Editor’s note: With 2014 marking the Homer News 50th anniversary, it’s the perfect time to look at Homer’s past. One activity that has been part of Homer winters for more than 50 years is car races on Beluga Lake.
As Homer history goes, there might be a few institutions 40 or 50 years old, but there aren’t many that pre-date statehood and are pushing 60. One longtime tradition can trace its roots back to 1955: the Homer Racing Association, which runs the winter car races on Beluga Lake.
The winter weekend activity of running jalopies really fast on the slick ice of Beluga Lake has been going on every year as long as the lake freezes and the snow sets up – almost as long as the lake itself, created in the late 1940s by the damming of Beluga Slough at the causeway.
Ray Kranich, a lifelong Homer resident whose mom, Arlene Kranich, used to be the postmistress, remembered that first race in early 1955 when he was 15. Kranich said Ora Jones had the idea of ice racing on Beluga Lake.
“Where he came up with the idea, I don’t know,” he said.
Early in 1955, Jones passed around a flyer that said in effect, “hey, let’s do some ice racing on the lake and meet at Ora’s shop.” Jones had an auto repair shop, Husky’s Repair, where Coastal Realty now sits at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway. Jones and Orville Waddell did some body work on a 1940s Plymouth four-door sedan Jones planned to race.
“They went after it, any scrap of paint they had there,” Kranich said.
The color scheme turned out to be light purple with yellow, green, black and blue, and with wild swirls on it that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a 1960s VW Van.
Photos of the first race show a motley group of vintage rigs dating back to the 1930s. A lot of them had factory bumpers, running boards, even whitewall tires. Some even still had windshield and window glass, but to keep broken glass from becoming a hazard, the racers slapped down masking tape in crisscross patterns.
“From there it kind of took off. The association was organized and incorporated as a nonprofit,” Kranich said.
Ray’s older brother Bill also raced and ran the projector at the Kranichs’ business, the Homer Family Movie Theatre. Ray would work on their car behind the theater. Their mother said, “It would be better if both you boys did that,” Kranich said, so Arlene Kranich learned to run the projector.
“We had a lot of fun over the years. As we got older, we got tired of lying out in the snow and ice all week long to go out and tear it up,” Kranich said.
That tradition will continue this winter, hopefully in time for winter carnival, said Mike Brooks, president of the Homer Racing Association. The club already has set a track, but a thaw melted the berms down to almost nothing. To set a track the lake has to freeze about 18 inches thick and then enough snow has to fall to put up berms 2- or 3-feet high.
“That’s enough ice to hold up the track, the race cars, the berms, support vehicles and spectators,” Brooks said.
Back in the 1950s, the ice had to be thicker, since Leo Rollins would plow the snow with an Army surplus D-8.
“It took a substantial amount of ice to make sure the thing wouldn’t hole through,” Kranich said.
The track back then had been a quarter-mile. Now it’s three-eighths of a mile, Brooks said. There are two race classes, stock cars and modified cars. Drivers race in heats of seven, 10 and 15 laps, and win both races and on points for their place in each event. It’s not always the fastest car that wins.
“You can go all season and never win a single race and still be able to win on the points,” Brooks said. “Stick and stay and make it pay.”
Currently, there are about 12 to 14 stock cars that race and eight to 10 modified cars. Most of the cars have a lot of steel welded on to keep them from falling apart.
“It’s not demolition derby on ice, but at the same time, we’re trying to run at the absolute top speed on ice. Collisions do occur,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to preserve the car, but above all, preserve the people.”
People interested in learning about ice racing are welcome to come hang out at the track and volunteer. Stay long enough and someone might let you take a lap in a genuine ice racer.
“We’re all about getting people out there and getting them hooked,” Brooks said.
Homer Racing Association
Founded 1955 by Ora Jones and other Homer residents
In season, conditions permitting, races held every weekend
Two classes: Modified and stock
For more information, call Mike Brooks, president, 299-1231
On the web at Facebook, Homer Racing Association