Robert (jr.) Sall
1908 (Jan 22) – 1974 (Oct 14)
AAA Big Cars 1927 – 1946
When remembering the careers of US racing drivers, the trouble with Indianapolis is that it is too big an event, and that it tends to overshadow everything else. Dominant drivers of the past, like Rex Mays or Ted Horn, in reality super stars of their era, these days are generally viewed as a couple of unlucky guys, who just couldn’t find the way into that victory lane. Other great champions like Ernie Triplett, Doc MacKenzie, Billy Winn or Chet Gardner, hugely popular and successful in their times, are almost forgotten today because they had an indifferent record at the brickyard – no disrespect meant, but looking at their obituaries at Motorsport Memorial, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking they were “mere amateurs” of the sport! Well, at least they rate a mention at all…
But, there is probably not one single driver in the history of our sport, where the difference between period stature and contemporary acclaim is as disproportionate as that in the case of Bob Sall. Googling his name, one finds that he “was an American racecar driver”, accompanied by extensive statistics of his one miserable attempt at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Oh yes, he “was inducted in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1992″, but for what? Nobody seems to recall… a twenty-year career at the very top of his profession, reduced to about an hour of driving a recalcitrant mongrel of a semi-stock racing car (a failed experiment at best)? One doesn’t really know whether to laugh or to cry about that sort of “appraisal”…
So, who was he really, this “Bob Sall” – was he the Italian ace, Roberto Saldi, racing under a nom de course, as some authors have us believe? Or was he Roberto Saluti, “merely” a descendant of Italian forebears?? Or even, as the anonymous author of his career resumé at the “National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum” has it, Antonio Saldutti of Dutch-Italian descent??? Actually, his name was simply Robert (junior) Sall, and he had probably as much Italian blood in his veins as Joie Chitwood had Cherokee Indian! Never underestimate the imaginative power of racing promotions…
Sall was raised in Bergen County, in the heart of New Jersey, and home of the “Bergen Herald”, whose Motoring section was soon to become the “National Auto Racing News”, and later “National Speed Sport News”, the granddaddy of all US racing papers. There must’ve been something in the air, for apart from a number of racetracks in the immediate neighbourhood (e.g. Woodbridge, Ho-Ho-Kus and Union Speedways), Bergen also borders Passaic County and its seat Paterson, home of “Gasoline Alley”, the biggest accumulation of racing teams in the country just before and after WW2! And Sall was a big, big part of all that!
Speaking of “big”, there can hardly ever have been a racing driver with more unlikely looks, given that Sall was small and slim, almost frail looking, and on top of that bespectacled! But, belying his appearance, he was tough, and then some! Yes, he was a “money driver”, and thus almost always around at the finish of a race, so he rarely crashed at all, of course, but when he did, “he didn’t take no prisoners” – like on that day at Altamont, when he upended so hard, his head actually carved a furrow in the track surface, with the somersaulting car on top of him!!! Photographs of that spectacular encounter with fate made the news across the whole nation! But Sall not only repaired his racer and took the start of the postponed event three days later – he even won it! Talk about being a tough guy…
And, talk about a winner: that victory at the 1934 Fourth of July Race on the Altamont Fairgrounds was the first of – count’em – nine wins at that track alone! And, whisper it quietly, but that wasn’t even the track with most of his wins! Unlike his peers, Sall was a multiple winner every year, without fail, even if he missed out on the busiest part of the year, the fair season, no less than three times: once through injury, and one season each by running for “outlaw” organisations, IMCA and CSRA. And yet, according to figures from the research of the late Phil Harms, no other driver has won as many AAA Sprint Car races before WW2 – actually, apart from Rex Mays, no one comes even close: Sall 64, Mays 60, Winn 46, Triplett 36, MacKenzie 30, Horn and Hinnershitz don’t even make the top ten. Impressed? You should be!
So, with all of this background, why was it then that he didn’t get a break at Indy? Perhaps, and that is just a supposition, Indy Car owners didn’t believe he had the stamina to go 500 miles – after all, the vast majority of his wins came in 10-, 15- or 20-mile jaunts around county fairgrounds, fifteen to twenty minutes the most! Yes, he did win a tough Langhorne 50-miler in record time, and finished well in a number of 100-milers at Syracuse and Langhorne again, but add to all that his physical attributes and one can see them having a point. Also, Indy tended to be a “closed shop” at the top, and over the years successful dirt track drivers have always found it difficult to attract good rides at the brickyard. Sall made the trip to the Hoosier capital for many years, until he despaired of ever finding even a just reasonable enough car, so he finally gave up on Indy, and stuck to the Sprints and occasional Midget or Stock Car events.
Having been an owner/driver throughout most of his career, racing appears to have been a hard habit to shake for Sall, after selling his equipment at the end of the thirties. Too many of his old friends in Gasoline Alley asked him to do “one more race” for them, including the new owner of his former car, and most of the time he did more than one, simply because he was too good to let go of! So, he got to race his old car again, only now as a second-string entry for another owner/driver, who now had to accept getting beaten by Bob from time to time. This new owner, by the way, just happened to be Ted Horn, and Sall not only beat him and his newer number one car at some county fair schmooze, but also at Langhorne, the world’s toughest dirt mile. Oh, and he bettered Horn’s Langhorne track record, too!
He was still in demand, after WW2, but was already setting his sights on a more sedate occupation, as a “Field Manager” for NASCAR, of all things! After a few more races in the fall of 1945, he called it a day. Still, when the traveling AAA “circus” came to New Jersey on Memorial Day in 1946, Bob Sall was on hand, evidently to watch the programme, but when Johnny Shackleford failed to arrive in time for time trials (he had stayed at Indianapolis until the last moment, hoping to garner a ride), car owner Ted Nyquist asked Bob to qualify his newly acquired Sprint Car, the famous Peters/Offenhauser (out of Gasoline Alley, of course). Sall acquiesced, took the car out, broke the track record and returned to the pits, quietly handing over the car for the late arrival to win the consy, and then the feature.
A class act, like all of his career before.
© Michael Ferner