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The term Ďmidget racingí is ripe with double meaning but naming it dwarf racing wouldnít have blunted the Aussie punterís enthusiasm for the sport during its heyday, from the immediate post-war years till the mid-1970s and 80s.
As many as 30,000 spectators turned up to big events like the Craven Filter Speedcar Championships, and other events in which the best Australian drivers took on rivals from the USA. It was said in the Ď50s and Ď60s that if you didnít get to Sydney Showground by 5:30pm, youíd be joining a long queue outside, hoping like hell to get in before racing started at 7:30pm.
There was always the assumption that speedway racing was a working manís sport. It wasnít. Then as now, to be competitive you needed a fast car and thatís always been expensive. Successful drivers like Ray Revell, Johnny Stewart, Andy McGavin, Gus McClure, Blair Shepherd and Bill Goode had their own businesses and could afford the best chassis and engines. But you couldnít make money from it. For all who raced, giving fate the finger was a hobby.
Because they were readily available and cheap, A-model Ford engines, chassis and suspensions comprised the platform for many early midget racers. Proficient as they were at sliding on dirt Ė with a different size wheel on each corner (for reasons I wonít go in to) the cars were based on sedan running gear that had been hacked into race shape. They werenít sophisticated. They were campaigned for 30, 50 and sometimes 100 laps on tracks whose only safety feature was the chequered flag.
They werenít all that safe either. Ugly crashes were common and many drivers died. The highest point on a 1950s midget car was the driverís head, and on that a Cromwell helmet that looked like a white wok with a leather peak. There was no rollcage or harness. One wheel had a drum brake. The metal gear lever for the single-speed dogbox pointed at your crotch.
Despite all this, the men who built midget racers managed to coax extraordinary amounts of horsepower from small, four-cylinder engines long before anyone in Formula One was doing the same. The A-model Ford engine was popular for a long time but no four-cylinder engines were beyond consideration, in later years, even those from Volkswagen and Fiat.
As pioneers of Australian motorsport, the achievements of our early speedway drivers are worth preserving and itís invariably old geezers like Eric Inmon doing the hard yards. Ericís garage is about the size of a bathroom and in there he fits himself, Ray Revellís 65 race car reproduction, a pile of parts that seem to be overflowing into an adjacent garage, shelves of memorabilia and a truckload of enthusiasm.
The younger Eric went to work at champion Ray Revellís auto workshop in Wooloomooloo when he was 15, so although he never raced, he did have a speedway pedigree. And someone to look up to.
Ray Revell was a prolific winner long before midgets became the undercard for V8 sprint cars. He amassed 54 wins at the Sydney Showground, 28 at the Sydney Sports Ground, and seven Australian championships. He raced in America for film star Lana Turner, though Iím not sure what that means, and captained the Australian speedcar team in events against New Zealand and the USA.
He was also the first Australian speedway star to put an Offenhauser engine in a midget. That car, or a version of it, Eric has already restored so now heís working on Rayís 65 race car, a copy of an American Kurtis Kraft midget but with a Holden Grey, motor fed by three grey Solex carburettors.
The car has A-model front suspension, a brand new, bright red chassis, an A-model differential crown-wheel and pinion and a single-speed gearbox. Says Eric, ďI used the Grey motor because I couldnít get a V8 60 for itĒ. Thatís nothing to be ashamed of; Grey motors occasionally blew away Offenhausers, possibly the most successful engines built.
So far the latest Revell build has taken Eric three years and an undisclosed amount of money. New aluminium bodywork is yet to be painted and fitted, and some of the chromework has to be redone because Eric detected a microscopic flaw. Since the original parts for the car are probably spread all over Australia, this is a reproduction rather than a restoration but thatís neither here nor there. Better the repro you have than the resto you donít.
Ray Revell raced this car for about four years before it was on-sold and then raced all over the country, hence the widespread distribution of original parts. All but a few details are now complete, although it has to be said that if Eric continues his passion for Revell rebuilds, he might have to enlarge the premises. When I photographed him, he was inside the garage and I was outside.