Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday May 8, 2013


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Volume 5, Number 19                                                                                    New Column Every Wednesday

Updated 4-24-13


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By Dave Dykes                                                                            CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

We again must begin this week on a somber note, as a call from our pal Hall of Famer Pete Zanardi over the weekend confirmed that former New England modified racer Jerry Wheeler passed-away on Saturday at the Walter Reed Convalescent Hospital in Gloucester, Virginia. He was 81. Our sincere condolences are offered to the entire Wheeler family and Jerry’s many friends. In much-happier news, it was learned that friend & Hall of Fame member, the ageless Ray Miller won the USAC Dirt Midget feature at Bear Ridge, Vermont over the weekend (on his birthday, no-less). Some drivers just get better with age! This week’s installment of “RTT” contains a number of submissions from our friends. Special thanks go-out to Carolyn Grey, R.A. Silvia, and our Webmaster Mr. Ormsby for their continued contributions! And with that, have a great week! Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

Another Week In The Books…..

Thanks to Carolyn Grey daughter of the late Bill Congdon, in our files we now have several wonderful shots of her father’s storied race team. This 50s-era image captures the late Jerry Wheeler posing with the potent #76 coupe outside of the team’s shop in Salem, CT.  just a few-miles up from the Waterford Speedbowl. The Congdon team experienced unparalleled success at the shoreline oval with Bill’s creations widely-acknowledged as some of the most potent machines of their time. Wheeler, who passed-away in Virginia last weekend was successful at a number of New England speedplants, and was considered among the top-tier racers of his generation. Research reveals that he also competed in several of the big events of the day, including those at Langhorne, PA. (once THE crown-jewel in all of modified racing). An innovator who was among the first to test the waters with the Chevrolet overhead V-8, Wheeler once told Hall of Fame writer Pete Zanardi that “There’s probably a 1,000 fouled spark plugs in the woods behind the Speedbowl pits where I’d thrown-them while trying to get that new V-8 engine firing smoothly.” Jerry was the first-ever driver employed by his brother-in-law, NEAR Hall of Famer Bob Judkins of #2x fame. (Carolyn Grey Collection).

Here’s one of our good friend Ray Miller. Seemingly ageless, Mr. Miller celebrated yet-another victory last Saturday evening when he handily captured the USAC Dirt Midget feature event at Bear Ridge Speedway in Vermont (on his birthday, no-less!). Growing-up around racecars, Ray’s father paired with Red Lataille to own the #1 Lataille/Miller Offy, running out of the Miller's garage in East Granby, CT. The team ran the ARDC circuit, often racing 7 nights per-week in the 1940s & 50s. Ray started his modified career at Plainville Stadium in 1965 before progressing to NASCAR haunts like Stafford and Thompson. He remained a winning driver at the highest-echelon of New England modified racing for many seasons. This one captures the New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer at Stafford during the early-70s. (Tom Ormsby Collection).

Another early Stafford shot, it’s a familiar driver in an unfamiliar car (for him, anyway). Seen here in the late Fred “Sharkey” Gaudiosi’s potent pink & white #44 is none-other than the late “Wild Bill” Slater 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. Sharkey was also extremely-successful, fielding cars that for years won at speedways all-over New England. For more information on the careers of both of these racing legends visit the NEAR website at www.near1.com and read their HOF biographies. (Shany Photo).

Here’s another of Sharkey Gaudiosi’s creations with a different driver at a different locale. In this “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl shot his wheelman is the young & talented Ed Moody who before advancing to the headlining modifieds, was the 1962 Bomber champion (once an immensely-popular support class at the shoreline oval). Winner of 44 main events in the class, he also scored a pair of modified features before calling-it-a-day. Check-out that PACKED grandstand! (Shany Photo).

One of the great things about grass roots short track racing is that it’s never been void of entertaining characters; this guy was one of them. With a boisterous personality and a heavy-foot to back it up on the raceway, the late “Nasty Neil” Murray endeared himself to many. Our good friend racing personality Bruce Cohen, who perhaps knew him as well as anybody in the sport, stated that “Neil could get you mad at him, but you couldn’t stay that way for long. He’d have you laughing in a minute. He was one of those guys that would give you the shirt off his back. Just a great person and I miss him still.” Murray’s career had modest beginnings, but in time he became a big winner. We really like this shot of him with one of his first coupes at Oscar Ridlon’s former Pines Speedway in Groveland, Massachusetts. (R.A. Silvia Collection).

I’ve always harbored a fascination with the history of Oscar Ridlon’s old URDC Pines-Hudson circuit; so-many interesting personalities and the cars were simply wild! Seen here at the Hudson Speedway in a ride typical of the times is Lou Horton. These things were tremendously powerful, lightweight, and definitely not for the faint-of-heart. For more info on the URDC, pick-up a copy of our pal Lew Boyd’s excellent “Hot Cars, Cool Drivers” at www.coastal181.com It’s def. a favorite of yours-truly and required reading for anyone interested in the cut-down era in New England. (R.A. Silvia Collection).

Here’s another nice early Hudson Speedway shot capturing our friend Lee Allard behind the controls of the ultra-potent Barthell “Twister.” A top-notch racer as well as a master craftsman in the art of car construction, after hanging-up his helmet he went on to field cutting-edge modifieds for some of the best drivers in the business including most-notably, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Geoff Bodine. (R.A. Silvia Collection).

Yet one-more of the greatest drivers of the URDC was Parky Parkhurst who won many features on Ridlon’s circuit. Captured here at Hudson, note the multiple-carburetion, a staple of the era on these cars. Successfully setting-up this type of carburetion was a real art. Unfortunately, there was a danger involved also; stuck throttles were common, often resulting in disastrous (and sometimes fatal) crashes. (R.A. Silvia Collection).

Though URDC standout Billy Murphy is captured here at Hudson in later seasons ready to go in an overhead V8-powerd creation, in reviewing his career Lew Boyd wrote in “Hot Cars. Cool Drivers” that “Billy Murphy stayed with the flatheads longer than most. He was aggressive – the type that would grind you, but not actually bang you. Don MacLaren considered Ollie Silva and Billy Murphy his biggest competition.” (R.A. Silvia Collection).

Here’s a super Pines Speedway shot of New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member, the late Mike Murphy. An excerpt from his HOF biography: “If someone ever was the perfect image of a Saturday night stock car driver, it was Mike Murphy. The Woburn, Mass., resident was ruggedly handsome, tough, competitive, self-assured, and very fast. The “Flying School Teacher” was on the gas from lap one in Joe Edwards’ gloriously pink #28 coupe in 1959.  Forty years later, when he hung up his NASCAR championship helmet, Murphy had over 100 features and eight championships. Mike’s races were largely in cars self-sponsored and self-maintained. Certainly, he was aggressive on the track.  But more fundamentally, his success came from a cognitive approach to racing.  He spent hours of quiet time in his garage, often just looking at his car, thinking of setups. Weaving throughout Mike’s racing life was his family. His wife Julie was always there, and so were the three boys, Steve, Paul, and Doug. The family fielded cutdowns, home-style modifieds, Richie Evans modifieds, and Fred Rosner prostocks at the local quarter-miles. It was Hudson Speedway, though, where Teacher Mike really took everyone to class.  Likely the most-winning driver in Hudson’s history, the crowning achievement came in 1985 when he swept 22 consecutive mains.” (R.A. Silvia Collection).

BONUS SHOT: Lastly, here’s a great image from Hudson of New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, the late Jerry Dolliver. From his HOF biography; “Jerry Dolliver was never known to the national racing community, but he was one of the shiniest gems ever to come out of the Merrimack Valley and certainly one of the most admired. Jerry was born in 1929 in Melrose, Mass. and as a young man set up automotive shop in Kingston, N.H.  He never ventured far.  Instead, he was always there, steady as the morning sun, always warming customers with a smile.  His Sunoco pumps were the epicenter of town talk for decades. Jerry's racing was the same: nearby, competent, reliable, fan-friendly.  It all started in a hulking wire-wheeled ice machine in 1949, and just five years later, he defeated Ollie Silva and Oscar Ridlon's finest to become Champion at The Pines Speedway. Eight championships were to follow, along with scores of victories at more than 15 New England venues.  There were cutdowns, modifieds, supermodifieds, sprinters, and midgets. Probably Jerry's most telling accomplishment, though, was his unparalleled success with one engine - a flathead built by Hall of Famer Bill Welch.  Ever so smoothly, Jerry coaxed that old-time power plant along to over 100 feature wins, right when the vastly lighter and more powerful overheads were sweeping the pit area.” (R.A. Silvia Collection).

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