Ralph Foster, circa 2007
April 13, 2008
Story by Richard Parks
photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

richardparks roger

Richard & Roger

  Ralph Foster is now in his nineties and he remarks that he never thought he would live to be this old and surviving the accidents that he had in racing cars and flying airplanes. He also told me that his memory plays tricks on him at times and it is hard to recall dates. His recall of events is excellent though and they tell a story of a self-taught man who lived through one of the most exciting eras of American history. Ralph Woodrow Foster was born on May 25, 1914 in Red Oak, Iowa to Charles and Mildred Foster. Charles was a successful barber and beauty salon operator, who raised rare breeds of chickens for shows. “We never ate chicken,” said Ralph. His father was English, or had come from England, Ralph thought, but wasn’t quite sure. Charles was multi-talented and wrote a column for a poker magazine on the fine arts of the game. He also judged poultry contests at shows and county fairs and life in the Foster home was idyllic. Charles moved the family to Hastings, Nebraska to take over a barbershop and beauty salon. Ralph was their only child and when he was about ten his mother died. What happened after that is difficult to determine, but the father left Hastings “on business” and sent his young son to live with their neighbor. Grief at losing his wife seems to be the only answer to why a father would abandon his son and leave. Ralph completed his education at high school, an uncommon feat in those days, especially considering that he was almost orphaned, except for the elderly neighbors that took him in. 

  “I grew up on the race track in Hastings,” said Ralph. “That’s where my education and love came from, those racers took me in and fathered me,” he said. He literally lived at the race track, doing whatever odd jobs that were given to him and learning the trade of race car driving. Al Banks owned a Model T with a Rajo head and let the teenage boy warm up the car on the track. Another racing family that took an interest in the boy was Pat and Dorothy Cunningham. They would take him to their house and feed him. The Cunningham’s didn’t have any children of their own and treated Ralph like the son they never had. “He was like my second father,” Ralph told me. Another hero to the boy was Lloyd Axle, who would remain a lifelong friend. “Lloyd owned a blue Hisso, which was half of a French World War I Spad engine. He made a 4 cylinder racing engine out of it and that made a lot of horsepower. He won a lot of races with that car and gave me a lot of tips on how to race,” Foster added. It wasn’t long before he was behind the wheel, driving for owners who put their trust in a young teenage boy. Ralph Foster came

storming out of the Midwest, winning the 1940 Midwest Sprint car and Midget Championships. He won 69 races that year. Race car drivers were a tough breed back in the Depression Era. Prize money was small by today's winnings and promoters often fled the track with what gate receipts that they had rather than pay off the drivers. Racers went from track to track, city to city, sometimes racing 6 or 7 times or more a week. They played the odds back then. Racers never trashed their cars, or strained their parts. They had to run whenever and

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Ralph Foster came storming out of the Midwest, winning the 1940 Midwest Sprint car and Midget Championships.

wherever there was a race, and they had to last and win whatever they could, then carefully manage their winnings in order to keep their cars in future races. Foster was one of the best, but also had one of the shortest careers. Pearl Harbor stopped racing in its tracks for four long years, and by the time Ralph had finished with the war as an Army fighter pilot, there was a family and a career waiting for him, and his racing days were over. Ralph, like so many other great drivers of the world, had rides waiting at Indy that disappeared like phantoms because of World War II. Those men never begrudged their fate. They knew that their war time service was necessary to preserve our freedoms and they were willing to pay whatever it took, placing their lives on the line. He flew P-51 airplanes and said that he strafed a lot of Japanese ships and shot down a few planes, but most of his duty was in the Hawaiian Islands. He loved to talk war stories with Rodger Ward, who flew P-47’s during the war.

  Foster flew all over the world and then developed an aerial photography business that he is still busy at, though he was in his nineties. Ralph also served with the forestry service and fought forest fires. He flew as a consultant with the Ecuadorian Air Force. Foster flew into Amazonian rain forests in search of archaeological ruins. He flew Playboy bunnies to Las Vegas, and lobsters from Alaska to Southern California. He joined the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA) as a member of the Gear Grinders land speed car club with the intention of building a streamliner and breaking a record or two. It’s remarkable that Ralph survived the airplane and race car crashes. He was badly injured when his plane nosed into the ground on a landing. His stories are the stuff of legend. A friend approached him on one occasion with a problem. “My friend’s plane was confiscated by the federal marshals for transporting drugs,” said Foster. “He had rented the plane out to two men, who had all the right credentials, but they were drug smugglers and they got caught. My friend realized that his plane was going to be confiscated under the RICO act and asked me to help him get his plane back. I told him to get a few friends and we drove up to the small airfield where the plane was being held and checked out the situation. Two marshals were assigned to watch the plane. We waited until dark and a rain squall came in. The marshals were in the coffee shop and showed no signs of coming out in the cold and rainy weather. Each man that was with us carried gasoline cans and we filled the tanks with as much fuel as we could, cut the chains holding the aircraft in place and boarded the plane. I started the engines and taxied out to the runway and took off in the dark. The marshals never knew that we had taken the plane until the next day. I barely made it to a nearby rural airfield where we filled up the tanks and flew down to Mexico. What he did with the plane after that, I never heard.” 

  Ralph also told me about the time he was down in Ecuador, helping the government to establish an air service. He had been hired by an archaeologist to explore for ancient Indian ruins. “The guy’s name was Jensen, I believe, and he hired me to fly him to a ruin that he had found in the Amazonian area of Ecuador. The landing strip was only a clearing that the natives had cut away by hand and it was barely useable, even for a small plane. I went with the archaeologist to search some of the ruins and found a few sculptors and shards which Jensen asked me to put into the airplane. Some of the Indians had objected to the payments for their services and had an argument with him and called in the Army. The soldiers were probably just bandits dressed up as soldiers and Jensen probably refused to pay the bribes they extorted from explorers. Shots rang out and I saw him fall and they were coming after me. There was nothing that I could do for him and I knew that they would kill me to keep this quiet so I ran for my plane and took off as shots buzzed past me. When I got to Quito I searched the newspapers for reports of the incident, but nothing was ever mentioned. It’s like that down there, people just disappear,” he added. I Googled the internet, but never confirmed the story, though I saw the sculptures and shards and they looked authentic to me. One of the characters had a pack on his back and Foster told me that it was his view that the ancient Native American Indians were describing space aliens. Many Americans during the 1960’s were fans of Kurt Vonnegut and others who put forth the view that ancient civilizations were founded by extraterrestrial beings. While I have my doubts as to the validity of those views, the sculpture that I was shown certainly looked as if the figure had an alien oxygen carrying backpack.

  One day he was approached by two federal agents and asked if he would help them in a sting operation. “They told me exactly what to do and sent me to Las Vegas to gamble and they gave me a lot of money and told me to talk about my flying experience in the war,” he said. “I won and lost a bundle and told everyone around me what a flyboy I was. Soon a casino boss sat down and began to talk with me, asking me about my flying experience and I began to win at the tables. He asked me if I would like to do a job for him and that it would be very profitable. The agents had told me to expect such an offer and I told the man that I would. My job was to fly down to South America, pick up a cargo and fly to a Caribbean Island, then on to the United States and land at small airports in the south. I would call the agents when I got to the states and tell them my routes. After a while they had the schedules down perfectly and began a series of raids that put a huge dent in the smuggling operations. The mob knows when leaks begin to occur and their response is to kill all the pilots and replace them with new ones. I usually flew alone, but I knew something was wrong when they assigned a burly man to my next flight. He was armed and when we landed, he was going to kill me, so I flew the plane as ragged and loopy as I could to make him airsick. When we landed he was throwing up and I simply pushed him out of the plane onto the landing strip and took off with the dope. They knew that I knew something and they searched for me for a long time, finally tracking me down to my home in Southern California. One night a car pulled up outside and two men got out with guns in their hands. I grabbed my revolver and as they approached the door I fired through it and sent them running. They got into their car and sped off and never came back,” Ralph concluded. Foster never told me what happened to the drugs or plane or if the FBI provided him with security. I talked to other people and they have heard the story, but could never confirm it. Ralph always had this mysterious edginess to him, and whether these stories were true or not, they seemed so plausible. .

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Ralph and his lovely wife Betty,
having a little fun

 Foster’s aerial photography business grew and he developed a loyal clientele. His photographic lab in his home was extensive and his collection of photos was huge. He spent a lot of time sorting and cataloguing his collection. Where he obtained some of his photographs is a secret he would never share. Not only did he take photographs, but he acquired negatives of early day racing that were spectacular. I bought many of his prints from him and he had a large group of racing fans who were regular customers. I took him to the dry lakes to watch land

speed time trials and he loved it so much that he became their ‘track’ photographer. He also kept up with his friends in the racing world. Foster was acquainted with a number of racers, including Danny Oakes, Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby and many more. It would be easy to dismiss much of what Ralph told me if he was simply an unknown, but everywhere I went, people knew who he was. Some of his ideas seemed farfetched, but as people confirmed what he had done, they no longer appeared to be unrealistic. He was driven to prove himself and his ideas. He felt that he had been overlooked and kept doing projects long after he should have retired. He joked that he “was just reaching middle age (he was 85 at the time) and had to earn some money for retirement.” His business deals didn’t always go as planned and he had a temper if he felt that his friends had betrayed him. Everyone liked Ralph and he could do wonderful things for people, but he could also turn on them as well. I spoke to him once about a business deal gone sour and he said to me, “If you take the side of that thieving, lying scoundrel, then you’re no longer my friend.” A year went by and finally one day I got a call from him and we were back on friendly terms. He never mentioned the argument that we had, but I never changed my opinion that he was wrong in how he had treated his partner.

  I would usually drive to events that we attended. There would be Danny Oakes, Rodger Ward, Ron Henderson, Ralph and myself and we would attend the CRA Reunion organized by Walt and Dottie James. We also went to the Legends of Ascot Reunion put on by Don Weaver, or the California Racers Reunion organized by Hila Sweet. Doug Stokes would invite us to attend the Turkey Night Midget races at Irwindale Speedway. Dave Galassi always extended an invitation to us to go out to his picnic in Irwindale and then to enjoy a night at the races as his guests. We went to Joe’s Garage in Tustin, the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, and the drag races. Two special places that Ralph loved to go to were Carmen Schroeder’s Gilmore Roars Again Party and the Racers of Balboa. Both of those events finally ended as the racers passed away and I could see that Ralph was becoming more and more isolated from the friends that he once knew. He simply outlived most of them. He was very close to Al and Mary Ocampo and Bob and Penny Anderson. His list of friends in the racing community was very large. His crowning achievement came when he was admitted to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa. Chet Knox helped him find the means to go back there and accept his award. Ralph was a fighter and he lived life on his own terms, sometimes overstepping the boundaries, but in the end he will be missed. I have a rule, that no matter how difficult many of these racers are that they are special. They created the racing that we have today and we have to give them credit for that. We can argue over every little flaw that they have, but what good does that do. They are the men and women who brought us through the Great Depression, World War II and the Atomic Age. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected]

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