Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday January 18, 2011

 Volume 4, Number 3                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

Those of you that know me personally no-doubt realize that celebrated New England auto racing journalist and NEAR Hall of Fame member Pete Zanardi is a very-close friend. Over the years, he’s opened a lot of doors for me in the sport, and one of the highlights of our relationship early-on was the pleasure of being introduced to his friend fellow Hall Of Famer “Wild Bill” Slater. The pair goes way-back to the era of Bill’s absolute-dominance of the sport while wheeling the legendary #V8 coupe. Few have documented Slater’s career like Pete. Recently, Bill has hit a few rough patches health-wise and could use a little cheering-up. Cards reach him at Crestfield Rehabilitation Center, 565 Vernon Street, Manchester, CT. 06042-2498. And with-that, it’s on to another week! Remember, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com   

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Thinking Of Our Friend “Wild Bill” Slater….. 

Rare, rare, & rare! Shots like this are absolutely-priceless to those of us who spend our time tracking the history of New England short track racing. This one (thanks Mr. Silvia), remains particularly-special to this scribe as the image captures a friend at the height of his career. What you’re looking at is the one & only time that “Wild Bill” Slater piloted the legendary Vitari-Bombaci #V8 on the Stafford, Connecticut dirt, and he won! Bill had parted-ways with the Kozella team the week-before being replaced with another Hall of Fame member, the late Ernie Gahan (ironically, it was Ernie that he beat to the checkers on this night). Slater relayed to Pete Zanardi that it took $20.00 in quarters at a Stafford car wash to remove all the dirt from the normally impeccably-prepared #V8 so that the team would look presentable for the Saturday night jaunt to Norwood Arena ,another place that the team absolutely-dominated. Owners Bob Vitari & Vic Bombaci are also members of the Hall of Fame. (Shany Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).   

Another Stafford dirt-era shot, this one captures a few personalities that readers familiar with our region’s racing history should know-well. We’re not entirely-sure what the celebration was all-about (probably yet-another “Wild Bill” Slater triumph by the smile on his face), but among those captured along with Bill in this shot are drivers the great Pete Corey (with crutches), Lionel Arel, and NASCAR’s Bob Sall. (Shany Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).       

Though he actually drove his first race at Rhode Island’s Lonsdale Arena in 1949, for this racer it really all began at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl in the 1950s. Paired with car owner “Baldy” Simons at the Speedbowl, “Wild Bill” Slater had been doing a lot of winning including annexing the 1956 track championship. Later in the decade, the association had began to deteriorate and they parted-ways. Following a Saturday evening of overheating woes in Baldy’s car, Slater decided it was time for a change and accepted an invitation to drive the Vitari-Bombaci #V8 recently vacated by original driver, Gene White. On the next Wednesday night (they raced twice-a-week in those days), Bill guided the V8 to a 2nd-place finish. By Saturday night, he was sitting in the shoreline oval’s victory lane; a mere-glimpse of what was to come for the newly-formed team. Wheeling the V8, Slater notched championships and victories at tracks all up & down the east coast. Perhaps his greatest triumph was taking a stunning victory in the 1965 Race of Champions at Langhorne, Pennsylvania (then the absolute crown-jewel of modified racing). He’s captured here waving to the crowd following his ROC win. (Moore Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).  

It’s a debate that still rages today, decades after it occurred. Just who had the first Pinto-bodied pavement Modified in New England? With all due-respect, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Bob Judkins of #2X fame often gets nod, but the truth of the matter is that it was this guy who beat him to the punch. Captured during a visit to Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway is Waterford Speedbowl regular Seabury Tripler who debuted this car only weeks before Judkins unveiled his Pinto. Interestingly-enough, Judkins, who was a NASCAR regular, initially ran unsanctioned events-only. He had to wait for NASCAR to approve his Pinto; something that the late Jack Arute Sr. of Stafford Motor Speedway was instrumental in making happen. (Mercury Photo, Courtesy R.A. Silvia).

Seen here at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway is Dick Traynor. First making the scene in the mid-1970s, Traynor recorded a number of respectable finishes with his “Welfare-Style” mounts, the first of-which was the coupe you see here. If this car looks familiar to veteran Waterford Speedbowl fans, it-should; it’s the former Al & Peg Gaudreau-owned “Buddha’s Bullet” #3 raced to super-success at the shoreline oval by the great Dick Dunn. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).           

If you’re reading this, little introduction is required for this driver. Simply one of the greatest to sit behind the controls of a race car, the late “Dynamite” Ollie Silva was both a huge winner, and one of the most-admired competitors in all of short track racing. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998, Silva recorded over five-hundred feature victories over the course of a career that started in 1949 at the long-shuttered Dracut, MA. Speedway and concluded in 1980. He was victorious in Modifieds, Supers, Sprint Cars, and Cut-Downs. Etched into the record books of the Waterford Speedbowl is an absolutely-dominating Modified win in the 1974 Hott Wheels 100 in which Silva lapped the entire field not once, but twice! To this-day, the locals still talk about it. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).                               

Seen here at Stafford in the 1970s, meet Mr. Ray Miller, friend of “Racing Through Time” and member of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Here’s a little information on a guy that’s truly-regarded as one of the sport’s “Class-Acts.” Competing from the 1960's into the '80's, Ray ran his first race at the late Plainville Stadium in 1965. By the next-season he was racing at Riverside Park, and also ran on the dirt at Stafford. One of his many career highlights was a 10th place finish in the 1971 NASCAR National Modified point standings. By the early 1980's, he was winning regularly at Stafford and Riverside. Ray also won a Thompson 300, and finished 3rd in the Pocono Race of Champions. He drove the Bill Simons #9 to many victories, including a prestigious Mod Tour victory at the Waterford Speedbowl in 1985. Just recently, Ray emerged from retirement to wheel a Midget (along with fellow HOF member Denny Zimmerman), within the ranks of the Dirt Midget Association. For more information go to the club’s website at www.dmaracing.org  (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).        

Even-though Connecticut’s former Plainville Stadium was only a quarter-mile bullring, it could pack a wicked-punch for competitors that got on the bad-side of her. Captured in a dazed-state and obviously reeling from a nasty impact by the looks of the front-end of his coach, is the late Skip Ziegler, one of Plainville’s finest. The guy in the red jacket on the left is none-other than Race Director the late Moe Gherzi. Moe knew a thing-or-two about the “circle game” having been one of the best racers in the business before hanging-up his helmet & going to work for Joe Tinty. Moe will be among the New England racing greats inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame later this month on January 29. For more information, visit www.near1.com (Phil Hoyt Photo).

Just a great “Coupe Era” shot courtesy of our Webmaster Mr. Ormsby…. The late Johnny “King” Cambino earned his nickname as one of the premier drivers at rough & tumble Connecticut ovals like the late West Haven Speedway, Plainville Stadium, and Cherry Park in Avon. In later years, he followed United to Riverside continuing his reign as one of the club’s top-competitors. Only part of the story, the “King” came out of retirement while in his 60’s to become a winning driver in the Waterford Speedbowl’s Street Stock class of the 1990’s. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).

Seen here at Stafford late in his career is Fitchburg, Massachusetts’ Reino Tulonen. He competed in big cars, midgets, sprint cars, jalopies, coupes, modifieds and super modifieds. In 1951 he drove the Custom Auto Body Henry J in 4 NASCAR Grand National (now know as the Sprint Cup Series) events. His many accomplishments include winning the 1951 New England Championship and the 1951 Seekonk Cutdown championship. Known as "The Flying Finn", he built, owned, drove, and worked on his own cars. Later in his career, he was successful making the transition to supermodifieds and NASCAR modifieds, winning the 1964 Westboro, MA. title. Fittingly, Reino was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2005. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).                            

The much-missed & fondly-remembered Gary Colturi was on the fast-track to success when news of his tragic death in a motorcycle accident both stunned and saddened the New England racing community in 1973. He was extremely popular with both fans & his fellow competitors. Teaming with legendary car owner Mario Fiore, he raced to great-success at Massachusetts’ former Riverside Park Speedway. Courtesy of his friend & one-time car owner Mario, we’re able to present this shot of Gary behind the controls of one of his earlier rides at Riverside. Based on his success & many years of dedication to the sport, the much-admired Fiore will be inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame later this month. (Photo Courtesy Mario Fiore).

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


(3 hours ago) Steve Kennedy said:

That was me, Steve Kennedy commenting on Skip/Gene Zeigler post.

(3 hours ago) Anonymous said:

Others in that Zeigler crash shot: Elton Hill (white driver's suit)Moe Gherzi (red jacket) and that looks like Dave Germano in the blue shirt (suit?) in back - you can see Germano's #95 in back. Gene, I remember that #65 Coupe, it was a really neat race car! WHo drove it when it became the #26 later on?

(1 days ago) Mike Ray said:

Thanks so much!

(4 days ago) Dave Dykes said:

Folks, Once-again, thanks for all the comments. As-long as you guys are enjoying the site, I'll continue to do it each & every week (or as long as my pal & Webmaster Tom Ormsby can put-up with me!).... Also, thanks for all the historical info. you guys provide us with; it's makes doing "RTT" even MORE fun!

(4 days ago) Ed P said:

Dave - that Staffor shot with Pete Corey - I believe the occassion was when they took up a collection for Pete after the accident that cost him his part of his leg at Fonda. You'll notice his left leg has been partially amputated. So this must have been around 1960.

(5 days ago) Gene Zeigler said:

In the Plainville photo of Skip Zeigler, the other person in red (drivers side) is Skip's dad Frank Zeigler, Sr. Skip's dad was a regular at Plainville from 1960 -1970. In 1971 he let me take over as pilot of his #65 modified. Dave you bring so many memories back to all of New England's race fans. Thank you.

(6 days ago) George Libby said:

Mr Dykes,
I've just got to say, this is the site I so look forward to viewing every Wednesday. Having gone to so many New England area tracks to watch most all these drivers brings back many of the greatest memories through my formative years. Thank you so much. George Libby, Tavares, Florida
(I'd be remise if I didn't also thank Al Fini for letting me know about this site. Thanks Al.

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