Published in the Seattle Times online on July 29, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Aug. 1, 2021
Half-size race cars sported big appeal, but not everyone applauded
By Clay Eals
Sports bear an ongoing tension with safety, as violence often shadows physicality. Since childhood, I have alleged this about football, and don’t get me started on boxing or our city’s beloved hydroplanes.
So what are we to think of auto racing? Within Seattle, it’s gone, unless you count a recent trend of midnight hooligans commandeering residential streets to screech tires. Still ringing in many ears, however, are the 1960s radio ads for dragsters and “funny cars” on “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” at Seattle International Raceway (now Pacific Raceways) near Kent.
Nationally, amid the Depression, a popular competitive subset emerged, employing a since-disparaged label: “midget” auto racing. The adjective addressed the cars.
Also known as doodlebugs and “bucking bronchos on wheels” according to a 1938 full-page Camel cigarette ad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the vehicles were half the length and height of a typical sedan but capable of speeds to embody “the World’s Fastest Sport.” The pastime even merited a glorifying 1939 Hollywood film, “Burn ’Em Up O’Connor.”
Several regional venues hosted these races, including one, shown in our “Then” photo, at Playland, the long-cherished amusement park that operated from 1930 to 1961 in unincorporated Broadview, between Aurora Avenue North and Bitter Lake. Playland Stadium, which presented greyhound racing in 1933 until the state shuttered it for betting, opened its track for undersized-car contests in mid-1941.
There each week, up to 6,000 adults (60 cents to $1 admission) and children (30 to 50 cents) witnessed up to three-dozen helmeted drivers seeking fame by propelling tiny racers in hundreds of laps around the quarter-mile dirt oval.
From the start, however, the noise, dust and traffic stirred neighbors’ ire (and lawsuits). Moreover, drivers’ rivalries often crossed the line to serious injury. Twice, in 1941 and 1946, Playland crashes produced fatalities.
Royal Brougham, P-I sports editor, cast an acerbic eye. The enterprise, he wrote, was rigged vaudeville “in which the drivers pull their punches with one eye on the gate receipts.” But he also soberly observed that a driver’s death was a “heavy cost to pay for a two-hour thrill.”
World War II, with rubber and gas rationing, forced a three-year hiatus in the races. In 1954, reflecting post-war growth, Seattle annexed Broadview, and in 1957 a real-estate firm bought the Playland track, converting it to commercial buildings.
Racing under the “midget” name surfaced into the 1980s within Seattle, inside the old Coliseum and Kingdome. Today it endures worldwide, sometimes with a newer descriptor: “open wheel.”
While closing this fossil-fueled saga, dare I note that climate change ensures us all a different kind of race to a safe finish?
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!