The title of this post might seem hyperbolic at first, but in many ways it’s fair to say that the Fred Wacker Allard J2 made the American public think twice about opening their streets to road racing. The early 1950s were an amazing time for American racing; a time when both enthusiasts and local governments were having a remarkable love affair with street racing. Small towns could close their streets for a weekend, invite some barnstorming sports car drivers to town to have a bit of a race, and tens of thousands of spectators would flood the town’s restaurants and hotels. There seemed no end to the tourism and local business dollars that could be raised for little more than the cost of some hay bales and few extra police officers on duty.
The Fred Wacker Allard J2 at the 1950 running of the Watkins Glen Road Races
That romance came to a swift and brutal breakup during the 1952 running of the Watkins Glen road races, when this Allard piloted by Chicagoan Fred Wacker (a fascinating sportsman that I’m sure we’ll examine in greater depth in the future) had a brief tussle with a Cunningham. During the second lap of the featured race of the weekend, Wacker was following the Briggs Cunningham and John Fitch Cunninghams up Franklin Street as they approached the state park. Fitch began to prepare for the right hander by heading to the left side of the racing line, crowding Wacker’s Allard. They both swerved a bit when they realized how close they were to one another: Fitch back to the right, Wacker edging more to the left; closer to the throngs of spectators at the side of the street. The Allard’s back end came out slightly, clipping the curb and throwing the car’s rear into a group of people sitting on the curb(!). A 7 year old boy was killed, and 10 others were injured.
Fred Wacker and crew at the 1950 Watkins Glenn
There had been injuries at other runnings of American road races, including the fatal crash of Sam Collier
during the 1950 Watkins. While safety efforts ramped up a bit, the bulk of the danger seemed limited to the drivers. If these swashbuckling racing drivers wanted to take their lives in their own hands, communities continued to allow in on their streets. Once spectators were in harm’s way, however, community sponsored road racing all but dried up overnight. The close-call between drivers and an overcorrection to avoid a crash happens dozens of times every race weekend, but the proximity of spectators turned what should have been a minor racing incident into a tragedy for the sport.
It’s easy to mourn the loss of small-town races, and easy to imagine how great they might have grown through the 50’s had this crash not spotted the entire sport in American eyes. But the truth is that spectator safety standards were so lacking that it was only a matter of time before an incident like this would have happened. Even so, it’s a shame that rather than take more gradual steps to increase safety for spectators and drivers, we saw the rapid extinction of the road race. While that extinction created the great American racing palaces that would come (Road America, Lime Rock, The Glen), I would sure like to see (legal) wheel-to-wheel racing on public roads again.
More photos at the Allard Registry, as well as this fascinating recollection of the ’52 race from an eyewitness to the crash. Thanks to Paul for the contemporary photos of the J2.