years.” Kurtis-Kraft created 120 Indianapolis 500 cars, including five winners.
Kurtis sold the midget car portion of the business to Johnny Pawl in the late 1950s. Frank Kurtis was the first non-driver inducted in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
After checking out Ebay, RacingJunk.com and a few of the other places online to buy a vintage car, I quickly discovered that a serialized Kurtis Kraft midget was going to set us back a pretty penny. Between $15,000 to $45,000 to be exact. It was that moment that my pocketbook changed the plan.
You’ve probably heard of starving students? Let me enlighten you on what happens to starving college students: They become starving motorsports writers.
Pausing to think about how these racers used to do it in the 1930s, I wondered if a copy could be made these days using the same parts and technology that they used back then. So I set off to find some blueprints.
After a couple of months searching the internet, not a single Kurtis Kraft midget build plans could be found … not one… nowhere.
The solution seemed to be simple, I would build it from scratch using photos, scale models and actual measurements from Kurtis Kraft midgets. Making sure that we took the right steps to get this started, I contacted Ed Justice Jr and asked him for any advice. “Join the WRA,” he replied, adding; “You’ll be surrounded by people that have the same passion and can help you.”
Wasting no time at all, the next day I called Bob Mastroleo, President of the Western Racing Association and joined WRA.
This 1947 Kurtis Kraft midget was built by Frank Kurtis at the famous Kurtis Kraft shop in Glendale, California. The 7th out of several hundred that were built. Originally ordered by Marvin Edwards of Hollywood Spring and Axle, it was known as the “Hollywood Spring and Axle Special.” After being driven to victory by many drivers, including Parnelli Jones, the car was sold to A.J. Foyt who went on to place 3rd or better in 33% of the races that he ran in with this car. The last race Foyt ran the car in was the 197 Astro Grand Prix in Houston, Texas. He won the 100 lap main event. The car was completely restored by Ed Justice Sr.
The plan has become to build a late 1940s/early 1950s Kurtis Kraft tube chassis midget, powered by a vintage Flathead Ford V8-60 engine like Rodger Ward drove for Vic Edelbrock Sr. The Edelbrock Midget is so popular that I’ve been kicking around different paint schemes to highlight one of the other legends from Southern California: Parnelli Jones. Getting my hands on an Offenhauser engine is highly unlikely so we’ll just have to settle for the Parnelli Jones/J.C. Agajanian 98 jr paint scheme and substitute the baby flathead engine until a suitable and budget friendly Offenhauser can be found.
After a long and arduous search, I found a worn out 1939 Flathead Ford V8-60 that was in dire need of a complete overhaul.
Next up – The Powerplant
I managed to get my hands on some serious tubing, but the next hurdle I had to over come was finding a vintage powerplant. After a long and arduous search, I found a worn out 1939 Flathead Ford V8-60 that was in dire need of a complete overhaul. Keeping the project vintage was extremely important to me personally. Little did I realize that finding a 73-year old engine, with a decent price tag, was going to be much more difficult that I thought.
If I had sticker shock at the cost of a worn out engine, imagine my blood pressure when I started pricing parts for the rebuild. Obviously I needed to adjust my affordability scale for vintage parts compared to modern off-the-shelf engine parts. The simple fact is that components for pre-WWII engines are not as abundant and scarcity makes them more valuable.
While my dream build took a hit on the financial side, the passion didn’t subside and sacrifices will be made to finish the project.
In the next project update, I’ll show how we came to acquire our engine and the issues we have been running into with the frame. Until then we leave you with this rumor: They say if you hold Harmon Collins magneto to your ear, you can hear the mighty midgets running around Gilmore Stadium.