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Saturday Night in America

A midget racing car is just what the name implies, a simplified, cut-down version of the real thing. It’s the next big thing in racing, as we revealed in our feature story in the September issue.

The first midgets were stripped-down cycle cars that raced on the West Coast back in the ‘Teens. The format for an affordable, cut-down racing car was revived in the Thirties when a hobby magazine published some blueprints. After World War II, Frank Kurtis built more than 350 Kurtis-Kraft midgets from 1945 to 1952, as midget racing furnished weekly (and even nightly) entertainment for thousands of Americans across the country before television and the Baby Boom changed family life in the Fifties. Today, a midget is still a simple and relatively affordable racing car built to a general formula that hasn’t changed much in more than fifty years.

A comparison of a USAC midget and a USAC championship midget shows fewer differences than you’d expect, since the Focus series is designed to accommodate any midget chassis as long as it is fitted with the required 2.0-liter Focus engine. We had a chance to compare and drive a Focus midget from Keith Iaia’s SCREAM (Small Car Racing Engines And More, which prepares the Focus engines) with the Lewis Racing USAC midget during our test at Irwindale Speedway in Los Angeles.

Both cars feature tubular spaceframes made from chrome-moly steel, solid front and rear axles, direct drive between engine and rear axle, and a tail that incorporates a thirty-five-gallon fuel tank. A Focus midget races on both dirt and pavement, so it’s different in detail from this Lewis car, which is a dedicated pavement racer.

The front suspension of the Focus midget has a solid front axle located by radius arms and a Panhard rod, and it is suspended by coil-over dampers. The rear axle of the Focus midget is located by radius arms and a Watt linkage, while suspension is provided by the dirt-style arrangement of torsion bars and dampers. The USAC car’s rear axle is suspended by coil-over dampers, features a Panhard rod to improve grip from the right-rear tire, and incorporates an anti-roll bar to control body sway. In general, the USAC car’s pavement setup calls for a longer wheelbase, a lower ride height, as much as six inches of wheel offset to improve weight distribution for better cornering, and a steering arm on the right side of the car.

The Focus midget is powered by a SCREAM-prepared, 16-valve, DOHC, 2.0-liter Ford Zetec four-cylinder engine that is adapted to Hilborn mechanical fuel injection and methanol fuel. Add an open exhaust and horsepower rises to 182 hp @ 7000 rpm. The Focus car is fitted with a clutch and starter for ease of running. With the best of everything, SCREAM’s Keith Iaia tells us, a Focus Midget costs around $24,000, of which the engine represents $7850. More information can be found on SCREAM’s Web site, http://www.focusmidgets.com.

The USAC car doesn’t actually cost that much more–until you put an engine into it. The Ed Pink Racing-prepared, OHV, 2.7-liter Ford four-cylinder produces an honest 330 horsepower at the price of about $40,000. We figure the USAC-spec midget represents about $60,000 as it sits in the garage area. There’s actually less difference in the performance of the two cars than you think, because Ford Racing’s on-board instrumentation reveals that a USAC championship midget is only about three tenths of a second quicker around Irwindale’s one-third-mile oval than the Focus midget. This tells us that the Focus midget is a pretty terrific ride, and an effective training car for the USAC big time.

Irwindale Speedway in Los Angeles is the symbol of the nationwide revival in local oval-track racing. Jim Williams built this paved half-mile facility for $9 million five years ago, just as his friend and occasional business associate Roger Penske was putting the finishing touches on California Speedway only a few miles away. Williams adopted elements of Penske’s innovative plan for California Speedway as his own and made customer service the centerpiece of his new facility, so Irwindale Speedway offers all the spectator amenities of a superspeedway at a short-track venue.

There’s a 6500-seat grandstand, fourteen sky-box suites, first-class food service, restrooms with running water, convenient parking and easy freeway access. Because the track is paved, the overall environment is clean, which has particular spectator appeal. There’s even weekly broadcasts of the track’s races on regional cable television.

As a result, Irwindale’s weekly programs of largely NASCAR-sanctioned events have won a loyal (and money-making) audience in a city where the competition for the entertainment dollar is notoriously fierce. Irwindale Speedway’s ability to re-introduce auto racing as a weekly spectator event in such an area makes it the most important new race track built in the last decade. It’s no wonder that NASCAR has made the track the host of a new all-star event on November 6-8, where stock car champions from all of NASCAR’s regional series will meet for the first time. Find out more from the track’s Web site: http://www.irwindalespeedway.com.

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