Motorsports Industry, Open Wheels — March 17, 2018 at 4:47 pm

EARHoF 2018: Robert Criswell

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Elma Hall of Fame (03-17-18) Robert Criswell 4949

EARHoF inductee Robert Criswell

By Andrew Kunas

This 2018 inductee into the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame had an interest and involvement in racing spanning a number of decades and had many roles, including being a fan, a driver, a crew member, an official and an association president.

This gentleman bought his first car when he was just a kid, and he liked driving fast. Everyone in his family did, including his father…which no doubt influenced him for better or worse. His need for speed, naturally, got the attention of local authorities patrolling area roads and he got written up more than once, and perhaps talked his way out of another situation or two with the cops.

He got his first real taste of speed in a legal manner, auto racing, just after he got out of high school. He worked at a gas station near Harrison, Arkansas at the time, and that gas station owner took him and others out to a little dirt track nearby. The thrill of dirt track racing, naturally, got his attention. He eventually moved to Washington and began working on a friend’s car at Elma and one day a pitman’s race was scheduled. He was told to get in the car by that friend, but he was afraid to as the owner of the car had told him before that he didn’t want him driving. That friend, however, objected to that, noting that the owner was in the grandstands that day and wouldn’t see it…so he got in the car. Late in the race he took the lead coming off of turn 4 and went on to win that pitman’s race. He didn’t say how it went over with the car owner, if he ever did find out it was him behind the wheel. Either way, a racing career was started.

He would buy a bomber car and race it for a time in Elma, Washington. He had a 1964 1/2 Ford Mustang, and there weren’t many of those in the bomber class as Chevy Camaro’s were becoming the most popular cars to use back then. After a short time he went to the same person who sold him the bomber and and bought a super stock.

As rules changed over the years, it ended up being that some hobby stocks and super stocks could race with each other. He took full advantage and got in as much racing as he could. He often ran heat races and main events in both classes with the very same car. There were times where he would finish one race and exit the track, and instead of going to his pit area he would simply return to the staging area to line up for his heat race or main event in the other division.

He believed he had one of the better pit crews in Elma also back then. He had two brothers helping with different jobs on the car, and another pair of friends, brothers from a small town in Montana, assisting him as well, and he said they were big guys also. He would come into the pit area with a flat tire under caution and two of them would be strong enough to lift the car on their own to get the tire changed.

While some drivers didn’t like wet and rough tracks, this inductee loved wet and sloppy tracks and loathed racing on anything that was dry.

He had many great memories from racing, and he noted one particular super stock main event in Elma that went non stop, as he, Jim Oien and John Goodwin all raced hard throughout but never touched each other that whole race, and they and another car ended up almost four-wide with each other coming for the checkered flag. He was on the very outside coming off of Turn 4, and he never lifted. He still doesn’t know how he managed to not crash, let alone win that main event.

One year he came agonizingly close to winning a track championship at Elma, having led the points from the start of the season – and this was back when the high points man started at the back of the main event. In the season finale he only needed to finish decently to clinch, but fate stepped in and he got caught up in a crash with another car, costing him a championship. He wound up finishing second in points. While he ended up never winning a championship, he was consistent enough that he was often near the top of the standings, finishing second in points a number of times.

He built his own parts and engines, and he did so for others as well, and all of this was being done on a dirt floor. Demand was high enough that he was known to build three engines in just three weeks’ time. This was also back in a time when things weren’t nearly as expensive as they are now. His most expensive engine built was about $3,500 at the time.

In addition to his time behind the wheel, he was also heavily involved in the operations of the Elma Speedway. He was on the board of directors for the Evergreen Auto Racing Association and was also EARA president for a time. He was also involved in the process of hiring a young announcer who would go on to become the longtime and iconic voice of Grays Harbor Raceway, a man by the name of Phil Martelli.

He was also big on anything that would help with safety at the race track. He was, and still is, strongly supportive of the one time law of the land that anyone in the pit area should wear white pants. Having worked regularly in heavy construction, he took advantage of his job and often borrowed equipment to help with the facilities. This including making improvements to the crash wall around the race track, this coming after his car once went almost completely though the gate in the wall in turn 4…apparently the bolts had not been put back in place on that gate after a horse show that was held at the fairgrounds earlier. If there was anything that could improve safety for drivers, crews, officials and fans, he was 100% for it.

His son Morgan ended up liking to go fast like his father did, and so does Morgan’s mother apparently, probably influenced by his father as well. Morgan now races and, like his father before him, has family helping crew for him, including his cousin and his son. Needless to say, racing and speed runs in the family.

Please join me in welcoming this 2018 inductee to the Elma Auto Racing Hall of Fame, Robert Criswell.

 

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