Danny Oakes, 95; champion West Coast midget-car racer and Indy 500 mechanic

Times Staff Writer

Danny Oakes, a leading West Coast midget-car race driver in the 1940s and noted mechanic at the Indianapolis 500, has died, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway said Wednesday. He was 95.

Oakes, who died Saturday of an unspecified cause, won about 100 races around the country but was most prominent in the Southern California area after World War II.

Midget cars -- small but potent versions of Indianapolis-style roadsters -- drew thousands of spectators in that era at such small tracks as the Rose Bowl and Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles.

Oakes won the American Automobile Assn. Southern California Midget title in 1947 and the United States Auto Club Pacific Coast Midget championship in 1959, near the end of his driving career.

He was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1996.

His individual victories included the 1945 Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix at Gilmore, a prestigious midget-car race held on Thanksgiving night.

The Turkey Night race is now held at the Irwindale Speedway, and in 2000 the track honored previous winners of the event. Oakes was the oldest to attend.

But Oakes said he drove to his favorite win in 1946, a 100-lap main event in the Rose Bowl.

He was the fastest qualifier but started last in the 16-car inverted field.

Then, driving the high groove while the leaders chose the inside route, he battled through the field, narrowly beating Duke Nalon to the checkered flag.

"In those days, if you drove a midget, you could keep busy and earn a good living," Oakes told The Times in a 2002 interview.

"There were races nearly every night," he said. "We would run at Long Beach, Atlantic, Santa Maria, Huntington Beach and sometimes Balboa in San Diego."

Oakes, who was born July 18, 1911, in Santa Barbara, got the racing bug as a teenager and was still driving race cars into his mid-60s, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's website.

"I never really retired," said Oakes, who lived the last two decades in Huntington Beach. "But I got to going a little bit slower, a little bit slower."

Known as Dapper Dan to his legion of fans, he wore silk shirts and pressed white pants while driving a blue-and-white midget car at Gilmore, a half-mile dirt track.

His team showed up in knickers on another occasion.

"I like being called Dapper," Oakes said in 2002, when he was still pursuing his lifelong enjoyment of dancing, even though he was in his 90s and his eyesight was failing.

Before his death, Oakes also was believed to be the only living driver from the era of Legion Ascot Speedway, a notoriously treacherous five-eighths-mile, high-banked dirt track near Lincoln Heights that closed in 1936.

Oakes' only head protection then was a cloth helmet under his goggles. There were no roll bars, much less roll cages, as midgets and sprint cars have today.

"If you flipped, you were likely a goner at Ascot," Oakes said. "To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd live to see 50."

Oakes later tried three times to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1952-55, without success. But he did help others in the historic race.

Twice he was the chief mechanic for drivers who earned rookie-of-the-year honors: Jim Hurtubise in 1960 and Johnny White in 1964.


For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction Oakes obituary: The obituary of midget-car racer Danny Oakes in Thursday's California section said the old Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles was a half-mile track. The track was one-fifth of a mile when it was built in 1934 and later expanded to a quarter-mile.
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