Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday February 22, 2011

 Volume 4, Number 8                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week we take a journey back in time to the place that branded me a race fan for life, that Eastern Connecticut oval known as “The Speedbowl.” In closing, sincere condolences are offered to the family and friends of longtime Seekonk Speedway photographer John Verissimo who passed-away at the age of 87 on February 12th. Known in racing as “Johnny Mercury” he expertly captured the action at the Massachusetts oval for over 3-decades and was a great friend to many in the sport. Just this year, he was recipient of the prestigious D. Anthony Venditti Memorial award at the Seekonk awards banquet. He will be truly-missed. As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com                      

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Backing-Up A Bit Speedbowl-Style…….      

The late Tommy Van Epps was a standout racer and definitely a fan-favorite in early action at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. A Non-Ford division champion rated 5th on that division’s all-time win list with 21 feature triumphs, this image captures him seated behind the controls of a Modified during the track’s “Cut-Down” era. The Cut-Downs would no longer be a part of the action at Waterford after Jack Griffin lost his life in a grinding crash on Saturday evening August 12, 1954. A switch-back to the considerably-safer “full coupes” was instituted by track management in short-order. (Shany Photo).         

If you claim to be familiar with the history of the Waterford Speedbowl, you should know who this guy-is. Captured here is the late “Dirty Dick” Beauregard, in the potent Congdon #76 coupe. In a career that spanned only a decade, this racer managed to accomplish more than most drivers spending twice-as-much time behind the wheel. Starting in 1952, he went-on to score a combined-total of sixty-two victories in Modified & Non-Ford competition along with two track titles before hanging-up his helmet and relocating to the West Coast. Dick was named as one of the Speedbowl’s “All-Time 50-Favorite Drivers” when the track celebrated its half-century mark in 1991. (Shany Photo).                  

As one of the real heavy-hitters in the early days of the Speedbowl, the late Charlie Webster had a large & very-loyal fan base. Amassing a career total of seventy-three feature victories in both Non-Ford and Modified competition, he was a champion in both classes (3 Non-Ford titles, and 1 Modified crown). Like fellow Speedbowl standout and New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Don Collins, Charlie retired from driving at the dawn of the seventies, thus ending the career of one of Waterford’s finest chauffeurs. This shot captures him in a Non-Ford division entry during the early-fifties. Charlie’s son Eric also went-on to a winning career in racing at the shoreline oval. (Shany Photo).          

We admittedly don’t know a whole-lot about this driver, but the car should be instantly-familiar to long-time Speedbowl fans. Seen here seated behind the controls of the potent “Black Panther” #1 coupe in 1964 is Vinnie Cerrito. Dick Beauregard, who retired from the sport in 1962, had experienced great-success while wheeling this machine. In the days before “cookie cutter” race cars, Waterford rides always seemed to have their own unique personalities; this little number was no exception! (Shany Photo).          

Here’s a nice shot of the late Fred “Fuzzy” Baer. Synonymous with the Waterford Speedbowl, Fuzzy remained one of the most beloved figures of the shoreline oval many-years after his retirement from the sport. Known as a skilled & steady chauffer, he was another of those guys that you seldom saw in any trackside-trouble. Though his long career yielded feature victories seemingly low in-number (four), at-least one of them was a major-event. On August 20, 1966, Baer topped a field of Waterford’s best in snagging a 75-lap Championship race while wheeling this coupe. (Shany Photo).

George Allum was an absolute terror in this flawless coupe during the early-70s, and was a serious contender to break the stranglehold that Dick Dunn seemingly had on the era’s Speedbowl track championships. In addition to taking several weekly features, he also defeated a stellar field of outsiders to take the checkers in the open-competition Hott Wheels 100 on Sunday afternoon April, 22, 1973 as captured here along with his happy crew. George was another of the many racers that hailed from nearby Norwich, CT., once a veritable “Gasoline Alley” for successful Bowl’ teams. (Dugas Photo).   

Like any short track, the Speedbowl has had its share of real “stand on the gas” competitors over the years, and this guy sometimes paid the price in the way of bent equipment. Captured here at the shoreline oval following a typical Saturday night skirmish is the #6 piloted by Glynn Shafer. He won a ton of races during his long career which started in the Bomber class and concluded in the Modifieds. As exciting a wheelman as ever witnessed at the shoreline oval, he ALWAYS coaxed the most out of his equipment. (Shany Photo)

Seen here mugging for the camera of longtime New England racing photographer Rene Dugas in 1974 is the great Speedbowl racer Dick Dunn and crew chief Al “Buddha” Gaudreau. Dunn and the “Buddha’s Bullet” team had a long, successful partnership to the tune of scads of feature victories and 4-consectutine Speedbowl track championships starting in 1972. Al’s wife Peg was actually the owner of this neat coupe. (Dugas Photo).            

To New England Midget racing fans, the name John Ferrell may seem familiar. He was a staple on the NEMA tour for a number of seasons, serving as one of the club’s steadiest competitors. When this shot was taken during the Speedbowl’s “Coupe Era” he was wheeling this neat little entry in the tracks premier division. Following in her dad’s footsteps, John’s daughter Kelley has also tasted success within the realm of New England’s open-cockpit ranks. How many readers remember a time when 3-digit numbers were commonplace? (Shany Photo).           

Here’s a 1974 trackside shot of Nels Wohlstrom, a top-flight Modified driver at what was then still-known as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. He was a close-associate of fellow racer and multi-time winner Mike Beebe, this car having originated at that teams shop in the Connecticut River Valley area. A popular Bowl’ chauffer and graduate of the Sportsman Sedan class, Wohlstrom notched a bevy of fine finishes while behind the controls of this wild-looking little number at both Waterford and Thompson. (Shany Photo).        

BONUS SHOT: Here’s an early image of the man affectionately known by Waterford aficionados as “Dickie Doo” Ceravolo, This Sportsman Sedan entry is where it all-began for the affable Groton, CT. chauffer years-before he met with success in the open-wheel wars. A 1950s-era Chevy, street tires and safety appointments that include his old-style “Cromwell” helmet complete the package. From these humble beginnings, “Dickie Doo” went on to become the 1988 Modified champion at the shoreline oval. (Shany Photo).

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

Comments for the week of 2/22/12
 

(4 days ago) Dave Dykes said:

Don & Jack, thanks very-much for the info. & comments. Regarding Johnny Mercury, I've always considered our photographers to be some of racing's true unsung heroes. Without them, we'd not have all of these great visual memories to share...

 

(5 days ago) DonW said:

Thanks for remembering Johnny Mercury. I remember him standing fearlessly on the fourth turn grass snapping pictures every Saturday night,and as a boy the first thing I would do after entering the Seekonk gate every week was to stop at his photo booth to see the latest shots.

 

(5 days ago) jackb said:

Red Burke & his wife Rose owned the Black Panther,Rose's maiden name was Cerreto.I think Vinnie was a nephew.

 
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