Three days at Langhorne


                                          By Tom Avenengo





Note:  Some of this information, below, was taken from the book – Langhorne! No Man’s Land, by L. Spencer Riggs, –  and my own memories of the three events that appear, below.


Langhorne – March 20 and May 1, 1955 and June 24, 1956



While I was at the Selinsgrove Speedway, last Saturday, March 20th, I happened to mention to another race fan that on that date in 1955, I was in attendance at the Langhorne track to watch the sprint car races.  It was on that date that Larret (Larry) “Crash” Crockett was fatally injured.  “Iron” Mike Nazaruk won that day, and a short six weeks later, he too, would suffer the same fate as Crockett.



March 20, 1955:


The AAA was in town for a day of racing with the sprint cars.  I was there, but really can’t remember what the weather was actually like.  Warm or cold – no idea.  Reading in the book about Langhorne, by L. Spencer Riggs, it’s said that snow was in the forecast.


Langhorne usually drew quite a few cars from the mid-west.  March 20, 1955, was no exception.  Jerry Hoyt, Duane Carter, Larry Crockett, Bob Sweikert and Pat O’Connor were on hand, along with IMCA stars, Bob Slater and Bobby Grim.


Teamates, Johnny Thomson and Al Keller had the fastest times during time trials, with clockings of 33.06 and 33.45. 


Heat winners were Al Herman, Mike Nazaruk and Charlie Musselman. In the third heat, strange as it seems, all three of the Sam Traylor cars were entered – Thomson, Keller and Musselman.  Thomson got out of shape in what could be called turn four, and Keller had no place to go, hitting Thomson’s car, then barrel rolling along the low wooden fence.  Reports I had read said he lost part of a thumb, along with a glove, and a year later, it was returned to him, the thumb part still in the glove.  However, the Langhorne book says that the thumb had to be amputated in the hospital.  So?


There was a consolation race and Crockett won that, with O’Connor and “Jiggs” Peters following him.


The line up for the 25 lap – 25 mile feature was:

Pat O’Connor, Jerry Hoyt, Mike Magill, Duane Carter, Charlie Musselman, Bob Sweikert, Bobby Grim, Larry Crockett, Fred “Jiggs” Peters, Hank Rogers, Ernie McCoy, Mike Nazaruk, Al Herman, Russ Klar, Joe Mattera, Dick Mealy, Harold Bechtol and Johnny Matera.


Some tremendous racing took place around the circular, oiled down, big dirt mile track that day, as the racing usually was at the ‘horne.  And tragedy also.  Crockett’s car owner, Charlie Engle, thought that Crockett was driving over his head, and as Crockett went past the pits on his 11th lap, Engle wrote down the letters “E-Z” on his blackboard, and headed towards the track to show it to him on his next lap.  Crockett never made that next lap, having lost control of his car, with the car going through the fence and then into a vicious series of end over end flips, with Crockett being thrown out of the car on one of those flips – with Crockett being found about 300 feet from where the car had stopped.


Nazaruk ended up winning on that fateful day.  He was followed by Magill, Hoyt, Carter, Rogers, Peters, Herman, Mussleman, Swiekert, Grim, Klar, Mattera, Matera, Bechtol, McCoy, O’Connor, Crockett and Mealy.


It took 14:39.05 to go the 25 miles, and the average speed was 102.383 MPH


Here is a photo of Larry “Crash” Crockett in the Engle-Stanko # 31, the car that he drove at Langhorne on March 20, 1955.  Photographer is unknown.



And a photo, taken by Walt Imlay, of Mike Nazaruk in the Nyquist # 29, also from March 20, 1955.



May 1, 1955:


I’ve often wondered – what would have happened had Mike Nazaruk either stayed home due to some illness that he had that day, or if he had ventured out to Indianapolis, to the speedway, for opening day – May 1, 1955.


Another AAA sprint car show was held on May 1, 1955, at the big, circular oiled dirt mile track at Langhorne.  This time the feature race would be over a distance of 30 laps – 30 miles.


The AAA also had a sprint car race scheduled for out in the mid-west, at Salem.  That kind of hurt the field for the Langhorne show. A crowd of about 15,000 was on hand for this second sprint car show.


The track was oh, so fast, on May 1st.  In time trials, Johnny Thomson turned a record breaking lap in the time of 32.909, for an average speed of 109.392 MPH.  His teammate, Charlie Musselman was next with a time of 32.941.  Next came Nazaruk – 33.202, Joe Sostilio – 33.233, Mike Magill – 33.329 and Tommy Hinnershitz – 33.671.  Keep in mind – all these cars were powered by 220 cubic inch Ofenhauser engines, back then, and they ran on skinny tires, too, as can be seen in the photos.


Heat winners were Nick Fornoro, Fred “Jiggs” Peters, and Nazaruk.  Nazaruk set a new record for the 6 miles with a time of 3:22.33 and an average speed of 106.930 MPH.


The consolation race was won by Musselman, and he was pretty quick, too, with him doing the 6 laps in a time of 3:23.57.


The first two rows of the feature consisted of Musselman and Thomson in the first row, followed by Magill and Sostilio.


At the start, Mussleman and Thomson were one and two, but Nazaruk pretty quickly disposed of Thomson, and went after Musselman.  Once he caught him, they battled it out for about 15 laps, at a torrid pace.  Eventually, Nazaruk got the lead and pulled away slowly.  I remember, quite well, his last lap as he raced his way to disaster.  I was sitting in the stands in what I guess you could say was in the fourth turn area.  As he came past, he reached up and wiped some of the oiled dirt off of his goggles.  The next time I saw him, he was cartwheeling through the air, out of the car. – having been thrown out after one or two barrel rolls.  He was found about 150 yards from where the car had gone through the fence, minus his helmet and most of his clothing.  The car, upside down, and burning, was about 300 yards from that hole in the fence.  It was all over for Nazaruk, in an almost instant fashion, with him receiving a broken neck and a severed jugular vein.


The race continued after a spell, and Musselman had the lead over teammate Thomson and third place running Sostilio.  Mike Magill was coming, and he went past Magill and Thomson, and was challenging Musselman for the win, but fell about a car length short.  Following those two were:

Thomson, Peters, Hank Rogers, Hinnershitz, Bill Brown, Ernie McCoy, Johnny Kay, Nick Fornoro, Al Herman, Joe Mattera, Harold Bechtol and Steve Yanigan.  Just before the race ended, Sostilio dropped out.


I don’t think that there was a worse year than 1955 as far as deaths in auto racing goes.  Some of those that perished were:

Crockett, Nazaruk, Manuel Ayulo, Bill Vukovich, Bob Slater, Jerry Hoyt, Charlie Miller, Jack McGrath and Pierre Levegh, who’s accident at LeMans has to be the worst ever, with almost 100 fatalities, after his Mercedes went into the crowd, opposite the pit area.  Race driver Phil Walters (Ted Tappett) was racing at LeMans that day, for Briggs Cunningham, in a D-Jaguar, and he had been signed to drive for Ferrari, both in sports/racing cars and also in Grand Prix cars, after LeMans.  Walters retired from competition during the LeMans race, right after the Levegh accident.  The press, and others had really started beating the drum about banning auto racing, to the extent that the AAA decided that it would no longer be a sanctioning body, and left after the 1955 racing season.


Here’s a photo of Mike Nazaruk, supposedly on his last lap at Langhorne, on May 1, 1955.  The photo was taken by Walt Imlay.

June 24, 1956:


I was a member of the graduating class of 1956 from the Pearl River, New York High School.  My brother, Raymond (Jim), wanted to go to Langhorne on the 24th, to see the Indy car race, but didn’t want to go alone, so he asked me.  I was a little hesitant, at first, since we had a special graduating (religious) service at 6:00 on that Sunday evening.  However, looking at previous trips to Langhorne, and the times that we arrived back home, I decided that I’d go with him, and just hope we’d get back in time for me to attend the service.  We did make it back in time.


On most every occasion when I went to Langhorne, I sat in the stands in what you could say was the fourth turn area.  The track at Langhorne was higher at that end, and quite a bit lower in what you could call the turn one area.  The stands were built level, so in the first turn area, the stands were quite a lot higher up, from the racing surface, and if some one was “rim-riding”, chances are that he’d be out of sight, with the stands blocking the view of the track, below.  On this day, we sat in the first turn area.


A fast but rough track greeted the drivers and fans on June 24th.  Billy Garrett, who had never been to Langhorne previous to this day, and was making his initial run in a “Champ” car, ended up as the fastest qualifier with a time of 32,871.  Next to him, for the start was Bob Veith.  The rest of the field lined up like this:

Jimmy Reece and Pat Flaherty in row 2, Jimmy Bryan and George Amick in row 3, Gene Hartley and Andy Linden in row 4, Johnny Thomson and Al Keller in row 5, Don Freeland and Mike Magill in row 6, Eddie Russo and Jack Turner in row 7, Ed Elisian and Jim McWithey in row 8 and Dick Rathmann and Elmer George in row 9, the last row.


Failing to make the show were Rodger Ward, Bill Cheesbourgh, Dick Frazier, Al Herman, Charlie Musselman, Pat O’Connor, Ken Gottschalk and Elmer George.  George didn’t qualify his normal ride, the HOW Offy, but did get in the race in the Leitenberger # 76.


The rough track played havoc with both drivers and machines.  Even with them wearing gloves, a lot of drivers had blistered and bleeding hands.  Various parts on some cars failed due to the beating the cars took.  Thomson, Russo, McWithey and Ratjmann were out before 60 miles had been run. 


The race, so it seemed, was gong to be a third straight win at Langhorne, for Jimmy Bryan.  On lap 43, Veith and Garrett, running second and third, were lapped by Bryan, as he circled that rough track.  Bob Veith asked for a relief driver on his 55th lap, and Rodger Ward took over for him. Well, Bryan’s quest for three straight wins took a hit around lap 66, when his cars engine started to sputter.  On the 70th lap, Bryan headed pit side, with his gas tank empty.  Garrett, who had passed Veith, would assume the lead if he could make up that lap before Bryan got back onto the track, but fate dealt Garrett a cruel blow when his steering arm broke, and he spun out.


Little George Amick took over the lead, and he was followed by Hartley, with Bryan, almost a lap down, in third.  Bryan, intent on making it three in a row, caught Hartley, and passed him on the 81st lap.  Amick was almost a half-minute ahead.  Bryan charged on, and was gaining on Amick.  Then came the 92nd lap, and Bryan headed pit side, again – again he was hitting the fuel tank with his hand, signaling his crew that he needed more fuel.  With that, his run at three in a row came to an end.  After the race, a small piece of solder was found in the fuels return line, which, in effect, caused his car to run rich, thus burning up extra fuel.


Little Geoge Amick held on for the victory – something he couldn’t do in 1955, when he had to ask for relief after only 40 laps.  Following Amick across the finish line were Hartley, Keller, Elisian and Magill – the only ones to go the full 100 miles.  Next, with 99 laps was Bryan, and with 98 laps, Freeland and George.  Jimmy Reece completed 97 laps.  The Veith/Ward combo was 10th, with 94 laps completed.  Jack Turner was the last car on the track, completing 83 laps.  Dropping out of the event were Linden, Garrett, Flaherty, Rathmann, McWithey, Russo and Thomson.

Bob Veith led the first 16 laps, with Bryan leading laps 17 through 70.  Amick led the rest, from 71 to 100.


It took Amick 1:03:01.463 to go 100 miles.  His average speed was 95.212 MPH.  The payoff was a record setting, whopping $18,500.00.  That’s TOTAL pay off, folks, not what Amick won!


Here’s a photo, again, one taken by Walt Imlay, of the start of the 1956 100-mile race at Langhorne.  That view was basically what my brother and I saw, on that day, from where we sat.