Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday November 3, 2010

 Volume 2, Number 41                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week we present more photos from the collection of our pal Mal Phillips. A former crewmember for NEAR Hall of Famer Bill Slater and an astute observer of the early days of our sport (particularly at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl), Mal recently gifted us with a veritable treasure trove of vintage Shany Lorenzent images. Seriously, does it get any better? Also, word arrived last week that our friend & Hall of Famer Billy Harman is doing great after recent surgery. Cards of cheer reach him at 14 Bay In The Wood, Port Orange, FL. 32129-2302. Don’t forget, this Saturday night it’s the annual NEAR Movie Party at the Dante Club, 1198 Memorial Ave in West Springfield, Mass. (across from the Big E Fairgrounds). Tickets will be available at the door, and things get underway at 6:00. Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

Yet-More Images From The Mal Phillips Collection…      

NEAR Hall of Famer Joe Csiki won his first feature on the 1/5-mile at Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts (as seen here), on May 4, 1957, Before that first win he was turning heads as a talented driver, being named the 1956 United Stock Car Club Most Promising Driver, and the 1958 NEMA Rookie of the Year. He was the 1961 NEMA Non-Offy Owner Champion, and the ’62 NEMA Non-Offy Driver Champion. He followed up as the 1963 and ’65 NEMA Driver Champion.  In 1964, he was named United Racing Club Rookie of the Year, and he was the ARDC Driving Champion in 1966. Csiki listed two ARDC 100 lap races, one at Old Bridge and one at Wall Stadium, along with a 50 lapper at Trenton in 1966, as three of his bigger wins. Sadly, his life ended tragically from injuries sustained at Bedford, PA Fairgrounds in August of 1967. Special thanks to Tom Ormsby for providing data on Csiki’s early career. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).   

Pictured here during the earliest days of Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl is local driver, Joe Coullard. A fixture at the shoreline oval for many seasons, Joe became a member of the racing staff after his days as a driver concluded. He was well-liked by both his fellow competitors, and the fans, (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).     

Seated behind the controls of what was undoubtedly one of the better-looking rides of the 1950’s at the Speedbowl is Arnie Harris. One of the more consistent chauffeurs of his era, Harris scored a pair of Modified victories in the early 1960s before fading from the scene. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).          

It’s been said here before; NEAR Hall of Famer “Wild Bill” Slater was simply one of the best Modified drivers New England ever produced. In 1956, he took the championship at the Speedbowl wheeling the #11 of Baldy Simons (it would be the first of two Waterford titles for Bill, the second coming in 1959 while behind the wheel of the potent Vitari/Bombaci V8). He’s seen here at the awards banquet with UNITED official Rex Records (center), and car owner Simons (right). As a side-note, back in those days, the yearly awards celebrations were often held in the Banquet Room at New London’s Mohegan Hotel which is now an elderly housing complex. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).  

As shown here, things got downright-bizarre during what was known as the ultra-dangerous “Cut-Down” era in New England modified racing. Seen here aboard a positively scary-looking little flathead-powered coupe (we’re not sure of the track), is early Riverside Park star, Andy Anderson. Sadly, it was in this type of modified that took the life of Jack Griffin at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl on August 22, 1954. His death prompted Speedbowl track officials to switch back to the safer designs of the tried & trued “Full Coupe” configuration, though the class did continue at many other New England raceways for a number of seasons. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).   

Cy Yates was a popular competitor at the Speedbowl, recording a number of victories. His string of 7 feature triumphs in the tracks premier division came early-on, occurring during the 1952-53 seasons. His flathead-powered cut-down entry was captured in the lens of longtime Speedbowl official track photographer Shany Lorenzent during we believe, the spring of 1954. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).           

While the speeds were considerably slower, that didn’t mean that the accidents were any less-spectacular back in the “old daze.” Seen here looking to make an unplanned exit out of the Speedbowl is a driver by the name of Bill Gray. Note the old “sand safety strip” that used to encircle the outside parameter of the racing surface, and the former wooden railroad-tie retaining walls. Gray put a real-hurting on the fence on this evening! (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).   

We’re not particularly-knowledgeable in the career exploits of this early Speedbowl racer, but one has to admit that this is just a wonderful photo. It simply captures the true essence of the fondly-remembered “Coupe Era” so-well…. With a scan of vintage racing trade papers (mainly Illustrated Speedway News), and a peek at the microfilm file, we learned that Dom DeLaura recorded a total of 2 feature victories in the Modifieds, both coming during the 1953 campaign, and at-least one early Claiming Car win. Note the capacity crowds that the Speedbowl attracted on a routine basis during the track’s early days. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).

No installment on the early days of the Speedbowl would be complete without a shot of this driver, Don Collins. Arguably the greatest driver to have ever emerged from the shoreline oval he set the standard from his debut in the early-fifties until his retirement at the dawn of the seventies. He was the first driver to amass over one-hundred victories (including both Modified & Non-Ford competition), the first to garner five championships, and perhaps more importantly, he was among the first to set an example in true-sportsmanship and class. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2005, his career actually began at the Thompson Speedway in 1948 when he’d built a car for another would-be racer. When the guy didn’t show-up, a young Collins took the wheel, and we all know the rest of the story. His career a relatively brief-affair by today’s standards, it’s anyone’s guess how many more checkers waited had he not called-it-quits in 1970 while still in his prime. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).              

This NEAR Hall of Fame member needs little introduction to those of us who recall the true “Glory Days” of New England short track racing. From his HOF biography; Fred Luchesi’s career in racing started in the late 1940’s, and lasted until his retirement in the late 1960s.  During that career, Fred drove coupes, modifieds, midgets, and late models.  He competed against nationally known drivers like Fonty Flock, Red Byron, and Ted Tappett, and raced against local drivers like Moon Burgess. Fred is modest when asked about championships. “Oh, I dunno. Three at Westboro, 2 or 3 at Lonsdale, 1 at Norwood, oh, and 3 at Waterford”, Fred recalls.  One year at Lonsdale, Fred "Lead Foot” Luchesi took down every main event of the season but one, finishing 2nd to NEAR Hall of Farmer Dave Humphries in that race. Fred recalls those early days in racing, when he’d load up his car with race tires, tools, and his two man pit crew, and drive the race car from Pawtucket, RI. all the way up to Victoriaville in Canada for that day’s race.  Another early memory is those Sunday mornings driving the race car to Thompson to compete.  He would roll the car down Slater Street in Pawtucket, and fire it up at the bottom of the hill, in front of the St John the Baptist church.  It wasn’t until sometime later that a friend informed Fred that every Sunday, when he fired up the car, the service would be halted, and the priest would take time to “bless that race car out in front of the church”. (Shany Photo, Phillips Collection).      

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

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