Simanaitis Says

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JOHN BURGESS KNEW AUTOMOBILES extremely well and also admired the American West. I have proof positive of this through his artwork and through knowing him as director/curator of Briggs Cunningham’s Automotive Museum here in Orange County, California. Here are examples of his artwork, together with tidbits gleaned about his life from various sources. 

John W. Burgess, 1911–1992, American artist, dirt-track racer, automotive authority, gentleman. Image from Revs Institute.

In a fine history of the Cunningham Automotive Museum, Kane Rogers describes how Burgess swapped work at Edwards AFB to join Briggs Cunningham in opening the Cunninghamy Automotive Museum in Costa Mesa, California, in 1966. 

Desert Artist. John was director/curator of the museum until its closing in December 31,1986. During that time, Dottie and I got to know him through many interactions arranging the museum’s cars for R&T articles. What’s more, Dottie, El Centro-born, shared John’s evident love of the Southern California desert. 

A Burgess hangs at home.

I’m guessing John was New England-bred, partly from his gentlemanly presence and partly from his profound knowledge of that region’s dirt track racing. In 1977, John gifted Dottie with two portfolios, one of them warmly inscribed, of The American Dirt Track Scene

The portfolio inscribed to Dottie is a keeper. The other one seeks a sympathetic home. See for a single double-sided poster of these eight separate prints. 

Each portfolio has eight prints from John’s original watercolors, 10 x 13 in. overall including 1-1 1/4-in. borders on fine art paper. There’s another sheet giving details of the paintings. Here are several favorites, with descriptions provided by John, in several portraying his own dirt track career.

Burning the Midnight Oil. “The little roadside garage is illuminated by a single bulb lamp. Many drivers ran such shops, catering to the public by day and working far into the night to keep their beloved machines mechanically excellent.”

Burning the Midnight Oil. The original, 20 9/16 x 13 1/4 in.

The Weary Racers. “The artist, then racer, is shown at a little store that rented cabins (before motels). Tired to the point of complete exhaustion, the mechanic companion likewise, the stop was a reluctant one as it cut down the time needed to get to, and prepare for, the next Fairground race. The year, 1931.”

The Weary Racers. The original, 26 1/4 x 15 7/8 in.

Time Trials. “Time trials were critical. Here we see a double overhead cam Fronty Ford qualifying; in the background are other drivers checking the time, partially hidden by the canvas used to keep the flying dirt off the Fairgrounds Midway.” 

Time Trials. The original, 26 x 16 5/8 in.

Trouble at the First Turn. “This is an incident that happened to the artist at the New England Fairgrounds half-mile track. Starting from the pole position in the main event, I got the Fronty Ford into the turn with about a good 60 to 70 ft. lead. At the apex I was probably a foot, possibly two, from the rail when a brand new right front tire ‘blew’ and I spun, facing the field. Everybody missed me, how I don’t know. A shiny penney nail, left by the carpenter who repaired the fence, had done the damage.”

Trouble in the First Turn. The original, 20 x 13 7/8 in.

Rained Out. “Traveling from one Fairground race to another entailed many thousands of miles each season some of which were all in vain, due to the quirks of Mother Nature. This painting depicts the artist’s first dirt track car, a sixteen valve Roof, using an improved ‘C’ Head with 4 horizontal carburetors in a ‘T’ Ford block. The scene is the New England Fairgrounds at Worcester, Mass. in approximately July of 1931. The tow bars did not have automatic steering, and also the old Dodge towing had only two-wheel brakes; someone had to sit in the race car and get thoroughly soaked and freezing cold. A few hundred miles of traveling like this was enough to depress any driver and crew.” 

Rained Out. The original, 20 3/4 x 13 3/4 in.

However, evidently, it didn’t quell John Burgess’s enthusiasm for dirt track racing or for its artistic rendering. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 


  1. Bob Storck
    February 19, 2022

    Wonderful images, conveying so much more of real racing than the usual racing ‘glory’ shots or the victory circle/trophy girl pix.

  2. Molly Burgess
    January 9, 2023

    So nice to see Uncle Jack! My father, also John Burgess, loved him very much and spoke very fondly of him and his relationship with my grandfather, George.

  3. Al Abrahamson
    April 30, 2023

    The above is interesting, I have a copy of the Dirt Scene signed to Dottie. There must have been copies made.
    Also I have a copy of John’s Captain Jack that I bought from him in 1991. It came with a sheet telling the story about the painting, but I lost it. Does anyone have a copy of it they would share?

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