Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday October 16, 2013


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By Dave Dykes                                                                            CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

With the great success of last Saturday’s 5th Annual Plainville Stadium Reunion, we figured we’d do another installment on the greatly-missed Connecticut ¼-miler (a subject near & dear to our heart). With that-said, please enjoy this week’s images. Special thanks go out to all that submitted their input on last week’s “unidentified” selection. The first to correctly answer the call was none-other than our friend, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Skip Matczak. The driver in question was (drum roll, please), Warren Sentivany who presently serves as Crew Chief on Skip’s # 3 USAC dirt midget wheeled by none-other than another Hall of Famer, Denny Zimmerman! The year was 1951, and the location was of-course, Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway. Lastly, don’t forget, Drivers Stan Meserve, Brian Ross, Drew Fornoro, Ralph Nason, the late Bob Stefanik, Bill Eldridge and Bob Sharp and car owner Ron Berndt will be inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Lodge at Manelley’s in South Windsor, CT. Tickets are priced at $45.00 each and the doors open at 11:00 a.m. with dinner served at Noon. Ticket order forms and more information are available on The New England Antique Racers/Auto Racers Hall of Fame website at www.near1.org  Ticket purchase deadline for the event is November 1st. Requests for reserved tables of 10 must be received by October 25th. There will be no ticket sales at the door. Till’ next time, have a great week! As-always, email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

With A Nod To Connecticut’s Plainville Stadium !

Here’s a great “at-speed” shot of one of our good friends. Like so many of the drivers that became premier players within Plainville Stadium’s weekly action, popular Don Spazano actually traces his “racing-roots” back to the old rough n’ tumble novice class. This shot however, captures him in later years as one of the top modified pilots at Joe Tinty’s late (and much-missed), Connecticut oval. Riding-high on the all-time winners list and a former track champion, the popular Spazano also competed with success at a number of other tracks in the region including Riverside Park. You gotta’ love this neat-looking coach, a body-style that always seemed popular at Plainville. Also note that it was the pre-firesuit era. (Phil Hoyt Photo).

Just another night in the office for the late, great Ed Flemke Sr. When Phil Hoyt captured this great victory lane image, the long career of the man they called “Steady Eddie” was nearing it’s completion. However, he was still winning-big in this creation, the Manchester Sand & Gravel #10 Pinto. It would take more than a caption on a website to detail this racers accomplishments. Quite-fittingly, he was among the first to be inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame back in 1998. (Phil Hoyt Photo).

Harry Bliss. Or is it? Here’s the low-down from Tom Ormsby, our Webmaster, former Stadium Modified racer, and historian of all-things Plainville. “This is the Flying 8 of Harry Bliss,” states Tom. “His real name was Harry Sargent, and he was a Sergeant on the Hartford Police Force who used the name “Harry Bliss” so they wouldn’t know he was racing. He was always fast and won several features, but didn't run every week, having to miss the events when he had to work. I believe the Hartford Police Dept. had rotating weekends off and Harry could only make the races those nights he had off.” As Tom attests-to, back-then the local authorities apparently frowned-upon one of their own taking-part in any speed contests as the powers-that-be considered race car drivers rather unsavory characters, but it didn’t stop Harry! This car also happens to be a former V8 companied by Bill Slater. (Faust Photo).

Here’s a great shot of our pal George Lombardo following one of his many triumphs at the Connecticut ¼-miler. A multi-time track champion, he was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2008. From his HOF bio; George Lombardo raced from the late 1940’s through the mid 1960s.  During that span, he took down over 125 wins, at Riverside Park, Waterford Speedbowl, West Haven Speedway, and Plainville Stadium.  At Plainville, he won a pair of track championships, in 1962 and ’63. Running in the United Stock Car Club, George drove for several owners, including Leo Woitja, Norm Keis, Bob Oliver, and the Nogiec brothers.  He also had success driving the Dalena Auto Parts #XD-2. One race George remembers fondly is a race that he didn’t win.  Teaming with Dan Gaudiana, George drove the Jake Mosher owned #439 for almost 490 grueling laps in the Riverside 500, after the #999 broke an axle early in the race.“We (George and Dan Guadiana), ended up as good friends,” George chuckled. “It wasn’t always that way.  We were fierce rivals early on.” George remembers an on track incident with George Clark in the #999 at Plainville, where Lombardo and Clark started a fight that turned into a riot when the fans in the stands emptied onto the track. “People fighting everywhere, the police firing their guns in the air……it was a mess!  Danny and George and I laughed about it afterwards….Well, several YEARS afterwards,”, George laughes. Who’s the “official-looking” guy on the right? That’s “Moneybags Moe” Gherzi, who in addition to being a legendary racer himself, served at Race Director at Plainville for many years & like Lombardo, is a New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member. (Faust Photo).      

Thankfully at Plainville, coaches never seemed to go out of style; we really like that body-style…. We’ll let our friend & Webmaster Tom Ormsby fill us in on the driver of this one, the late Skip Zeigler. “Skip started racing at Plainville in the late 1950s and was a regular until the track closed. His trademark was the red & white coach-bodied #126. The last three seasons he ran the “Flying 0” coach owned by his brother Gene. He also raced at Riverside Park, Stafford, Thompson, Lebanon Valley, and a few other tracks in upstate New York.”  Simply a classic Phil Hoyt image! (Phil Hoyt Photo).   

This one is presented for our friend & regular “RTT” reader, Chuck Grime….. A multi-time track champion at Plainville, Bob Vivari was always one of the drivers to beat at the tough little Nutmeg State ¼-miler. He’s captured here behind the controls of an-absolutely neat coupe in the 1960s. One of the tracks longest-running competitors, Bob remained at Plainville right-up until its untimely closure, (Faust Photo). 

Many drivers that appeared at Plainville branched-out successfully to other tracks in the New England area; this guy is a perfect example. Seen here ready-to-roll at “Tinty’s Place” Jerry Wheeler was one of those racers. He was the first in a long line of top shoes to wheel the famed 2x owned by his brother-in-law, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Bob Judkins. Enjoying a lengthy career, Jerry tasted success at many tracks in the region driving for a number of the top teams of the era. (Faust Photo).

If you were lucky enough to be around the sport when this guy was in his prime, you witnessed one of the best. Our friend and Webmaster Tom Ormsby once stated that he was “Colorful, Controversial, and Popular” all at the same-time. The truth-is, Anthony “Jap” Membrino helped sell a lot of tickets during a stellar career that lasted over 3-decades. While he experienced incredible success at Plainville as captured here, Jap also won-big at many other New England venues. Ron Berndt, who was the owner of this North End Auto Parts coupe, will take his place among the greats of New England racing when he’s inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame on Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Lodge at Manelley’s in South Windsor, CT. (Faust Photo).

Back in the “old daze” car builders were able to use a number of different powerplants to propel their self-built creations. The Chevy small block V8 had yet to become the absolute-standard. Seen here behind the controls of a GMC-powered coupe is New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member, the late Sparky Belmont in Smitty's Silver 6. As it’s been written here several times, he was a Plainville track champion, as-well as a big star on Harvey Tattersall’s UNITED circuit. After a convincing victory in a 100-lap contest at Plainville 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. He was among the most-popular drivers of his generation with both fans, and his fellow competitors. (Faust Photo).       

Another Plainville Saturday night, another win…. Here’s a nice victory lane shot of multi-time Plainville track champion Ronnie Rocco. Starting in the Novice class, Ronnie was a quick-study when it was time to trade-in his fenders for the open-wheel wars. A big success at “Tinty’s Place” before its unfortunate closure, he later became a successful and popular racer within the ranks of the SK Modified division. A chip off the old block, Ronnie’s son Keith has went-on to unparalleled fortunes in our region’s racing arena, and is presently one of the hottest drivers in the Northeast. (Phil Hoyt Photo)

UNIDENTIFIED PHOTO OF THE WEEK: This time, we leave the early dirt of Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway and take a trip back in-time to the former Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Massachusetts. Looking very-much like a 1960s coupe-creation of future New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame car owner Ron Berndt, the question-is who is the driver? Want to take a shot at this week’s little riddle? Email us at foreveryounginct@gmail.com and in the process you’ll be helping us to accurately track our region’s racing history!


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