With the country returning to normalcy after the conclusion of World War II Danny Frye was poised to join the wave of young Americans headed for the altar.
While his fiancée, Audrey Divan, was anxious for the day to come, she wasn’t too consumed with her upcoming nuptials to ignore the chance to have a bit of fun. Noticing there was a midget auto race at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds on the northern edge of Springfield, Mo., she suggested this might be something different to do. Frye wasn’t so sure, but when Divan persisted, he relented.
It turns out this simple decision not only impacted the couple’s life but has had a trickle-down effect on the Frye family for more than 70 years.
Though Frye had been nudged to walk through the turnstile his interest was likely piqued a bit when he ran into his friend Stanley Cox. Cox was a Springfield garage owner who also found time to race. Now instead of being a passive observer, Frye was emersed in the action and eagerly posed questions about this unique racing discipline. With his appetite whetted Frye wasn’t content to stand on the sidelines.
Midget racing was a very different animal in the post-war era. Given the burgeoning popularity of this car it appeared races popped up everywhere one turned. For those so inclined it wasn’t difficult to get involved. Frye wanted to give it a go and purchased a car based in Oklahoma City.
Marcus and Alfred Walker the proprietors of M. A. Walker Electric were highly successful midget owners and Frye gladly made the roughly 300-mile trip west to secure a quality ride. In a good-faith effort to get Frye pointed in the right direction, the Walkers offered tires and parts prompting Frye to make numerous trips up and down historic Route 66.
Perhaps to benefit from the Walkers wise counsel Frye included dates in Oklahoma and Texas in his early racing itinerary. It wasn’t an easy region to get your feet wet. In Oklahoma City alone, the Walker Brothers provided cars for future Hall of Famers Cecil Green and Jud Larson, soon-to-be Indianapolis 500 winning owner Jack Zink regularly installed Buzz Barton in his piece, and by 1950 Bob Nowicke was introducing the public to a hot shoe named Lloyd Ruby.
While no firm records exist to document Frye’s early performances, the fact that his services were soon sought after suggests he was doing more than holding his own. He got a break when offered a ride by Springfield car owner Roy Thomas. Not wasting time, Thomas thrust his driver into the fray with the tough Kansas City Midget Auto Racing Association.
In May 1954, Frye delivered a win in his hometown and backed it up with another the next day in Marshall, Mo. Thomas was not afraid to stray from home and on a notable trip to Champaign, Ill., Frye destroyed the car. Thomas located a midget in Tulsa, Okla., that he was sure could serve as a replacement.
Oddly enough the seller’s name was also Roy Thomas, but there was one notable difference — the Oklahoma-based owner was a member of the Choctaw tribe. The car was one used during the filming of the Mickey Rooney film, “The Big Wheel.”
Racing was fun and when you were lucky enough to run well, the pay wasn’t bad either. It would have been enticing to have devoted his entire life to the sport, but that wasn’t how Frye was wired. His first and last commitment was to his family. In 1957, Frye’s uncle was discharged from the Air Force and was interviewing for a job with McDonnell Aircraft located at Lambert Field near St. Louis.
Frye tagged along when an unusual thing happened. While sitting in the waiting room a door opened and a stranger approached him and asked if he might also be interested in a job. Frye had plenty of mechanical aptitude and easily passed muster. Before he could even fathom what had happened, he was headed back to Springfield to fetch his wife, his son Danny Jr. and daughter Deb to bring them to their new home. A second daughter, Denise, completed the family a few years later.
Frye was providing for his family, but that didn’t mean he would quit racing. St. Louis had been a midget racing hotbed going back to the days of Walsh Stadium and the formation of the St. Louis Auto Racing Association in 1938.
Using St. Louis as a base, Frye was able to race against stout competition and still satisfy the demands of his job. In many ways this became the organizing theme of his career as he rarely had the time or proclivity to race exclusively with one group.
Because of this trait, he maintained a tense relationship with the United States Auto Club and, in particular, midget supervisor Bob Stroud. Stroud, whose involvement in midget racing reached back to the days of the American Automobile Association, deserves credit for steering this racing discipline through lean times. But Stroud expected loyalty during an age where USAC short-track operations were the gateway to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The expectation was that drivers ran with USAC and nowhere else. Frye didn’t hold with that rule.
What likely infuriated Stroud most of all is that Frye was a high-caliber driver and could have easily vied for the USAC title.
Based on victories, Frye’s most productive year with USAC was 1964 when he scored twice at Lake Hill Speedway outside of St. Louis and at Macon (Ill.) Speedway. That season Frye was paired with legendary St. Louis funeral home owner Gus Sohm. It was an association that carried over to Danny Frye Jr.