By Ken Paulsen
You’re not very long into a conversation with 90 year old Marty Harty before you realize he has more insight into race car setup than most who were involved in the early days of Stock Car racing. Teaming with his younger brother, John, they built some of the most dominating cars then running in the New England area.
Marty Harty was born and lived the first part of his life in Massachusetts before moving to his current state of residence, New Hampshire. He became involved in metal salvage prior to serving in North Africa and Italy during World War II. Returning to his salvage work after the war he was in a good position to help John put together a 1934 Ford five-window coupe Stock Car midway through the 1949 season. Their cousin, Bobby Tolman, was enlisted to drive the car primarily because he was such a wild driver on the open road. They soon discovered this trait did not relate well to driving in race car traffic. Bobby attended a function one time that conflicted with the weekend races at West Peabody and Hudson and the Hartys had to find another driver. They had heard of a personable French Canadian lad in Gardner, MA named Leo Richard who was glad to drive the #329 for that weekend.
The Harty boys decided on Richard to replace Tolman in the #329 for 1950. Richard had previously been a very good motorcycle racer and had taken up Stock Car racing with just average cars. Despite that fact, he had been very competitive even winning one race while sliding across the finish line on his roof. Trying out Harty’s little #329 he was surprised to find it drove just like a Big Car. That night at West Peabody he won his heat, semi, and feature. The next day at Hudson he won the heat, semi and had a big lead in the feature when the recap tread (M&H) came off the left rear tire allowing Freddie Borden to nip him at the finish. This fortunate combination of car and driver was practicably unbeatable for the next year or so. Leo always started last and just kept coming through the pack. His theory was if he won he wanted to pass everybody in the race.
During this era the rules stated that everything on the car must be strictly stock dimensions and parts. This little car survived four complete teardowns and absolutely nothing was ever found to be illegal. In reality, it was the setup that made this combination so outstanding.
It was while going through this initial learning phase that Marty understood there were many factors contributing to a successful night at the track with the driver being just one. Dirt tracks were one thing but asphalt tracks were quite another. He began reading incessantly any technical article that pertained to hardtop (aka asphalt) racing. Most so called technical articles were written in generalities with little “wheat to be gleaned from the chaff”.
Marty concluded that there were five basic factors influencing a car’s ability to get around a track fast: available power, weight distribution, rolling and wind resistance, total weight and centrifugal force. Track rules and deep pockets determined the available power, the old coupes already had weight distribution close to 50/50, lighter cars helped decreased rolling resistance and wind resistance was a more important factor on long tracks. He concentrated his setup combating the effects of centrifugal force.
A moving object has a tendency to continue in a straight line. The driver steers to overcome this tendency by transferring force on the steering wheel to the tire patch (contact) area. Marty determined that the optimum setup on old beam axle Fords with balloon tires was 2-¾ negative camber and 3 degrees positive caster on the right front wheel. One half degree positive camber and 4 degrees positive caster on the left front wheel with toe out of 3/16” at the front completed this portion of the setup. He also experimented with tire pressures and shims under the right front spring to affect weight distribution.
Most car jockeys drive the car while the great ones go beyond driving and drift the car. Drifting can be difficult to explain but briefly the driver does a quick left steer on the wheel entering a corner and lets up on the throttle sending the rear out about one foot that creates a new line coming out of the corner. It takes good reflexes and coordination on the part of the driver. Leo Richard drove and consequently needed quite a bit of preload on the left rear spring. The Hartys determined the amount by jacking up the car on a level surface. The right rear tire was made to come up from 1 ½ to 1 7/8 inches off the floor before the left rear tire would just scuff the floor when rotated. If the car was picking (oversteer), shim was added under the right front spring. Shim was taken out for plowing (understeer). A little experimenting found the right combinations for track conditions and driver style.
Clearly, Marty had uncovered the secrets to making a car handle properly. As the later model cars with their A frame suspensions, lower profile tires and coil springs replaced the old coupes, he adapted his expertise to these newer components while maintaining his overall philosophy on setup. Regardless of the era, one principle remained true: the starting point for setup is an absolutely level surface. Marty went to great lengths to ensure that the car was sitting as level as possible before starting his adjustments.
The Hartys always built their cars to the specs of the tracks at which they competed. Marty said that in all the cars he built, he never knowingly cheated. One time they wound up at Westboro only to find out that under the rules enforced at that time the 4” crank they had in the flathead was only legal in a car with Mercury chassis and body. They confided this issue to the officials who allowed the team to run for the fun of it that night. Leo came in second in the feature but did not get any points or money
In 1951 the team won the double length mid season races and season championship races at Hudson, NH, West Peabody and Fitchburg, MA. They were also point champions at all three tracks with Richard behind the wheel.
A third Harty brother, Tommy, briefly joined the team in 1951. The Hudson track was having a series of special races for New Hampshire and Massachusetts drivers. The first week drivers who were residents of Massachusetts competed in a special race. Happy Gath won the race beating out Richard. The following week’s special race would feature only New Hampshire residents. Since Richard could not compete, John asked Tommy if he would give it a try. While Tommy worked in MA, he was a resident of New Ipswich, NH. Tom had never raced before but got into the car and brought it home first in the 10 lapper. The third week would pit Gath against Harty in a match race. Happy was an old time driver who had driven midgets and big cars in the ‘30s. He said that his idea was to let Tom get out front first and he would play with him for a few laps before whipping by to claim the victory. No chance! Tom’s lead became larger and larger. Gath could not catch him. Tom came back to race a third time but a loose wire caused him to drop out with a large lead over the rest of the field. He still brags that he won every race he finished!
Paved tracks were the teams choice, however, that did not stop them from testing dirt surfaces occasionally. They made one trip to the West Brattleboro, Vermont track that Marty politely described as a “cow pasture”. Richard was barely able to hold on to the steering wheel as he circled the bumpy oval when the gas tank came lose and fell on the straightaway. He continued running until the float bowl emptied. Marty still laughs about that situation.
They also ran one time at Rhythm Inn near Millers Falls, MA. Rhythm Inn was a bar and behind it the owner had built a track. The purse payout was conveniently conducted inside the bar. Now, if you follow the money trail, it goes something like this: the promoter transfers dollars from the bar’s cash register to the driver’s hand according to his accomplishments that night. From the driver’s hand, a generous portion of the cash transfers to the bartender in exchange for adult beverages. The bartender deposits said cash back into the cash register from whence it came. That was an astute businessman.
The year 1952 was an experimental one for Marty and John. Previously they had built only 1934 Ford stock cars. Marty began investigating another aspect of setup, weight distribution, and theorized that the 1932 Ford would make a better Stock Car. The ’32 coupe was a lighter car with a 106 inch wheelbase compared to the ’34 Ford 112” wheelbase. The engine on the ’32 was set 2 ½ inches further back on the frame from the front axle getting closer to a 50/50 weight distribution between front and rear tires. Finding 1932 Fords was not a problem. Marty had a whole field of them at his salvage business.
In the switch to building ’32 Fords, they would start with the stronger ’34 frame and cut eight and a half inches out of the side rails and repositioned the front cross member two and one half inches forward. The driver’s safety was always of paramount concern. Marty would fit up the cage but left the welding to experts.
When allowed by track rules, Marty always had an open rear end on the drive train. His belief was “a locked rear end is an expedient which forgives some handling sins”. Translated that means if you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it when setting up the car, a locked rear end is an unnecessary fad.
That year they built 8-10 cars of which half were for other owners. They would guarantee the car would win a feature with the stipulation that their driver would be used to back up that guarantee. It would normally take at least 3-4 days to construct a car, however on one occasion they altered a 1938 Ford in one day. Richard took that car to a feature win the first time out.
Not all experiments worked as envisioned. Marty tried motorcycle tires on the front one time that didn’t hold the track very well. Freddie Borden was the driver and after finishing second in the feature came into the pits sweating profusely. He got out and told Marty, “You’ve got to do a little more work on this one”. Marty summed up the 1952 season saying, “Henry Ford was a hell of a lot smarter than I was”.
One of their more successful cars was a weird looking contraption built by the Hartys in August 1953. The cowl and start of the roofline was from a passenger car. Marty fabricated the rear portion to look somewhat like a pickup truck. The stock 239ci engine could be run flat out through the corners once the Harty setup was in place. Buster Nelson finished out that season never finishing worse than fifth. Leon Hurd took over the driving chores for 1954 winning eleven consecutive class B features on his way to the championship at Westboro.
Except for consulting with others, the Hartys were out of racing for several years. In 1959 Jim Travers contracted with them to build a ’32 three window coupe. The #000 car had been run for several weeks when a special 50 lap Memorial Day race was scheduled at Brookline, NH. Travers was in Indianapolis that day so Harty asked Freddie Borden to handle the driving. Freddie, a great driver, used drifting techniques, so the first thing he asked Marty to do was to take about half the shim off the left rear wheel. Neither Richard nor Travers would have been able to drive the car in this condition. The car so dominated the competition that Borden drove the last half of the race in third gear. The car with Travers behind the wheel was track champion at both Brookline and Westboro that year.
Marty would have a hand setting up other notable cars in the New England area. The brothers reached agreement with Ralph Atkins of Troy, NH to build one of the few Model A Ford cars to run in the Northeast. They had a 1930 two-door Sedan model complete with original frame, drive train and rear springs. A flathead was installed along with juice brakes. Atkins had it numbered 28 9/10 to reflect the price of a gallon of gas at his convenience store in the summer of 1962. Roger Lancey was the regular driver when the car appeared at Thunder Road in Barre, Vermont. Later that season, Ernie Gahan drove one time for Atkins cleaning house with the Model A. Ken Squier held a celebration at the Hotel Barre after the races of a Model A beating the more popular ’32–’34 Fords that lasted well into the early morning hours. The next year the Model A body style was banned from competition.
Harty passed his wisdom on to others as his direct involvement in racing took a back seat to raising ten children with his wife Arlene. John resides at the original Harty family property in Barre, Massachusetts while Tom lives just up the road in Orange. Less you think Marty Harty has been enjoying retirement for many years, he is still active selling tools out of his van at flea markets and to small repair shops. And, although he mastered the mystery of proper race car set up, there is still one mystery of racing he constantly wonders about: how do you explain the cars handling characteristics when the driver employs drifting techniques rather than driving through the corners on asphalt? It keeps him thinking. It keeps him young.