Time Machine

TIME MACHINE: The midget car racing boom in Eastern Iowa

Big 'Offy' engines powered little cars

Howard Langton poses before the Wall of Fame at Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center in 2005 when his name was added t
Howard Langton poses before the Wall of Fame at Hawkeye Downs Speedway and Expo Center in 2005 when his name was added to the list of honorees. (Submitted photo)
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Midget racing started in California in the 1930s, but it was most popular in the decades after World War II.

The first midget auto races appeared in Eastern Iowa in 1946 at Ce-Mar Acres. Names of midget car racers — such as Johnny Hobel and Dick Ritchie — showed up regularly on The Gazette sports pages.

In 1950, the races were being held at Hawkeye Downs as part of the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association. In 1951, the midgets were added to the All-Iowa Fair schedule.

The cars in the 1950s and 1960s were often powered by Offenhauser, or “Offy,” engines. The cars were small, the engines big. It was dangerous racing them.

‘Offy’ Engines

Our family’s relationship with Offys and midget racing began when our uncle, Howard Langton, and Adolph Trachta opened the Rapids Body and Fender Co. in 1956 at 1245 F Ave. NE.

The shop offered auto and truck rebuilding, glass and trim work, paint jobs, frame straightening and so on. All of those skills were essential for Langton’s other interest: keeping his midget race cars on the track.

In the first years, Langton’s midget Offy — painted red and white and sporting the number 65 — was driven by local champion Dick Ritchie, winner of five Iowa championships.

On July 16, 1960, at least seven Offys entered the midget race at the Downs, but only one was from Iowa — the Langton car driven by Ritchie

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In May 17, 1961, Langton and Ritchie worked with mechanics up to race time but couldn’t get the car to work. The feature race went to Todd Barton of Madison, Wis.

By May 20, though, the car was ready for an open race that included Offenhausers, Fords and midgets powered by new compact engines. The drivers were from Kansas City, Sioux City, Lincoln, Neb., and Minnesota.

Ritchie finished third in the second heat, but the Offy suffered a broken axle and couldn’t race in the feature. That race went to Bill Horstmeyer of Madison.

Langton reported his car was in top shape for the July 15 races, but that race and one on July 22 were called off because of rain. The race was finally held July 29. Ritchie was involved in a collision with another racer and finished 10th in a damaged car.

On Sept. 18, Ritchie led the field in the 25-lap feature race until the final lap, when Tod Barton of Madison passed the Langton Offy. That was the end of the partnership with Ritchie.

From 1962 Onward

The 1962 midget racing season was supposed to start May 26. Langton hadn’t picked a driver yet for his No. 65 Kurtis Craft that was able to be powered by two engines, an Offenhauser and a V-60, a stock block engine that appeared to be performing well in meets.

The season was canceled in 1962 because of continued rain postponements. It was the same year the Langton-Trachta business partnership ended and Langton became sole owner of Rapids Body and Fender.

Midget racing seemed to disappear from the Cedar Rapids area for the next few years, although in 1963, a slate of races was scheduled for East Moline, Ill., with former Cedar Rapids driver Red Hoyle competing.

Then, on June 26, 1965, two veteran drivers — Langton and Willard Yates — dueled in a special midget race in the Saturday night races sponsored by the Mid-Continent Racing Assocation at Hawkeye Downs. Langton won, even though Yates had been rated third in national midget rankings.

Another win followed on July 22 at the Hawkeye Speedway in Blue Grass, Iowa.

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Langton’s next racing date was Aug. 13 at the All-Iowa Fair. He had both a Chevy II and an Offenhauser engine for the racer. He planned to use the latter for the fair, even though the stock-block racing conversion was more successful in races.

“This is true mainly because they don’t cost nearly as much, but still offer more cubic inches,” Langton said. “I think most of the real die-hard midget fans want to hear that sound that belongs only to the Offy.”

Last Race

In August 1966, the Iowa State Fair reintroduced midget auto racing. Ritchie and Langton entered with their Offenhausers, but the winner was Jim McVay of Independence, Mo.

Langton raced again in 1967 at the All-Iowa Fair.

In August 1968, Red Droste of Waterloo drove Langton’s Offy for a midget race in Independence. It was the car’s last race under Langton’s ownership.

Langton found another outlet for his derring-do — piloting an airplane. He sold his body shop in 1967 and worked for Lefebure, Midwest Automotive and Handler Motors until he retired in 1978. In 2005, his name was added to the Hawkeye Downs Wall of Fame.

His Offy midget car still exists somewhere, painted orange, family members tell me.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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