Dear Doug: My dad was a huge stock car fan, and when my brother and I were growing up, he’d take us to the races at the fairgrounds. After he passed away, we found a few old programs and photos, and I was surprised to find an 11 by 14 picture of a midget racer. Midgets never raced at the fairgrounds that I can remember. What can you tell me about this photo and where do you think it came from?
Rick R., Davenport
Dear Rick: To be polite, I’m told they prefer to be called “little racers.”
Fortunately, perhaps, you and I are both a handful of birthdays shy of remembering midget auto racing in Davenport. But your dad apparently didn’t miss out!
One of the great drivers, mechanics and promoters from the early days of Quad-City area racing was a man named Johnny Gerber. He settled his family in Davenport in 1935, but he had already been racing speedsters since the 1920s.
Though auto racing was discontinued during World War II, at its close, Gerber began promoting the attraction here under the auspices of the Midwest Midget Auto Racing Association.
In fact, he and 11 other investors actually purchased the track at the fairgrounds, and Gerber put in a banked quarter-mile during 1945. Among his partners were Herb Gettert and Julius Geertz. Gettert owned The Prom roller rink on Brady Street as well as the Gettert Roller Rink at the fairgrounds (the building now known as the Starlite Ballroom). Geertz owned the Uptown and Sunset Movie theaters in town and further invested in the fairgrounds when he built the Bel-Air Drive-In during 1948. Meanwhile, Gerber and his wife Rose managed the racing entertainment at what was then known as the Mississippi Valley Amusement Park.
Though stock car competitions were held at the track on occasion, the excitement of the lightweight, uncaged and perilously fast midgets made them more popular by far. However, as time went on, the drivers honed their skills and fewer cars were landing upside-down. Ironically, the thrill-seeking fans became deprived of what they were paying to see and attendance fell.
By 1955, the investors, who had other business affairs to manage, decided to sell the floundering track back to the county. Fortunately, under the management of Homer Melton, racing would flourish again a short time later. Generous purses, coupled with the low investment cost of a stock car, gave rise to numerous rookie drivers and neighborhood heroes to furnish the spinouts, spills and heart-stopping wrecks week after week. And those of us of that generation who became loyal fans will recall that emerging as among the very best was No. 88, Jim Gerber, the son of John and Rose.
Nonetheless, midget auto racing was the irrefutable king of thrills for a decade here. The call was so alluring that the boy who would grow up to be the greatest midget driver of all time is none other than Davenport’s own Mel Kenyon. While attending Davenport High School, he began working at Dick Elliott’s Garage on the corner of East Locust Street and Mississippi Avenue. Elliott owned a midget in those days, but he refused to let Mel drive it for fear of answering to his parents if he should be killed while racing the machine. Not to be discouraged, Kenyon purchased the car outright and the rest is history.
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The photograph you have is of a driver named Dick Ritchie who hailed from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ritchie began competing in 1946 as an 18-year-old, and over his lifetime, he easily won more than 100 feature events, plus nine titles and championships.
For many years, Ritchie was nearly unbeatable on the dirt tracks at Davenport, Rockford, Ill., and elsewhere. In fact, his time for a 100-lap feature run on Sept. 17, 1953, at the Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie, Wis., stands to this day. In 2007, he was elected posthumously into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
Ritchie had a long friendship and business relationship with car owner Leon Mensing, who owned the Ford dealership in Lowden, Iowa. And, as you can see in your photo, Ritchie is sitting in the Mensing-owned, Ford V8-60-powered Kurtis Kraft midget that propelled him to countless wins and championships.
Your photo was no doubt snapped in the early ’60s at one of the Midwest tracks he ran at — perhaps Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.
Vintage midget and stock car photos are very popular with reminiscent daydreamers, and the larger size is uncommon. The right buyer would easily pay $50 for it and perhaps twice that if there is a direct connection to the car or driver.