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New Details Uncovered: Norske Larson’s “Mooney Special” Model T Ford Racing Car

James Taggart and a “National Auto Racing News” article by Aut Swenson in the publication titled “SPEED SMOKE – Then – Now.” Keep in mind that racing on the IMCA circuit run by promoter J. Alex Sloan was usually “scripted” and the outcome of the raced was known beforehand by the drivers.

Clarence “Norske” Larson appears to have started his driving career behind the wheel of this exceptional-looking Model “T” Ford-based racing car between 1918 to 1920 (note the 1918 to 1920 Minnesota license plate.) Like most of the Ford racing cars built at the time, this one was lowered about six-inches by adding a flat front frame cross member, raising the rear one and de-arching both of the springs. What sets this one apart from the pack is the beautifully made body of polished aluminum complete with a custom radiator and belly pan.

Larson, from St. Paul, Minnesota apparently started out working as a mechanic for early racing promoter J. Alex Sloan, and later raced for him on the IMCA circuit. “Norske” then graduated to racing big cars and with one placed first in a race held during 1922 at the South Dakota State Fairgrounds in Huron. He attempted to qualify for the 1931 Indianapolis 500 race in a Duesenberg but did not make the field. Later that year he died after a crash in St. Paul, at his home track at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Learn more about period Model T Ford racing cars here.

Update by James Taggart: I found this article in the July 25, 1935, edition of “National Auto Racing News” that lends some details about Norske Larson and his race car. Well-known Alex J. Sloan publicist Aut Swenson wrote a weekly column in the publication under the title “SPEED SMOKE — Then — Now” by the Hired Boy. The columns were a behind-the-scenes look at racing in the 1930s plus good ol’ racing community gossip.

In the July 12, column Swenson, who is from Minnesota, mentions the Minnesota State Fair and reminisces seeing Norske Larson for the first time:

“More people witness the auto races and are on the state fair grounds at St. Paul on auto race days each year than are present at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the progress of the annual 500-miler in the Hoosier city”.

“Not only is St. Paul noted among the racing fraternity as the site of many famous auto race classics, but also as the home of the Capitol Auto Engine Works, one of the nation’s best precision machine shops. Airplane conversions and early day speed accessories were turned out in this plant. During recent years, it is our understanding that the aviation motor power plants converted into motorboat engines have taken up the entire time of the Capitol shops. Its guiding genius, John Mooney, at one time turned out a racing motor using a special block, head and cam adaptable to the Model T Ford base. This was before the era of Rajo and Frontenac equipment for the T Fords.”

  •  Ad in the “Power Boat” January 1914 issue shows the firm was capable of building engines of any size. 

“The late Norske Larson of St. Paul gained national prominence at the wheel of one of these Mooney built Fords. The car, costing better that $3,000, was reputed to be the fastest Ford race job on wheels at the time. Norske made his debut on the Minnesota State Fair track in 1928 (ED: the year in the article is incorrect as it was between 1918 to 1920) with his Capitol-engineered product. After competing for years in all sections of the United States under the IMCA banner, the popular St. Paul driver met an untimely death over the same Minnesota State Fair track while competing at the wheel of a supercharged Duesenberg straight 8 formerly owned by Tommy Milton. Which brings us down to the fact that St. Paul was formerly the home of the famous Milton.”

“We remember back in the days shortly after Milton established a new world’s straightaway record of 156 miles an hour in his twin-engined Duesenberg in 1920 when Alex Sloan brought him to St. Paul as one of the feature drivers in a two-day IMCA sanctioned meet held independently of the state fair. In fact, one of those days was called “Tommy Milton Day.”

“It was then that we first saw Norske Larson split the ozone in his beautifully designed Mooney Special. Many bets were made as to the power plant in this then fleet Mooney. That an early day Ford could be converted into the speedy, trim-looking racing machine piloted by the popular Larson was unbelievable.”

Editors note: If anyone can find more photos of this “Mooney Special” or the other two cars that were built at the Capitol Auto Engine Works please let us know.

 

10 responses to “New Details Uncovered: Norske Larson’s “Mooney Special” Model T Ford Racing Car

  1. Thank you David G for the update, and the look back.
    I found your comment “Keep in mind that racing on the IMCA circuit run by promoter J. Alex Sloan was usually “scripted” and the outcome of the raced was known beforehand by the drivers”, particularly interesting.
    About 45 years ago, I was privileged to participate in a dirt track racing reenactment event that happened one weekend a year for four years. It was the most fun I ever had! We were running our own model T racing cars on a real half mile race track at real racing speeds. Although my car was one of the slowest. The track was located at an older fairground, and was usually used for modern forms of racing.
    The faster model Ts were running only about four seconds slower than the high-powered modern sprint cars did on average. The fastest model T ran that half mile only six seconds slower than the track record for a modern blown V8 sprint car on wide tires. (Me? My best time was fourteen seconds slower than that fastest model T!)
    There were major concerns about actually racing (then fifty year old) antique racing cars at those speeds. We tried choosing the winner ahead, using several methods (I said, don’t chose me, I am too slow). But it never really worked out for us. It always seemed that the chosen winner would require a pit-stop, and lose too much time to regain the win without everyone else getting lost in the effort. One time, Vic Sala was supposed to win. Shouldn’t have been a problem. His was the fastest car. But the special dual fire distributor rotor chose that race to break in half. He barely got the car back into the pit area. It was one of the few races that I didn’t come in last. Everyone else kept trying to stall, hoping Vic would re-enter. But he couldn’t. I just kept going as fast as my car could and passed two or three other cars before everyone else figured out Vic was out for the rest of the day.
    Being late in that afternoon, Vic headed home in his modern tow vehicle (nearly seventy miles each way!). He was back the next morning with a made up/fixed replacement rotor, and ran that day flawlessly.

    Wonderful memories! However we gave up trying to predetermine the winner, and just continued to try to drive safely. As fast as we could.

      • David G, WE DID! About six or eight years ago, we had a reunion gathering of the Calistoga Classics crowd. About 35 years after the last run, there was an incredible turnout of people that had participated during the four years. I don’t remember the exact number of people that attended the reunion, but I think it was nearly 70. Considering that it was a small meet, run for only four years, the attendance was amazing. Nearly everyone in attendance said it was one of the most incredible and most fun events they had ever been a part of. Part of the reason for it, was the venue. The old grandstands were in excellent condition, the large track was well maintained as it was used for modern racing much of the year. The event was run as a sideshow to a major antiques and collectibles show and sale, which provided a lot of people for the grandstands. Both shows attracted crowds that promoted each other. The show promoter (and his partner/wife) were great people to work with, that understood what a good show was all about. All of us involved made an effort to keep an authentic era look and feel about the event. A restored 1925 (?) Lincoln tow truck, and era attire and music adding to the feel.
        I don’t know if anything like it could be put together again. I was very fortunate to have been able to be a part of it.

  2. I have a special place in my memory for model “T”‘s , Model “A” ‘s and The Model “AA” Truck, “Belle” that we own, who is getting ready for “parade service” on July 4th, – here in West Virginia. I have had the privilege of knowing two (highly modified) Model “T” ‘s Enthusiasts of earlier Model “T” Racing and Performance improvements; (Jerry Fairchild and “Doc Purden “) , Jerry, very fast on the roads of So Calif, deserts & mountain areas, — and Doc Purden very fast (fastest!!!) at the Shell Hill – Hill Climb, — in Signal Hill . My interests have been with stock Model “T” ‘s (a 1915 Touring), but My Father and Uncle bought a ’14 ‘T” used, — in the early 20’s and lived: The young boy’s American dream of removing its touring body and mail – ordering a special “Speedster” body — and a ” high speed” Ring & Pinion Gear Set — to careen down the dirt roads of the Centinella Valley area of Inglewood, California, at speeds above 45 MPH! SEEING this young man in the picture with his “New Steed ” brought back these similar legends! My own old Fords have been good to me and They bring Myself, my Wife and the whole Community of North Central West Virginia, — pleasure! Thank you for sending this “aluminum wonder” picture!!! The early Fords remain part of my life, now for 70+ years, — as I began working on them at age 7. Thanks, Hank!

  3. Very neat car from that era. I wonder if a ‘mechanic-turned-into-a-racer’ would have been a good storyline from Sloan’s mind to build up new talent back then. Can we say taxi driver George Stewart turned into French war hero Leon Duray?

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