SI Vault
Kim Chapin
April 16, 1973
The cars are pint-sized and the pace is exhausting, but midgets can move a man right up to Indy
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April 16, 1973

Small Dreams Of Hitting The Big Time

The cars are pint-sized and the pace is exhausting, but midgets can move a man right up to Indy

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About 60 of Edmunds' cars are in use on various parts of the current USAC circuit, and in 1970 Jimmy Caruthers got one—properly secondhand—and promptly won the championship with it. It was the high point of an oncoming racing career that had begun rather noisily 20 years before when Jimmy was all of five.

He remembers that his father put him in a race car (sort of—it was a tiny thing powered only by an electric motor) almost before he could read. His father, who, depending on the person and the circumstance, is called Doug, Pops or the Old Man, is a wiry, compact Texan who grew up in Kansas and moved to California during World War II lo work for Douglas Aircraft. After the war he got into the mobile-home business. On the side he was a part-time racer and a more serious car owner. In his backyard he built two concentric tracks, a one-tenth-mile asphalt oval and a one-twentieth-mile dirt oval, mainly for the kids. He exploited what became known as quarter-midgets—cut-down versions of the real things that were powered by lawnmower engines of 10-12 hp, had a lop speed of 40 mph and enjoyed a faddish notoriety in the early 1950s. Jimmy was seven the first time he got upside down in one of these cars. "I wasn't scared." he says. "My only fear was that I'd get in trouble for tearing up the car. That's pretty much my reaction now. Those quarter-midgets taught me a lot—how to start, how to pass, how to cheat. In the midgets all I had to do was get used to the speed. The techniques and strategies were all the same."

Race drivers were always popping in and out of the Caruthers household, and Jimmy Bryan even lived with the family for a time. " Bryan really liked kids," says Jimmy, "and I was the only one available at the time." Bryan was killed in 1960, and Caruthers' only child, who will be two this July, is named James Bryan Caruthers.

Despite the family background, Jimmy's parents were against any serious racing by their oldest son. Until he was 22, Jimmy raced cars of dubious heritage at outlaw tracks and lied about his age. Then, in early 1967, Bobby Unser wrecked a Doug Caruthers midget twice in one afternoon and Jimmy made his move on the Old Man. Doug relented. "If you fix the car and tell your mother you're racing, I'll let you run for me," he said.

Jimmy won the first lime out in his father's car. He came home and dropped his prize money, all $337 of it, on the table in front of his mother and said proudly, "Look at this."

Somewhat less than pleased, his mother dropped a letter on the table and said, "Look at this." It was his induction papers.

The Army trained Caruthers to be a radio technician, then made him a lifeguard and an MP for most of his two-year hitch. He used his weekend leaves to go racing, and when he was mustered out in April 1969, he prepared to pick up where he had left off.

Except nothing happened. Caruthers started 24 midget races that year, did not win a single main event and brought in exactly $3,524 in prize money. He spent that winter setting up trailer mounts for his father and contemplating an early retirement.

The following spring, however, the racing itch proved too great, and Jimmy picked up a year-old midget from an Illinois car owner—a car complete with a lucky Indian-head nickel screwed to the dashboard. The year was a dream: he won the midget title in the very last race of the season.

Then it was Danny's turn.

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