The Meeting of the Moderns, Circa 1934

This great photo appeared in newspapers in March of 1934. The accompanying story noted the striking resemblance between the two aerodynamic “moderns” depicted, a 1934 Chrysler Airflow sedan and the “Union Pacific Railroad’s new lightweight, streamlined train.” It was noted that the train was powered by a 600hp distillate-burning engine that could attain speeds of 110 mph while the Chrysler engine had 130-hp and could reach speeds of 100 mph. The ultra-streamlined Airflow was innovative, but that didn’t translate into popularity with the car-buying public, and it was only produced through 1937.

1934 Desoto Airflow with the waterfall grille

Bullock, Garrett, and the Franklin Mile Speedway: The “Real Stuff” of Nebraska Racing History

When people think of Nebraska history, if they think of it at all, their thoughts are usually associated with the settling of the west.  They may visualize the overland routes that crisscross the state, the Mormon, California, and Oregon Trails, and the pioneers that traveled those paths farther west or chose instead to put down roots on the Nebraska prairie.  There is still a fascination with this period of history, evidenced by the many books, television shows and movies yet produced, and there remains a familiarity with names like Seth Bullock, the sheriff of Deadwood; Pat Garrett, the lawman who shot Billy the Kid; and outlaws like the infamous Jesse James.

Western trails in Nebraska. Blue = Mormon Trail; red = Oregon Trail/California Trail/Pony Express; dashed red = Oregon Trail/California Trail; orange = lesser-used trail routes; black dot = Fort Kearny; green dot = Franklin. Credit: Swid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (altered to add town of Franklin).

The peaceful town of Franklin, located in south central Nebraska, has a strong connection to that western history.  Indeed, Jesse James, using the alias Thomas Howard, had reportedly expressed interest in buying 160 acres on the southern outskirts of town before his untimely, although entirely predictable, demise.  But Franklin has an equally strong connection to another aspect of history that people do not necessarily associate with this state:  racing history.  That history also features names like Garrett and Bullock.

The man called Bullock in this story, first name Noel, was born on a farm near Franklin in 1899 to a pioneering family. His family later moved to Perkins County in southwest Nebraska, but Bullock returned to attend the Franklin Academy for school.  He played in a local band and for the Academy’s football team before graduating in 1919.  He grew into a long and lean young man, standing 6’4, with a passion for automobiles.  As a sixteen-year-old, Bullock had placed advertisements in newspapers around the state seeking a position as a chauffeur who was capable of driving “any make car to anyone’s satisfaction” and possessing “no bad habits.”  He matured into an exceedingly capable mechanic with a love of racing and was described as a fair and square driver who was always graceful in defeat: “He never crabs and he never has an excuse, except that the other fellow had the fastest car.”

In 1922 he had entered and won the famous Pikes Peak hill climbing event, a 12.42-mile course that curves a grueling 156 times. He did it in a “home-brewed flivver” in which he had invested around $400.  Most of the parts, including a frame from a light delivery truck, came from a junk yard in North Platte, Nebraska.  He did purchase wire wheels with four new tires, and those cost more than the rest of the car put together.  Others called it a Ford Special or a RAJO Ford, a reference to the RAJO overhead-valve kit he had installed, but Bullock finished what he referred to as “Old Liz” a week before the race and, with no funds for shipping her to Colorado, he drove his homemade machine to the site of the race from his then-home in North Platte.  He also slept in it, because there was no money for a hotel room, either. 

The other drivers, possessing fancy equipment like Packards and Pierce Arrows, did not try to hide their derision. One observer said Bullock’s unpainted and hoodless contraption looked like “a cross between a Kiddie Kar and a pushmobile.”  Fellow Nebraskan King Rhiley had won with a time of 19:16.2 the year before, but it began to look like no driver would finish with a time under 20 minutes because rain and snow had caused the last three miles of the already arduous course to be covered in slush.  To the surprise of most, 23-year-old Bullock beat many more experienced drivers and thundered to first place with a time of 19:50.9

This win gained Bullock hero status back in Nebraska, and that was ideal timing for a new racetrack situated just east of Franklin.  The new track, touted as the best one-mile dirt track in the entire state, included a grandstand and bleachers that could hold nearly 3,000 spectators.  Bear in mind that the entire population of Franklin numbered just over 1,000 at this time, but the excitement of race day drew spectators from miles around.  The previous October, the Franklin newspaper had reported that the town was “denuded of folks both Friday and Saturday” because everyone had gone 45 miles down the road to the town of Holdrege for races.  On the first day of races a man named Garrett, Tom Garrett, had “cleaned up” in every event, breaking the track record in the first start and then breaking it again in the next.  Noel Bullock was one of the drivers bested on that occasion although he did win on Saturday when Garrett was forced to sit out with a bent axle.  Thus began a racetrack rivalry.

Thomas Lee Roy Garrett was born in 1897 in Decatur County, Kansas, but he had spent most of his life in Franklin.  By 1923, Garrett was also employed as a mechanic and had a wife and two sons.  His sunny disposition and loyal personality made him a popular man about town and with other drivers.  Now his hometown had a new track, and it was almost ready for action.

In April of 1923, the owner of the new speedway, a man named H.H. Theiler, was smiling about the big rain that was going to put his new racetrack in fine shape.  All it needed was a good packing, so he invited folks out to drive their cars on the track.  He only asked that they stay on the outside where it needed packing the most and not make a rut by driving in the same spot near the inside of the oval.

The big opening races for the Franklin Speedway were set for the last week of May, and Noel Bullock, the popular Pikes Peak winner, was reported to be the “main drawing card of the meet.”   Prize money totaling $1,760 was being offered, and Bullock and Garrett would once again be going head-to-head.  The local paper described it this way: “His eternal opponent will also strive to remove some of the laurels from the great Bullock’s brow.  This is the chance that Tom Garrett has been waiting for. Both are experienced drivers and can be depended on for real stuff.”

When the big day arrived, however, the races had to be called off due to heavy rain.  Organizers decided to hold a one-day meet on Saturday, and a crowd of 1,500 gathered to watch it with less than twenty-four hours’ notice. Seven of the entries stayed to take part in the impromptu event, and the field included four Fords, two of which were driven by Garrett and Bullock, a Lexington, a Durant, and a Dodge.  Garrett and Bullock were to compete in the Class A race, but the rivalry came to an anticlimactic close when Garrett stripped his transmission gears on the first lap and the Lexington was forced out by engine trouble.  Bullock won driving the five miles in 5.04 2-5.  In the Class B race, Tom Garrett’s brother, Earl, won after the Dodge and a Ford took each other out in a crash.  In the final race of the day, Earl Garrett bested Bullock by eight seconds, driving the ten miles in ten minutes flat.  After the races, Bullock attempted to break the state record but was only able to tie it. People still wanted to see Bullock going head-to-head with Tom Garrett, and so the stage was set for a showdown to take place on the 4th of July.

Excitement had been building, and the crowd was eager for “Hair-raising thrills, breathless moments, excitement, all accompanied by the rush and roar and the clamor of the racing cars.” Bullock was coming into the race fresh off a win at the North Platte half-mile track the previous weekend.  There he had eclipsed the record set by King Rhiley and had won the main race of the day while driving eleven laps without his left rear tire. It wasn’t just Garrett that was going to be gunning for Bullock, either; it was said that the boys from St. Joe (St. Joseph, Missouri) hardly slowed up for the turns, and they had shipped an entire carload of racers up to Franklin for the Independence Day event.

Until noon, weather conditions were poor, and it looked like rain, but then the skies cleared, and it turned into the finest day imaginable. A massive crowd turned out, drawn by the big names and the chance to spend the holiday at Senter Park, a water park and campground adjacent to the raceway that offered refreshments, fireworks, swimming, and dancing to the melodious sounds of an orchestra until late into the night.  No one took an exact head count, but the crowd was estimated to number somewhere between five and ten thousand.  People were lined up around the track on haystacks and cars, anywhere they could get a view of the action.  It was the largest crowd ever assembled in Franklin with carloads of fans driving in for hundreds of miles from every direction.

There was a motorcycle race on the schedule, but it turned out to be a disappointment with the local paper describing it as being “about as fast as a baby buggy marathon, driven by two drunk women.”  There was to be two classes of automobile races, each with three 10-mile heats and then a final, and also a Sweepstakes race. The Class B race provided some excitement when a Durant broke a radius rod and careened off the south end of the track.  After driving through a plum thicket and around some farm machinery, the driver emerged unscathed.  Then a Hudson caught fire and a Harding Special flipped and threw the driver, all without serious injury. The Class B finals pitted a Dodge Special against a stock Ford.  The driver of the Dodge figured he would win easily and spent the race toying with the Ford, driven by 48-year-old “Dad” Harrier from Kansas.  The Ford trailed by 50 feet for nine and three-quarters miles. Then the Ford made its move in the last quarter mile, crept up behind the Dodge and passed it on the home stretch.  The grandstand went wild.

The Class A race was the one everyone had come to see. There were nine entries, but it was mainly a competition between Bullock in his RAJO Ford and Garrett, driving a Fronty Ford.  Hometown favorite Garrett was taking the turns faster, but Bullock was gaining on the straightaways.  Garrett took the first heat, and Bullock took the second. The dueling duo finished one-two in the third heat, and the grandstands were again on their feet when it was Garrett who crossed the finish line first.  Garrett edged out Bullock in the Class A finals, and it was the fastest race of the day at 8.51.  Garrett also had the fastest lap in that race, and his time of 49 seconds was a new state record.  Garrett took the Sweepstakes race, too, but every race that Garrett won, Bullock took second and was close enough to make it a race clear to the wire.  The whole day was described as a battle royal between the two, and the headline of the Franklin County Sentinel gleefully proclaimed, “A Rip Snorting Success:  Tom Garrett Cleans Up on the Mighty Bullock.”

Garrett and Bullock were destined to meet once more, but this time with tragic results.  Both drivers made the trip to race at Sturgis, South Dakota, on July 27, 1923.  Bullock was once again trailing his rival when Garrett struck a hole in the track, causing the steering gear to break.  His car, unmanageable, turned over several times and Garrett was thrown 30 feet.  Garrett’s broken body landed on the track where he was in danger of being run over by the other drivers.  Noel Bullock was the first to go to his aid.  He steered into the bank, eliminating himself from the race, and ran to pull Garrett off the track. Bullock went with Garrett to the hospital in Deadwood and was reportedly one of the first people Garrett asked for when he regained consciousness.  Garrett’s internal injuries were more severe than originally thought, though, and he died the next afternoon.  The local paper reported that, “Even in his agony he had words of comfort for his loved ones, and an expression of appreciation for the man who went to his assistance.”

Incredibly, the Hill Climb organizers at Pikes Peak banned Bullock from defending his title in 1923.  They cited his participation in the unsanctioned race at Sturgis, where he had acted heroically, as the justification, but only after first attempting to disqualify Bullock’s Ford with a rule change that increased the minimum weight requirement. 

Bullock later turned to a career in aviation and became a pilot, but his life also ended entirely too soon.  A mail plane he was riding in, one which he owned but was not piloting at the time, went down in the Gulf of California while attempting a mail run from Mazatlan to La Paz, Mexico.  The wreckage was spotted by another pilot the following day, partially submerged with the passengers clinging to its wings.  Rescue boats were dispatched, but they arrived too late, and no trace of the plane was ever found.

1932 photo of Noel Bullock with his plane.

The Franklin Speedway flourished for a time. The next August races were held there that saw the state record broken no less than four times in one day.  Bullock was there, as was Tom Garrett’s brother Earl, but they were not the drivers breaking records.  Their minds may have been elsewhere, perhaps on the driver that wasn’t there.  Now that dirt oval where men named Bullock and Garrett once dove into turns and roared down straightaways is gone, too.  Other than a small display at the county museum, there is no trace of the speedway where thousands of boisterous fans once cheered on the hometown heroes before swimming and dancing the night away.  A cornfield stands in its place, and the silence is deafening. 

Cornfield east of Franklin where the Franklin Mile Speedway was located.
Tom Garrett is buried at Franklin, Nebraska.


Advertisement for Franklin Mile Speedway. Franklin County News, 28 Jun 1923, p. 8.

“A Noted Driver.” Franklin County Sentinel, 17 May 1923, p. 4.

“A Rip-Snorting Success:  Tom Garrett, Jr. Cleans Up on the Mighty Bullock.” Franklin County Sentinel, 5 July 1923, p. 1.

“Auto Races Big Success.” Riverton Review, 5 July 1923, p. 1.

“Auto Races, July 3 and 4, at the Mile Track at Franklin.” Franklin County Sentinel, 21 Jun 1923, p. 1.

“Big Auto Races Next Week.” Franklin County News, 17 May 1923, p. 1.

“Bullock Proves Friend Indeed.” Franklin County News, 2 August 1923, p. 1.

Classified Advertising. Hastings Daily Tribune, 15 Mar 1916, p. 5.

Day, J. B. “Kid Mechanic Built Flivver out of Junk – Won Pikes Peak Climb.” Omaha Daily News, 9 Dec 1922, p. 14.

Duggan, Joe. “Outlaw’s Wanderings Took Him to Nebraska – Several Times.” Lincoln Journal Star, 19 Oct 2007, p. 1A.

“Flyer Had Wilsonville Relatives.” Hastings Daily Tribune, 2 Jan 1935, p. 3.

“Football Banquet.” Franklin County News, 21 Dec 1916, p. 1.

“Franklin Booster Band.” Franklin county News, 14 Dec 1916, p. 1.

“Franklin Speedway Races.” Upland Eagle, 5 July 1923, p.1.

“Garrett Sweepstakes Winner at Franklin.” Advocate Tribune [Bloomington], 1 Jun 1923, p. 8.

“Garrett to the Front.” Franklin County Sentinel, 19 Oct 1922, p. 1.

Hall, Edith Thompson. “Facts Amid Fiction About James’ Visits in Nebraska.” Lincoln Journal Star, 24 Nov 1968, p. 5F.

“Kerbs Makes New Mark in Ten Mile.” Nebraska State Journal, 17 Aug 1924, p. 5.

“Local News Items.” Franklin County News, 26 Apr 1923, p. 5.

“Monster Crowd Sees Big Auto Race Meet.” Franklin County News, 5 Jul 1923, p. 1.

“Nebraskan Lost with Seven on Plane in Gulf.” Evening Telegraph [North Platte], 24 Dec 1934, p. 1.

“Noel E. Bullock Lost at Sea When Mail Plane Is Forced Down Friday.” Tribune-Sentinel [Grant], 27 Dec 1934, p. 1.

“Noel Bullock Lost in Mexican Waters.” Madrid Herald, 27 Dec 1934, p. 1.

“Obituary: Thomas Lee Roy Garrett.”  Franklin County Sentinel, 2 Aug 1923, p. 1.

“Rhiley Burns Up Track for First; Garrett Goes To Hospital Badly Hurt.” Rapid City Journal, 28 Jul 1923, p. 1.

“Seventeen Racers to Make Pikes Peak Hill Climb Today.” Arizona Republican, 3 Sept 1923, p. 7.

“Two Men Injured in Sturgis Yesterday.” Daily Deadwood Pioneer, 28 Jul 1923, p. 1.