The Black Panther Sprint Cars
Frank Luptow in the later car that has occasionally
been referred to as the Black Panther
Don Radbruch collection
Early in 1951, Johnnie Parsons and Barney Christenson put together two 220 CID Offenhauser sprint cars on lengthened midget frames from parts they obtained from Frank Kurtis’ nearby shop in Southern California. One car was built from the ground up while the other had been Parsons’ Offy midget for which Christenson fabricated new side rails.
The midget had originally been built for Parsons by Lujie Lesovsky in 1949 and Joe Sostilio had driven it for Parsons in the west coast winter midget series. It had a tube frame, cross-leaf spring front suspension, and an aluminum body.
Parsons did not particularly care to drive sprint cars but having won the Indianapolis “500” in 1950, the deal money offers for him to do so were just too lucrative to turn down. Eastern racing promoter Sam Nunis is said to have even put up some of the money to have Parsons create the two-car team to headline races Nunis was promoting in the East. Parsons drove his new sprint car as the #38 “AutoBrite Special” while Joe Sostilio drove the second car numbered 54 which was Parsons’ former midget built by Lesovsky. It was painted yellow with blue trim and blue numbers on the tail. Parsons campaigned the team in American Automobile Association (AAA) Eastern Division races including the Nunis fair circuit in 1951 and then offered both cars for sale through an ad in National Speed Sport News (NSSN) on November 21, 1951. Deb Snyder purchased the #54.
Frank Luptow had decided to switch from IMCA to race with AAA in 1952 with the hope of reaching the Indianapolis “500”. In order to be competitive, a lighter car than the original Black Panther with a smaller 220 CID engine as required by AAA was needed so Luptow purchased the #54 former midget from Snyder. Luptow painted this car black to match the older “Black Panther” complete with Bardahl sponsorship signage and his traditional tilted silver #9. The upholstery was red and the magnesium wheels were unpainted. Mostly due to the similar paint scheme, some also refer to this car as the “Black Panther”. Luptow reinforced the rear radius rods on this car to match the setup he had on the original “Black Panther”. That was done as Luptow usually raced on knobby tires and he felt that setup gave the car less side traction and more forward traction.
Luptow’s Indianapolis efforts did result in his entry for the 1952 race in Karl Hall’s #56 Bardahl Offy however records indicate there was no qualification attempt.
Luptow only raced this car five times with AAA before he was fatally injured while competing in an AAA sanctioned stock car race at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, Georgia on September 2 1, 1952.
After Luptow’s death, this car was sold through Johnny Pawl of Crown Point, Indiana to Frank Curtis of Long Island, New York who painted the car red and cream trim, changed the car’s number to 8, and raced it as the “Frank Curtis Offy” in AAA sprint car races starting in 1953, mostly on the east coast although a trip to Illiana Motor Speedway at Schererville, Indiana on July 18th netted a thirty-lap victory for Lynnbrook, Long Island midget ace Russ Klar. This would be the first of nine AAA and United States Auto Club (USAC) feature wins for the car. On May 3, 1953 at the famed Williams Grove Speedway, Joe Sostilio set a one lap track record of 24.24 seconds that stood for eighteen years!
AAA veteran Hank Rogers was scheduled to drive the car at Bedford, Pennsylvania on August 15, 1953 but did not arrive in time to compete. Chris Economaki was the race announcer that day and suggested to Frank Curtis that he get Wally Campbell to drive the car. Campbell was a star in NASCAR modified stock cars and had competed in the short lived NASCAR Speedway Division. Campbell did so well that day that he was hired to complete the rest of the season in the car, winning features at St. Paul, Minnesota; Morristown, New Jersey; Reading, Pennsylvania; and at Charlotte and Raleigh in North Carolina.
Al Herman drove the car, then known as just the “Curtis Offy”, for much of the 1954 season although 1949 Indianapolis “500” winner Bill Holland drove it at least once that year. Jiggs Peters, Bill Randall, Elmer George, and Russ Klar each took a turn in the car as well. Herman’s success included a feature win at Reading, Pennsylvania which helped launch his driving career leading to his being named “Rookie of the Year” in the 1955 Indianapolis “500”.
About mid season in 1954, the car was painted white, trimmed in red, had a red #8 on the nose and tail, and was again named the “Frank Curtis Offy”. By the end of the year, the car was red with the numbers in yellow outlined in black on the nose and tail.
The “Curtis Offy” was red with a gold #3 at the beginning of the 1955 racing season but was white with red trim and its gold #3 by mid season. It was known as the “Stanley Sunday Offy” when Al Herman drove it to a tenth place finish in the feature in an AAA sprint car race at Heidelberg Raceway near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 14, 1955. Ed “Dutch” Schaefer made one of his rare sprint car starts in the car at Williams Grove Speedway on August 28, 1955. Others who drove the car that season were Russ Klar, Bill Case, Jiggs Peters, Budd Olsen, Larry “Toby” Tobias, and Bill Brown.
Chuck Weyant went east from Illinois to drive the car, now a red #43, in 1956 winning the second USAC sprint race in history at Jacksonville, Florida on February 12, 1956. He crashed it hard at Reading, Pennsylvania on April 29th in what is believed to have been the first time the car was ever upside down.
Later that year, the car was painted red with a yellow number 12 and named the “Rosemont Special” when driven by Bill Brown of Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
Charlie Musselman and Al Herman also drove the car that year. The car also raced as the #3 for a time that year
Frank Curtis saw Ralph Liguori of Tampa, Florida win a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) midget race in New York and asked him if he would like to try his hand in a sprint car. Liguori made his USAC debut in the “Rosemont Special” on March 31, 1957 at the Reading, Pennsylvania opener. One week later, Liguori drove it to the quickest time in time trials at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania.
Liguori’s wife had been a childhood friend of Frank Luptow’s wife and Ralph had actually worked on the car with Luptow in Tampa in 1952.
By October 20, 1957, Al Herman had returned to the seat of the “Rosemont Special” finishing 14th in the feature at Williams Grove. Still painted red and yellow, the car carried the #12 in 1957.
In a deal brokered by Johnny Pawl, Harry Whitehorse of Madison, Wisconsin purchased the car from Frank Curtis either late in 1957 or early in 1958. Pawl had offered Whitehorse either this car or the Belanger #99 former AAA championship winning car for the same price. Neither car had an engine but Frank Curtis’ car had been offered with some spare wheels and a trailer.
Whitehorse changed the color back to black, put a gold leaf #98 on it, added black upholstery with red pinstripes, and named it the “Chief Automotive Special”. He installed a bored out six-cylinder Chevrolet engine but, while it had plenty of torque, it was too slow to be competitive so he switched to a small block Chevy V8 engine.
Owen Snyder, Jr. drove the car for Whitehorse as did Bill Horstmeyer who drove it at a number of places including at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Fargo, the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, and the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
Leroy Neumeier drove the car once in a Mississippi Valley Championship Circuit (MVCC) race only to hit the outside fence and bend the radius rods.
A. J. Shepherd drove it once at a USAC race at New Bremen, Ohio on June 25, 1961 but the radiator packed with mud causing the engine block to crack and he failed to qualify.
Harry Whitehorse traded the car to his brother, Walter, for an Offy midget in either late 1961 or early in 1962. Walter renumbered the car 99 and his brother-in-law, Owen Snyder, Jr., drove the car under the alias “Todd Barton” due to his regular day job at the time.
Al Fredenberg wrecked the car in an IMCA race at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul in the summer of 1962.
By 1963, Walter Whitehorse had painted the car pearlescent white with a two-tone gold #98 although the number was changed to 97 for one day of racing at the Minnesota State Fair due to duplicate car numbers. His drivers that year included “Todd Barton”, Bill Horstmeyer, Keith Thomas, and Al Fredenberg. Fredenberg crashed the car in one of the races in St. Paul.
Owen Snyder, Jr. purchased the car from Walter Whitehorse late in 1964 but only raced it occasionally before selling it through Harry Whitehorse to Cleo Kirby of Rock Island, Illinois late in 1965.
Kirby took the car to Tampa, Florida in February of 1966 where Tom Custer of East Peoria, Illinois drove it in the IMCA races at the Florida State Fair. It ran poorly there due to clogged injectors but Custer managed to win a feature in the car at Jacksonville , Florida later that year. Most of the races that Kirby and Custer competed in were with the MVCC. Rick McDole also drove the car once for Kirby. By 1969, the car number had been changed to 86. Kirby sold the car to someone in Anderson, Indiana in the 1970s.
The frame, torsion bars, tail, hood, and side panels were located by Jim Etter of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at Anderson, Indiana in the late 1970s. The man who had them had intended to build a midget from the parts but decided against doing so after he purchased one already built. He was cleaning out his garage and preparing to haul the parts to the dump when Etter purchased them.
About a month later, Etter hauled the parts to a flea market at Williams Grove Speedway where both Barney Wimmer and Buster Warke recognized the parts as being from the former Frank Luptow car. They even located some photographs on the grounds showing the car in its heyday.
Marlin Heller purchased the car from Etter that day and eventually sold it to Bruce Craig of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Craig had an Offenhauser engine installed in the car before selling it to Bobby Alberts in New York. Just months later, Alberts passed away and Joe Fiore of Southbury, Connecticut assisted the family in disposing of the car. Fiore sold the car to Junior Dreyer of Indianapolis, Indiana and the engine to someone else. Dreyer restored the body to how it appeared when Frank Luptow owned it in 1952. He did not get the car to running though. Fiore then brokered a deal to sell the car to Dr. Paul Mondo in Fort Pierce, Florida who retained Fiore to get the car running again.
The Frank Luptow #9 Bardahl Special Offy made its first appearance after being restored to running condition in August of 2005 at Thompson, Connecticut.
to see an incomplete AAA / USAC / IMCA race-by-race performance history of the Parsons / Luptow / Curtis / Kirby / Whitehorse sprint car from 1951 through 1961.
Frank Luptow in the original Black Panther
Don Radbruch collection
The first of the Black Panther sprint cars can be traced as far back as a big car hand-built on Essex frame rails by Lawrence “Larry” Jewell in 1939. Carl Scarborough drove that “Jewell Hal” to the Central States Racing Association (CSRA) championship in 1946 carrying the number nine. Frank Luptow of Detroit, Michigan purchased the car and raced it as the “Luptow Hal” in races sanctioned by the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) through 1948, finishing fifth in the points championship that year.
The frame, cowl, front axle, steering, and probably a few other internal parts became the basis of a car Luptow built for the 1949 season. He replaced the Hal engine with a 270 CID Offenhauser, painted the car black, added a silver tilted number 9 to the tail, and the ledgendary “Black Panther” sprint car was born. According to the Champion Sparkplug Company who was one of Luptow’s sponsors, Luptow won 38 IMCA feature races in 1949, finished second five times and third once, setting 25 track records along the way to winning the IMCA points championship that year. Luptow repeated as IMCA champion in 1950. Bardahl engine additive became Luptow’s primary sponsor in 1951 helping him to win his third consecutive IMCA title.
Luptow first offered the “Black Panther” for sale through an ad in the October 17, 1951 issue of National Speed Sport News (NSSN).
Larry Crist of Garden City, Kansas saw an ad offering Luptow’s “Black Panther” for sale without an engine in the April 9, 1952 issue of NSSN. It had been placed there by Baker Engineering of Indianapolis, Indianapolis. Crist purchased the three-time IMCA championship chassis still painted black and carrying the tilted number nine. He already owned a large white ill-handling Hal sprint car he had purchased from Herschel Buchanan of Shreveport, Louisiana. That Hal engine utilized an Offenhauser crank and is reported to have been around 300 CID. Crist had the Hal engine installed in the “Black Panther” and then sold the Hal chassis to L. B. Taylor of Amarillo, Texas.
Crist finished sixth in the United Motor Contest Association (UMCA) points championship in 1952. In August of that year, Crist accepted an offer to drive an ill-handling hot rod in a race at Royal Gorge Speedway at Canon City, Colorado and was fatally injured during that event.
In the fall of 1952, UMCA official Jack Merrick, acting on behalf of the Crist family, sold the “Black Panther” to Keith Harkness of Ness City, Kansas who sent the car to Emmett Taylor of Augusta, Kansas to manage for him. Taylor first chose midget ace Don Brown of Wichita, Kansas to drive the car but soon replaced him with veteran Charlie Lutkie of Wichita. They could not find enough speed to be competitive though so Taylor installed new Winfield cams in the Hal engine but timing chain problems soon broke the nose off of both cams.
Lutkie started the 1954 season with the Hal engine but Taylor soon acquired a used 270 CID Offenhauser engine and had it installed it in the car. Taylor also changed the name of the car to the “Harkness Offy” and changed the color of the number on the tail to white shaded in silver.
Late in the summer of 1954, Lutkie took the car north to join Al Sweeney’s IMCA fair tour at Fort William / Port Arthur (now named “Thunder Bay”), Ontario, Canada. After the Iowa State Fair dates on Sweeney’s fair tour, Lutkie returned to Kansas where he won a UMCA feature in the car on September 1, 1954 at Liberal, Kansas before rejoining the IMCA tour at Belleville, Kansas the following day.
The engine broke in an IMCA race at Shreveport, Louisiana that October. Lutkie hauled the engine to Crown Point, Indiana where it was repaired and then rebuilt by Johnny Pawl.
While waiting for the Offy to be repaired, Taylor installed an old Fronty Ford engine in the car for a couple of races. Lutkie described the Fronty as feeling as though the car was “pulling a plow.”
Ever increasing expenses and a lack of expected performance led Harkness to give car to Taylor and quit the sport at the conclusion of the 1955 racing season. Taylor changed the car's name to the "Wheat State Special" before selling it to Lutkie one year later. Lutkie changed the name back to the “Black Panther” and continued to run the car with Offy power until Memorial Day of 1959 when he geared it a bit too low at Belleville, Kansas and blew the engine. Bobby Unser went on to win the feature at Belleville that day.
Lutkie won the United Speedways of America (USA) sprint car title in 1959 before selling the car to Bob Garner of Wichita, Kansas. Lutkie delivered the “Black Panther” to Garner’s garage about two weeks before the next racing season was to begin. Not knowing of the Black Panther’s arrival, fellow competitor LaVern Nance bet Garner dinner and drinks for ten that Garner would not have a car ready for opening day of the upcoming racing season. Of course, Garner won the wager.
Garner applied a new coat of black lacquer paint, renumbered the car with a white #15, and replaced the broken Offy engine with a fuel-injected 327 CID Chevrolet engine.
Just one of Lutkie’s feature race wins in this car came in a Mississippi Valley Championship Circuit (MVCC) race at Belleville, Kansas on August 29, 1964.
Most of the 1966 racing season was spent racing the Black Panther as a super modified at "81" Speedway at Wichita, Kansas.
Garner wanted to enter the car at the Knoxville Sprint Car Nationals in Knoxville, Iowa in the summer of 1967 but Lutkie could not get away from his day job so Garner enlisted fellow Wichitan Roy Bryant to drive the “Black Panther” in the Iowa classic.
Bryant qualified tenth fastest of the 92 cars entered. He then finished third in his heat race having come from the last starting position. He started tenth in the Knoxville Nationals feature that year and had worked his way up to second place behind then leader Joe Saldana when a blown tire on the 17th lap dropped him to 13th place at the finish. The race was won by Thad Dosher. Bryant later comment that the “Black Panther” was one of the best handling cars he ever drove.
After a dispute with local racetrack management in Wichita and some of the other car owners over the legality of using dual wheels on the right rear of the car, Garner sold the car back to Charlie Lutkie in the late 1960s.
The last time this car ran in competition was the weekend of October 3rd and 4th of 1970 in a two-day IMCA race meet on the half-mile racetrack at the Oklahoma City State Fairgrounds. Lutkie’s son, Mike, was scheduled to drive the car but he wanted the Chevy engine replaced with a larger engine they had. The elder Lutkie told his son that, if he could run the Chevy with the throttle wide open, they would put the larger engine in the car. After trying to qualify on Saturday with the smaller engine, Mike decided it was plenty stout enough but there was a half-turn of slack (a quarter-turn in each direction) in the steering so he withdrew the car.
With the slack still in the steering, Charlie Lutkie qualified the car 20th of the 25 cars entered on Sunday and finished seventh in his heat race. He started sixth in the semi-final and led every lap until a blown tire and a loose rear radius rod (both caused by a brush with a lapped car) eliminated the “Black Panther” in its final race appearance. That semi-final was won by Jan Opperman. Lutkie collected $50 from the day’s total purse of $2,500.
The “Black Panther” was in a garage fire while Lutkie owned it but the only damage it received from it was a layer of soot.
In August of 1974, Lutkie sold both the car and the old broken 270 CID Offenhauser engine to a man in Wisconsin. When the buyer took a U-Haul trailer to pick the car up, he found the tail, rear axle, and engine had been removed. The new owner asked how just he and Lutkie were going to get the car loaded on the trailer. Lutkie told him to just steer and he would do the rest. The muscular 47 year-old Lutkie then picked up the whole back of the car and set it on the trailer by himself.
to see an incomplete IMCA / UMCA / MVCC race-by-race performance history of the original Luptow / Crist / Harkness / Taylor / Garner / Lutkie “Black Panther” sprint car from 1948 through 1970.
Jeff Adams, Tom Bigelow, Lee Booth, Dave Burt, Roy Bryant, Bob Clements, Junior Dreyer, Jim Etter, Joe Fiore, Bob Garner, Robbie Garner, Bill Green, Keith Harkness, Joe Heisler, Marlin Heller, Donald Johnson, Chuck Kirby, Larry Kirby, Galen Kurth, Charlie Lutkie, Mike Lutkie, Bud and Judy Niekamp, Dan Ostwick, Lynn Paxton, Brian Pratt, Don Radbruch, Jim Richardson, Buzz Rose, Owen Snyder Jr., Carol Sylvester, Buster Warke, Deb and Harry Whitehorse, Walter Whitehorse, and Bob Wilson