Cleveland’s Pete Salemi was involved in championship racing for a number of years and in 1951 he commissioned Youngstown, Ohio, midget builder, Floyd Trevis, to construct a championship car for the upcoming AAA season. Our #81 Central Excavating Special, with its 270-c.i. Offenhauser engine, is the product of that commission.
Salemi hired a young midget racer from Fresno, California, Billy Vukovich I to drive the #81 car at the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race in 1951. Vukovich qualified 20th and was running in the top ten when the oil tank broke, relegating the car to a 29th place finish. In 1952, Salemi hired veteran mechanic, Andy Dunlop, to wrench the car and Eddie Johnson drove it to 16th place in that year's Indy 500. Len Duncan crashed during qualifying for the 1953 Indy 500, causing the Central Excavating team to miss the race.
Trevis rebuilt the car for the 1954 season and Wally Campbell was hired to drive it at the 500, but couldn’t pass the rookie test. A hard-charging young California midget veteran, Rodger Ward was enlisted for the remainder of the 1954 season. Ward scored a fourth place at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania on July 25th, for the car’s best finish.
Ward qualified on the one-mile dirt for the September 6, 1954 “Ted Horn 100” at DuQuoin, Illinois in 15th position. Rodger charged through the field, but at some point brake problems inhibited his advance. He was still holding fourth position on the 81st lap when disaster struck. Chuck Stevenson was driving for legendary mechanic, Clay Smith, in the Agajanian Special and was lapping Ward when the two cars touched, entering the main straight. Stevenson regained control of his car, but Ward spun around and backed into the inside guardrail. At the moment of contact between the two cars, Smith was holding up a pit sign for Stevenson and didn’t see Ward’s car until it was too late. The Central Excavating Special struck Smith, killing him instantly.
For 1955, Shorty Templeman qualified the #81 car in 31st position for the Indy 500, but dropped out on the 142nd lap, finishing 18th. Following Indy, Rodger Ward jumped in the car once again, finishing ninth at Langhorne. At the end of the 1955 season, the car was retired by the Central Excavating team.
The Central Excavating Trevis built car had a number of other drivers in addition to those listed above, including: Roy Prosser; Duane Carter; Johnny Tolan; Eddie Russo and Buddy Cagle.
Floyd Trevis, one of the inaugural inductees of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, built midgets in the 1940s. Conceived as a more economical alternative to a standard-size race car, compact 'midget' racers first appeared on the West Coast in the early 1930s. Around the same time AAA limited engine displacement in 'big' cars to 205 cubic-inches for non-championship events, first on the Pacific Coast but nationally by 1941.
At first, the distinctions among midgets, big cars and championship cars were not always well defined. By moving the front axle, the same car might run as either a big car or a championship car; while championship and non-championship big cars often raced together. By the early 1950s, however, the championship-level cars that raced at Indianapolis were becoming increasingly specialized, largely to lower the center of gravity. And by the early 1960s, people were calling the more upright, non-championship big cars sprint cars - probably because they usually raced in shorter events.
Trevis built his first Indianapolis car in 1946, the twin-engine, four-wheel drive Lou Fageol Twin Coach Special, which Paul Russo qualified second and then wrecked 40 miles into the race. Trevis also re-built the chassis that became A.J. Foyt's Indy-winning 1961 Bowes Seal Fast Special.