One of the fun things about doing Google searches are the unexpected pieces of information that you come across. A classic example concerns Walter Minx.
I was browsing the racing-reference.info website, and looking at the races that made up the 1949 NASCAR Strictly Stock series, which was the first season of late-model stock car racing under the NASCAR banner. Today, the series is known as the Nextel Cup, and the cars are definitely not strictly stock!
I was looking at the results of the 4th race of the season, which was held at the Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania on the 11th of September. 45 cars started the race, which was won by well-known driver Curtis Turner. Looking down the results, I came across the name of Walter Minx, who finished 43rd after crashing his ’49 Buick after 25 laps. I clicked on his driver page in the website, and discovered that this was his one and only NASCAR race. The website allows visitors to enter information about races and drivers, and since the only posting was his date of death and date of birth, plus where he was living, I decided to do a Google search for any further information, and make a post with what I had found. I have done this before with several other obscure NASCAR competitors on the website, in an attempt to make them more “human”, and more than just a one-line listing in a race result.
Well, I hit the jackpot when I googled Minx’s name! I found out that his main claim to fame was back in 1940, when he was involved in an extortion claim against the famous retail chain Sears Roebuck. Walter was born on the 7th of February, 1917, and his family had emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1925. By his teens he had earned the nickname of “Der Macher” (The Doer), because of his ability to construct all sorts of mechanical devices using materials located on the family property. By his early twenties Walter had opened an ornamental ironworks ship in Milwaukee, but he had borrowed money from his friends and relatives to set up the business, and was unsure if he would be able to pay it back. To get some much-needed cash, he decided to extort money from a rich businessman through a bomb-threat.
Minx first set about building a bomb using a one-inch metal pipe, gunpowder collected from 35 12-gauge shotgun shells, a wind-up clock and a spring mechanism. So far, a standard extortion set-up, but the next step really turned Minx’s plot into something very audacious and extraordinary. Minx needed a foolproof method of retrieving the extortion money without getting caught and decided that a submarine, with its ability to submerge and creep away undetected from a watery drop-off point, seemed ideal. So he commenced construction of a two-man submarine, using sheet metal and plumbing fixtures.
The first prototype was found to be inadequate and was abandoned behind the family house, with a second prototype constructed. The resulting craft was seven feet long, powered by automobile batteries connected to a small electric starter motor. It weighed about 400lbs. Moveable fins on the exterior hull enabled the sub to dive while two-gallon tin cans inside could be filled with lake water using a valve made from a kitchen sink faucet. The cans acted as ballast tanks and helped maintain neutral buoyancy once the vessel dipped below the waves. A small pressurized oxygen tank allowed the sub to stay submerged up to 48 hours. The sub’s operator navigated via a conning tower featuring clear celluloid windows on three sides. Hand-operated levers were used to raise and lower the diving fins and steer the rudder while a radiator petcock could be opened to regulate interior air pressure when necessary. The sub’s entry hatch could be bolted closed and opened from the inside. Walter and his brother Kurt tested the submarine in nearby Whitefish Bay, and it seemed to perform satisfactorily.
Walter had already chosen the target of his extortion bid – Rowland H Davie, who was the manager of the Sears Roebuck store in Milwaukee. He would let Davie know via a handwritten note that a small bomb would be detonated at the Sears store in Milwaukee and a larger one would follow if Davie didn’t deliver the $100,000 requested by Minx. Minx’s plan was for Davie to hire a small plane from Curtis Wright Airport at 7:30pm on July 26, fly in a designated straight line and drop a money bundle containing $100,000 overLake Michigan upon sighting two blinking lights (coming from Minx’s sub). The plane was to continue flying another 50 miles before turning back, giving Minx time to maneuver his submarine over to the bundle and retrieve the money. He would then submerge for several hours before deliberately scuttling the craft off McKinley Beach and swimming to shore where his car was parked nearby.
On the 23rd of July, Minx left the extortion note on the front porch of Davie’s house. Unbeknownst to Minx, however, Davie no longer lived there. It was now occupied by Circuit Judge William Shaughnessy who promptly contacted the police. The following day, Minx planted the small bomb in a storeroom at the Sears store on North Ave in Milwaukee, timing it to go off when few people would be inside. At 6:18pm the bomb exploded, holing a plywood partition and damaging a few lawn mowers. The plan started to unravel further when Walter and Kurt tried taking the submarine out into deeper waters they couldn’t fully submerge the vessel because the waves were too rough. Walter decided an alternate drop-off scheme was needed so he spent several days devising a new arrangement to be executed via motorcycle. He also drafted new letters delivered to the Davie residence explaining the change in plans, which Shaughnessy passed on to the police.
In the meantime, police were able to determine that metal fragments from the Sears store bomb blast were of a type used in ornamental iron-work. A Sears store employee then remembered that some cashiers cages had been built by one Walter Minx. The police paid a visit to Walter’s shop and found scrap metal matching the bomb fragments. Arrested at his home, Minx immediately confessed to the extortion plot. Minx was also identified in a line-up by two young boys, who said Minx gave them money to deliver several of the new extortion arrangements to Davie. But despite his insistence that his brother Kurt had backed out of the scheme earlier on, he too was arrested and tried, along with his brother-in-law, Daniel Carter. All three men were convicted and sentenced to prison. Minx escaped from the Union Grove prison in September 1944, but was recaptured shortly afterwards.
Minx was not released from prison until 1946, and moved from Milwaukee to Saukville, Wisconsin. He married, opened a hardware store (Minx Hardware) and later became a master plumber. He also obtained a pilot’s license and built a 36-foot cabin cruiser in his backyard, along with competing in that NASCAR race in September 1949. In 1983 Minx and his wife moved to Florida, with Walter dying in Fort Myers on the 30th of June 2009, aged 92 years.
The following wikipedia article on Walter Minx served as the basis for this blog entry:
Here is the finishing order for Minx’s only NASCAR race: