APRIL 2019


The Magic of Hicksville’s Mike Caruso


Each year, connoisseurs of fine automobiles attend the Salon Rétromobile in Paris .  At the 2019 Salon, Ivan Dutton Ltd exhibited five superbly restored vehicles to showcase the company’s work.  Four were classic Bugatti's – but the fifth was a storied Midget racer, powered by half of a Bugatti engine, and built in a salvage yard in Hicksville .



Partial view of Ivan Dutton “stand” at Salon Rétromobile, Paris, February 2019
photo provided by Mark Thomas

 Built by Mike Caruso, its presence amidst hundreds of the world’s most prized cars was a reminder of two facets of his unique legacy: his outstanding success as a builder of racing cars, and his role in the preservation of a number of classic automobiles.

Introduction

Who was Michael Caruso?  He was a mechanic who dreamed, and who by dint of his ingenuity and dedication got to realize his dreams through auto racing, where his record as a builder/owner of cars was unprecedented.  He used his junkyard on West Barclay St. in the way that alchemists supposedly used their medieval laboratories, taking worthless discards and converting them into gold.  From that junkyard emerged championship racing cars, novel feats of engineering, and once-lost automobiles now of inestimable value.  Caruso’s legend stands on both the dirt of racing ovals and the polished floors of museums.

Let’s set the stage for his story by looking at how American auto racing was changing in the 1920s, when Mike was a young garage mechanic and dreaming of his career.


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Beyond Stock Car Racing

February’s Ancient Hixtory noted that Americans had developed an appetite for stock car races, and could not get enough of them.  Here and there, though, people had ideas about a new and different type of racing, one with cars made by individuals, not by automobile companies.  The cars would be inexpensive, powerful but light, and maybe small enough to speed around the horse-racing ovals that could be found all over the country.  The idea spread surprisingly quickly, and as people talked about creating home-built racers, they looked hungrily at something new in America : automotive junkyards.

Scrapyards themselves were not new.  In the 1920s, however, new cars in dealers’ showrooms were so much better every year that hordes of older cars, suddenly thought to be outmoded, had become the mainstay of junkyards.  Among the piles of junked cars, would-be racers could find engines, parts, even chassis for the cars they wanted to build.  They might even unearth useful components from some exotic source – an outboard motor, or a small airplane engine.

Although a novice hypothetically could learn a lot about building a car just by reading magazines like Popular Mechanics, an experienced mechanic had an advantage, and the sharper the mechanic’s mind, the greater that advantage became.

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Sprint Cars and Midgets

To mangle a common saying, one cannot race apples and oranges.  For the sake of competition, cars in any given race have to meet common standards.  The first set of standards developed for the new home-builts was for “Big Cars” (an ironic name, given that the whole idea was to make smaller cars).  The races proved exciting; such cars still race today, but now are called “Sprint Cars.”  Subsequently, standards were developed for even smaller cars (“Midgets”).  When Midgets were introduced, they quickly caught the public’s fancy.

Note the attendance figures below:



Nassau Daily Review, October 30, 1935

To get an idea of the appeal of Midget racing (hyped a bit by the narrative of this British newsreel), you can use this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yATwN7lEuU


Still from Pathé Newsreel, showing two Caruso cars racing at the Nutley, NJ Velodrome;
Bob Sall is in the No. 12 Miller, Paul Russo in No. 6 (the car exhibited in Paris years later)
youtube.com

 

Note that this race was run on a small banked track, constructed originally as a bicycle velodrome, rather than on the flat loose-surfaced ovals (“paved” with dirt or, less commonly, cinders) that were almost universal in the ear

Midget and Sprint races also became popular in Canada , South Africa , New Zealand , and Australia .  In the U.S. , interest spiked after World War II, prompting Hollywood to make movies that featured small-car racing, notably The Big Wheel with Mickey Rooney, and To Please a Lady with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck.

 

Movie still of Clark Gable in MGM’s To Please a Lady, 1950

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Mike Caruso

Beginnings

Michael Caruso was only months old when his family came to America and settled in Brooklyn .  By the time he completed sixth grade, his father had died, and young Mike had to seek work.

When he got a job in a garage, he embarked on what would be a lifelong adventure with automobiles.  As a young teenager, he made a crude car with no brakes, but it had what was important to the young Caruso: a powerful Excelsior motorcycle engine.  Not long after that, he attended his first automobile race.  Two things were becoming clear: he had initiative, and he had a love for speed. 

In 1922, Mike married fellow Brooklynite Rose Adessio.  They moved to Hicksville , where Mike operated a garage.  In 1927, he gave up the garage and started Hicksville Auto Wreckers, knowing that junkyard parts sales would be more profitable than garage work.  Mike purchased a large piece of property on Barclay Street , which the business would share with Rose and Mike’s home.  The Carusos both must have foreseen the advantages that such a business would offer for people who raced – which Mike was about to do.  His next step was buying a Sprint car.

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Race Driver

The earliest newspaper reference I’ve found for Mike’s involvement with racing appeared in the summer of 1927.  The Brooklyn Standard Union described him as a “plucky Italian driver” who “has been one of the stars of the auto racing season at the Metropolitan Heights Fairgrounds” in Queens .

In September 1928, Caruso drove his “M.C. Special” in races at the Mineola Fair, which that year was held at the old Roosevelt Raceway.  Crowds of up to 35,000 watched the cars race on the harness track oval.  Alas, he did not complete his qualifying heat for The Long Island Sweepstakes.  Mike’s car “went over the hay and over the fence” – one of four cars to leave the course at the same point on that day.  Although thrown from his auto, he was not seriously hurt.

When the new Deer Park Speedway opened a few weeks later, Caruso was listed as one of the star drivers to compete in the 15-mile main race.  Reports of the subsequent meets at Deer Park , however, indicate that Caruso had begun hiring drivers to race his car.  Perhaps Mike and Rose had reached an understanding because of his recent exciting flight “over the fence.”  If so, thoughts of their little children may have played a part in his making the change.

.

Fran and Ro Caruso with their father’s first Sprint car
carusomidgetracing.com

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The Early Caruso Cars

When Mike purchased the sprint car, its chief selling point may have been its engine, an Anstead, likely comparable to the Anstead engines which had powered Lexingtons to the top two positions in the 1920 Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

Pikes Peak conqueror, 1920
Shorpy.com

Mike Caruso in his “M.C. Special”
carusomidgetracing.com

Two years later, he built a new sprint car (shown in February’s Hixtory), and another Caruso-built racer soon followed.  In addition to the ovals already mentioned, the cars raced at other tracks in the New York metropolitan area, including Flemington Speedway in New Jersey , considered the fastest of all 5/8 mile dirt tracks.  During these years, Mike must have refined his ideas about building race cars, and also learned a lot about the logistics of running a racing team, for by the mid-1930s, his efforts would start yielding exceptional results.


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The Magical Junkyard

Collectables

Years later, an article in the journal of The Veteran Motor Car Club of America would look back at Hicksville Auto Wreckers as it was in the 1930s.  Called “The Great Caruso,” the article was written by no less than a former Curator of Land Transportation at the Smithsonian.  With great reverence, he recounted his past rambles through the junkyard, adventures undertaken with the blessing of a friendly Mike Caruso.

The future Curator would clamber over the remains of cars, much as his nattily-attired compatriot can be seen doing below, the end of his white scarf tossed over one shoulder.  Exploring in this way, he discovered treasured examples of such marques as Simplex, Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Brewster, and Mercedes.


Photograph by Smith Hempstone Oliver, printed in The Bulb Horn for January - February 1964;
provided by Brian Caruso, augmented digitally for emphasis

On a visit in 1937, he took this photograph, in which I have circled the unimposing remains of an Isotta-Fraschini “touring car” from about 1913.  Several years later, Chicago-based collector Cameron Peck purchased this Tipo KM Torpedo, together with another derelict Isotta in the junkyard, for $750.  In the nearby LIRR freight yard (just south of Barclay Street ), Caruso had the two cars loaded onto a freight car, so that they would be shipped to Chicago .

Upon receiving the cars, Peck took the photograph shown below left.  Note the ungainly windshield that had been added to the Torpedo at some point in its past.  The vehicle would change hands several times after its rescue.  Along the way, it was restored, displayed in a museum for a number of years, and then restored more extensively.  The end result is shown below right.

Both images from bonhams.com

Several years ago, the car was up for auction through Bonhams, a centuries-old British auction house.  The Bonhams summary of its provenance noted that

“The Tipo KM offered here is one of two such cars… discovered on wealthy Long Island estates in the 1930s by midget car racer and scrap merchant Mike Caruso, whose automobile junkyard at Hicksville, Long Island , has attained near legendary status for the amazing cars that were to be found there in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Pristine at the age of 95, the Isotta sold in 2008 for $1,492,000.

As the car’s history implies, this was not the only rare vehicle rescued from the Caruso yard during those years.  Indeed, there was a time when seven of the world’s highest-valued collectable cars all were autos that had once resided on West Barclay.  Others of the yard’s occupants in those years were notable for different reasons, such as a car once owned by Kaiser Wilhelm, or the first Bugatti ever imported into the U.S.


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Racers, Plus Ingenuity

Mike Caruso did not make all his interesting cars wait for collectors to take them away.  Among his best-known racing uses of items from the salvage business were engines from two Bugattis.  The first was a true four-cylinder engine from a Bugatti T-37, removed per the owner’s wishes, so that it could be replaced by a Ford engine (more easily maintained in the U.S. ).  It powered the Midget racer shown below; note the bulge along the top of the hood, needed to enclose the tall Bugatti engine.

True 4-cylinder Caruso Midget
carusomidgetracing.com

 

Bugatti Type 37
www.coys.co.uk

The second engine was an eight-cylinder, possibly from a Type 38 that had left the Bugatti works in Molsheim c. 1926.  Such an engine was too large for Midget racing.  Caruso “simply” cut the lower part of the engine to half its length, so that it accepted only a single bank of four cylinders – not a task for the faint of heart.  The result was the car recently restored and displayed in Paris .  In 1937, it looked like this:


Ernie Gessel driving the “half-Bugatti” Caruso;
the photograph appears to have been autographed by Mike Caruso
photo from Christian Anicet via Facebook

Clearly, Mike Caruso was not afraid of trying a new idea – and when the time was right, he also could give up on it.  Both the Bugatti-engined Midgets had their years of success, but the sport eventually advanced beyond them.  The day came when Caruso decided to instead use Offenhauser engines, a type that for many years was a mainstay at Indianapolis – but that did not mean there would be no more new ideas to try.

Stored at Barclay St. was a historic supercharger, one of three imported on the engines of racers that had been modified by Mercedes for the 1923 Indy 500.  They were the first superchargers ever used at the big race.  Mike set about adapting the quarter-century-old device to a contemporary “Offy” engine, and he managed to do it.  Then he lengthened a Midget frame to accommodate the long engine-plus-supercharger, and proceeded to build what became a still-famous Sprint car.


Source of the supercharger: Mike and his “Indy version” Mercedes Targa Florio
He wanted it to vie for the Vanderbilt Cup in 1936,
but with far less horsepower than newer racers, it could not be made competitive
carusomidgetracing.com

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Glory Years

Pre-War

Caruso Racing came of age in the mid-1930s.  Mike’s first Bugatti Midget, driven by Johnny Duncan, was consistently successful.  In 1935, he won the Atlantic States Midget Auto Championship event at Freeport , as well as the Mineola Fair Cup.

National Championships began two years later:

The “half-Bugatti” was built in 1936, and the next year it became dominant.  Ernie Gessell drove it to the 1937 National Auto Racing Circuit Championship.

In 1938, Paul Russo drove a Caruso Midget to the AAA Midget Championship.

Caruso Midgets finished in second place for the title in 1939 and 1940.

In 1941, Henry Banks (new to Caruso’s team) drove to the American Racing Driver Club Championship.

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Post-War

The success resumed after World War II, a tribute to Mike’s continued inventiveness as a mechanic, and also to his ability to run an effective team, which now drove from coast to coast, wherever the races led.  Often, it raced eight times a week.  Rose was part of it, as were sons “Bif” (Louis) and Mike Jr., honing their own skills as mechanics.  At the end of the long days, Rose would start to “break down” the engines, cleaning their parts for the next day’s races.


Bound for a day of racing at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a dusty Buick Special
stops for gas in Figueroa in 1946, gleaming Midget in tow.
Bill Schindler, Mike Caruso, and one “very careful” smoker
carusomidgetracing.com

Bill Schindler drove one of Mike’s Midgets in the early post-war years, and he practically owned the track:

In 1945, he won the American Racing Driver Club Championship.

In 1947 and 1948, he again was ARDC champion, winning 53 races each year.

1948 was an astounding season for Caruso.  The team competed in 106 races; Schindler had his 53 victories, and his teammate Mike Nazuruk had 38 more – giving the Caruso team wins in an incredible 85.8% of the races it entered.

In 1950, Nazuruk drove the Midget-cum-Sprint with the Mercedes “blower” (described earlier), and he finished third in championship points.  An off-beat highlight was his winning two races – one Midget and one Sprint – at two venues on the same day.

After Schindler’s 1948 season, people called him “The Babe Ruth of Racing.”  Both Schindler and Nazaruk left Midgets in the early 1950s to race Indianapolis cars; despite the loss, the team continued to have solid, although less spectacular, success. 
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Not Really Retirement

Around 1953, Mike started focusing less on his racing, and more on business, including his new Gulf service station at West John and Wyckoff Streets.  Ever the mechanic, he still dabbled hands-on when he could, taking on projects like putting a Chevy II engine into a Midget, or testing an Offenhauser engine fitted with a Maserati supercharger.


Rose, Mike, and a contented spaniel inside the Gulf station in the early 1950s
(now, if only the “ Good Gulf ” pump outside wasn’t idle….)
photo provided by Brian Caruso

He also paid personal attention to Indy-style racing.  From the late 1940s through the 1960s, his son Bif was a mechanic (and later, chief) on pit crews for a number of cars at Indianapolis 500s.  Among them were cars for Paul Russo, who years earlier had driven a Caruso Midget to a championship, and Andy Granatelli, of STP fame.


1964 Studebaker STP entry and pit crew at Indianapolis 500;
Bif Caruso third on the left, Andy Granatelli wearing necktie, Bobby Unser driver
photo provided by Brian Caruso

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Recognition

In 1978, Mike Caruso was named to the Eastern Old Timers Racing Hall of Fame, the first car owner to be granted that distinction; Rose also received an award, because of her dedication and contributions to the sport.

Four years later, Hicksville’s Gregory Museum held a “Caruso Day” in conjunction with its exhibit about Caruso racing.

In 2003, Mike was named posthumously to the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin .

In Las Vegas , where Mike and Rose had a second home in their later years, there now is the Caruso Racing Museum, established by Mike Caruso Jr. and his son Brian.  It features restored racing vehicles, and a great many other racing items of interest (some of which relate to things not covered in this article, such as one-quarter Midgets).


Mike Caruso Jr. and Hollywood stunt driver Joie Chitwood Jr.
at the Caruso Midget Racing Museum in Las Vegas
photo from Caruso Midget Racing page on Facebook

The Museum’s website at www.carusomidgetracing.com and its Facebook page (at www.facebook.com/CarusoMidgetRacing ) are fascinating in themselves, rich in facts and photographs.

The Caruso “stretched Midget” supercharged Sprint car can be seen in the Automobile Collection of the Collings Foundation in Stow , Massachusetts .  At present displayed in the Foundation’s historic aircraft hangar because of space limitations, with the rest of the Automobile Collection it soon will be housed in the Foundation’s newly expanded American Heritage Museum.


Stretched Caruso Midget in Automobile Collection of the Collings Foundation
photo from Caruso Midget Racing page on Facebook

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And to Conclude…

Ancient Hixtory usually covers one thing, something that happened and ended long ago, and since has been nearly forgotten.  Not this time.  Michael Caruso’s life has touched multiple worlds (e.g., racing, classic automobiles, museums), and he is far from forgotten.  It’s been a challenge for me to stitch things together into a narrative of this length; I hope that I have not omitted anything I should not have (but I probably did).

Sadly, we often must rely only on what a man did, and on what he left behind, to learn anything about him.  Such remnants of a life rarely reveal what kind of person someone was.  Thanks to Mike’s family, however, in his case we also have a rich collection of old photographs, which I think tell us more.


Rose at West Barclay Street, 1937
carusomidgetracing.com

For example, knowing what I’ve learned writing this article, I look at the picture above, and in Rose I see a woman who is proud to be photographed with something her husband has made.  Yes, he made it because of his passion for racing, but also so that he and Rose would know a happy and exciting life.  I doubt that many other couples in Hicksville got to enjoy life as much as Rose and Mike.  At times, racing while raising a family could not have been easy, but they made everything work, and they enjoyed the adventure.

Mike, fatherless from a young age, and too early forced by circumstance to work, married Rose, and with her started a loving family.  Today, their grandchildren recall them with pride and affection.  I believe those enduring feelings are evidence that Mike and Rose both were good, loving people.  That sort of thing may not make for an interesting story, but it’s as important as everything else I’ve written here.


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Sources

Many thanks go to Caruso cousins Mark Thomas (Hicksville High Class of 1975), who suggested I write this article, and Brian Caruso for their cooperation and help.  At www.carusomidgetracing.com the Caruso Racing Museum website, authored by Brian, has been extremely valuable to me, as has the museum’s Facebook page.

A number of sources have been noted in the text and captions above; others include:

A Brief History of Sprint Cars

National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum website at www.sprintcarhof.com

 

Little But Fierce: The Storied History of Midget Cars

www.theengineblock.com/little-fierce-storied-history-midget-cars/

Midget Racing Was A Big Hit At Jersey’s Nutley Velodrome

www.speedsport.com/racing-history/torn-from-the-headlines/

 

Racing Midget Autos

Popular Science Monthly, May 1934

The AWOL Egg – Bugatti T-37

https://www.hemmings.com/magazine/hsx/2007/03/The-AWOL-Egg---1931-Bugatti-T-37/1424269.html

 

Flemington Speedway

Wikipedia


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What better way to close than with this delightful Caruso family photograph?


Ro, Fran, and Flo Caruso
carusomidgetracing.com

Ciao!