“I had her above the white line. I wanted to get her up to the railing…and then I threw the center main bearing and it just dropped off the course. There was smoke from the hot oil sliding by the metal and Jack Bowers was so scared her just sat there and hollered ‘Shut her off! Shut her off! We’d hit bottom and he didn’t even know it.”
That’s Charlie Kruse, an old-time Santa Rosa garageman, 83 years old this month, talking. He’s telling about his adventures in his “build-up” King-8 race car on the Cotati Speedway, Sonoma County’s brief encounter with big-time auto racing in the speed-crazy 1920s. The Cotati Speedway was the brainchild of a promoter named Jack Prince. It lasted just two seasons but it brought the top race drivers of the day to the county. Barney Oldfield, Tommy Milton, Ralph DePalma, Peter dePaolo –they all did their turn on the banked wooden track. Their incentive was the big prize money offered on the AACB circuit –the American Automobile Association Contest Board, which included the Indianapolis. Pretty fair company for Cotati. The standard purse was $25,000- with $10,000 to the winner. Charlie Kruse and his friend Bowers were racing just for the fun of it, having “sneaked in” to the track in the off season just to see what the King-8 and a cutdown Model T racer that they had built would do on the boards. Charlie and Frank (Barney) Richardson, another Santa Rosa mechanic who worked on cars for the speedway, talked to Dorothy Walters of the local Horseless Carriage Club of America about the track last spring. Their memories and the recollections of others are all that remains of the short-lived auto racing adventure that brought people from all over Northern California packing into Cotati on a racing weekend. Mrs. Walters, who set out to write a short piece for the HCCA newsletter became to intrigued with the stories of the track that she put together a booklet entitled, “They Burned Up the Track,” a history of the speedway. While Dottie Walters doesn’t say so in her story, other old-timers recall that the expensive track, built with a staggering two million board feet of lumber, mostly 2X4s laid on the edge, was rumored to be part of a scam, a stock scandal that put the track out of business within 2 years. It was built in 1921 and dismantled in ’22. The contractor was Santa Rosan Walter Proctor and 150 carpenters worked two months on the giant structure. Completed it rose 26 feet into the air on the straightaways and nearly 60 feet on the curves, supported by a complex scaffolding of heavy timbers. Kruse recalls that it took four railroad cars of nails to put it together, the 2by’s being nailed in in short lengths. Dwight Herrick, a sonoman interviewed several years ago by the Press Democrat, worked on it as a carpenter. He never saw a race although he once got as far as the gate before the $5 admission charge turned him back. Later, he told our reporter, he’d learned that Barney Oldfield raced that day and he’d always regretted the decision to turn back. “I would have paid $25 to see Oldfield drive 80 miles per hour around that wooden track,” he said. Chances are the great Oldfield got the speed up beyond that. Barney Richardson worked on a Leach Special in his Santa Rosa garage for driver Frank Elliot who later won the feature race – at 101 mph!
Barney, 20 years old at the time and in love with the internal combustion engine, watched that race with mixed feelings. First, he recalls being enormously proud that the car he had helped prepare had won. But there was some disappointment also for Driver Elliot had offered Barney the second spot, the chance to ride with him as his mechanic. “My share would have been $2,000 if I had gone,” Barney remembers. “But my mother talked me out of it.” Barney’s role in the preparation of the Elliot car was standard procedure for local garagemen. “The drivers would come here about two weeks before the race,” he told Mrs. Walters.” They would come here, there famous racers and rent space from one of us garagemen and they’d prepare the car for the track, change ratios in the rear ends and do all kinds of things to the motor for this particular track.” “It was a short track,” says Charlie Kruse, “So they’d put low speed in the back. On longer tracks, you see they’d stay in high and get the rpms into mileage around.” It was a short track but it was might, as Kruse attested to after his clandestine attempt to get his car going fast enough to get above the white line at the top of the track and hold her there. And there were pitfalls, particularly after the track sat in the weather for a few months and 2X4s loosened. “I pert near got it with a loos stick up on the turn,” says Kruse. “The T had no fenders and the stick went right through the wheel with a loud band. We just zzzzzzed right down the bottom.” Kruse wasn’t the only “sneaky” track racer. Barney Richardson recalls a “grudge race” between motorcyclist Ang Rossi on his Indian and the “Harley Davidson gang.” “A lot of people went down to see that race.” Says Barney, “And Ang really showed them what his new Indian could do. You know Ang can’t be beat when it comes to fixing up a motor and he won that race doing 98 mph.” The track was a great draw, too, for the neighborhood bicyclists. Walt Christensen, our Rod & Gun columnist, was a 14-year-old easy rider in those days, tempted to test his speed with his Cotati buddies. Try as they might, Walt recalls, they could never get enough speed out of their 1920 Schwinns to stay on the top side. Walt recalls that track for other reasons. He made pocket money there one season, selling ice cream bars to the spectators in the infield. It was great while it lasted. But Charlie Kruse seems to recall that there was a fire, maybe an arson fire, after the second season. And then it sat neglected for several months and boards loosened until it became a hazard. Finally it was dismantled and the lumber in it used to build the grandstand for the Luther Burbank Jubilee, a town celebration held near the site of the old Lincoln School. But you can’t dismantle the old-timers’ memories: “Our butters pert near went through the seat. It was aboard on a fram. And the smoke would fill this room.” Charlie Kruse and his racing T. Those were the days when cars were SOMEthing, let me tell you.
Copyright the Press Democrat June 22, 1980
Barney Richardson’s garage where the race cars were modified. Richardson is second form the left.
Cotati, 1922. Frank Bowers and Charlie Kruse in the ‘T’
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