Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday December 15, 2010

 Volume 2, Number 47                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

Yup, it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m digging through the archives again! Here’s a few more from the “RTT” files, as-well as some from our regular readers. Wasting no time, let’s raise the curtain on this week’s offerings! As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com    

Rainy Day Reflections…..      

“I’m telling you Cohen, Grover Cleveland was a better president than Chester A. Arthur ever-was!” You have to wonder if these two longtime friends were debating their political views (something that still occurs today), or discussing the days racing schedule on the oil-soaked dirt surface of Massachusetts’ former Lakeville Speedway. That’s our pal, writer-extraordinaire & NEAR Hall of Famer Pete Zanardi (right), and none other than that expert on all things involving racing in New England, the honorable Mr. Bruce B. Cohen on the left. Thankfully, some things never change! 2011 NEAR Hall of Fame inductee Val Lesieur donated this little gem of an image. (Val Lesieur Collection).           

The late Rick “Sleepy” Knapp was at Waterford for what seemed like forever. Always sporting his signature “Sweet 16” on the flanks of his racers, he was a particularly successful competitor in the full-bodied ranks. Known by fellow drivers as “A guy you could race with” he got the job done with equipment that was often less well-funded than that of his competitors. He later advanced to the headlining Modifieds, remaining a respected racer. This shot captures Knapp at the dawn of the 1970s when the full-bodied Daredevil division was really roaring at the shoreline oval. Weekly fields of over 40-cars were not uncommon. (Shany Photo).    

By the time Waterford Speedbowl campaigner Jiggs Beetham debuted this beautiful entry dubbed the “Golden Hurricane” during the 1970s, the timeless profiles of the once-popular Coupes and Coaches had all-but disappeared on the New England Modified landscape. Like everything-else he constructed during his many decades in the sport, the car was absolutely flawless, and a real head-turner. This unique Steve Kennedy image captures him at the Bowl’s “Fall Stinger” event on November 4, 1979 (NEAR Hall of Famer John Rosati won the event). Jiggs later placed his helmet on the shelf and teamed with NEAR Hall of Fame driver Bob Potter to form one of the most successful Modified teams in the regions history. (Kennedy Photo).

Seen here is Joe Wilcox at Massachusetts’ much-missed Riverside Park Speedway. A winner in the early 1970s, his ride is typical of the great-looking cars campaigned at The Park’ during its glory years under the sanction of the Tattersall family’s United Racing Club. Though he was always in the hunt, Joe’s lone Riverside feature victory occurred on the evening of June 12, 1971, making him among the last guys to grab a main event on the old fifth-mile oval. For 1972 the track was expanded to a ¼-miler. Sadly, after 50-years of continuous operation, Riverside was shuttered forever following the conclusion of the 1999 season. (Grady Photo).

This neat action shot captures a young Angie Cerease at the wheel of the famed L & M Coupe. An absolute- terror at Waterford, Angie found himself at Joe Tinty’s Plainville Stadium on this day during the early-seventies (probably one of those great mid-week opens). See the lever sticking-up in the cockpit? That’s a “handbrake.” Go-ahead, tell me these things weren’t a complete handful to-drive! Unfortunately, Plainville is gone now, but both the Waterford Speedbowl and Angie are still with-us!  (Hoyt Photo).

Yeah, I know, in the past we’ve ran a lot of shots of this car. However, I never tire of looking at what was no-doubt, one of the Waterford Speedbowl’s finest-looking cars of the 1970s. Look at the detail in that paint scheme and realize that these were the days before vinyl-lettering! Its opening day of 1970 in the pits and the chauffer of this little Chevy II bodied creation was a young Donnie Bunnell. One of the most popular drivers-ever at Waterford, he went-on to do a lot of winning in both cars fielded by his family-based team and also some of the tracks top car owners. (Dugas Photo, Sage Collection).              

The late Al Keller actually started his professional career within the burgeoning days of NASCAR and Non-NASCAR tracks in New York and New England, but by the mid-1950s he was concentrating on the open wheel circuit excelling in Midgets, Champ Cars and Indy Cars. He drove in the AAA, USAC, and several Eastern Midget clubs as seen-here. At Indy, his best finish was a 5th in 1961. It was a particularly-dangerous time for those that chose open-wheel racing as their vocation. Sadly, Keller perished in a fiery Champ Car crash at the Arizona State Fairgrounds on November 19, 1961. (Smith Photo).

Here’s another great vintage Midget racing shot. Before stock cars made it big during the post-war era, these were the main attraction at short tracks throughout the nation. If you truly wanted to make it to the big-time like Indy, you served an apprenticeship behind the controls of one of these volatile (and sometimes deadly), “cage-less” machines. Seen here during the late 1940’s are the team cars of Red Cummings (#20), and Hermie Delisle (#21). Both were standouts in the realm of early Eastern open-cockpit racing. We’re not sure of the locale, so if any readers would like to forward some information, please feel-free! (Smith Photo).

It’s June 2, 1979 at Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl, and this one captures Chris Banta and crew celebrating in victory lane. Banta had competed in the class since its introduction in 1977, and remained one of the division’s top drivers for a number of seasons. The Street Stocks eventually developed into Waterford’s Late Models. Mike Lake (back row, extreme right), and Sean Greene (inside car, passenger-side), co-owned this Chevelle, which was sponsored by the former Ocean Auto Parts in nearby New London, CT. (Kennedy Photo, Lake Collection).

Howard “Punky” Caron was an absolute-terror during the seventies at “Up North” venues like Monadnock and Claremont Speedways in this neat little coupe. Multi-time championships and scads of victories were the order of the day for Caron and his team, and they were one of the last to keep the once “traditional” sheet metal in victory lane on a consistent-basis. Caron was visiting Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway for “The Race” in 1976 when Steve Kennedy snapped this one. It was a high-dollar special event for small-block Modifieds, and was very-well attended. Caron is slated to be inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame on January 30. For more information on this years Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, go to www.near1.org (Steve Kennedy Photo).                 

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

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