Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Ronald "Mack" Hellings

(Sept. 14, 1915 - Nov. 11, 1951)

Robert "Bob" Barker

(June 13, 1918 - Nov. 11, 1951)

July 25, 2010 -- Ronald “Mack” Hellings and Robert “Bob” Barker were friends and competitors on the West Coast midget car racing circuit in the late 1940s. Both had achieved success racing around the dirt-track ovals in the popular weekend races.

Hellings and Barker also lived less than two miles from each other, in modest, attractive homes in suburban Burbank -- Hellings at 1020 N. Catalina St. and Barker at 2100 N. Dymond St.

By the late 1940s, their careers were heading in different directions. Although he continued to race the midgets, Hellings, who was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, was also racing larger cars. He raced four times in the Indianapolis 500, each year from 1948 to 1951. His best year was 1948, when he finished in fifth place.

Barker, who was born in El Paso, Texas, was interested the technical and design side of racing, and had developed a new engine specially designed for midget racers.

Hellings started his racing career on motorcycles. After World War II, he switched to midget cars, and quickly began setting track speed records and taking home first-place trophies. On Aug. 13, 1946, Hellings won a 30-lap race at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, in front of 65,000 fans -- a record crowd for midget racing. The attendance record was broken four days later in a 250-lap midget race at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, with Hellings finishing second.

In July 1947, Hellings, who gained the nicknames "Monopoly Mack" and "The Burbank Bombshell," won again in a 30-lap race at the Rose Bowl -- his fifth victory in eight races on the track. He also had eight wins in 11 starts at the Culver City Speedway.

On Oct. 5, 1947, Hellings won a 50-lap race at the Rose Bowl which was billed as the American Midget Racing Association's national championship race. Hellings also finished first in one of two 100-lap qualifying races. In January 1948, Hellings was named champion of the United Racing Association's Blue Circuit. Hellings also started racing the bigger, Indianapolis-style cars and, in one of his first races, finished second at the Carrell Speedway in Gardena, Calif.

Hellings tried out for the Indianapolis 500 in 1948 and, in typical Hellings style, he won $500 by setting the day's fastest qualifying time. Hellings started the race in the 21st position, and finished in fifth place. A month later, Hellings finished second -- seven seconds behind the winner -- in the 100-mile AAA national championship race at Langhorne Speedway in Langhorne, Pa.

Although he was racing the Indy cars, Hellings continued to race midgets. In August 1948, Hellings was seriously injured in a race at the Illinois State Fair when his car collided with another car on the opening lap, and rolled over three times. Hellings was hospitalized in serious condition with head injuries. He returned to racing six months later in a 50-lap midget race at the Carrell Speedway in Gardena -- and won.

Hellings qualified for the Indy 500 again in 1949, and finished 16th after his car suffered mechanical problems. He finished in 13th place in 1950, and 31st place in 1951, after dropping out due to engine problems.

Barker started racing midget cars shortly after he graduated from high school in Houston. In the late 1930s, he suffered serious injuries in a race when his car flipped and trapped him, with his right arm pinned against the hot exhaust pipe. As quickly as his injuries healed, he was back on the track and, in 1941 and 1942, he finished second in the point standings in the midget racing league.

During World War II, the various injuries Barker suffered on the track made him ineligible for military service, so he went to work in an airplane plant, eventually moving to California and working at the Lockheed Aircraft plant in Burbank, Calif.

Another crash at the Bonelli Ranch Speedway in Saugus, Calif., in 1945 left Barker with a broken neck. He was back racing in 1946, and was winning again at midget tracks throughout California. In a 30-lap race at the Rose Bowl in July 1946, Barker finished first, with Hellings in second.

But Barker was nearly as interested in taking his cars apart, tinkering with them and coming up with technical improvements and new designs as he was in actual racing. Using the technical knowledge he gained at the Lockheed plant, Barker came up with many engine modifications that are still being used today.

In 1948, Barker -- who had no formal training in engineering, drafting or design -- came up with a design for a cheaper, simpler version of the popular Offenhauser midget engine. His new engine -- called the “Barker Engine” and sold for $1,755 through his B&B Automotive shop in Burbank, Calif., compared to about $10,000 for an Offenhauser -- was a twin-cam, rocker-arm racing engine, specifically designed for midget racers.

In September 1949, Barker wrote an article about his new engine for “Motor Trend” magazine. “In the course of testing in midgets,” Barker wrote, “it will probably have many minor bugs that will have to be eliminated before the engine will be placed in production. The engine had no actual testing or proving period -- from the drawing board the engine was made, tested on a dynamometer, and then placed in a race car against competition.”

But Barker never got the chance to work out the "minor bugs" in his new engine.

On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 11, 1951, Hellings, 36, and Barker, 33, boarded a rented, single-engine, four-seat Piper Pacer airplane at Brackett Field in Pomona, Calif. Hellings was scheduled to race that evening at Bay Meadows Racetrack in San Mateo, just south of San Francisco. The pilot of the plane was Robert Harris, 38, of Arcadia, Calif., one of Barker’s co-workers at the Lockheed plant.

The plane’s fourth passenger was originally supposed to be Dr. Ed Hertford, a Burbank dentist and auto racing enthusiast. But Hertford, who was also a former airline pilot, was concerned about the reports of bad weather along the flight route, so he decided not to go.

His place on the flight was taken by 28-year-old Montana native George Lee Harvey Jr., of North Hollywood, the official photographer for the United Racing Association, and one of the first staff photographers for “Speed Age” magazine.

The flight took off at 8:30 a.m., with a planned re-fueling stop in Fresno, Calif. When the plane failed to arrive in Fresno, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Aero Squadron launched a search, assisted by the Civil Air Patrol. The aerial search centered on the rugged south slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains, but was hampered by bad weather and a low, thick cloud cover.

The wreckage of the plane and the bodies of the four men were found on Thursday, Nov. 15, at the 4,000-foot level in the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County, Calif., 12 miles east and 10 miles north of the city of Gorman.

Hellings and Barker were buried next to each other in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.

Hertford, the dentist who decided at the last minute not to take the ill-fated flight, died in 1999 in Orange County, Calif.

Previous Grave Spotlights

Back to main page