James M. Winn
1906 (Aug 27) – 1938 (Aug 20)
AAA Big Cars 1927 – 1938
Let’s start with a little game: before USAC, as a sanctioning body, began its long slide into (relative) insignificance and obscurity, it inaugurated its “Dirt Track Division” in 1971, and began awarding a seperate championship for the “soil movers”. By extrapolating National Championship points, won on dirt tracks, for the years prior to 1971, it is possible to “reconstruct” a Dirt Track Division for a time when AAA and USAC races carried rather more prestige, and a list of “Virtual Champions” can be created that reaches back until 1916.
To this day, only one person managed to win more than three of these championships, whether virtual or real, and this one person did it no less than seventimes: without a doubt, A. J. Foyt is and remains the master of all dirt track races “over a substantial distance” (to quell the protests from the Steve Kinser factions!!). But the list of drivers with three “championships” to their name is a bit longer and very illustrious, as is the list of drivers with less than three!!
Going back in time, the “three-peaters” are, six in number: Jimmy Sills, Mario Andretti, Jimmy Bryan, Ted Horn, Rex Mays and… Billy Winn! Yes, that’s right, our little friend was the first “certified” super star of dirt track racing, even if this is perhaps a bit unfair on even earlier stars like Ralph de Palma or Ira Vail, who didn’t have much of a chance to score dirt track points at all. But “Billy” doesn’t even need artificial enhancement of career facts to make his case, although in these days of countless championships it is not always easy to digest facts from a time when there were hardly any at all, and single race results meant so much more, even if they were difficult to set into context.
And anyway, how did this bloke James M. Winn end up with a nickname like “Billy”? That, like so much of his earlier life, is still very much shrouded in mystery. What is known, is that he competed on Eastern dirt tracks since the mid-twenties, often heralded as the “youngest racing driver of America”, reputedly driving since the age of sixteen – that would’ve been circa 1923. By 1927, he was competing with the AAA (as the youngest driver in the association’s history, of course – never change a winning slogan!), and a couple years later already a frequent winner. Born and raised in KCMO, how on earth did he end up in the Northeast? So far, I haven’t found an answer for that.
But I have a theory: the “silent partner” theory! Silent partner, that would’ve been the role for fellow KCMO resident Eddie Sejnost, perhaps of Swedish descent, otherwise a man of mystery. Sejnost was the owner of a fast Model T racer with a Fronty DO head, built sometime around 1926 according to unsubstantiated reports – nothing’s for sure here. Already at home, he must’ve seen the “spark” in the driving of the diminutive Winn, and taken him along to the seaboard in search for better purses and/or more opportunities to race.
Soon, the “boy wonder” would find other rides, as every owner was sure to go for a fast “shoe” like him, and in such cases Eddie would drive his Fronty himself – every now and then over a period of several years, the name Sejnost (in various permutations!!) appears in promotional blurbs of racing promoters, always for events in which Winn is also entered! If no other owner stepped forward, Billy would take over the Fronty, usually #36, and drive the dickens out of the old Tin Lizzy… both car and driver were soon legends!
In the early thirties now, Billy “the kid” (perhaps that’s the source for his nick?) won about ten high-profile AAA events every year, and was a consistent high-scorer in championships, although he never won a AAA title. Still, he won the very prestigious and rewarding Hankinson Circuit Championship two years in a row, and finished runner-up the third. Ralph A. Hankinson was the most prolific AAA race promoter with dates and venues all over the country, and he soon developed a special liking for Winn, even though Billy’s winnings must’ve been the single largest post in his business expenditure!
In 1934, Helene Yockey entered his life, and there are some stories, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, connected to this: for one thing, Helene was the new wife of fellow driver Joe Russo who was, according to reports at the time, driving “on probation” – to see whether Helene could stand the strain of being a racing driver’s wife! The big test was going to be the Indy 500, and Joe came through with flying colours, finishing fifth for his best ever result at that level, and his biggest ever pay cheque. Not that he needed the latter, because Helene was wealthy, you see: a society lady with business interests and a (horse) racing stable.
Ten days later, the “circus” moved on to Langhorne, the deadly “Big O”, the never ending left turn that spiralled up and down through Pennsylvania marshland, waiting to wear out scores of inattentive racing drivers – and there were reports of unrest in the Russo marriage! Rumours of betrayal on the side of the bride, and with a fellow racing driver at that!! Billy Winn was entered in Lou Moore’s Indy Car that day, but reportedly couldn’t make the beast handle – and who would replace him but Joe Russo! In the light of subsequent events, almost too spooky to be true!!!
There may actually have been a very simple reason for this driver substitution, like Russo’s car breaking down in practice, and him moving into another to keep the promoter’s star attraction in the game, but it all adds up to a rather odd tale! Whatever the circumstances, the bare facts remain: Russo crashed the Moore racer, and succumbed to his injuries the next day, while Billy Winn would be Helene’s next husband…
With or without her money, Winn was now able to build up his own racing stable, so Eddie Sejnost could sell his Fronty racer, and retire back into obscurity – and Winn continued to be in demand by other owners, so he was never short of work, while keeping the mileage on his own equipment to the bare minimum! Perhaps his greatest feat in racing was his performance in the two Vanderbilt Cup races, in 1936 and ’37: In both events, he managed to outqualify some of the visiting European road racing specialists, and ran with the best of them as long as the simple in-and-out transmission of his Sprint Car tolerated the treatment. Of the other Americans, only Rex Mays was able to live with his speed, and that only by driving a sophisticated Grand Prix Alfa Romeo…
Promoters loved Billy Winn, because he was a crowd pleaser wherever he raced. Car owners loved Billy Winn, because he was making lots of dough for them. His fellow racing drivers respected and befriended him, as he was easy to get along with, and fair (if sometimes “robust”) on the track. When owner/driver Bob Sall broke a few bones in a Midget crash on Long Island in the summer of 1938, Billy Winn was his first choice to drive his Sprint Car while he was on the mend, so as to get the most out of an unfortunate situation. Sadly, Winn didn’t have much chance to work on Sall’s bank account, as within a month he crashed fatally.
At the time of his death, Billy Winn had won over fifty AAA Big Car races, more than any other driver with the possible exception of Rex Mays. He had competed in eight National Championship 100-mile dirt track races, winning half of them, and finishing second, third and fifth in the others, with one retirement. And though he had never won a AAA Championship, he had finished in the top five in at least one division every year. True, his Indianapolis record was miserable in comparison, and while it must have bothered him every May, he had plenty of reason to smile the other eleven months of the year. Let us remember him for eleven out of twelve!
© Michael Ferner