Some advertisements for the recent Cadillac Grand Prix touted the event as the first auto race ever held in town. That's not accurate.
"Unfortunately, I know that there used to be racing in D.C.," says Larry Beckett.
Sixty-three years ago this week, his father, Larry Beckett Sr., was killed in an auto race at the Capitol Speedway. That track, a quarter-mile dirt oval, was located in Northeast off New York Avenue, not far from the rail yards in a neighborhood that is now called Ivy City. The Capitol Speedway opened in 1938 and featured midget racing, the open-wheeled circuit that a lot of top racing talent used at the time as a springboard to the granddaddy of all motorsports events, the Indianapolis 500.
Larry Sr. was a motorcycle cop in Dayton, Ohio, who couldn't shake the racing bug. When his job got in the way of Sunday-night racing, he quit the beat and made racing his full-time occupation. He left his hometown and his family to move to Paterson, N.J., which was then the hub of midget racing on the East Coast known as Gasoline Alley, to take a shot at the big time.
Larry Jr. lived with his mother after the separation. When she died of tuberculosis, in 1936, he moved in with his paternal grandparents in Dayton. What there was of a father-son relationship, he says, was because of the track.
"My grandmother forced my dad to take me over the summers," says Beckett, now 78 and living in Tucson, Ariz. "He was always on the road because of racing. So I'd travel with him from town to town to tracks all over the Midwest, and as far as Pennsylvania, and we'd go from fairground to fairground for the races. He'd even let me warm up the car on the track before the races sometimes. He'd say, 'You've been around these cars long enough to know how to do this!' even though I was only 13 or 14 at the time."
Larry Jr. didn't make the trip to Washington to watch his father run at the Capitol Speedway on Aug. 9, 1939. The event, run on a Tuesday night under the lights, did attract some of the biggest names in midget racing, however, including several future Indy drivers. In the first heat of the night, Larry Beckett Sr., piloting a V-8 Ford-powered midget, was involved in the crash that ended his life.
Tom Conaway, then a young racing fan from Laurel, Md., was at the Capitol Speedway with his father that night. "The car flipped over on the driver and slid down the track," remembers Conaway, now 73. "We couldn't tell how bad it was, but they stopped the racing that night after the wreck." (Conaway's father, Doc Conaway, was an official with the American Automobile Association, which was then the top sanctioning body for racing in the United States. The elder Conaway was killed in 1950 while driving home from a race near Richmond, Va.)
Back in Dayton, a bicycle messenger brought a telegram to the Beckett household to tell the family that Larry Sr. had been involved in a crash.
"We really didn't know how bad he was hurt," says Larry Jr. "He was my grandmother's only son, and that telegram really shook her up. So we stayed up late packing, so we could drive down to Washington the next morning to see him."
They never made the trip. The morning papers in D.C. reported in their early editions that the injured driver had merely suffered a concussion and had been taken to Sibley Hospital for precautions. But by the time most folks had a chance to read that, the Becketts knew otherwise.
"The phone rang early in the morning before we left the house, and it was somebody from Washington telling us not to bother coming," Beckett says. "Dad was dead of a broken neck."
The elder Beckett was only 32. Drivers from across the country came to Dayton to give the dead racer a hero's send-off.
Against his grandparents' wishes, the younger Beckett took up racing shortly after the funeral. He was driving on Dayton-area tracks before he was old enough to get a driver's license. He began putting together a scrapbook about his father--which he still has--and made a habit of picking the brains of other drivers for stories and newspaper clippings about him. He intended to make a career out of racing, just like his dad, until he was drafted for World War II.
"I guess you can say I was saved by the war," says Beckett. "Because racing is what I was going to do."
The racing experience, he says, came in handy during his service, particularly during his stint as a fighter pilot in the European theater.
"In air-to-air combat, the whole goal was to get behind the other guy and chase him," says Beckett. "I always figured what I learned in racing had to help me with the chasing." (He says he "snagged three Krauts" over England with his Mustang.)
Beckett says that after the war he went into engineering, and between his career and his own family he didn't have time for racing. But he continued trying to get more information about his dad, particularly about the crash that killed him.
His search was pretty much stonewalled until one night in the early '60s, when he was sitting at a bar in St. Louis, where he lived at the time, and the guy on the next stool began talking about racing. By the time he'd stopped, Beckett was sure the evening was a gift from heaven.
"The guy told me his name was Cowboy O'Rourke," says Beckett. "It turns out that he was a big midget racer, that he'd raced at Indy, and that he was in D.C. in the race where my dad died. He told me all about the race, that my dad's car was running great and had the lead when he cut too far inside on a corner and hit a hay bale that was there to keep drivers on the track, and that was what caused his car to flip. I still can't believe that I ended up next to this guy who knew everything that I was trying for years to find out. That meeting still strikes me as unbelievable. O'Rourke was just visiting St. Louis on business for one night, and I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't been there that night, I might never have found out how my dad died."
Officials from Triple-A ordered a probe of the use of hay bales at the Capitol Speedway after Beckett's crash, saying that wooden guardrails were a much safer way of keeping cars on the track. The track didn't reopen after the 1939 season, and outdoor racing didn't return to the city until last month. --Dave McKenna