Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday December 28, 2011

 Volume 3, Number 50                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

Unfortunately, this week we open with again sending condolences to the family & friends of a pair of racers that have left-us. Multi-time Waterford Speedbowl champion Bill Sweet Sr. passed-away this week at age 81 following a brief illness. Extremely popular with both fans and competitors, Sweet was one of the best-ever within the shoreline oval’s full-bodied divisions. Also, word came from our friend Bruce Cohen that popular racer “Nasty Neil” Murray passed-away after a short illness right before the holidays. Murray was a longtime competitor in the full-bodied ranks and as Bruce put-it was one of the sports few-remaining “True Characters.” He will be missed. On a brighter note, the words-out that NEAR Hall of Famer (and my old boss at Speedway Scene), Val Lesieur is doing just-dandy after recent knee-replacement surgery and should be home as this is being written. Lastly, don’t forget; Drivers Reggie Ruggiero, Joey Kourafas, Moe Gherzi, Jerry Humiston, and Roland Lapierre Sr., owner/mechanics Mario Fiore and Jim Jorgensen and track operator Irene Venditti will be inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame on Sunday Jan. 29 at the LaRenaissance Banquet Hall in East Windsor, CT. Ticket information and order forms are available on the NEAR website at www.near1.com  This is simply a CAN’T-MISS affair for anyone interested in the history of New England auto racing! In-closing, I’d like to wish everyone a safe & happy New Year!
As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com  

Another Year In The Books….. 

Captured here in 1974, it’s with great sadness that we report the recent passing of multi-time Waterford Speedbowl champion, Bill Sweet Sr. Fondly-remembered as the “Norwalk Nightrider” to a legion of veteran Waterford Speedbowl fans, Bill copped the Daredevil division title for 2 consecutive seasons in 1967 & 68. Along the way, he scored a total of 40 feature victories in Daredevil, Sportsman Sedan and Grand American competition, the first in 1966, the final in 1975. He ranks first on the list of all-time Daredevil feature winners, with 31 trips to victory lane. Sweet was one of the real movers & shakers in the early days of the Daredevil division, a class of full-bodied race cars that was started in 1965 at the shoreline oval to replace a fading Bomber division. Bill’s grandson Brent currently pilots an SK Modified at the Speedbowl, his late grandfather having been one of his most-dedicated fans. Sincere condolences are sent-out to the entire Sweet family and all of Bill’s many friends on this somber occasion. (Dugas Photo). 

Seen here celebrating a win on the old dirt surface of Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway is New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member, Ron Narducci. During his long career, he competed at an estimated 60 race tracks, starting in New York State while he served in the Air Force. Stationed in New York, he took down 17 feature wins and won 2 track championships at Waterloo, NY. Upon returning to Connecticut, he won the Sportsman Championship at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl in 1958. From 1959-66, he ran with NASCAR, winning multiple championships. 1960 saw him finish 2nd in sportsman points at Norwood, and he finished 3rd in Modified points at Menands, NY. During this time, he won many features, including 6 in 1963 with Sharkey Gaudiosi’s #44. With the paving of Stafford in 1967, he again started running the NY State circuit. He won 5 features at Fonda, his home track that year, including a 100 lap Championship race. In 1967, he joined the All-Star League, becoming a 6 time victor on the Winning Track Team, representing Fonda, Albany-Saratoga, and Catamount Stadium. The final years of his career were spent in the Fingerlakes of NY, where he finished 4th in Modified points at Weedsport in 1975. From that point until his retirement in 1982, Ron ran on the DIRT circuit. (Shany Photo).       

Captured here during a 1970s open show at Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway, “Daring Dick” Caso was truly a “hammer-down” competitor. In his prime, a Caso-drive to the front was itself worth the price of a Saturday night ticket. In terms of finance, he was a low-bucker that got the ultimate out of equipment that was often less than that of his competitors. Nicknames were big during Caso’s tenure, as he was also christened “The Cromwell Comet” by the late, great John Small, one of the grandest announcers in Waterford Speedbowl history. The moniker was of course, a nod to his hometown. Dick has recently been under the weather, and we wish him all the best for a speedy recovery! (Photographer Unknown).

Is this a great shot, or what? Courtesy of our Webmaster & friend Tom Ormsby, this one captures New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, the late, great, Eddie Flemke Sr. and the late & much-celebrated Johnny Thompson sharing a break in the action at the “Indianapolis of the East” AKA Connecticut’s Thompson Motor Speedway. This image has just so-much going for it. Look closely, and you’ll see our friend Ray Miller in the background (also a Hall of Fame Member), and that’s multi-time national NASCAR Modified Champion Jerry Cook relaxing behind his familiar #38 on the extreme- right. Also note that this shot was taken during the era of the infamous “dirt bank” retaining walls that previously surrounded the track. (Bill Balser Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby)     

Another 1970s image from Connecticut, this one sees New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Bob Potter on pit lane readying for some practice laps at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. An ultra-popular racer, the Taftville, CT. native started his career at Waterford in 1962 behind the controls of a Bomber class entry. Never officially retired, he went-on to win multiple Modified championships at Waterford (where alone, he claimed close to 100 career victories), Thompson, and Stafford. With raceways across the country closing at an alarming rate in recent years, it’s truly fortunate for all of us that the Speedbowl is still going-strong. (Photographer Unknown).     

Here’s another image of the late Eddie Flemke Sr., and it’s a dandy! The former (and tremendously-missed) Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts is the locale, and “Steady Eddie’s” mount is a “classic” in every sense of the word. Back when Shany Lorenzent captured this image, it was the Tattersall family’s United Stock Car Racing Club that ruled the roost in New England modified racing, not NASCAR. United once held court at a staggering number of raceways in the Northeast and included in its ranks were the biggest stars of the day. (Shany Lorenzent Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).                                     

Our friend Steve Kennedy started capturing images at Connecticut’s late Plainville Stadium when he was just a kid. The experience paid-off, as he’s since become one of the most-talented and respected of all New England racing photographers. Chances-are, if you’ve read any of our regions racing publication over the last 3-plus decades, you’ve seen his work. Steve’s a talented dude. One of his earlier images, on this Saturday evening in 1973 he captured Stadium’ modified regular Loren Trombley ready-to-roll at Joe Tinty’s ultra-competitive ¼-miler. Nifty little coupe old Loren had, huh? (Steve Kennedy Photo).                     

Seen here during the infamous “Cutdown Era” at Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl, this NEAR Hall of Fame member needs little introduction to those of us who recall the true “Glory Days” of New England short track racing. From his HOF biography; Fred Luchesi’s career in racing started in the late 1940’s, and lasted until his retirement in the late 1960s.  During that career, Fred drove coupes, modifieds, midgets, and late models.  He competed against nationally known drivers like Fonty Flock, Red Byron, and Ted Tappett, and raced against local drivers like Moon Burgess. Fred is modest when asked about championships. “Oh, I dunno. Three at Westboro, 2 or 3 at Lonsdale, 1 at Norwood, oh, and 3 at Waterford”, Fred recalls.  One year at Lonsdale, Fred "Lead Foot” Luchesi took down every main event of the season but one, finishing 2nd to NEAR Hall of Farmer Dave Humphries in that race. Fred recalls those early days in racing, when he’d load up his car with race tires, tools, and his two man pit crew, and drive the race car from Pawtucket, RI. all the way up to Victoriaville in Canada for that day’s race.  Another early memory is those Sunday mornings driving the race car to Thompson to compete.  He would roll the car down Slater Street in Pawtucket, and fire it up at the bottom of the hill, in front of the St John the Baptist church.  It wasn’t until sometime later that a friend informed Fred that every Sunday, when he fired up the car, the service would be halted, and the priest would take time to “bless that race car out in front of the church”. (Shany Photo, Courtesy Mal Phillips).      

Once-again, it’s Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl of the 1950s, and the driver is New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, George Lombardo. A winner all over New England during what would be today considered a relatively-brief career, he recorded a number of Modified feature victories at the shoreline oval, and was particularly-tough at the late Plainville Stadium where he was twice a track champion. As stated-above. George’s career really was am abbreviated affair compared to many of his contemporaries. It leaves one to wonder just how-many more feature victories he would have recorded had he stayed behind the wheel just a little-longer. (Shany Photo, Courtesy Mal Phillips).                                          

We really, really like this shot, as it captures the very-essence of the Waterford Speedbowl’s fling with the cutdowns. Seen here behind the controls of one of those flyweight creations (def. not a ride for the faint-hearted), is the late, great “Moneybags” Moe Gherzi. In addition to being a prolific winner during the early days of the shoreline oval, he helped bring a degree of class to a sport that was still experiencing growing-pains. When the standard driving-uniform of the day consisted of a t-shirt & blue jeans (often work-worn, adding to the illusion that racin’ folks weren’t the pillars of society they’re considered to be today), he often appeared in victory lane nattily-attired in a silk shirt and pressed, dress-style trousers. Gherzi was an early Speedbowl star that was an integral part of the tracks initial success. His Waterford career netted thirty-three Modified victories before he moved-on to other New England racing venues. After retiring from driving, he held the post of Racing Director for many years at the late Plainville Stadium. “Moneybags” will take a spot among his peers on Sunday afternoon, January 29 when he’s inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Go to www.near1.com for more information. (Shany Photo, Courtesy Mal Phillips).                  

Lastly this week, we have another guy that plays-heavily in the long, storied history of the Speedbowl. Seen here following an early victory at the Stafford Motor Speedway is the late George “Moose” Hewitt. Many fans don’t realize-it, but before switching to competition of the 4-wheeled variety, the multi-time Waterford modified titlist was a champion motorcycle racer. Starting in the Bomber division before moving up to the Modifieds, his venture into Waterford’s premier class proved a success to the tune of five track titles between 1977 and 1984. Worth mention is the fact that the fiercely-independent Hewitt was one of the few shoreline oval competitors that during an era of “store-bought” cars later in his career, continued to craft machines of his own design at his shop in Uncasville, CT. (Grady Photo).                    


Bill Sweet Tribute Video
By Sid DiMaggio





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