Want to race in the Midwest winter? Go inside and pour the syrup

Cameron Neveu

Munchkins, Coke syrup, and white-painted tractor tires. What sound like elements for a bizzarro Wizard of Oz production are actually the makings for an indoor auto race at Indiana’s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.

Built in 1952, the arena in Fort Wayne typically hosts minor league hockey, basketball, and rock concerts throughout the year. It’s also home to a group of rough-and-tumble rollerskaters known as the Fort Wayne Derby Girls.

The Rumble, however, is a different type of four-wheel action.

Cameron Neveu

The last weekend in every December, the main concrete floor of the 13,000-capacity building transforms into a race track to host one of America’s oldest motorsport disciplines, active since the ’30s: midget racing.

Indiana’s Allen County arena has welcomed this sort of racing since the 1950s, when it was overseen by a variety of organizing bodies. In 1956, prior to sanctioning the Indy 500, fledgling race organizers USAC hosted their first-ever race, right on the Coliseum’s concrete. As the arena grew, the indoor racing became a wintertime tradition. Today, it may as well be a continuation of the holidays for local—and far-flung—open-wheel fanatics.

Cameron Neveu

In addition to the midgets, several other open-wheel and kart support classes get in on the indoor antics. The various classes are scattered through the building’s access tunnels and underground rooms. Quarter-midgets, miniature versions of midgets driven by grade-schoolers, are parked behind the second-turn bleachers, their full-size siblings behind turn four. Karts are in the basement.

Micro sprints are pitted in a back hall, next to the arena’s armory of folding chairs and portable plastic tables. These shrunken sprint cars, which traditionally sport 600cc motorcycle engines and race on dirt, bang wheels on the paved floor within the Coliseum’s cramped quarters.

Cameron Neveu

The 1/6-mile circumference of the temporary oval may be a generous measurement. It’s tight. Jersey barriers and chain-link fencing form the outside retaining wall while tractor tires slathered in white house paint create the inside perimeter. In any class, from the four-stroke karts to the full-size midgets, the Rumble’s racers are almost always turning. To be fast, drivers must cut dangerously close to the tires in the corner and wash out right next to the barriers on the straights—not that they are truly “straight,” even then.

A couple of midget racers negotiate the tight 1/6th-mile oval. Cameron Neveu

“Throttle control, especially when there is no rubber down, plays a huge part,” says racer Nick Hamilton. The second-generation driver knows a thing or two about going fast on the Coliseum’s floor. He won Fort Wayne’s midget feature in 2017 and was eyeing a second title in the 2022 show. His entry, powered by a fuel-injected Yamaha FJ1200, packs a wallop, but it’s all for naught if he’s stuck in behind back markers.

“You have to really be ready for when the car in front of you makes a mistake,” adds Hamilton. Negotiating traffic is key; and only a few laps into the 50-lap affair, the track becomes a conveyor belt. “A little front-bumper persuasion is usually alright but it’s a thin line between rattling someone’s cage and dumping them.”

Nick Hamilton Cameron Neveu

Hamilton drives a car for Mel and Don Kenyon, midget racing royalty. “Miraculous Mel” started racing back in the mid-’50s and is regarded as perhaps the best to ever belt into a midget. After a 1965 accident at Langhorne Speedway, Mel lost the fingers on his left hand. Brother Don and their father created a special glove that could slip onto a stud on the steering wheel so that the older brother could use his left hand to help steer. After the incident, Mel racked up numerous wins in the pint-sized racers as well as eight starts—and four top-five finishes—in the Indy 500. Each December, Mel and Don field multiple midgets at the Fort Wayne Rumble, usually with Hamilton behind the wheel of one.

It’s a family affair, even for the Hamiltons. Older brother Kyle, a Rumble winner as well, came out of racing retirement to join his brother and the rest of the crew. For Kyle, it’s about the history of the race and the roster of talent involved in the show.

“I’ve been coming here every winter since 2001, when my dad ran. I watched legends like Billy Wease, Dave Darland, Tony Elliot, and Tony Stewart battle every year and dreamed of getting to cut it up with them.”

Cameron Neveu

To win in 2022, the brothers would have to best perennial threat Tony Stewart. The hall-of-fame racer and Indiana-native is an 11-time winner of the Rumble. Stewart drives one of the Munchkins, a short-wheelbase midget built by Fort Wayne fabricator Mike Fedorcak.

According to legend, Stewart bought the unique midget during a booze-soaked Christmas poker game back in 2005, at the height of his NASCAR prominence. Once the deal was made, Stewart entered him and his purchase into the 2005 Rumble, using as the driver name “Mikey Fedorcak,” Fedorcak’s fictitious son from Gnawbone, Indiana.

After ironing out a few wrinkles in the VW engine, the Munchkin ran like a champ and Stewart stole the show. When the unknown driver took off his helmet in victory lane, Fort Wayne’s fans went wild.

Sure, Stewart is an all-time great, but the Munchkins are no slouch. Fedorcak has built a handful of the petite (even by midget standards) open-wheel racers out of his shop some ten miles down the road from the Coliseum. “I wanted to build and design something that made up for my lack of driving talent,” he told the Rumble crew a few years back. The Munchkins are fast—so fast that, back in the day, USAC re-wrote the rules to outlaw Fedorcak’s creation. Now, the ultralight, ultrafast Munchkins have found a home at the Rumble with Stewart, Fedorcak, and a few other drivers.

Cameron Neveu

Regardless of class, quick lap times at the Coliseum hover around the seven-second mark. The laydown karts can be just as quick as the midgets, and the karts don’t even have a roll cage.

“I’ve seen several people get roughed up in the karts over the years,” says sprint car racer Ryan Ruhl. “It feels like being on a tacky bullring, except you’re a few inches off the ground turning 7.5-second laps.” Laying down, the tractor tires suddenly grow larger in the peripherals and the Jersey barriers become the Cliffs of Dover.

The “tack” is created from soda syrup spread over the concrete floors and will yank the shoe off your foot if it’s not tightly tied. “It’s fun, how much grip you get out of a car when the coke syrup starts to work,” says Kyle Hamilton. “You run such a high gear ratio that the acceleration is incredible for a midget in that small of an area. It feels like you are riding a bull.”

At the end of the weekend, it was young Kyle Hamilton who stood in victory lane once again, having survived an action-filled 50-lapper that ended just a couple hours before the clock struck 2023. The final race of the year, in one of the oldest indoor venues—sounds like a dream. By Wednesday, that week, the race track was gone, the dirt replaced by ice and the cars by sweaty, hip-checking hockey players.

“But it wasn’t a dream. It was a place! And you, and you, and you, and you were there!”

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    This looks like a ton of fun! I did some karting many years ago, and have always enjoyed Sprint Cars, so I think I’d have a blast at this place.
    I can surely attest to the grip of Coke syrup on the floor. My wife used to own a drive-in restaurant, and once one of the plastic-lined boxes of syrup stored on the floor sprung a leak overnight. It spread all over the kitchen area and was just starting to tack up nicely when we walked in. With opening time fast approaching, it was impossible to keep shoes and socks on while we raced to clean up, so we ended up just going barefoot. I can still feel the stuff trying to peel off the bottoms of my feet as I mopped, and mopped, and mopped again.

    Cool article about an awesome event. One inaccuracy though the race is in the exhibition hall at the Coliseum. There is no ice there. Thats in the other part of the building.

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