SUMMER, RACE CARS & COMIC BOOKSFebruary 14, 2008
NOTE: The following scribblings originally appeared in DIRT LATE MODEL Magazine sometime in 2003. Upon request from an old pal here is an old timer waxing nostalgically:
Way back in the early 1960’s for several years my family lived out in the country. Being away from town limited the activities kids could engage in so my younger brother and I contented ourselves with baseball, football, bike riding, fishing, fighting and whatever else we could find to do. But right around 1965 two things happened that I delved into passionately as a pre-teen: racing and comic books. Already hooked on (rock) music due to the tidal wave of Beatlemania, plus the fact my older teenage sister, Cheryl, kept me hip, racing and comic books became two more passions that have stayed with me for four different decades.
Always an avid reader (my Aunt Margie taught me to read & write before I went to kindergarten), my older brother, before he grew up and married and left home, used to drag home, on occasion, comic books. I instantly fell in love with the four-color adventures of Superman, Batman, Superboy, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and all the rest. I became not only an avid reader of them, but a collector as well. For me, the only comic books worth buying, reading and collecting were superheroes! Oh, the science fiction ones were good, especially the artwork of artists like Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson and others, but nothing compared to Superman, Batman, Captain America, Daredevil, Legion of Superheroes and all the rest. Give me a Jack Kirby drawn comic book anytime!
Then I went to my first dirt race.
In my family, cars were a hot topic of discussion any time my father and uncles got together. And auto racing wasn’t far off. When my uncle, Wellman Lehman, joined up with Pete Jacobs, Myron Werntz and Gary Bossler and built Wayne County Speedway, a mere three miles away down a side road from our home, and I attended the grand opening on June 26, 1965, that was it. I was hooked on racing! I lived for it! As did my younger brother, Stewart.***So, I had two strong interests and passions: racing and comic books, with rock ‘n roll music a close third.
It was around this time I learned how deep racing ran in my family. My Grandfather, W. Bert Lehman, went to his first race in 1914 (!) and was immediately hooked. He eventually became a car owner. Later on, during the 1950’s my Mother’s brother, Cecil Smith was a part time driver and full time car owner during the majority of the 1950’s racing all around central Ohio.
To me, racecar drivers were heroes, too. Sure, I knew about AJ Foyt and I knew about Richard Petty and all the rest, but they were nothing compared to my weekly heroes at Wayne County Speedway like Ken “Jake” Jacobs, Eph Davis, Royal Freed, Joe Thompson, Woody Holland, Dean Alexander, Jim Gentry and so many others. To me, those guys stood 10 feet tall. They were my true, real-life “heroes” as a young kid.
Out there on the track, slinging them open wheel “super” modifieds (ne; Sprints) and full bodied (ne; Late Models) sideways, whew…. That was living. These guys were brave, daring, exciting.
The racing fever caught on so bad with my brother and myself that we dubbed the road we lived on, County Road 142, “Dragway 142″, similar to the real Dragway 42 near West Salem, OH that our older brother, Don Horst, frequented. Not content with that, and desperately wanting to go in circles on the dirt, Stewart and I gathered up a couple neighborhood kids and, armed with shovels and rakes, trudged into the open field next door to our house and began digging up out our own oval dirt track.
We dug, and dug, and dug until we had a circle track. We labored for over a week, daily, for hours, on this until we were done carving out what, looking back, must have been a ½ mile track (it wasn’t!). We found old boards and planks and constructed a flagstand and a one-row bench for grandstands. We found other smaller pieces of wood and made our own wooden trophies (Can’t race without giving the winner a trophy). Thus, Lehman Speedway was open for bike races.
Yep, we had it bad.
We even, by hand, made up our own souvenir programs, had officers for the track (I was the prez… being the oldest boy still at home, of course) and we would make popcorn and Kool Aid for our fans, consisting of other neighborhood kids and an occasional parent, who would come watch us burn our energy up circling our track.
(By the way, my number was 066, the same one that car owner Pete Jacobs used when Dean Mast and Ken Jacobs raced his cars.)
After that first trip to Wayne County Speedway on the very first night of operation, two new race fans, two new race addicts, were born. My brother and myself have been going racing ever since.
As my comic book collection began to grow, I would often come across other forms of comics and dismiss them. If they ain’t superheroes, I don’t wanna know (course, some of those comics I turned down…for free….are worth a mint now). But one day my older brother and new wife, Betty Jean, stopped by and he tossed me a handful of comic books. I was thrilled, but they weren’t superheroes!!!
What they were, were some pretty cool comics for a kid race fan in the mid-1960’s: Auto racing comics! While a devotee to DC Comics and Marvel Comics these comics were produced by Charlton Comics and contained stories and artwork covering all forms of racing. Some titles even had their own “stars”, or “hosts”, like “Clint Curtis” who appeared in HOD RODS AND RACING CARS and TEENAGE HOTRODDERS, “Scot Jackson” in DRAG ‘N WHEELS and DRAG STRIP HOTRODDERS, “Rick Roberts” in GRAND PRIX, and so on.
Hey! These were alright! And they were all about racing!
Some were drag racing oriented, while some featured Midgets, Sprints, Modifieds and other forms of Motorsports. Heck, these are A-OK, even though they don’t have costumed men beating the crap out of the bad guys, sometimes Clint Curtis or Rick Roberts might have to go pugilistic on someone. But the cars, the racing, that was so cool to a kid who loved both racing and comics. The best of both worlds, indeed. I began buying these comics and gave them space in my collection.
Around 1970 I was a teenager and even began writing for some comics “fanzines”. I also began to do research into old comics and found out that the auto racing comics I purchased for several years were mostly written and drawn by Jack Keller, an artist who lived in Reading, PA and who had been a comic book artist for close to 30 years at that time. He was also an avid race fan as I was to find out (he would HAVE to be!).
I wrote him a letter and sent it to the publisher and, amazingly, several weeks later received a very nice response from Mr. Keller! I was thrilled that someone of his stature would write to some goofy teenager. He filled me in on his career and his love of auto racing. Living in Reading, PA, Jack Keller was in a hot bed of racing. He loved the sport and, to my total amazement, began writing and drawing the auto racing themed comic books for Charlton Comics way back in 1955! He continued to write and draw them through 1973, when he retired from the business.
I later found out that Jack Keller, born June 16, 1922, first began drawing comic books in 1941, creating, writing and drawing THE WHISTLER for Dell Comics’ WAR STORIES. Through the 1940’s and 1950’s he worked for a variety of comic book publishers, including the mighty Marvel Comics where he became well known for their western comic, KID COLT, OUTLAW (which I had a stack of)
Self-taught, and with a passion for auto racing, Keller signed with Charlton Comics in 1955 and began producing their auto racing comics which were a success. Ten years later both Marvel Comics and Charlton Comics wanted his exclusive services and while Marvel paid so much better (this is the company that introduced Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Captain America, X-Men, etc…), Keller took Charlton’s offer as they allowed him exclusive and creative control and the chance to continue creating the auto racing comics, his first love.
In 1973 Keller retired from producing monthly comic books, around the same time I quit actively collecting comics (when I quit collecting, I had over 5,000 comics from the mid-1940’s through 1973). By then my passion for racing was still great, and growing, but being a teenager in the early 70’s, and with a deep love of music (rock ‘n roll and soul), plus the fact that another “passion” commanded my attention (GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!), something had to go. So I spent the majority of the 70’s going to races and rock concerts…..with girls! (Except Sunday nights when I worked at Wayne County Speedway)
(Note: I purchased my first car by selling 5 old comic books that were collector items. I would give anything to have those 5 comics back today! I later sold 4 comic books and purchased my second car, as well. I could sell them today and buy a new car and maybe a second one).
It was with a sense of sadness that I recently found out that Mr. Keller had passed away this past January 2 (2003) at the age of 80. He was the only person that I knew of that, like me, loved comics and the artwork, and especially loved racing. Since his passing I was able to discover that he was born in Reading, PA, graduated from West Reading High School in 1940, and was laid to rest at Forest Hills, Reiffton, PA. He is survived by two sons, Richard of Mount Penn and Robert, who lives in Portland, CN. A sister, Vivian Riegel, resides in Sinking Spring, PA.
I guess when you hit my age nostalgia has a funny way of gripping you which usually finds yourself recalling the old days with fondness. As a kid in the 60’s, life sure was good, despite Vietnam, race riots, assassinations. We baby boomers had it made. I knew it then and I know it now.
I had racing, comics, The Beatles, the BATMAN TV show, Little League, GREEN HORNET TV show, Model Car kits (had over 80 of them at one time), rock ‘n roll, all those pretty girls at Apple Creek Elementary and John R. Lea Middle School, it was good time to grow up. But as the years wane interests dissipate and one tends to move on.
But the same passion, excitement and anticipation I had for racing close to 40 years ago remains unabated. I love racing, always have, always will. It’s been the one constant in my life.
And I’m the third generation of my family to be caught up in this madness. My grandsons, Hunter, Beau, Brendan & Kaden, if one or all so choose, will be the fifth generation.
The beat goes on….as does the memories.
©2003 – 2008 Doc Lehman/Dirt America