Considered ugly by some, the Sparks/Weirick “Catfish” was claimed to be America’s first racecar designed using wind tunnel testing. Stanford University aeronautics professor Elliott Grey Reid (assisted by Ulysses Arnold Patchett) drew up the plans for the groundbreaking vehicle and former Harry Miller metalworker Clyde Adams executed the construction. Beneath the bulbous bodywork which featured a large dorsal fin on the tail tank, was a state-of-the-art 220 c.i. Miller racing engine, wire wheels and a chassis built of recycled Miller, Ford and Chrysler parts. Los Angeles based Gilmore Gasoline agreed to sponsor the racer.
Owners Art Sparks and Paul Weirick hired California hot-shoe Stubby Stubblefield to pilot the car and promptly headed to Muroc Dry Lake(beds). Equipped with Moon disk wheel covers, Stubblefield set new records at four different kilometer and mile distances. When they arrived in Indianapolis for the 1932 Sweepstakes, their reputation preceded them. The Catfish was indeed quick on the straightaways and had a faster average going during qualifying than the pole winning car until the fourth lap. (A rear tire began to separate so Stubby backed off.) They easily made the show but would start twenty fifth in the thirty three car field. On the third lap of the 500, Stubby was sideswiped by his teammate Al Gordon and the collision ruptured his fuel tank. He nursed the Catfish back to pits where his crew spent over an hour making repairs. Stubby returned to the race and was flagged in the fourteenth position; a full hour behind the winner.
At the following race in Milwaukie the Catfish qualified second and finished fourth. Two weeks later at Roby Speedway (near Chicago) the Gilmore team totally redeemed themselves with Stubblefield first and Gordon second. In his last ride for Sparks/Weirick (July 2nd) Stubblefield placed second at Syracuse (NY). Indy winner Fred Frame was impressed enough with the car to purchase it from the Gilmore team and made it part of his two car effort. He barnstormed around the country with the futuristic looking Catfish which always drew a crowd. In October Frame set up a three heat match race in Abilene (TX) in which he put George Souders in the car and drove his own Miller powered Duesenberg. The promotion was a huge success as Frame won all three heats over the favored Catfish.
In March of 1933, Frame and Indy entrant Harry Hartz hauled the car back to Muroc intent on beating all of Stubblefield’s Class C world speed records. The Catfish now bore sponsorship from Union 76; the #15 was removed and under the hood snarled a 255 Miller marine engine. With relative ease Hartz broke the records for one kilometer, one mile and ten miles. He then proceeded to shatter the five kilometer record by twelve and one half miles per hour. Not to be outdone, Frame then jumped in the car and smashed the five mile mark by fourteen mph!
The Catfish was absent at Indianapolis that year but returned in 1934 as part of a three car team with Johnny Seymour up. Frame wrecked his car in practice, Rex Mays qualified the Duesenberg twenty third and Seymour just squeaked into show in the final spot. In the Memorial Day Classic the Catfish (now numbered #33) lost the rear end on the twenty second lap.
Meanwhile a closed cockpit Mercedes driven by Italian Rudolf Caracciola (and supported by the Nazi party) had eclipsed all of the Catfish’s land speed records. The car returned to California and became a popular entry on the dirt track circuit. Stubblefield even returned to share in the driving. Eventually Frame sold the car to a Charles Worley.
In 1936 the Catfish reappeared at Indy as “Abel’s Auto Ford Special”. The power plant was a Model B Ford (shown as a Cragar); numbered #52 with Frank McGurk listed as the driver. McGurk out qualified his predecessors and started the race from the twenty second spot but snapped the crankshaft at quarter distance and was scored twenty sixth.
Before the ’37 Classic Worley sold the car to driver Frank Brisko who procured sponsorship from Elgin Piston Pins and renumbered the Catfish #21. The Ford Model B was replaced by a six cylinder boasting 271 c.i. but rookie Duke Nalon couldn’t get her up to speed. Nalon was replaced by veteran Dave Evans who wasn’t able to complete his qualifying run and for the first time, the Catfish failed to make the show. (Interestingly, Wilber Shaw won the race that year in a car sponsored by Gilmore Gasoline and clearly inspired by the Catfish’s aerodynamic styling).
Brisko installed conventional coachwork on the car for 1938 and entered it as a second with Emil Andres driving. The Catfish (with six seasons under its belt) set its fastest qualifying time which by now was only good enough for twenty eighth on the grid. On the forty fifth circuit, a wire wheel collapsed and Andres crashed out. When interviewed at a later date Andres didn’t hide his disdain for the Catfish. He called it “a monstrosity” and accused it of nearly killing him. He then went on to say that the car was totaled at another venue and subsequently scrapped.
When I met Speedway historian Donald Davidson I asked him about the Catfish specifically. He confirmed that the car no longer exists.