January 1, 2014 — Audio and story by Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Chris Seelman photo —
ROANOKE, IN — If you ask any race fan who makes an annual pilgrimage to the Rumble in Fort Wayne midget races, chances are you’ll hear at least one comment about the legendary Munchkins.
And no, we’re not talking about little people here.
Renowned midget designer Mike Fedorcak will tell you as much too. Fedorcak is as passionate about the cars he has built as a parent is about their children. The Roanoke, Indiana driver designed the fabled Munchkin chassis 24 years ago during his tenure in the USAC National Midget ranks in hopes of accomplishing a mission he had never achieved: to win at the Indianapolis Speedrome.
“The major reason the idea for the car first came about was because of my desire to win at the Speedrome,” Fedorcak said during this year’s Rumble at the Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum. “I just wanted to have some fun and win some races.”
“I was injured, burned pretty bad in a supermodified accident and knew I would have some time on my hands. I was driving south towards Louisville for hand surgery after the accident, and when I passed the exit (for the Speedrome), concepts and plans started floating around in my head. I came up with 7 pretty much key issues that were going to make my car different from everyone else’s.”
“When I got done in the hospital in Louisville I came back to Fort Wayne and started designing the blueprints; took me about a month to design it. Because my hands were still laid up, I delegated some work around to friends and family, and then by the end of March in ’87 had the car built.”
And that car was the rocket that launched the entire revolution. Before the Munchkin was completed, Fedorcak had only one career USAC win—a victory at the old Fort Wayne Coliseum in 1983 driving for car owner Chuck Rencurrel. Fedorcak immediately took the Munchkin to his first race in the ’87 season at Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Illinois. He proceeded to lap the field up to third place.
“During hot laps, they gave us the green and I went, and thought the other guys hadn’t seen it. I was that much faster,” Fedorcak recalls of the afternoon.
Fedorcak did make his long-awaited dream happen that same season as well, scoring his first Speedrome triumph on Aug. 20, 1987 in a race televised on ESPN. He followed that up with another victory on Sept. 18 of that year.
“Once we got the car figured out, got everything working how I envisioned it, we had the keys to go out and make the dreams happen,” Fedorcak said of that 1987 season.
Following the massively auspicious debut of the Munchkin, Fedorcak built a second car and several racers expressed interest in obtaining a Munchkin, which was years ahead of its time in the USAC ranks. The frame is shaped differently than a conventional midget, and the center of gravity of the car is balanced in a manner exclusive to the Munchkin design. Fedorcak built the cars like a truck because he wanted it as strong as possible.
“There’s nothing special about any of it,” Fedorcak chuckled when asked about the difference between his cars from the norm. “It’s all straight-forward conventional stuff. Ask USAC. They tried to throw out my car for years, and I started carrying around the rulebook to prove that my car was built to the letter of the rules, every time.”
When they couldn’t stop the car based on the rules they had written, USAC implemented several rule changes that impacted the car’s unique and carefully-planned design. Weight was added to the front bumper, side skirt body panels were outlawed and a minimum weight requirement of 850 pounds was implemented.
Fedorcak had to change his fuel tank supplier and rear tank shape as well. Unknown to Fedorcak at the time he designed the Munchkin, his fuel tank supplier wasn’t an approved USAC vendor. USAC also wanted the tail to be a conventional build, after Fedorcak had used square corners as a cost-cutting maneuver.
Those changes caused the mass interest from other racers to disappear, and parts made in anticipation of building 20 cars went unused.
“I had 10 cars cut up and ready to put together with help from a guy (Skip Brown) out west,“ said Fedorcak. “Rule changes put an end to that. I still have the materials here from that.”
Ultimately, USAC phased the Volkswagen engine, the power plant that the Munchkins were built around due to their specific center of gravity, out of the rulebook to effectively end the cars’ remarkable run in the USAC circles, but not before Fedorcak had revolutionized the midget world again.
He built a third car for use on the bigger, high-speed USAC tracks, with a special affinity for the Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway). USAC had begun sanctioning a series of races at IRP and broadcast by ESPN in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fedorcak had been building his first car but had ideas of things he wanted to try. He quickly realized if he went back to make the changes the car would never be finished.
“At the time, I wanted (the prototype) done. I had to stick to the plan I had written out at that point.”
Fedorcak cut out and built a new front clip that allowed for a longer wheel base for the bigger track. The adjusted Munchkin hit the track and crashed the first time it went into race conditions, something the Hoosier designer admits scared him.
But the crash also challenged him. Fedorcak came back to set a new track record at IRP on Aug. 17, 1989, finishing second to Don Schilling. He scored wins that year at Gainesville, Georgia in March; Kalamazoo, Michigan in April and again at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June on the fast, paved Hawkeye half-mile.
Fedorcak’s last USAC win came, all too appropriately, at IRP in the Night Before the 500, when he beat Jeff Gordon in 1991.
The Munchkins then fell out of the spotlight for several years until the Rumble Racing Series began sanctioning a set of indoor midget races at the new Memorial Coliseum Expo Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, less than an hour from Fedorcak’s homebase in Roanoke. The Rumble Series wanted to build a reputation of being an event promoting creativity and innovation, and promoter Tony Barhorst immediately said that the Munchkins would be legal to race at the Rumble.
And with that declaration, the fabled cars made a return to the race track.
Fedorcak put a young Tony Stewart in the car for the 2001 Rumble and Stewart immediately proved the Munchkins still had all the speed they showed a decade prior, winning on the final night in ’01. Fedorcak himself experienced moderate success in the car, scoring a victory at the Rumble in 2002 and finishing second in the Rumble at the RCA Dome in early 2003 at Indianapolis before retiring it in the back of his shop. The VW engine needed some work and Fedorcak turned his attention to other things.
A late night phone call in 2004 however, would change everything, and spark a new age revolution for the legendary cars.
Stewart, who was playing a late-night poker game with some USAC friends the night before the Rumble in 2004, had brought up the possibility of Fedorcak selling him the Munchkin he had seen race on TV as a kid. And he wasn’t joking. Stewart called Fedorcak at 11:30 that night, and brokered a deal over the phone for the NASCAR champion to purchase the Munchkin that Fedorcak had raced in 2002.
The pair didn’t even know if the car would start, let alone be in any condition to race. It took Fedorcak an hour to dig it out from the machinery and other materials he had piled on and around it. The car needed work on the valves when Fedorcak parked it after the RCA Dome, and he suspected the valves were stretched and he could no longer adjust them.
Fedorcak recalls, “I warned Tony; I said, ‘you gotta understand. I don’t even know if this thing will start up, and you want to race it. I just don’t know if it’s gonna happen’.”
After starting work at four in the morning upon getting the car out of mothballs, the pair managed to get the car to not only start, but setup to race at that night’s Rumble. Stewart promptly won the A-feature that night, the second of his record nine wins at the Expo Center.
And with Stewart’s popularity and the Munchkin’s return to dominance, a brand new revolution began in the midget world. After Stewart swept qualifying and won on finale night at the 2005 Rumble in remarkable fashion, Fedorcak began receiving numerous requests to build additional Munchkin chassis. He resisted at first, before Ohio fabricator Mike Streicher opened discussions with Fedorcak about assisting him in assembling the Munchkin kits during the 2006 Rumble.
Fedorcak and Streicher reached an agreement with Streicher’s Strei-Tech company in Findlay, Ohio, which gave Fedorcak a commission to build Munchkins based on the original blueprints, photographs and jigs. The deal included the chassis setup used on Stewart’s Rumble-winning car, and also included different anti-roll bars so each individual car could be tuned to a driver’s preferences.
Once the door was opened, the drivers flocked to Fedorcak hoping to have their own Munchkins built. Chuck Rencurrel, who fielded an old Volkswagen midget for Tyler Nuckles, approached Fedorcak about a car. As Stewart and Fedorcak talked following Stewart’s ’06 sweep at Fort Wayne, Mike Osite, out of Brooklyn, New York, spoke to them at length, offering to find Fedorcak a ride for the Atlantic City Gambler’s Classic a few weeks later. Osite also wanted a new Munchkin.
But the most recognizable name out of the list of drivers who approached Fedorcak and Streicher about a Munchkin build was longtime ISMA Supermodified competitor Lou Cicconi. Cicconi wanted a Munchkin identical to Stewart’s, wishing to match driving skills with the two-time NASCAR champion on a level playing field after being beaten by Stewart in 2006. Cicconi knew the expertise on chassis setup included in the purchase of the Munchkin kit would enable him to shorten the learning curve when he got behind the wheel. The Pennsylvanian agreed to field the Osite car in addition to having two more cars delivered to his Aston shop, one for himself and one for Rochester, New York’s Jim Morgan.
Rencurrel was the first to receive his chassis followed by the three cars delivered to Cicconi. Every one was built identically to Stewart’s race-winning piece.
Cicconi then became the only driver in Rumble history to defeat Stewart at his own game when Stewart’s black Munchkin was running at the finish, scoring a breakthrough triumph on the final night in 2008 after Stewart had won the first night. The Munchkins were back, and they were every bit as competitive as the originals.
Following the 2008 Rumble, two more Munchkin kits were commissioned and built, one for longtime midget car owner Rick Daugherty and one more that eventually began racing with support from Streicher himself out of the Hawk Chassis shop.
If you’ve been keeping count, that makes a total of nine Munchkin chassis that were built since Fedorcak first drew up the blueprints in 1987. The original Munchkin sits in Fedorcak’s Roanoke shop and Fedorcak insists that car will never be raced again.
“We’re keeping that car in mothballs,” the Hoosier explained at this year’s Rumble. “Emma (his daughter) and I have worked to restore that car to it’s original state. That car is the one that started it all. It’s special.”
The sequence of Munchkins from the original build in 1987 is as follows:
Munchkin 1 of 9: The original chassis, which today sits dormant in Fedorcak’s shop.
Munchkin 2 of 9: The car which Tony Stewart bought from Fedorcak in 2004; today run as the “Our Gang Poker” #2
Munchkin 3 of 9: The car Fedorcak built with a longer wheelbase to race at IRP, which Stewart later purchased and Fedorcak runs to this day at the Rumble; numbered #97.
Munchkin 4 of 9: The chassis originally requested by Chuck Rencurrel, which was later sold. Cory Setser, out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, purchased the car and ran it most recently at this year’s Rumble, numbered #24.
Munchkin 5 of 9: The first chassis delivered to Lou Cicconi’s Aston, Pennsylvania shop and driven to victory in the 2008 Rumble. Later bought by Florida driver Chris deRitis and last raced at the 2012 Rumble, numbered #66.
Munchkin 6 of 9: The second chassis delivered to Lou Cicconi’s Aston, Pennsylvania shop and driven by Mike Osite beginning in 2008. Last raced at the 2012 Rumble.
Munchkin 7 of 9: The third chassis delivered to Lou Cicconi’s Aston, Pennsylvania shop and driven by Jim “Timex” Morgan beginning in 2008. Morgan sold the car after the 2012 Rumble and it was repainted and driven by Van Wert, Ohio’s Russ Belt in this year’s Rumble. Originally numbered #2, currently numbered #19.
Munchkin 8 of 9: The chassis requested by and built for longtime midget car owner Rick Daugherty. Raced by Jon Stanbrough in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Rumbles and numbered #7. Was sold by Daugherty to Michigan driver Ronnie Johncox, and Johncox currently plans to race the Munchkin in the 2014 Rumble.
Munchkin 9 of 9: As of writing, the final Munchkin built, and currently maintained in partnership with Mike Streicher and Hawk Chassis. Has been raced by Ohio City, Ohio teenager Cooper Clouse at the last three Rumbles in Fort Wayne. Clouse raced the car to a pole qualifying effort during this year’s Rumble.
Fedorcak says he currently has no plans to build any additional Munchkins, though he says if someone approached him he would consider the request. Fedorcak calculates it would cost roughly $12,000 to build a Munchkin chassis today in kit form, about $3,000 less than a ‘kit car’ from noted racer Bob East. However, Fedorcak Fabrications is not geared to mass produce a chassis as the Beast shops near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are.
“Currently, I’ve got no plans to build any more Munchkins,” Fedorcak insisted during practice for last weekend’s Rumble. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got all the blueprints and if someone really wanted a car built and had the money for shop costs to do it, I would look at building one, but right now there’s no plans.”
The fact still remains, however, that Fedorcak’s revolutionary design is still every bit as competitive today as it first was nearly 25 years ago. Munchkins have won five times at Fort Wayne in the last seven Rumbles dating back to 2007, including a one-two finish by Stewart and Stanbrough in 2011, and Fedorcak wheeled Stewart’s #2 to a runner-up result in the finale of last weekend’s Rumble.
“I’m still riding the wave (of success) to this day,” Fedorcak says of his project.
But what makes the Munchkins so good? Other than being constructed lower to the ground and wider, Mike Streicher says that the cars are not radically different from their Kenyon or Beast counterparts. The parallel bar-style suspension the Munchkins utilize was first used by the Kurtis Kraft midgets of the 1940s.
“It’s a combination of things,“ Fedorcak says of his cars’ dominance. “What I got was a happy medium of a lot of things for a specific purpose.”
“You build a car to win,” the Hoosier replied simply. “And every time we put a Munchkin in victory lane, it gives me a special sense of pride knowing that my cars are still doing what I built them to do.”
Though Stewart (through Tony Stewart Racing) now officially owns the two cars raced in the Rumble Series, Fedorcak maintains the one he drives (the #97) in his Indiana shop. Stewart’s explicit instructions: “treat it as if it’s your own car.”
“So I do,” said Fedorcak. “In a way, he’s just telling me to do what I did in the beginning.”
Fedorcak will turn 60 just prior to next year’s Rumble in Fort Wayne, but he has not lost any of his passion to race competitively. And he has also not lost any of the emotion that he feels every time he straps into one of the legendary cars he built.
“When I fired the motor (during practice on Thursday), I started crying. That’s how much racing these cars means to me. And to have Tony with me, onboard for this particular race, that means everything to me.”
Fedorcak says as long as he’s capable of driving, he’ll pilot a Munchkin just has he has since the beginning of the journey. And when asked if he would be at next year’s Rumble (the 17th annual edition of the midget classic), Fedorcak laughed before replying.
“You’ll see me at the Rumble in 2014, 2015, probably even in 2020.”
And at the Fort Wayne Expo Center, that will always be a welcome sight, indeed.
Listen in as we spoke with Mike Fedorcak during the 2013 Rumble in Fort Wayne, as he spoke about the Munchkins’ special story, history, and his passion for driving the cars he created: