Mel Hansen Became Frequent Midget Winner
One of the first midget racers to graduate to Indianapolis, Mel Hansen enjoyed great success on the nation’s ovals until a crash ended his career.
Born in Redfield, S.D., in 1911, the Hansen family moved to Fontana, Calif., in the 1920s. Hansen began his driving career in nearby Riverside. At the wheel of a Ford roadster, Hansen competed in “modified stock car” races on a dirt track at the Graser Ranch. These races for early versions of track roadsters drew other future stars like Ted Horn, George Robson and a young Riverside driver — Rex Mays. Mays became a major booster with Hansen often driving Mays’s sprint car or midget.
The roadsters soon disappeared with most drivers moving to big cars. Hansen did, too, but struggled in his early big-car efforts.
The arrival of midgets suited Hansen perfectly. By 1935, he was a regular on southern California tracks and earned his first victory at the palace of midgeteers — Gilmore Stadium — in October 1936. A consistent winner at Gilmore and Atlantic Stadium in 1937 and ’38, his reputation grew.
Part of millionaire sportsman Joel Thorne’s team for the 1939 Indy 500, Hansen completed 113 laps before crashing into the pit wall. His winning ways continued in midgets, taking back-to-back races on a board track at Chicago’s Soldier Field in June and a fortuitous win driving Mays’s car in the Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix at Gilmore.
Perhaps his most successful season came in 1940 when he won 53 midget features racing coast to coast. He also had his best run at Indy, finishing eighth after starting fifth. In 1941, Hansen had continued success racing midgets, primarily in the East, and another Indy disappointment.
At the end of World War II, the popularity of midget racing exploded and Hansen stayed on the West Coast, winning the 1945 URA Blue Circuit title (for Offenhauser-powered cars). He also scored three victories in ’47 and ’48 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
While Indy success eluded Hansen in six starts, he enjoyed a second act in champ cars and sprints. In his first championship start outside IMS, he finished fourth at Milwaukee in 1947. The only years he came close to being a championship trail regular were 1948 — when he won the 100-mile race at Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta — and what proved to be his final season, 1949.
Driving for longtime Mays sponsor Robert Bowes, 1949 began with DNQs at Indy and Milwaukee, but finishes of second, first (at Springfield, Ill.) and a pole followed before a crash in a midget race at Detroit’s Motor City Speedway on Sept. 8 left Hansen a paraplegic.
He helped with younger brother Marshall’s CRA sprint-car team before passing away June 5, 1963. Mel Hansen was inducted into the Midget Hall of Fame in 1993.