Did You Know… The Conshohocken Flash

Did you know that a race car driver who lived in Conshohocken died after a crash trying to qualifying for the 1935 Indy 500? Below is article about Johnny Hannon, the Conshohocken Flash, reprinted with the permission of racing historian Michael Ferner:

Johnny Hannon was an excellent dirt track driver – with an exclamation mark! – yet he is best known for his disastrous record on hard surfaces: he never completed even one single lap at speed on a board or brick track, despite trying both. Most people are aware of the end of his career, and the fatal accident on his first lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but very early on, he tried his hand at the half-mile Woodbridge board track, with very similar results: on October 12 in 1930, young Johnny entered for one of the weekly AAA shows at the New Jersey speedway, and crashed spectacularly on a qualifying attempt, damaging the track in such a way that the races had to be postponed! That was good news for Frank Farmer, who only minutes before had flipped the ex-Lockhart/Keech Miller, and who would eventually go on to win the main event of the postponed meeting, but the track management and the AAA officials were not amused, and banned Hannon from competition. Those with long memories recalled February 19 in 1925, when a young dirt track star had crashed on his very first lap on a board track, even before reaching racing speed, and had been barred similarily. The name? Frank Lockhart…

Hannon returned to the independent dirt tracks of the area, like Milford Speedway in Maryland or New Market Speedway in New Jersey, where he enjoyed success, winning main events and establishing track records, until he felt ready to try his hand at Woodbridge Speedway and the AAA again in September of 1932 – only by this time, Woodbridge’s old board track had been razed and replaced by a new dirt track, which had opened only a week earlier and, incidentally, taken the life of two drivers already during the inaugural races, including that of Frank Farmer. Hannon’s debut was rained out, so he went to Trenton the next Saturday, and surpised everybody with a very mature run to second in the third heat, and an excellent fourth in the feature. The next day, it was back to Woodbridge, and this time he won the third heat, and was again fourth in the main. Another week on, and he qualified for the fast heat, won a ten-lapper and finished third in the feature, then second on September 25 – within a month, Johnny had well and truly arrived!

Part of Johnny’s comet-like success story was Gus Strupp, a garage owner from Pluckemin in New Jersey, who had run a semi-hot Fronty in 1931 for fellow Jerseyite Lloyd Broshart before upgrading to a Cragar engine in 1932, and contracting Pennsylvania’s latest driving sensation Harris Insinger for the ride. Somehow, Insinger and Strupp didn’t gel, however, and while Harris went on to sub for Bryan Saulpaugh in the rapid little Krasek Special, and almost instantly winning main events, Strupp was left to scrounge for drivers, until he saw Hannon practice the Express Special of George Marshman, and spirited the young charger away from the future father of future Indy 500 starter Bobby Marshman – that was the start of a long and successful partnership, and for the 1933 season Strupp purchased a new Miller marine engine with the extra large (Frank) Brisko block, displacing 220.5 cubic inches – the first of its kind to run in the East.

With the new Miller, Strupp and Hannon arrived at Langhorne Speedway in early May to inaugurate the Big O’s eighth season, and it’s probably safe to say that nobody expected them to do well, a rookie driver in a brand new car at the toughest dirt track circuit in the world. Certainly not against drivers of the calibre of Bill Cummings and Mauri Rose, the last two main event winners here, and the hottest duo going on the National Championship trail, where they finished one-two in four out of five successive races – the only reason why they didn’t perform their “trick” in the fifth race, the 1933 Indy 500, was likely the fact that they didn’t finish: Cummings had led comfortably from the pole, while Rose had come storming through from dead last to fourth in less than an hour before both succumbed to mechanical ills. No surprise, then, when Cummings and Rose easily outqualified the field, won the fast heat and lapped (almost) the entire starting field of 16 *twice* in running one-two throughout the feature – the only driver to finish only one single lap back was Hannon, starting from the fourth row and working his way up until running third at half distance, and actually closing in on Rose during the second half of the race. The partisan crowd had a new hero, and Johnny a new favourite track: of the next six Langhorne encounters, he would win four, crash out of one (due to a puncture) while leading, and miss the main once due to an engine failure.

The very next day, Woodbridge opened its weekly schedule, and Hannon marked the occasion by winning his first AAA main event. Almost exactly two years later, he won his twentieth, which may not sound like much these days, but back in the thirties, drivers rarely had the chance to make it to more than thirty events a year, and even the smallest AAA backwater meeting usually featured a couple of ‘500’ veterans. More amazing still was that, with only a couple of exceptions, he was also the fastest qualifier, and won the fast heat! Due to incomplete records, the exact number of fast times and fast heat wins is not possible to determine, but he had at least two dozens of the former, and 27 of the latter, in a grand total of roughly 80 AAA meetings he contested – he was certainly not lacking for outright speed! What he did lack sometimes was a bit of common sense, or perhaps even self preservation instinct: a good dozen accidents, some of them very violent, attest to that, in addition to several races in which his tortured car couldn’t stand the treatment. It also, arguably, cost him the 1933 Eastern dirt track title to the more circumspect Bob Sall, who simply kept on finishing races during the summer when almost everybody else already conceded defeat. The tactics of relentless pressure finally worked, with a few decisive errors of judgement on Hannon’s part, including a crash that put him in hospital overnight, making him miss a race and perform sub-standard for a few more.

The next year, however, Johnny made sure to hit the floor running, and without the pressure he sailed through the season virtually unchallenged. But he still knew how to hit a fence once in a while! Following his last win, a 50-miler at Langhorne, he arrived at Indianapolis on May 13, 1935 without a ride – the old curse of the Eastern dirt track stars, which used to make the road to Indianapolis an uphill struggle for everybody trying to reach the Hoosier capital from the direction of the Atlantic (except for Ray Keech in 1929, no Eastern driver in an Eastern car ever won the ‘500’ before Donohue and Penske in 1972!). Part of the problem was the dominance of Midwestern and West coast cars and owners, who preferred to pick the talent at their respective doorsteps. Some East coast drivers tried to beat the trend by going west, like Hannon’s old rival Harris Insinger, who had struggled through several seasons of Pacific coast competition to finally find success, and a nomination for an old Duesenberg with a relatively new Miller ‘220’ engine in the A1 team of Harry Hartz for his rookie year at the Speedway. Johnny Hannon was determined to do just as well, but a week went by without a firm offer. On the Sunday, he went to Milwaukee for a 50 mile race at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, got a ride in Lou Schneider’s Stagger Valve Fronty and broke the track record in qualifying, then crashed big-time during the second heat race – the car was basically done for good, but Johnny emerged unharmed to the usual newspaper comments of “miraculous escape”, and “lucky to be alive”.

Back at the Speedway, the first weekend of time trials had seen eleven cars make the grade, including veteran driver Tony Gulotta in one of Leon Duray’s 16-valve Millers. Built in 1931, Duray hadn’t had much luck with the cars until he ditched their original 16-cylinder two-stroke engines, and fitted one of the then new Miller ‘220’ motors, the forerunner of the famous Offy, from his Ascot Speedway dirt track car. With the new power source, Wilbur Shaw finished second in the 1933 ‘500’, and Mauri Rose repeated the feat in ’34. For 1935, Duray had attracted sponsorship from the Indianapolis-based automobile accessories manufacturer Bowes Seal Fast, and bought a second engine for the car that had originally been built for Cliff Durant, nominating himself as the driver. Although he still held the IMS track records for one and four laps at the time, the old master soon found out that he lacked the killer instinct of the golden years, and decided to take a chance with the Eastern dirt track champion, Johnny Hannon, instead. This was a super break for Johnny! Monday was lost to rain, but on Tuesday morning, both Duray and Gulotta took turns tutoring the rookie, reaching competitive speeds, 1’17” or close to 117 mph. Then a yellow flag: Insinger had crashed his Duesenberg/Miller against the inside wall in Turn 3, with no injuries to the driver and little to the car – still, Insinger got his walking papers, and wound up in one of the (typically) marginal East coast cars for a banzai attempt on the last day of the trials, making it into the last row. Heaven can turn to hell faster than a supercharged eight!

Finally, it was Johnny’s turn to take the wheel of the Duray/Miller, accompanied by Oscar “Shorty” Reeves, a local riding mechanic (who was, incidentally, assigned to Insinger’s team mate Chet Miller for the race!). The car went out of control entering Turn 3, spun around and hit the outside wall opposite where Insinger had hit the inside only minutes earlier. The force of the impact tore a hole into the concrete wall, and Hannon was catapulted fifty feet through the air, dying within minutes of the accident happening. Reeves survived without serious injury, but was knocked out and couldn’t recall anything strange in the behaviour of the car. No defects were found in the Duray chassis or Miller engine, and the general consensus was that Hannon had overdriven the car, entering the turn much too fast, and losing the back end. A simple rookie mistake, with an added touch of overenthusiasm – Johnny knew he had a good ride, and didn’t want to waste any time. Later that day, qualification trials resumed, with three more drivers making the field, and eventual winner Kelly Petillo experiencing his second qualifying heartbreak of the year, an engine failure. Then, shortly before sundown, California veteran Stubby Stubblefield made an attempt with the original 1931 Shafer/Buick, the one that ran at the Nürburgring: after seven laps, he was right on course for the inside spot in row five when somthing evidently broke, sending the car over the wall of Turn 2 (Southeast). Stubblefield and his mechancian, Leo Whittaker, both died on their way to a hospital; the two of them representing half of all Indy fatalities during actual time trial competition. Thus ended the deadliest non-racing day in the history of the IMS, equalling the toll of the 1919 and ’33 race days.

Harris Insinger, meanwhile, endured a difficult Memorial Day in an uncompetitive car, was flagged with 15 laps still to go, and credited with 14th place and a bit of consolation money. He went back to California and won his third Ascot feature in August and a lot of places, too, but a week after Labor Day he became yet another racing victim, and Pennsylvania lost its second big hope that year. Not until Bill Holland in 1949, and then Mario Andretti in 1969 did the Keystone State score again after Ray Keech’s initial win in 1929 – once in every twenty years. Which brings us back to Johnny Hannon, the “pocketsize Ray Keech” as he was known for a time in his “outlaw” days, the nick not refering to his physical size, which was normal, but more likely hinting at his burning ambition. Later, he was often refered to as the “Conshohocken Flash” after the small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, near Norristown in suburban Philadelphia, where he lived. Born (Nov 9, 1908) and reared in Clifton Heights, a few miles south, he reportedly spent 10 years in Germany before returning to the US in the very early twenties – his parents were said to have been of German stock, however “Hannon” is hardly a German name! Then again, it could have been anglicized from something like “Hannen” or “Hennen”. One article mentions that his parents “finally decided to go back to Germany (…) leaving Johnny in Norristown”, which makes one wonder given the political and economical turmoil in the Vaterland at the time!

Apart from his boxing career, which has been mentioned in the OP, Johnny was also an accomplished musician, playing the clarinet in an orchestra, and earned his money via various jobs in the automobile business, repair and manufacture, before going pro with the racing. With his background in physical (box) training, he was very particular about working out and keeping fit for his new job, as he told “The New York Sun” in 1933: “I know I do more training than the average ball player, and I venture to say that most fighters don’t work much harder. In fact, I use boxer’s methods to keep in condition for automobile racing. I do plenty of roadwork, which may sound silly considering that I’m sitting down all the time I’m competing. But say, listen, we need plenty of wind and not the kind we get flying around the track, either. I wish there was some way of telling just the amount of strain on our arms when we come out of a turn and have to right our cars not only to keep them from going off the track but to prevent them from turning over. I know many car owners think they are wonderful drivers, and no doubt they are on the open road or in traffic. But this is a different proposition. Place the driver of a pleasure car on the track and the wheel would be wrenched out of his hands before he covered half a mile. You can’t imagine the strain, the endurance required going around fifty laps in a twenty-five mile race. Do you wonder I go out on the road to build up my wind? Nor are the turns the only place we have to put on the pressure. If we are lucky to get the car under control quickly, why we have to take a few strokes on the oil pump when we hit the straightaway so there isn’t a moment we can relax physically even in a race that is one-sided.” The article concludes: “Hannon is up with the sun every morning and he clips off five miles on the road before breakfast. He has a set of sparring partners and they put him through the paces in the ring during his afternoon sessions, and all this is topped with a most elaborate set of calisthenics. Who said these automobile drivers don’t belong in the first flight of athletes? Not Johnny Hannon, to be sure.”

Reprinted with the permission of author Michael Ferner.