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Ridin' the Rails in Chicago
In the late 1940s, the Mid-West was a beehive of rail racing activity in the United States. Weekly races were held on two different rail tracks located in the greater-Milwaukee area; the Chicago Rail Speedway on Chicago’s southwest side; a rail track in South Bend, Indiana; and on two rail tracks in Pennsylvania, one at the Philadelphia airport and the other just outside Tyrone, PA. And the competition among racers at these tracks was spirited, with several fellows traveling from track-to-track to take on the best that each club could offer.

The Chicago Rail Speedway, in particular, located 2 ½ miles south of Downers Grove, Illinois, produced some of the fastest rail racers in the country. The 1/16th mile, four-rail track was originally built in 1946 but was refurbished in 1948 with a new tempered masonite racing surface and stainless steel rails. All previously-established track records fell immediately after the track was renovated and the track hosted a number of national events attracting the top rail racers from around the country.

But the cost of maintaining and operating a rail track was considerable, especially in an area like Chicago which is known for its severe winters. Like the track in Tyrone, the Chicago track attempted to recover some of its costs by charging admission to spectators. However, that in itself contributed to the high cost of operating a rail track. Liability insurance coverage was difficult to find since most insurance companies did not have a set rate for this type of risk. Lloyd’s of London did establish a rate and would provide coverage, but only with very strict restrictions. Also, because races usually lasted approximately 3 to 4 hours, it was unrealistic to expect spectators to stand throughout the race meet and bleachers needed to be constructed around the track.

Like other rail tracks around the country, the Chicago Rail Speedway flourished for a time but then interest in racing rail cars began to wane. The Chicago track, however, differed from the Tyrone Miniature Speedway in that mite cars were not allowed to race on the Chicago track. While Jack Vanneman saw mite cars as a possible source of “new blood” for the rail racing hobby, and opened the Tyrone track to mite cars on weeknights, the Chicago Rail Speedway did not permit mite cars to race and limited competition to the larger .60-size cars.

One can only speculate about what effect the exclusion of mite cars might have had on the long-term success of the Chicago Rail Speedway. It is known, however, that in March 1949, there were 12 active mite car clubs in the Chicago area. And, at that time, all of those mite cars could be raced only on tether tracks with no rail tracks being available for mite cars.

One of the most active mite car clubs in the Chicago area at that time was the South Shore Model Race Car Club. The South Shore MRCC owned a portable tether track, designed by Anthony “Tony” Martin of Martin Engineering Co. Martin produced the highly successful Martin Flash race car as well as a number of conversion kits for powering Thimble Drome Champion race cars. The portable tether car track was 1/80th mile in circumference and was made up of 18 trapezoid-shaped sections which were constructed from heavy plywood and covered with a tempered masonite racing surface. When assembled, the circular track measured approximately 23 feet 2 inches in diameter, including an integral crash wall. Plans for constructing the track were available from Martin Engineering Co. Because of the relatively small size of the track, mite cars were restricted to having engines with .199-cid or less. The track was easily assembled and disassembled and was often set up in public parks around the greater-Chicago area. As a result, the track proved to be quite popular with local area racers and, because the track could be easily transported to different parts of the city, it served to spark even more interest in mite car racing in the Chicago area.

But, even so, mite car racers in the area wanted to try their hand at rail racing. In addition, the fellows who raced .60-size rail cars had nowhere to race during the winter months when the Chicago Rail Speedway was closed.

As a result, a rail track was built exclusively for mite cars and was located indoors in the field house in Calumet Park on Chicago’s south side. This indoor rail track was initially constructed to provide a place for members of the Chicago Mite Car Club to race year-round but it also proved popular with the Chicago area rail racers who raced .60-size cars when the outdoor rail tracks in the area were unusable during the winter. And the indoor rail track even drew an occasional rail mite from the Milwaukee area.  The oval-shaped four-rail track was 1/48th mile in circumference and required an area of approximately 30 feet by 60 feet. The track featured 35-degree banking on the turns at each end of the straightaways. Height of the track at its highest point was 40 inches and 15 inches at its lowest point. The track reportedly cost $1,500 to build and speeds approaching 100 mph were attained in initial testing.  

However, after initially testing the track with mite cars powered by .19- and .29-cid engines, and finding that the centrifugal force resulting from the speeds generated by those cars actually bent the rails on the track, the club limited the engine size to 0.100 cid and below. As a result, virtually all of the cars which actually raced competitively on the track were powered by McCoy .09 engines.

Many of the mite cars which raced on the indoor rail track were modified versions of the Martin Flash race car designed and built by Chicago’s Tony Martin. The McCoy .19 powered version of the Martin Flash was a very successful tether racer and it lent itself readily to being powered by the smaller McCoy .09 engine and the installation of bolt on rail guides in place of the usual bridle brackets or pan-handle.  Even so, the McCoy .09 powered Martin Flash cars which were modified for use on rail tracks were at best a compromise since the Martin Flash was originally designed and built to be powered by a .19 cid engine and was also designed for use on tether tracks rather than rail tracks. 

As a result, Martin worked with another Chicagoan, John Carlson, to develop a custom cast aluminum pan designed specifically for use on rail tracks and designed to be powered by the McCoy .09 engine. Carlson, then president of the Chicago Mite Car Club, was an accomplished tether car builder and racer in his own right.  Carlson had designed and built a small number of both .19- and .29-powered tether cars which were quite successful.  And he had even produced a handful of .19- and .29-powered rail cars based upon his tether car designs which he had modified by simply removing the bridle brackets or pan-handle mounts from the pan castings and then replacing them with rail adapter mounts.

A small number of the Carlson .09-size pans were produced and made available to members of the Chicago club. Two examples are shown in the photos; one which was originally owned and raced by John Carlson and the other owned by Armand Beloian, the sales manager of a local Buick dealership. The two cars are nearly identical except for their hand-carved wood tops.  Beloian’s mite cars were always nicely detailed and beautifully painted in a then-current Buick factory color which was applied in the paint shop of the dealership where Beloian worked. Beloian, Carlson and Martin were close friends and Sunday mornings during the summer would find Beloian, with his son Jim asleep in the back seat of a shiny, new Buick convertible, headed southeast from their home on the west side of Chicago to pick up Carlson and Martin for a top-down drive to one of the mite car tracks in the Chicago area or possibly in Muncie or Kokomo, Indiana. 

The Calumet Park indoor rail track was located in a large room in the basement of the field house and, as one might expect, the noise from four screaming mite cars in an enclosed area was almost deafening. Unfortunately, on the same evenings when the rail mites were racing, a local kennel club was hosting dog obedience classes in an adjacent area in the lower level of the field house. Not surprisingly, the noise from the race cars proved to be quite a distraction for the dogs and became a major annoyance for their owners. After numerous complaints from the kennel club, the mite car club was forced to close the track upon orders from the park administration.

In the September 1962 issue of the AMRCA newsletter, “Model Race Car News”, John Carlson offered the track for free to anyone who would come to Chicago to get it. He indicated that the wood track could be cut apart into sections for moving.

To my knowledge, no one accepted John Carlson’s offer and the track was apparently scrapped…perhaps another example of a good race track that “went to the dogs”.

John Carlson's personal .09-size Carlson rail mite.
Carlson's McCoy .09 powered Carlson rail mite.
Armand Beloian's .09-size Carlson rail mite.
Beloian's McCoy .09 powered Carlson rail mite.
Martin Flash modified for use on a rail track.
McCoy .09 powered modified Martin Flash with bolt on rail adapters.
Dooling .29 powered Carlson .29-size rail mite.
McCoy .19 powered rail mite designed by Bill Decker of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.