There’s nothing quite like the roar of the engines at a jalopy race. The next best thing would be watching stuff explode on a movie set.
I went to my first one in 1947. I was 5 years old, and my dad, Ray Hallberg, was driving a race car he had built. The track was near Scottville, Michigan. A farmer named Elmer Peterson let a group of local drivers use his former cow pasture as a racetrack. Admission was $1, and a can of soda cost a nickel.
Jalopy races revved up in the 1930s and became a popular pastime during World War II. Guys like my dad, who had been an engineer on a B-17 during the war, built their own racers out of decrepit old cars.
In general, these old jalopies cost anywhere from $25 to $125 and were stripped of all glass. Many cars were just the frame, engine and roll bars, which were made from the wheels of old hay rakes. The rear gas tank was filled with sand to weigh down the car. A 5-gallon gas can with an electric fuel pump provided a constant flow of fuel to the engine.
The dirt track at the farm was pretty rough. Cars flew by, kicking up dirt. Holes appeared almost immediately, making it difficult to control the cars. Stacked bales of straw flanked the turns in case a driver lost control of his car, which happened often.
Most drivers tied the gearshift to the dash to keep the car in second gear, which was the gear they preferred to race in. If the gearshift wasn’t tied down, the rough track would cause it to jump out of gear.
Because of the dust, many drivers wore gear from a military surplus store—World War II-era goggles and leather helmets worn by pilots. About 30 drivers raced on that dirt track for the next three years.
In the early ’50s, Dad and I moved on to a track at the fairgrounds in Cadillac. Every Wednesday night in the summer we went to the races together. He turned two Ford Model A’s into race cars and drove them at Cadillac until 1960.
By that time jalopy racing had grown into stock car racing and people were spending large amounts of money on cars and their engines. It wasn’t about having fun anymore. It was about money. That year my father sold his cars to a driver in Traverse City. He was done with the sport.
Jalopy racing disappeared from my life until 2002, when I met Ivan McClellan. Ivan used to race at the farm with my dad from 1945-’47. He gave me an original 1932 Ford coupe jalopy racer on one condition—I had to promise to restore it.
My son, Erik, and I worked on the car. Erik bought four very good mounted 16-inch tires on old original spoke rims. By luck I found a 1937 flat-head eight-cylinder engine for $400. It took us about two months to restore the car. It runs with the original 1932 dual water pump radiator.
When we got the car running, we invited Ivan to come over and drive it. He had always dreamed of taking it full speed around a track one more time. In 2005 Ivan got his wish.
He ran the car around the track at Winston Speedway before the first race. He was 85 years old and wore the same military goggles and leather helmet that he wore in 1947. When he came off the track, Ivan stood by his car and cried.
Ivan passed away in 2007. In the last years of his life, Ivan brought jalopy racing back into our lives. I will always be grateful to him for that. All the work I do to preserve the history of jalopy racing is dedicated to Ivan.
David Hallberg • Scottville, Michigan