Almost everyone that has searched for dirt track racing photos has seen the image of Charlie “Reds” Musselman flying through the air as if he was bucked off of his 1950s era Sprint Car. This is an iconic photo that accurately represents the dangers of Sprint Car racing during that time. The complete picture of the photo is even more interesting than the image itself.
The shot was taken at Pennsylvania’s Langhorne Speedway. “The Horne” was legendary among drivers for being one of the most dangerous tracks in motorsports.
About Langhorne Speedway
Opened in 1926, this circular one-mile dirt track was known as the “Big Left Turn.” It hosted one of NASCAR’s inaugural races in 1949. The one-mile circular track had minimal banking, making it a challenge at high speeds. During its operation, 18 drivers, five motorcycle riders, three spectators, and one flagman were killed at the track.
In 1965 at Langhorne, one of the most spectacular comebacks in auto racing history began with serious burns and injuries to Mel Kenyon. Kenyon would later return to racing to place third at the Indy 500 and win numerous national midget racing championships.
In addition to being one of the most deadly tracks of the time, Langhorne was also known for being the first one-mile track built specifically for cars. Most others were fairground horse tracks that hosted race cars.
The track catering chiefly to AAA & USAC’s Championship Car division. The AAA-sanctioned Championship Car division held races between 1930 and 1955 when the organization pulled out of racing. Then USAC-sanctioned Championship Car races took over from 1956 to 1970. Langhorne was also featured prominently in NASCAR‘s early years and hosted at least one NASCAR-sanctioned race every year from 1949 to 1957.
Musselman was one of the best Sprint Car racers on the East coast and occasional driver in AAA Champ Car division. A post-WWII Navy veteran (1946-1947), Musselman was as tough as they came.
After the war, Musselman opened a tavern near Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and the Lamb Hotel in Trappe, Pennsylvania. He also became a regional Sprint Car driver. Both occupations lead to many fights and Musselman was never one to back down from confrontation. He was a bonafide tough man in every conceivable aspect.
On the first day of September in 1957, the Eastern AAA Sprint Cars held a double 50-lap feature race at the notorious Langhorne Speedway. Fans were treated to a fast-paced feature for the first race. Driver Van Johnson won with an average speed of 102mph driving the #55 car owned by Sam Traylor. Bill Randall finished in Second and Charles Musselman took Third place.
The second 50-lap feature was set to be another barn-burner with up and coming driver Ralph Liguori in the field. Things were going well with Johnny Thomson leading the race until lap 29 when Musselman’s #77 bicycled on the rough grooves on the surface that Langhorne was known for. Unable to recover at over 100mph, Musselman’s car flipped and tossed the driver high into the air.
Photographer Walter Chernokle was in the right spot, at the right time, and caught a legendary series of photos that were seen around the world when LIFE magazine posted a full-page spread of the action shots. The public found it amazing how Mussleman was thrown from the car at that speed while flipping. Other than being knocked unconscious, he suffered no injuries – not even a broken bone.
Oddly, the driver was tossed from the car shoeless. His driving shoes were found inside the car. Johnny Thomson continued to lead the race until the white flag lap when his engine expired. Ralph Liguori took over on lap 49 and finished in First-place.
Charlie Musselman retired from racing in 1958. He continued to operate the hotel with his wife Shirley until the 1970s when they moved to Venice, Florida. Charlie passed away at Melech Hospice House in Temple Terrace, Florida on July 2, 2014. He is long remembered as the driving that flew through the air, at “the track that ate heroes.”