Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday January 19, 2011

 Volume 3, Number 3                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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Denny Zimmerman
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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

We begin this week on a somber note, as it was learned that New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Don MacLaren passed away on January 12 at age 75. Known as “Big Daddy” Don’s specialty was the Super-Modified, the fastest of all New England racing classes. He earned numerous titles and championships during his career, and was widely considered to be one of the best-ever in the division. Out heartfelt condolences go to his family, friends, and many fans. Special thanks go out to our pals Rusty Sage, R.A. Silvia, and Rick Burdick for donating some of this week’s images. Lastly, right around the corner is the 2011 New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame Induction to be held on January 30th at the LaRenaissance Banquet Hall in East Windsor, Connecticut. Visit www.near1.org for more information. To all, have a great week! Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com             

Yet-Another Selection Of Short Track Stormers…      

Here’s a special one sent-in from one of our readers, Rick Burdick. Seen here at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl of the early 1970s is driver Ricky Taylor, a standout competitor in the old Sportsman Sedan division. The little guy with him is the late Bobby Burdick. Sadly, Bobby perished in motorcycle accident in 1977, just a few years after this shot was captured. Taylor & the Burdick brothers are cousins. (Shany Photo, Courtesy Rick Burdick).  

The great Sal Dee remains one of the most fondly-remembered racers of his era. With his relatively brief but spectacular career stalled by serious racing-related injuries, had longevity been in the cards he would have undoubtedly accomplished even-more. With roots tracing-back to the Waterford Speedbowl, Dee won-over a legion of fans undoubtedly fueled by his no-nonsense drives to the front during what many railbirds consider the most-competitive period in New England modified racing history. This image captures his famous “Flying 70” mount in the Thompson pits. (Dugas Photo, Courtesy Rusty Sage).   

Seen here during the 1960s, DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame member and Tampa, Florida native Will Cagle started racing at age 15. By the time the well-traveled speedster’s career concluded, he’d recorded over 900 feature victories and over 30 tracks championships on the ovals of the Northeast. He earned nicknames like “Wily Will" and the "Tampa Terror.” during the formative stages of his career partly because of his ability to play mind games with the competition. Cagle learned early that he could gain an advantage if he made the other drivers think about something other than the race at hand. One of his best tricks was to cover his race car while in the pit area! (Photographer Unknown).

Throughout my years in the sport, I’ve been blessed in becoming friends with many of the racers who were my heroes as I was growing-up. This is one of those drivers. Seen here at Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway is New England Modified standout, Billy Harman. Starting his career as a youngster at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl during the “Coupe Era”, before his career concluded in the late-1970s he’d become a winner at the highest echelon of the division, the NASCAR Modified circuit. Billy was inducted into the prestigious New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2004. (Dugas Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).       

The Waterford Speedbowl’s Grand Americans of the 1970s were a great division, producing a wonderful variety of machinery. During its best seasons, the class provided some of the shoreline oval’s closest racing and was a truly affordable endeavor for teams seeking some full-bodied action. Bill Lavoie had one of the nicer G.A. mounts, his racer always impeccably-prepared. Teamed with the late Walt Erb along with assistance from longtime racing wrench Ronnie Daignault, Lavoie enjoyed a successful reign in the class wheeling this little Chevy II entry. (Kennedy Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).  

If you’re at-all familiar with the history of Modified racing in New England, you have to know at-least a bit about this guy, Mr. Tony “Jap” Membrino. Our Webmaster Tom Ormsby once wrote that he was “Colorful, Controversial, & Popular.” I’d have to agree, but above all, Jap was a big-time winner. A top driver at virtually all the speedplants that once dotted the New England landscape, he took a ton of checkers at places like West Haven, Plainville, Riverside Park, etc. Always a crowd-pleaser, his flamboyant driving style indeed sold a boatload of grandstand tickets (and rattled the cages of a lot of his fellow competitors). This one captures him in 1981 at the Waterford Speedbowl during the latter-stages of his long career. (Kennedy Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia)       

Here’s a nice color shot of Dave Monaco, one of the Speedbowl’s premier competitors of the late-70s & early-80s. The Monaco team always fielded top-notch equipment, and this Mustang II-bodied entry was no exception. Sponsored by his families auto dealership, Dave’s modifieds were always Ford-powered – kind of a rarity in a field of predominately GM-propelled entries. (Kennedy Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).      

Captured here making a guest appearance at an early-season show at the Waterford Speedbowl in the 1970s is Johnny Tripp, a star competitor at Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway. Seekonk’s Modified class always looked a bit “different” from that of the rest of New England, with the Vendetti family’s independent ARC sanction mandating a “full fender/late model” style for their premier division. (Shany Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).       

He was known as “Gentleman Dick” Watson and in subsequent years, simply as the “Silver Fox.” The late Dick Watson was one of the most-respected drivers of his era. A fellow competitor that raced against Watson during his heyday once stated that “He was a driver that you could run with lap-after-lap. You simply never had to worry about him doing something that would get the both of you in-trouble.” This image captures him during the early 1970s at Waterford behind the controls of the Norm Kies coupe, a ride that bought him much-success. Watson was inducted into the prestigious New England Auto Racing Hall Of Fame in 2003. As with the aforementioned Harman, I was fortunate to become good friends with Dick in later-years. (Shany Photo).       

Last in this week’s column is a shot of a racer who in this scribes opinion, remains one of New England’s most historically-underrated Modified drivers. Seen here making an appearance at Stafford Springs Motor Speedway in the 1970s is Dale Holdridge. He started his career during the heyday of the Coupes, and ended it in the high-tech machinery of the modern era. Another one of those competitors that won both the respect of his peers and a legion of faithful fans, Holdridge simply showed-up, did his thing with little fanfare, and won a bunch of races along the way. Now retired, Dale stays busy overseeing the racing career of his son Mike. (Dugas Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).

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

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