Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday August 11, 2010

 Volume 2, Number 29                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week we take a look at a few New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame members, along with some select personalities from the late Connecticut oval known as Joe Tinty’s Plainville Stadium. Also, a belated Happy Birthday! goes out to our old friend “Wild Bill Slater” (himself a Hall of Famer), who celebrated his special day last week. Also, Gene Bergin has been moved to a rehab center and has a new address for cards to be sent. Gene is going through a very tough time and could use cards of cheer. The new address is Gene (Eugene) Bergin, Avante Rehibilitation Center 170 North Old Kings Hwy., Room 202, Ormand Beach Florida 32174-5193. With that-said, enjoy this week’s offerings As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

More Hall Of Famers, Etc……     

Getting his start at Plainville Stadium in 1965, our friend Ray Miller went on to become one of the greatest of New England Modified racers. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2002, this early shot captures him at the Stafford Motor Speedway. Here’s an excerpt from his Hall of Fame biography; “Ray Miller grew up around racecars. His father teamed with Red Lataille to own the #1 Lataille/Miller Offy, which ran out of the Miller's garage in East Granby, CT. Ray's dad ran the ARDC circuit, often racing 7 nights per week, and finished 2nd to Nick Fonoro, Sr. in 1950. Ray's dad raced in the 1940's and '50's. Ray competed from the 1960's into the '80's, and his late son Jay was also a winning Modified racer. Ray graduated from the University of Bridgeport in 1965, and ran his first race that spring, running a Modified at the Plainville Stadium. Over the next decade, he drove for owners Bill Myers and Guy Sweatland. By 1966, Miller was racing at Riverside Park, and also ran on the dirt at Stafford. He continued at Stafford the following year, when it was paved, and considered Stafford to be his "home track" until his retirement in 1986. One of his many career highlights was a 10th place finish in the 1971 NASCAR National Modified points standings. By the early 1980's, Ray was a winning regularly at Stafford and Riverside, driving the familiar Rainbow Farm #01 for owner Mike Greci. He also won a Thompson 300, and finished 3rd in the Pocono Race of Champions. Ray drove the Bill Simons #9 to victories at area tracks, including a prestigious Mod Tour victory at the Waterford Speedbowl in 1985.” Today, Ray can be found weekly at the Whip City Speedway in Massachusetts where he’s the owner of 2 winning Midget race cars wheeled by Scott Viets and Kurt Conklin. (Adaskaveg Photo).     

Like Miller, our pal Billy Harman is also a New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member. Seen here at Stafford with the Ted Marsh-owned Coupe, here’s some highlights of Bill’s long & successful career courtesy of his Hall of Fame biography;At age 21, Billy Harman began racing a modified 312 Ford at Waterford New London.  He won a feature in his first year, as well as taking down Rookie of the Year honors.  He continued at the Speedbowl for the next 7 years, recording many wins and holding four different track records, including the fastest 10 lap heat, 25 lap feature, 50 lap feature, and non-stop 100 lap feature. He dominated there, especially in 1965 and 1966, driving the famed L & M Coupe. Following 1966, Bill felt it was time to move on to more and bigger challenges. He went on to win races for many car owners, including Freddie Beaber in the 715 and 716, Tuck Hoffman and Kevin Coan in the 73, and Bob Judkins in the 2x.  In 1971, driving the #55 for Ted Marsh, Billy finished 6th in the National Modified Championship.  He raced from Canadian tracks in the North, to Hollywood Speedway in Miami Beach, Florida. He raced as far West as Ohio, competing at 54 tracks, and winning at 14 different speedways.  From the Race of Champions in Trenton and Pocono to the Oxford Plains 250, Harman thrived on the ‘big’ races.  He also competed in the 1st Thompson 500 ever run, running 2nd to Fred DeSarro in Ted Marsh’s 55 with only 10 laps to go before blowing a motor.” Bill retired in the late 1970’s, following a successful stint behind the controls of the Joe Zenga Vega. Today, Billy and his lovely wife Donna divide their time between homes in Connecticut and Florida. (Dugas Photo).    

There are some that say that this driver was actually at his best when competing on the dirt. Either-way, I can tell you this – he was one exciting, and multi-talented racer. Captured here following a pavement victory in the potent #1 Coupe, Gene Bergin was simply one of the best to have ever turned a wheel in the Northeast, and that’s a fact. Another of this week’s New England Auto Racing Hall of Famers, check-out the following for a glimpse into his career; “Gene Bergin began and ended his career at the Stafford Motor speedway. He qualified in the first race he entered but was disqualified when it was learned he was only 17 years old in 1949. He returned when he was of age to start a 29 year career competing and winning at all the southern New England race tracks. He was always a hard charger either on dirt or asphalt. He won the 1962 Riverside Park championship and the 1967 Stafford Motor Speedway championship in 67, the first year it was paved. One of his most significant wins was the 1971 Stafford 200. He started on the pole and led every lap to win in Bob Judkins 2X, the first ever NASCAR-legal Pinto-bodied modified. Other career highlights include winning an All Star race at Wall Stadium, and winning the Trenton qualifier at Thompson. Bergin was runner-up at the 1972 Race of Champions in Trenton. In addition to the 2X, he was mostly identified with driving Bebe Zalinski’s M6.” As reported here previously, Gene is presently suffering from some very serious health issues. Cards of cheer reach him at Gene (Eugene) Bergin, Avante Rehibilitation Center 170 North Old Kings Hwy., Room 202, Ormand Beach Florida 32174-5193.  (Grady Photo).        

Dennis Zimmerman – his name was magic to the New England race fans of the “Coupe Era”. After an ultra-successful stint wheeling rigs like this to a multitude of checkered flags in both the North and the South (Zimmerman was a charter member of the fabled “Eastern Bandits”), he made it to Indianapolis in a big-way, becoming the Brickyard’s 1971 Rookie of the Year. Let’s take a peek at his career courtesy of his NEAR Hall of Fame biography; “Denny Zimmerman began racing at the Riverside Park Speedway in 1957, driving in the Tuesday night Sportsman Division. While he was soon winning at “The Park”, it was a rollover in 1958 that really had a positive effect on his career. Ed Flemke, Sr was at fault in the accident. After the crash, the two talked, and Flemke took a liking to the young driver. “Ed Flemke taught me more about racing than any other single person in my career”, says Denny. “He knew how to set up a race car, he taught me driving techniques, we worked out of his garage for awhile. He had a flatbed truck that he would haul his car with, and he would tow my trailer and car with that flatbed of his.” From sportsman cars, Zimmerman moved on to sprint cars and then tried his hand running at Indianapolis. Through the years, Denny competed at dozens of tracks, including Riverside, Plainville, Waterford (although he was thrown out for being underage), and Norwood. He also ventured out to Albany-Saratoga and Utica-Rome. Heading south, he competed at Marlboro, Maryland, Old Bridge, NJ, and Fredricksburg and Manassas, Virginia. At the old Fairgrounds in Richmond, Denny broke a track record time trialing, started on the pole, and finished second to Ray Hendrick in the last sportsman race before the track was torn up to build the Richmond International Speedway, which now stands on the site.” Denny owns NASCAR State Sportsman Championships in both Maryland and Virginia. He began running sprints in 1966 under the sanction of the United Racing Club, where he was named Rookie of the Year. Zimmerman later competed in USAC, and, in 1969, attempted to qualify for the Indy 500. The following year, he passed his driver’s test but again didn’t qualify. In 1971, he qualified, finishing eighth and winning the Indy 500 Rookie of the year honors. In 1972, Denny again made the field for the Indy 500, running as high as tenth before a blown engine took him out of competition.” Zimmerman recently came out of retirement, and now races a Quad-4 Midget owned by Oswego Speedway Hall of Fame member Skip Matczak at Massachusetts’ Whip City Speedway (Grady Photo).

Here’s a victory lane celebration that’s sure to bring-back some great memories….. On the left is the late Joe Tinty, owner & operator of the late (and much-missed), Plainville Stadium in Connecticut. The smiling racer holding the hardware is none-other than Ronnie Wyckoff, one of the best New England Modified chauffeurs of his generation, and a master of the short ovals. Wyckoff was not-only one of the greatest at Plainville, but was also a big-winner at Riverside Park (included in those victories are 3 Riverside 500’s), and took wins at several other New England tracks. Ronnie’s still-around today, frequently viewing the Saturday night action at the Waterford Speedbowl. (Hoyt Photo).

Here’s another Plainville Stadium shot, this-time it’s journeyman “Coupe-Era” racer Bill Harris. Also a regular at the Waterford Speedbowl for a period in the mid 1970’s, Harris always had nice-looking equipment. He was gone from the scene by the dawn of the 1980’s, but not before recording several respectable finishes. (Hoyt Photo).     

Here we have a nice Saturday night color shot of Plainville Stadium’s Pud Noble. There was a time at The Stadium’ when it was populated by scads of drivers like the colorful Pud – the place was really rockin’ when this image was captured by Phil Hoyt. It’s only been in recent years that people have realized just how-important Joe Tinty’s little Connecticut ¼-miler really-was. As I’ve stated previously, it was the first track I ever attended after I got my drivers license and was able to stray from my home base of the Waterford Speedbowl. As a young race fan, I loved the place along with its seemingly larger-than-life drivers and competition that was second-to-none! (Hoyt Photo).            

If you look forward to the latest edition of “Racing Through Time” going live each and every Wednesday morning, please say thanks to this guy….. Our friend Tom Ormsby is not-only a Wiz at all-things related to the computer and the Webmaster of this site, the New England Antique Racers site www.Near1.com and his own www.speedwaylinereport.com , he was also a pretty darned-good Modified shoe at Plainville Stadium. This one captures him at-speed in the 1970’s in one of his Pinto-bodied creations. Ormsby always had nice-looking equipment as this sharp little number attests-to. (Hoyt Photo).    

For all intent, “Rapid Rick” Donnelly’s Modified career started at the late UNITED-sanctioned Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Massachusetts. In 1975, he followed Harvey Tattersall down to Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl when the shoreline oval became yet-another acquisition of the once-powerful UNITED dynasty. That year he was awarded Rookie of the Year honors, and by 1979, he was crowned track champion. His title year was particularly spectacular – he won 10 of the 14 events, a season that was plagued by an unusually-high amount of rainouts. This shot captures him away from his Waterford digs at a Plainville Stadium mid-week open show in 1975. (Hoyt Photo)  

We close this week’s edition of “RTT” with an at-speed shot of another New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer and a driver that was unquestionably one of the best to have ever emerged from this part of the country. The late “Dynamite Ollie” Silva is seen here on the high banks of Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway during the 1979 Thompson 300 leading the #16 of G, Dinnen and the #17x of Frank Federici. From Silva’s Hall of Fame biography; Ollie Silva starting racing in 1949 at the Dracut Speedway and drove for 31 years, retiring in 1980. During his long career Silva scored approximately 500 victories. He won races in 12 different states including Florida, California, and Ohio. Ollie was the NASCAR champion at Star Speedway in 1967, 68, and 78, and was the Can-Am Classics champion in 1969, 70, 71, and 74. Other career highlights include being a four time US Winter National (Florida) champion and winning the 1972 Thompson World Series. Silva drove Modifieds, Supermodifieds, Pro Stocks, Late Models and Sprint Cars. Veteran race-goers remember a 100 lap race at the Waterford Speedbowl in which he lapped the entire field, not once, but twice. In 1978 he won the URC Sprint Car Championship at Thompson, then went on to Star and won the Can-Am race there the very next day.” Ollie passed-way at age-75 in 2004. (Kennedy Photo).

That's it for this week. Email me at:

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