The Put-in-Bay Road Race
During the 1950s, this annual event brought sports car owners to South Bass Island to face off on a 3.1-mile course set up on city streets.
In the fall of 1954, Joe Bojalad fell in love — with a British sports car.
He spotted the AC Ace at a road race at Watkins Glen, New York, and was thrilled at the price, well within his range at around $3,000.
He called the company in England from his home in Pittsburgh and ordered one. But what was the point of having a car like that if he couldn’t race it? He’d heard about a road race at Put-in-Bay, so in June 1955, “I put my suitcase in my trunk, went up to Put-in-Bay and painted a number on my car to race it,” Bojalad recalls.
Because it was on public roads, and shutting them down for even one day was a tall order, there was no qualifying race. Instead, drivers drew from a hat to learn their starting position. Bojalad was the 13th out of 14 cars in his race.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he recalls. “I was so pissed off, I drove like a madman. I was crazy in those days. My brothers came with me to the races just so they could call my mother and tell her I was still alive.”
By Bojalad’s own estimation, he hit the hay bales put up at every turn on the 3.1-mile road race. As he neared the course’s end, he noticed a Porsche coming up behind him. He also noticed his oil pressure was high. It was his car, and he wanted to keep it, so he put the car into neutral — and coasted across the finish line to win the race.
Bojalad’s racing career was a brief one, but Put-in-Bay holds a special place in his heart, and not just because he won. For eight years, the island was the site of an event that seems almost fantastic now: a road race on the city’s streets, with no serious injuries and a wonderful, collegial atmosphere that participants and spectators to this day try to re-create annually.
“Everybody loved that place,” says Carl Goodwin, who attended the races as a student at Shaker Heights High School and later wrote a book on them. “It was just … [sighs] … hard to describe.”
The end of World War II brought two things: A desire to have fun and a desire to spend money. And with war-bond drives and the lack of consumer products being made during the war, there was plenty of money that had been saved up to spend.
Returning from Europe, many servicemen had been taken by the roadsters and sports cars that they had seen or even driven. Foreign car dealers started to sprout up, particularly in large cities like Cleveland. As a result, sports car clubs started to form as well. In 1951, the Cleveland Sport Car Club was chartered.
“You were an eccentric if you drove these cars,” said racer and Willoughby dealership founder Chuck Stoddard during the 2011 Put-in-Bay Sports Car Races reunion. “The Cleveland Sport Car Club was a commiseration society.”
At the time, there weren’t a lot of racetracks, so racers turned to the street. The most famous road course was at Watkins Glen, where Bojalad fell in love with his AC Ace. (A permanent track was built there in 1956.) But street racing was starting to fall out of favor due to its danger.
As a result, a number of safety precautions were taken for the inaugural Put-in-Bay race in 1952. Participation was limited to sport racers with engines of 1.5 liters or smaller, or production sports cars with engines of 2 liters or smaller (by comparison, the four-cylinder engine in a 2019 Toyota Camry is 2.5 liters). There would be no qualifying, and the race would have a rolling start, eliminating the crashes that can occur as racers take off. There were also several no-passing zones. Still, the drivers weren’t wearing flame-retardant jumpsuits (a helmet and goggles were mandatory), and there was only a lap belt in the car. There were also initially no roll bars required, “which was kind of scary when you think about it,” racer Reed Andrews recalled during the 2011 Put-in-Bay reunion.
Having the race on an island helped reduce the other big safety issue: crowd control. The people there for the race were people who wanted to be there for the race. And it’s a good thing, because there weren’t a lot of barriers, outside of some snow fencing and the hay bales in the corners and in front of lampposts, fire hydrants and other objects.
There were still stories of people running across the street thinking the race had passed only to find themselves staring at a race car, but miraculously, no serious injuries occurred.
“Crowd control was, uh, well they tried,” says Dutch Brow, who accompanied her husband Art to the races. He raced; she was part of his pit crew.
The pits and paddock for the cars were in the shadow of Perry’s Monument, and the race started and finished on Delaware Avenue. All told, 30 racers came to Put-in-Bay in 1952 for what turned out to be the start of an annual tradition.
The first race was in September, around the same time as the Put-in-Bay Wine Festival, but subsequent races were held in the summer. It was a grand festive occasion, as foreign auto dealers in Cleveland would close for the week and rent a cabin for their employees and families.
Even in the 1950s, Put-in-Bay could be a wild place in the summer. Brow recalled at least one car that went into the water — not during the race, but on the night before.
“One year, they actually ran out of champagne on the island,” she says.
The race also had a minor role in one of the most notorious cases in Ohio history. Dr. Sam Sheppard owned an MG, which he drove in the first three races. Goodwin notes in his book that a witness at the 1954 race recalled Sheppard yelling on the phone, “I’ll kill the b---h!” Three weeks later, his wife Marilyn was murdered in their home in Bay Village. A media circus ensued, with Sheppard as the prime suspect. He was found guilty, but the conviction was later overturned in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case.
The Put-in-Bay race grew in popularity during the 1950s, which eventually spelled its doom. There were only so many entries that could be accommodated, and crowd control was always a concern. Plus, racetracks were being built for both sports cars and stock-car racing, and events were now being held at airports and Air Force bases. Ultimately, the 1959 Put-in-Bay race was the last. The state of Ohio had banned road racing, and it was becoming more difficult to find an insurer to underwrite the event.
There was one more race on Put-in-Bay — an “outlaw” event, not sanctioned by any governing body — in 1963, but the race faded into obscurity, a curiosity from a bygone time. Small reminders of the races came up: autocross races on the town square in the 1980s and an MG owners meeting in 1990. But in 2009, a group of fans and descendants of the original Put-in-Bay racers started holding an annual reunion every September.
“We’re trying to capture the history,” says event organizer Manley Ford. “There were hardly any visible signs the races had taken place.”
But even the reunion only offers a taste of the fun you could find on race days at Put-in-Bay during the 1950s. There’s a race, a car show and a host of events in the island town to remind people what once happened. “The racing life was a good life,” Brow says. “It’s some of the best memories I have.”
For more information about this year’s Put-in-Bay Sports Car Races celebration, visit pibroadrace.com.