George Benson accomplished many things in his long career as a racer, car builder and author -- Turkey Night Grand Prix winner and inductee of the Motor Sports Press Association Hall of Fame -- and he may be among the very few who raced during all three major incarnations of Marchbanks Stadium, Marchbanks Speedway and Hanford Motor Speedway.
Benson's time at the Hanford track covered a half-dozen races, beginning in 1955 in a jalopy and ending in two 1968 appearances in Champ Cars. His high finish at the track was a 1959 hardtop win.
Benson is the author of "The Racing Years: A Memoir of the Life and Times of a Racer, 1952 to 1987." The 472-page book has 157 photos and tons of info on West Coast dirt track racing during that period, as well as a few branches into race trips in the Midwest and Indy. There's also a complete history of the 26 GMB midget race cars Benson built from 1968-85. If you're an aficionado of West Coast racing during this period, particularly at San Jose and Kearney Bowl speedways or car design and construction, you'll appreciate the detail.
I was introduced to Benson while posting an item about Hanford on the Racing History group on Yahoo. That led to 1) me buying and reading his book (ordering details in the image to the right) and 2) exchanging a series of email questions about his time at the track.
Benson's debut as a midget racer came at Marchbanks Stadium in 1955.
"The first time I ran there in the Sim Clark Ford V/8-60 powered Rail Job, it was a third-mile flat track paved with oiled dirt," Benson wrote in "The Racing Years." "The crash wall in the first turn was constructed with large diameter steel pipe for posts with cross members in between and covered with sheet metal."
Benson elaborated in an email exchange, saying of his Marchbanks debut, "The track at that time was a 3/8-mile oiled dirt pavement surface that got very slick when it got sandy from the native soils that surrounded the track. When it got oily it was even worse. It was relatively flat in both turns. It was the same the first time I ran the 500-lap race in Burt Foland's Hardtop. The next time I ran there was probably in 1956 in my own Hardtop, I think that was after the old man [track owner B.L. Marchbanks] started his plan for the tri-oval and the #1 turn became a very high bank turn exiting on a flat backstretch and into a very flat #2 turn."
Benson raced a 500-lap jalopy race at Marchbanks later in 1955, and returned for the 500-lapper in 1956. It was during that race that mechanic Arlen Smith died after being hit by a flying wheel. Benson said, "I only have a very vague recollection" of Smith's death. He did, however, recall a horrific incident in that 1956 race for which I'll try to track down details.
"During the '56 race, a pitman was hit by a race car while attempting to cross the track," Benson wrote me. "He was spinning around on his back, with his pants scrubbed off and revealing what was remaining of his bloody legs, after being repeatedly hit by numerous cars. I still vividly remember the look on his face as I with about three other cars went by him in the #2 turn. I don't remember if he survived or not."
Perilous times those were, and given Benson's busy race schedule, it's amazing he survived his long career with no major injuries.
Benson overcame gear-selection problems to pull off a hardtop win at the Marchbanks half-mile in 1959, a time when the tri-oval was being built.
"The first turn was a high-bank turn for the 1-1/2-mile track, still under construction, that blended into the backstretch and flat second turn of the old half-mile flat tack," Benson wrote in "The Racing Years."
Benson watched the Grand National cars on the new tri-oval as a spectator in either 1960 or 1961. The oiled surface lasted until major renovations in the mid-1960s brought the Champ Cars to Hanford for four races in 1967-69.
"It was, in the tradition of Valley tracks of the time, an oiled dirt surface," Benson wrote me. "By the time the track was "certified" for USAC Indy Cars it was paved with asphalt and was an excellent surface. The facilities had been suitably upgraded from the typical valley bull-ring type of facilities to something more suitable for the championship racing crowd. I recall the first Indy Car race there. Aggie [promoter J.C. Agajanian] interviewed the Mayor of Hanford prior to the start of the race, he spoke of the huge crowd he had drawn and told the mayor that he had more people in the stands the entire population of Hanford."
Benson drove two Champ Car races at the newly remodeled Hanford Motor Speedway. His book contains much more detail, but in short, Benson passed about 10 cars on the first lap of the March 1968 200-mile race, but retired with engine problems after 9 laps in the Conze Brothers Watson-Offy. Engine troubles also forced Benson's retirement after 35 laps in the Speedy's Broasted Chicken Huffaker-Chevy in the November 250-mile race.
In "The Racing Years," Benson tells a fun story about getting a surprise after poor weather prompted the closure of the track during practice the day before the March 1968 race. Benson and his crew left the car and equipment at the track and headed to their Fresno motel. Upon arriving on race day, however, they learned Firestone had removed the tires and wheels from Benson's car and loaned them to Gary Bettenhausen for practice. Benson didn't get his tires back on his car until the last practice session. Times were sure different back then.
Thanks to George for sharing his memories, particularly those from the mid- to late 1950s, a time for which I've had trouble filling in the blanks.
RELATED STORIES: Read more about Marchbanks Speedway and Hanford Motor Speedway in my Marchbanks section, including the regularly updated "History of Marchbanks Speedway, aka Hanford Motor Speedway."
The article to the right, published in The Bakersfield Californian on Aug. 13, 1955, details how Bakersfield jalopy driver Ronald McLane was struck while walking across the dark speedway. As the story notes, "The 'caution' flag was up and he apparently thought the track was clear."
McLane suffered severe injuries and multiple broken bones, leading to recuperation in a "cast up to his waist."