Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday November 16, 2011

 Volume 3, Number 44                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

          This week we present a truly-varied assortment of photos; some local stuff from Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl, to Rene Charland in a URC Sprint Car at Fonda, to the late Trigger Watson – it’s all-here. On a somber note, we’d like to send condolences to the family & friends of Jerry Robinson who recently passed-way. Robinson leased the Waterford Speedbowl from 2007-2008. In other news, friend, Hall of Famer, and 1971 Indy 500 Rookie Of The Year Denny Zimmerman sends word that “The Champ” Rene Charland turned 83 on Sunday, November 13. For those wishing to send a card, here’s the address; Rene Charland, c/o  Amsterdam Memorial Hospital, Wilkerson Facility  Room 202, 4988 State Highway 30, Amsterdam, NY.12010. As-always, special thanks go-out to those who submitted photos for use in this edition of RTT! As-always, mail reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com       

Yup, More Wednesday Wanderings…..     

Here we have a nice shot from the 1970s of our good friend, Waterford Speedbowl modified veteran Mark LaJeunesse seated behind the controls of the coupe that started his decades-long career. His accomplishments at the shoreline oval include snaring the United Stock Car Racing Club’s 1975 Sportsman-Modified Championship, and scoring a stunning victory in the 2000 Budweiser Modified Nationals. Always a crowd-favorite, he was long-considered one of the “guys to watch” on any given Saturday night. (Dugas Photo).              

This one’s from the daunting high-banks of Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway of the 1950s. That’s the late Sparky Belmont in the Central Garage #37 coupe dicing-it-out with Frankie Blum in the Norm Kies #21 and Andy Anderson in the #86. As relayed here many times, following a convincing victory in a 100-lap contest at Plainville Stadium in 1968, he collapsed during the post race celebration, and passed-away on the spot. “Sparky” had been a star on the post war Midget circuit before switching to stock cars. (R.A. Silvia Collection).                   

Though we know the location to be New York State, we’re not sure of the track. Seen here motoring-along at a facility of primitive means is Jack Griffin, the star of a sad chapter in the history of Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl. Griffin holds the unfortunate distinction of being the shoreline ovals singular racing fatality. He was a WWII veteran serving as an air corps crew chief at Westover, MA. air base, and also at Grenier Field in Manchester, NH. Raised in Massachusetts, he had moved to Groton, CT. shortly before his death to work as a burner at the Electric Boat Shipyard. Griffin was an experienced competitor, having achieved good results racing in Massachusetts, including a track championship at Westboro Speedway in 1949 and also many victories campaigning throughout the East Coast and Canada. After settling in Connecticut he decided to race only as a hobby, under the name of P.D. Jackson. On Saturday evening August 12, 1954, he was driving in the Speedbowl’s Sportsman feature (a particularly-messy event that had already experienced 2 red flag periods), when another accident occurred directly in-front of him. He tried to avoid the wreck, but clipped the wheel of another competitor and rolled several times. Sadly, he died of his injuries in the early hours of the next day at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, CT.  The tragedy effectively ended the “cutdown era” at Waterford, with a return to the full-coupes for the 1955 season. (R.A. Silvia Collection).     

As stated-above, the late Jack Griffin was a well-traveled competitor, having raced and tasted success at many tracks up & down the east coast. This rare pitside-image captures him at Pennsylvania’s famed Williams Grove Speedway during the early stages of his career. Like many of the racers of his era, Griffin was proficient on both dirt and asphalt. (R.A. Silvia Collection).

A true gem from the early days of our sport, the late Ralph “Trigger” Watson was known as the “Clown Prince” of the cutdown era. Recalled as a true “stand-on-the-gas” competitor, his best years came in 1955 and 1956 when he won over eighty features up & down the East Coast in addition to the Canadian-American Classic in Toronto. Trigger passed-away at the ripe old age of 82 in 2009. (McDowell Photo).     

Here’s a nice shot of the late Whitey Brainard and his sedan. One of New England’s bigger stairs of the 1950s, He tasted victory at a number of the regions speedplants including Riverside Park, 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. (McDowell Photo)                 

I’m often asked to run some shots of support-division competitors, and here’s a good one. Call them Novice Cars, Sportsman, Street Stocks, whatever; almost every track has a couple of classes to back-up their headliners. In this case, the locale is Connecticut’s Waterford Speedbowl, the era is the early 1970s, and the driver proudly standing with his team is local racer Doug Smith. Then-as-now, Waterford has always hosted some of the best support class action in New England. (Dugas Photo).              

As a 3-time NASCAR National Sportsman Champion, a member of the famed “Eastern Bandits”, and an inductee of both the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame and the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame, little has to be said about this driver that hasn’t already been written. Known as “The Champ” Rene Charland won over 250 features and countless track titles races during a career that spanned 4-decades. Rene was always one to expand his horizons given the opportunity; he’s captured here behind the controls of a URC sprint car at Fonda, New York. As stated in this weeks opening comments, “The Champ” celebrated his 83rd birthday on Sunday, November 13. (Berg Photo Courtesy R.A. Silvia). 

Captured here at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway in the early 1970s is 6-time NASCAR Modified champion, Jerry Cook. His career starting at the tender age of 13, he won his first track title at New York’s Utica-Rome Speedway in 1969. Hailing from that fertile racing community of Rome, New York (also the home of the late, great Richie Evans) “Cookie” took the checkers on 342 occasions before calling it quits in 1982. After retiring, he remained with NASCAR in a managerial capacity, helping to shape today’s Modified Tour. An inductee into several Racing Hall of Fames, he was named one of “NASCAR’s 50-Greatest Drivers” in 1998. (Dugas Photo).                           

Here’s another 70s-era shot from Stafford Motor Speedway; this time it’s Brian Ross. Starting his career at New York State’s Albany-Saratoga Speedway during the 1960s (an era in-which the track was an absolute hotbed of action, routinely attracting the best racers in the business), he was long a top-driver on the New England Modified circuit recording many victories. He was also known as one of the most innovative car builders of his generation. Many involved in tracking the history of Northeastern modified racing deem this guy to be one of the most underrated drivers of all-time. (Dugas Photo).       

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

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