Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday December 14, 2011

 Volume 3, Number 48                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

Unfortunately, we start this week’s column on a somber-note, as it was learned last Sunday that our good friend Cho Lee passed-away on Saturday, December 10. Cho was a good friend to all involved in the preservation of New England auto racing history, and was a walking-encyclopedia on racing in the Northern region. He was an active member of the New England Antique Racers (NEAR), and served on the Veterans Selection Committee. On a personal-note, I got to know him pretty-well over the last few years, and considered him a good friend; we just “clicked” immediately after meeting. Arrangements are as follows; Pruneau-Polli Funeral Home 58 Summer Street, Barre, VT 05641-3751 802) 476-4621 Calling hours are Thur 7-9pm, Funeral is 11am  on Friday at Pruneau-Polli Funeral Home. Our sincere condolences are offered to Cho’s family & many friends. We were also informed last-week that storied New England modified car owner Joe Palmieri passed-away on Tuesday, December 6th at age-80. With drivers such as Ronnie VanNesse, John Bergenty and other top modified shoes, Palmieri’s familiar #VO creations were frequent victory lane visitors for decades. Our deepest condolences are sent to Joe’s family. On a brighter note, it’s time to get your tickets to the 2012 New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame induction to be held on Sunday January 29, 2012 at the LaRenaissance Banquet Hall Route 5, East Windsor, Connecticut (Exit 44 off Interstate 91, East Windsor, CT). Doors open at 11:00 a.m. with dinner served at 12:00 p.m. There will be a cash bar. Dinner Choices are: Prime Rib, Chicken Supreme, Baked Scrod and Vegetarian Lasagna. Priced at $45.00 per person, order forms are available for download by visiting the NEAR website at www.near1.com. Order deadline is January 16, 2012. No tickets will be sold at the door. Requests for reserved tables of 10 must be received by January 10, 2012. Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com            

Yet-Another Weekly “Blast From The Past”  

It’s another Saturday night at Plainville, and it’s another win for car owner Joe Palmieri and his driver, John Bergenty. Joe, who passed-away in December 6th, is seen on the right in this shot; it’s an image that played-out many times during his decades-long association with our sport. Like any good modified team, Joe had a great crew helping to turn the wrenches, and they’re certainly a happy-bunch in this image! (Hoyt Photo, Tom Ormsby Collection).                      

The Joe Palmieri #VO team was certainly a successful operation at Plainville, but they also did well at many other tracks in New England such as Waterford, Riverside Park, and as-seen here, the expansive high-banks of Thompson Speedway. Veteran modified shoe Ronnie VanNesse was behind the controls of Joe’s piece when this nice shot was captured in the 1970s at the “Big T.” (Tom Ormsby Collection).   

Just a timeless shot of a great-looking coupe! Seen here at Connecticut’s late (and much-missed) Plainville Stadium is veteran modified racer Freddie Colassa, who was one of the best at the demanding little ¼-miler. It was the dawn of the 1970s, and Plainville had yet to fully jump on the “Pinto-Vega Bandwagon.” Pre-war tin was (thankfully) still very-much in style at “Tinty’s Place.” (Hoyt Photo, Tom Ormsby Collection).         

Our pal veteran Modified campaigner Don Moon is seen here in one of his signature #9 Pinto-bodied entries during the 1970s. A big winner at Plainville as well as other New England & New York tracks, “Moonie” was one of the more well-traveled guys to compete at “Tinty’s Place” on a regular-basis. His earlier efforts included successes at the Danbury Fair Racearena, when in 1966 among his triumphs was the coveted “Conrad Memorial Trophy Race” while at the controls of the John Spada-owned #4 Coupe. In addition to his driving accomplishments, he was widely-regarded as a master car-builder. Today, Don stays busy touring with the New England Antique Racers (NEAR), piloting a restored version of this car. (Hoyt Photo).    

Long-associated with the Waterford Speedbowl, the Bunnell family fielded winning rides for decades at the Eastern Connecticut oval. Ed Bunnell earned a Bomber title in 1966 wheeling a machine crafted in the team’s modest shop located in nearby Montville, CT. This shot captures younger sibling Donnie Bunnell in 1974 with their famed #318 Dodge coupe, a car synonymous with shoreline oval lore. A few years-later, this ride provided Donnie with a stunning victory in the 1976 Bicentennial 200 which was then, Waterford’s longest event to-date. That’s Ed’s #818 Chevy II-bodied modified in the background. (Dugas Photo).

Some guys are just born with a knack for going-fast, and this fellow was truly a “Natural” in the art of wheeling race cars. The late Gene Bergin was to say-the-least, multi-talented seeing action in everything from modifieds to midgets, and darned if he didn’t win in all of them. In a career that spanned three-decades, he was always one of the guys to beat whether it was asphalt or dirt. Among his many accomplishments, is the distinction of being the first-ever Stafford pavement champion in 1967. This shot captures him in the Garuti Bros. coupe on the old 1/5-mile at Massachusetts’ late Riverside Park Speedway. Both Bergin and the Garuti Bros. are members of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. (Shany Photo, James Scott Haag Collection).  

If you’ve been-around stock car racing for any real length of time (esp. in this region), you should know who this guy-is. Long-before his success in the highest echelon of NASCAR, Geoff Bodine was just another Northeastern modified shoe wheeling cars like this Tant/Mitchell Camaro at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway. The New York State native’s fortunes really improved upon his 1970’s pairing with legendary Modified car-owner, the late Dick Armstrong. Wheeling the “Nu-Style Jewelry” Pinto, Bodine went on a New England victory rampage that old-timers still talk-about today. The result of his deeds in the open-wheel wars bought a successful career at the top including a stunning victory in the 1986 Daytona 500. Bodine is yet-another member of the prestigious New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. (Photographer Unknown).                    

Pictured here in a 1970s Seekonk shot is New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member George Summers. As the most-winning driver in the history of the Massachusetts oval, he visited victory lane on over one-hundred occasions. Summers was actually one of the top-drivers in all of New England, enjoying a career that lasted over three-decades. Fittingly, he won the last event he entered before retiring, taking–down the 1983 Thompson World Series Modified event driving for fellow Hall of Famer, legendary car owner Art Barry. (Photograper Unknown).       

Seen at the Waterford Speedbowl is LaJeunesse Race Team driver, Howie Nye. A former drag racer, he’d been a longtime friend and crew-member on the LaJeunesse team before deciding to construct this neat little coupe to try the “roundy-round” game. Nye’s freshman season garnered him the 1978 “Rookie of the Year” laurels. Constructed in a “classic” style during an era when tube-frames and late model bodies were taking-hold, it occasionally served as a back-up ride for LaJeunesse, and was later the car that Speedbowl legend the late Fred “Fuzzy” Baer guided to many fine-finishes during the twilight of his career. (Steve Kennedy Photo).                                        

Here’s a neat shot! Seen here is Waterford Speedbowl standout, Bob Gada Sr. A multi-time champion in the Speedbowl’s full-fender divisions, he was long-considered one of the top drivers at the track known as the “shoreline oval.” What makes this 70s-era shot of Bob so-rare is the fact that it’s not the Speedbowl; it’s the late Riverside Park in Massachusetts. The Gada family is responsible for a LOT of championships at Waterford and they remain active today at the ‘Bowl. (Shany Photo, James Scott Haag Collection).                                   

Having a little extra-time on our hands this week (and in-between Christmas shopping), we figured we’d toss-in a couple of bonus shots. Seen here at Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway (AKA “The Cement Palace”), is Frank Federici in his Mustang Cobra-bodied entry. Frank always fielded stellar-looking rides and this little number was no exception. It truly was a gorgeous piece! (R.A. Silvia Collection).     

Here’s a guy that enjoyed two segments to his long career, both were decidedly successful. Johnny “King” Cambino was an absolute terror during the early days of Harvey Tattersall’s United Stock Car Racing Club (once a much-more powerful entity than NASCAR in our region). His accomplishments within UNITED are the stuff of legend, especially at the former West Haven Speedway and to a great degree, the late Riverside Park (as seen here with long time flagman Chris Hopkins). After having completely distanced him from the sport for a number of years, he climbed aboard a Street Stock entry at Waterford one night and began another winning phase of his career. He was no spring-chicken at the time, and routinely whipped drivers half his age scoring a number of feature victories. Johnny passed-away a few years-ago. (Shany Photo, Tom Ormsby Collection).

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

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