The Ghosts of NASCAR
The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500
By JOHN HAVICK
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2013 John Havick
All rights reserved.
The story begins in 1947 in the sleepy Iowa town of Harlan. Johnny Beauchamp's journey into stock car racing began on a warm August day in that year, when he was twenty-four years old. He stepped out of his parents' house, not bothering to lock the door—this was the nation's heartland. The shabby, small frame house on the north side of town only cost a few dollars a month, although the family labored to pay even this little amount.
The Beauchamps originally lived near Rich Hill, Missouri, where Johnny's grandparents are buried, and he was born in Clinton, Missouri, before the family resettled to a farm close to Irwin, Iowa, a small village a few miles from Harlan, the larger community. Later on, they moved into town.
On this day Beauchamp's destination was the local track. He was eager to test what he sensed about himself. He loved to go fast but wondered if he had a speed limit, particularly in a race. He slowly drove along a Harlan street, avoiding the ruts in the dusty dirt road. In this part of town, city water pipes and sewers were nonexistent. The paved streets, large houses, and indoor plumbing were on the south side of town inhabited by businessmen, prosperous retired farmers, and skilled tradesmen. Occasionally, for amusement, south Harlan residents attended a stock car race, but they generally believed racing was low class—better left to the folks who lived on the north side of town.
Beauchamp, a confident man with a happy-go-lucky attitude, ignored elite opinion and found his life with people who had interests similar to his. He had an urge to race and little promise for anything else. An even more pressing reason to go into auto racing was the need to support his family.
At six foot two, lean, and movie-star handsome, Beauchamp in tenth grade had captivated Nettie Belle Densmore, a local girl two years his senior. But Johnny also was smitten, so much so he told Nettie Belle he was eighteen, and she did not find out differently until they were married. He quit high school, and they moved in with Beauchamp's parents on the farm. In 1941 Nettie Belle and John became the parents of a baby boy, Robert Beauchamp, who was born at his Densmore grandparents' house in Harlan. The next year, William Beauchamp was born in the same house.
John Beauchamp struggled to earn money. At first, the scarcity of employment opportunities in rural southwest Iowa led him to a federal government project operated by the Civilian Conservation Corps, located in Melbourne, Iowa, 70 miles away from Nettie Belle and Harlan. Then, searching for a new life, he enlisted in the army and was issued a uniform, but the military soon released him after a physical exam discovered a heart blockage. He returned to Harlan. Still looking for a new direction, he packed up Nettie Belle and the kids, moved to Davenport Street in Omaha, and drove a Checker cab.
But the move to Omaha did not solve the young family's difficulties. On September 15, 1944, Beauchamp divorced Nettie Belle. His adventuresome spirit rejected life with a daily routine, scratching out an existence in monotonous work. A spontaneous force propelled him away from married, settled life. When his son, Robert, was a teenager, he recalled that his father had been driving down an unfamiliar highway and had said to him, "I wonder where that side road goes?" And in an instant, Beauchamp wheeled the car around and turned off the main highway to explore. He was restless and carefree.
After the divorce, Nettie Belle's parents became more involved with their daughter's life. Adjacent to their house in Harlan on Fifth and Walnut Street was a lot they owned with a one-room house, which the family now expanded to two rooms. Nettie Belle slept in the back room and the two boys slept on fold-away beds in the front room. They hauled water into the house from a cistern.
When World War II ended, Beauchamp returned through an ocean of cornfields to the Harlan area. Now twenty-three, he became a used car salesman. He bunked with his parents, whose house was just a few blocks from the race track on Harlan's northeastern perimeter.
In 1947, when Beauchamp made the short drive to the track, Harlan, Iowa, population 4,000, was the Shelby County seat. Consequently, the county fairgrounds were located there, complete with a one-half-mile oval, surrounded by well-clipped grass and a freshly painted grandstand. It was a handsome venue for the annual county fair. In an era before television, local residents, eager for diversion, flocked to the fair.
Fair races had no single format or rules; the main goal at the Shelby County Fair was a good show. On the schedule the day Beauchamp first raced were 4-and 6-lappers billed as stock car races. In these events it was all about winning, and the vehicles could be in a variety of shapes and sizes. The race card also included less serious events for which driving skill was not the only factor, including two 6-lap novelty contests that combined skill with silly activities, such as drivers stopping midrace to drink a glass of water or enter the stands to scavenge articles from the spectators. A final contest, the 10-lap Australian pursuit race, required that after each lap, the last place car drop out.
Aside from testing his potential as a race driver, Beauchamp entered these events in hopes of winning desperately needed cash. He was struggling to meet his responsibilities. At first, it seemed as if he'd made a good bet. With spectators cheering and hooting for their fellow citizens, he won the first 4-lap race and earned twenty dollars, the equivalent of several days' pay for a car salesman. Significantly, Beauchamp appeared to be a more talented driver than most of the other amateurs that day.
But one competitor was difficult to defeat. In the 6-lapper, Beauchamp pushed his car into the lead. Suddenly a car sped past him but slowed too much for the corner, hugging the inside position. Beauchamp jammed his foot on the accelerator and flung his auto high and wide into the turn, outside of the other car. Coming out of the corner he sped in front. Once again, the competitor gathered speed on the straightaway and accelerated around Beauchamp. In the end, Beauchamp lost the event. Worse, in the heat of competition for first place, Hooky Christensen slipped past him to finish second, but still Beauchamp had won thirty-five dollars for the day.
Even more important was that he became acquainted with the man who had beaten him: Dale Swanson, a local mechanic. Five years earlier, Swanson had lived with his mother on a farm a few miles north of Harlan. The family had originally resided 40 miles away from Harlan near Mondamin, Iowa. When Dale was thirteen his father died, and he juggled completing high school with helping his mother operate the farm. After graduation, he and his mother relocated to the farm near Harlan. Swanson married an attractive local girl, red-haired Phyllis Kohls, and she moved to the farm with Dale and his mother. Dale Jr. was born in September 1942.
Swanson, however, was not especially happy with the life of a farmer. One day while slogging through the mud and worse, he slipped, fell, and was covered in pig slop. Disgusted, he concluded, "I'm finished with farming." In 1942 he and his family moved to Harlan, and there he set up a shop in which he converted conventional brakes to hydraulic brakes.
Swanson supplemented the repair and brake shop business by helping farmers with his custom hay baling service. At first, he lost valuable time shifting equipment from one farm job to the next because his tractor crawled along the highway. To solve the problem, he tinkered with the engine, and soon afterwards that tractor could zip along. His magic with a tractor engine would soon transfer to a more competitive endeavor, making him a much-sought-after mechanic among midwestern racers.
On the day at the Shelby County Fair races that Beauchamp and Swanson met, Swanson entered a fast car and won two 6-lap events as well as garnering several other good finishes, netting a grand total of $105. So the skinny Swanson looked at Beauchamp and said, "You turn the corners real good and my car goes fast. Maybe we should team up."
Beauchamp, aware that Swanson had the fastest car, gave him a big friendly smile, and nodded. "I believe we should race together."
Beauchamp and Swanson's partnership changed the direction of their lives.
Racing among the Cornfields
Soon the partnership between Swanson and Beauchamp was thriving. The two men's personalities meshed. Beauchamp was slow to offend. He was an easygoing, congenial guy. Somewhat reserved, he was careful with words. A few people suspected his silence may have concealed a man with an agenda. A local contemporary once reflected that "Johnny was a sly son-of-a-gun."
Swanson, on the other hand, was direct and more likely to voice his opinions. He had the demeanor of a man who was right—especially about automobiles. Swanson, in his white coveralls, could be mistaken for a physician about to perform a delicate operation.
Race driver and Swanson customer Junior Brunick recalls his mechanic once disagreeing with Swanson over the proper setup of the suspension system. Swanson ignored the advice of Brunick's mechanic. The mechanic persisted in doubting Swanson's approach, but Swanson's confidence was unshakeable. "Why don't you try it my way and see what happens?" When the car took the track, Swanson's setup worked well and the issue was settled.
Beauchamp, not a mechanic, happily gave Swanson full rein to build the cars. Born on Washington's birthday in 1918 and five years Beauchamp's senior, the mechanic was a responsible married man and by 1947 the father of two sons, Dale Jr. and newly born Richard. Swanson did the worrying and provided the mature stability to their enterprise.
Beauchamp and Swanson lived in a land of cornfields interrupted by small towns connected by narrow highways. Settled at a time when the first capital of Iowa had been determined by how far a horse could travel in a day from the Mississippi River, the rural towns of western Iowa were spaced far enough apart to support local farmers. Atlantic, Avoca, Denison, and Missouri Valley were within a 30-mile radius of Harlan. These isolated communities, linked together in an informal social network, spawned all kinds of amusement.
One unusual bit of entertainment was the Manning "catsup murder." A man was gunned down on the street, a pool of blood appeared, and two men jumped out of a car, threw the body in the car, and sped away. The gangland-style slaying flashed on national headlines. The police eventually discovered that several high school students from Audubon, a neighboring community, had staged the entire affair, complete with tomato juice and ketchup for blood.
A more conventional amusement was the annual county fair, an event that was common in many regions and states. At the Shelby County Fair in which Beauchamp and Swanson competed, spectators could see horse and motorcycle contests in addition to auto races. Each county fairground served as a community entertainment center, not only during the fair, but for other events throughout the year. Auto racing on the county tracks, particularly on holidays, became an activity that connected the communities and made southwestern Iowa an incubator for motor sports.
One modest local racing venue not associated with any county fairground sprang up at Anita, Iowa, where Claus Behnken, local Ford dealer and farmer, carved a track out of his pastureland. Because the competition resulted in banged up, dented automobiles, scarcely anyone was foolhardy enough to risk a passenger car in a race. To encourage locals to participate in the fun, Behnken hauled old cars from Chicago for his contests. A rumor circulated that his cars were "special purchases" that departed Chicago in the middle of the night—in other words, they were stolen. His races entertained the local people and gave the serious drivers a chance to practice. Eventually, Behnken became one of the many race car owners involved with Johnny Beauchamp.
Dale Swanson and Johnny Beauchamp were not the only ones to gain experience and confidence on the local community tracks; Dewayne "Tiny" Lund also began his driving career there. He loved motorized competition of every kind and virtually banged and slammed and willed himself to be a success. "Lund lived to race," and like Beauchamp, he was to become a recognized champion and top competitor—but he also was to become a star, in part because of his dynamic personality.
In the end, no fewer than six Harlan daredevils discovered they had talent and seized the opportunity to improve their skills at these community contests. Swanson, Beauchamp, Lund, as well as Bobby Parker, Hooky Christensen, and Wayne Selser, all claiming Harlan as home, went on to test their skills in events for more money and more glory.
The Mafia Race Track
wherever Meyer Lansky was, dead bodies turned up—a grand total of forty-three, according to one of his associates.
Lansky was an East Coast gangster, a New York Mafia mogul and Bugsy Siegel's pal. So what was he doing in 1941 on the streets of the Omaha–Council Bluffs metropolitan area? Lansky, unwittingly, was about to build Beauchamp's "home track" and the biggest stock car venue between Chicago and Denver. Because the nationally known Ak-sar-ben (Nebraska spelled backwards) track had stopped horse racing during World War II, Lansky decided there was an opening for dog racing. Diminutive and easily mistaken for a businessman, Lansky settled in at the swankiest Omaha hotel, the Fontenelle, and signed a five-year lease for property on the Iowa side of the Missouri River. From the $50,000 track and grandstand that Lansky constructed in Council Bluffs, Iowa, spectators could see the river and the city of Omaha.
The Kennel Club, Lansky's name for his track, circumvented the Iowa law against gambling because fans bet on "options" to buy dogs. If the dog won, the option was sold back for a profit. Some 4,000 people packed the grandstand on July 11, 1941, for the first race. Dog racing boomed in Council Bluffs. In 1943 the eighty-six-night season netted the city $140,000 of tax revenue.
Although Lansky himself was a model citizen, the problem was that the races attracted criminals and gambling clubs. The Stork Club and the Riviera Club popped up on the less-traveled South Omaha Bridge River Road. The gambling was rough, wide open, and professional enough that participants knew how to avoid getting caught. When the police raided one night, all they found was 150 people quietly watching a floor show.
In 1944 Council Bluffs elected a reform mayor who shut down Lansky's operation. When a different mayor was elected two years later, the dog races again seemed possible, but the state government squelched them by closing legal loopholes. Yet even today, signs of Meyer Lansky linger. A restaurant—Lanskys—adopted the notorious gangster's name even though its owners were no relation to the famous gangster, and it still operates in the Council Bluffs–Omaha area.
After the demise of dog racing, the old Kennel Club track and grandstand was managed in 1947 by the Council Bluffs government, which held a variety of activities at the venue. Then, however, the city was offered a proposal it could not refuse. The brothers Abe and Louis Slusky, operators of a concession stand in Omaha's Krug Park and an amusement park and race track in Houston, Texas, bought fourteen acres on the Iowa side near the approach to the Ak-sar-ben Bridge and leased the track and grandstand area from the city of Council Bluffs. The reported cost for the entire enterprise was $250,000, and the result was a huge, contiguous parcel. Louis Slusky operated their Houston site.
Abe Slusky opened Playland, an amusement park, on May 30, 1948. He experimented with different events at the track and grandstand. Omahan Jerome Givens recalls entering a vehicle in an antique auto race at the Playland track, but the owners of these cars quickly realized they were risking a precious possession in a frivolous moment of fun. The antique car races were short-lived.
Excerpted from The Ghosts of NASCAR by JOHN HAVICK. Copyright © 2013 John Havick. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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