Little But Fierce: The Storied History of Midget Cars

High-powered. Lightweight. Dangerous. Yes, midget cars are the perfect embodiment of everything a racecar should be. Surprised? Allow us to explain. As a close relative to sprint cars, midget cars are a long-running dirt track favorite across the country. But despite their long and storied history, many people are still unfamiliar with these small but mighty racing machines. Where did they come from? How long have they been around? But first, what the hell is a midget car anyway?

More Than Meets the Eye

More often than not, when people first see midget cars, they immediately associate them with go karts. Understandable, given their compact size, tight wheel base, and an overall weight of around 900 lbs. But these little racers are often packing an engine capable of 300-400 horsepower. Quite a bit more than your average go kart, wouldn’t you say? That’s right, midget cars have some seriously radical 4-cylinder engines linked up to a direct drive setup. Out back, you’ll find a quick-change differential setup; something like a Winters unit is typical.

Contrary to what many may believe, midget racing has been around for a long time. The sport got its start in 1933 at the Loyola High School Stadium in Los Angeles under the regulation of the Midget Auto Racing Association (MARA), and quickly picked up steam on the West Coast, eventually becoming both a national and international success. In fact, in the first year following the birth of midget racing, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK began taking part in the sport.

Backyard Mechanics Helped Form the Sport

While today’s midget cars come fully equipped with a bevy of safety features and impressive performance mods, the original little monsters were more Frankenstein than Iron Man. A 1934 article from Popular Science Magazine reports that “Discarded motorcycle engines, outboard motors, and engines from ancient cars provide the power for these sensational racers.” The article, which you can access in full here, goes on to detail vehicle and track requirements, the dangers faced by the “daredevil drivers,” and even some quick interviews with a few of these old time thrill-seekers. In short though, racers competed on a track that was a fifth of a mile long, sometimes reaching speeds of 60 mph “before skidding around flat turns as their wheels churn the earth and their junk-pile engines roar the songs of power.”

These races took place on makeshift tracks sometimes as close at fifteen feet away from onlookers. And the standby ambulance got plenty of use, as the safety precautions were rudimentary at best. Regardless, the sport was a smashing success, continually drawing big crowds of excited spectators.

Little Cars with Big Impact

Today, we find multiple associations in the midget racing segment, as the sport has come a long way from its MARA roots of eight cars and drivers. Some notable US-based associations include the American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC), the United Midget Racing Association (UMRA), and the primary sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club (USAC). Additionally, many modern day NASCAR drivers actually got their start in racing within the segment. That’s right, racers like Tony Stewart, Terry Goff, Tate Martz, and Jeff Gordon all have a history in midget racing. Even the legendary Mario Andretti raced midget cars back in the early 1960s! Despite the name, midget cars left anything but a small footprint in the world of auto racing.

And while midget cars may be tiny—make no mistake, they are fierce. They have loads of intricate workings within their small packages. With four different-sized tires, four different shocks, and a chassis littered with adjustable features, it’s almost hard to believe just how technical these cars really are. The power-to-weight ratio makes understanding each and every aspect of a midget car extremely important. When you have 400 hp pushing a 900 lb car, there is absolutely no room for anything but complete and total comprehension—a thrill factor that draws many to the sport.

Strides in Safety for Midget Cars

In the early days, midget cars were often driven on tracks built of wooden planks. While this style was cheap to construct, it was expensive to maintain—and terribly unreliable. While flying splinters and wooden shards might increase the thrill for some, for many competitors it led to death or disfigurement. After the press began referring to these tracks as “murderdromes” and the dirt track racing began drawing spectators’ attention, the dangerous wood tracks were no longer used.

Today, midget cars are most commonly driven on dirt but also can run on asphalt tracks. The races are particularly short and generally last around a total of about 40 miles. Tracks vary in sizes, running from a quarter of a mile to a half mile length. As small as these cars are, it’s no surprise they aren’t found on much larger tracks.

Midget racing has a special place in the hearts of many Americans. Some are hobbyists with one of the most exciting weekend activities to partake in, while others are able to make a racing career out of it. With the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gearing up for a two-night USAC event taking place on a track being built on the infield for NASCAR week, it’s safe to say this sport will stick around and be celebrated for a long time.

%d bloggers like this: