Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday July 17, 2013
 
 

 

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Volume 5, Number 29                                                                                    New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                            CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

This week we start-off by sending Get Well wishes to our good friend, New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Val LeSieur who was hospitalized last week with an undisclosed illness. The man behind the much-missed Speedway Scene, a former NEAR president, and the guy who gave so-many of us a chance to write for the most-popular racing trade paper in New England, let’s all wish him a speedy recovery! Lastly, don’t forget, Hall of Famer Billy Greco is hosting a picnic & car show on Sunday, Aug 11th at the Polish American Club located at 194 W. Spring Street in West Haven, CT. The event serves as a fundraiser for the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Get your tickets early by contacting Billy at 203-378-7945 or emailing mod43@optimum.net  To be held under the pavilion on the grounds of the Polish American Club, it’s a rain-or-shine affair which runs from noon to 6pm. Tickets will also be available at the door.  As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com

Our Usual Wednesday Trip Through The Past….  

If you’re reading this column, you likely know the identity of this racer (if you don’t, shame on you!). Seen here early in his career, the late Richie Evans left his family's farm at age 16 to work at a local garage. After finding early success in drag racing, a friend suggested he try building a car to race at the nearby Utica-Rome (NY), Speedway. He ran his first oval-track car, a 1954 Ford Hobby Stock numbered PT-109 (after John F. Kennedy's torpedo boat in World War II), in 1962. He advanced to the modifieds in 1965, winning his first feature in the season's final night. In 1973, Evans became the NASCAR National Modified Champion. In 1978 he won a second title and did not relinquish his crown during the next seven years. Evans took over four hundred feature race wins at racetracks from Quebec to Florida before he was fatally injured at age-44 in a practice crash at Martinsville in late 1985. Before his death, he’d already clinched the inaugural Winston Modified Tour championship (now known as Whelen Modified Tour). In 1979-alone, he started 60 NASCAR modified races and posted 54 top-five finishes -- including 37 victories. Richie was among the first inductees into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. Evans was, and will forever be-known as the “King of the Modifieds.” (John Bisci Photo).

OK, this one is for our old pal Bruce (Tell Ya’ Friends!) Cohen who was buddies with the gentleman captured in this classic John Grady image. Few New England modified drivers had more going for them than the late Don MacTavish. Starting his career at the age of 15 racing at the much-celebrated Norwood Arena, he quickly gained popularity as one of the regions brightest young upstarts. In 1963 he progressed to NASCAR’s Sportsman Division and in 1966 took the NASCAR National Sportsman Championship, his closest competitors being Ralph Earnhardt, "Wild Bill” Slater and Rene Charland. During his Daytona debut on February 22, 1969, “Mac” lost his life in a horrific crash during the Permatex 300. To say this regions racing community was stunned and saddened is an understatement. MacTavish was posthumously inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2001. (Grady Photo).  

Certainly one of New England modified racing’s first legitimate “Super Stars” the late “Moneybags Moe” Gherzi found his niche in the management-side of the sport after hanging-up his helmet. He went from driving to organizing in later years, accepting a post working for Joe Tinty as Race Director at Connecticut’s former Plainville Stadium, a position he held for years. This 1952 image from Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl captures him during the height of his shoreline oval popularity. Usually nattily-attired on race-night as seen-here, he was one of the true showmen of his era. A successful racer at virtually every venue in New England during his career, Moe was deservedly inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. (Shany Photo).

The late Lou “Monks” Lazzaro - the name is magic in the history of Northeastern modified racing. He raced an incredible six decades on dirt and asphalt on tracks from Canada to Daytona and amassed 250 plus feature wins. He was extremely versatile and would successfully race and win with the same car on the dirt and pavement with only minor changes. His Saturday night home track was Fonda Speedway, where he amassed 113-career feature wins over four different decades and four track championships (1964, 1969, 1977, and 1978). Lou's final Fonda Speedway feature win came on May 15, 1999, less than a year before his untimely death. A lifetime guaranteed starter at Fonda, he was described many times as "The Embodiment of Fonda Speedway.” His greatest win was Orange County Fair Speedway's Eastern States 200 in 1978. Lazzaro was also track champion at Victoria Speedway (1962, 1964) and Albany-Saratoga Speedway (1969). He was New York State NASCAR champion once in the Sportsman division (1964) and three times in the Modified division (1969. 1971, 1972). He also won the prestigious All-Star League title twice (1968, 1971). One of his favorite tracks, besides Fonda, was the Utica-Rome Speedway, where he won 27 career Asphalt Modified features and three track championships (1963, 1970, 1971). He was a three-time winner of the prestigious New Yorker 400 (1963, 1968, 1969) race held on the old Utica-Rome asphalt track. In addition, Lazzaro has two career Utica-Rome Dirt Modified feature wins, the first being the first ever dirt race held at Utica-Rome. (Grady Photo).    

Popular legend dictates that it was fellow competitor, the great Kenny Shoemaker that dubbed him “The Crescent Hillbilly” after an on-track altercation left “The Shoe” stammering for the proper choice of words. It’s also been said that Pete Corey rather-enjoyed the moniker that was a nod to his geographic origins in the capital district of New York State. In actuality, Corey and Shoemaker may have waged many battles on the track, but there was a vast degree of respect shared between the two legendary racers. This classic image captures Pete with his wild Mustang-bodied entry after a feature victory on the asphalt during the latter-stages of his phenomenal career. Our old friend John Grady who captured this shot wrote on the back of the photo that “This car was painted red instead of his usual yellow because at the time Schmidt’s Beer was Pete’s sponsor.”  (Grady Photo).  

Here’s another timeless image from the much-heralded “coupe era” as captured through the lens of John Grady. Sal “Dee” Delucia remains one of the most fondly-remembered racers of his era. 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. 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. Winner of the 1965 modified championship at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl, this guy was truly one tough competitor! (Grady Photo). 

Here’s a nice early shot of the late Whitey Brainard from the days of the Tattersall family’s United Stock Car Racing Club’s reign at the former (& much-missed), Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts. One of New England’s bigger stairs of the 1950s, he tasted victory at a number of the regions speedplants including Riverside, West Haven, and the Stafford dirt. Hitting the road, he also competed successfully on the larger venues of his era, scoring respectable finishes at Pennsylvania’s storied Langhorne Speedway, and also Williams Grove. (Shany Photo)

Smiles all-around (wish we knew a bit-more about this image and its curious “Indian” theme)…. Here’s a great victory lane shot of our late and much-missed friend, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member “Wild Bill” Slater at Connecticut’s “New London Waterford” Speedbowl during his heyday as the chauffer of the potent Vitari-Bombaci (that’s them on the left), #V-8 coupe. Slater was simply one of the best racers to have ever emerged from New England with wide-reaching accomplishments within the sport. When he retired from driving, he stayed involved for many seasons as a respected official at both the Thompson & Stafford Speedways. July 15th was the first anniversary of Bill's passing.  For more on the history of this team, visit the NEAR website at www.near1.com and read their HOF biographies. Also in this shot on the right is Anthony Albino, a local businessman who was among the first owners of the shoreline oval. (Shany Photo).

Though he’s often celebrated for his many local-level successes at Connecticut’s former Plainville Stadium, the career accomplishments of Elton Hill are much, much, more. As a racing prodigy of the late, great Ed Flemke Sr., he traveled extensively during the 1960s, picking-up feature victories at places like Riverside Park as well as Utica-Rome in New York State (once a hotbed of NASCAR Modified competition). This John Grady image captures “Elty” during one of his Utica-Rome sojourns. This is another of the New England-based drivers whose accomplishments have sorta’ fell through the cracks in a historical-sense; his record supports that statement. (Grady Photo).

Captured here in the 1970s pitside at the Waterford Speedbowl is our much-missed friend, the late Dick Watson. Known as “Gentleman Dick” Watson as well as “The Silver Fox”, he was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. Dick began and ended his career at Waterford. From that first race in 1953 until his retirement in 1976, he competed at tracks across New England including; Waterford, West Haven, Plainville Stadium, Lonsdale, Seekonk, Langhorne (dirt & paved), Norwood Arena, Thompson Speedway, & Stafford Motor Speedway. His first victory came at Plainville Stadium. Among his most notable rides was the Bob Garbarino #V-4“Mystic Missile” and the Freddie Beaber #716 as seen-here. In 1966 he moved to the NASCAR Modified circuit, winning the Thompson World Series. He scored top-ten point finishes at Thompson in 1966 and '67, and at Stafford in '67 and '68 competing against some of the very best drivers of the era. Dick also competed in several Grand National (now known as Sprint Cup) events. In 1969, at the Thompson 200 he was running fifth on lap 180, with eventual winner David Pearson, when a mechanical failure forced him out of the race with an 11th place finish. In 1972 he returned to Waterford, again experiencing great success at his old haunt. Dick hung up his helmet after a violent crash during a qualifying heat at the shoreline oval in 1976, where he suffered a concussion, lower back injuries, and several broken ribs. (Dugas Photo).

BONUS SHOT: We never tire of running shots of this simply-classic modified – as a kid, this driver & car combo was truly one of my favorites. Long-associated with Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl, the Bunnell family fielded winning rides for decades at the track known as the “shoreline 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 trackside in 1976 with their famed #318 Dodge coupe, a car synonymous with Speedbowl lore. This is the ride that provided him with a stunning victory in that season’s Bicentennial 200, which was then Waterford’s longest event to-date. (Dugas Photo).

 
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