Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday April 29, 2009

Volume 1, Number 18                                                                                       New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

In an era before dirt and asphalt specialization created a huge divide in modified racing, drivers routinely tested their skills on both surfaces if they were to be true contenders on the national scene. Pictured this week is a small selection of those competitors as well as a few glimpses from the local scene. Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com  

Covering All The Bases…..          

Like so-many of the racers from his generation, the late Maynard Forrette saw no boundaries in the difference between running on dirt or asphalt. A big winner on both, he’s probably most fondly remembered for his stunning dirt-slingin’ drives on the daunting Syracuse Mile where during the later stages of his career, he often bested competitor’s half-his-age. A master mechanic and innovative car builder, Forrette also ran Northern Speed Supply, a haven for those racers seeking to get the most out of their equipment. This shot is believed to be from Utica-Rome. (Grady Photo).     

By the 1976 season when this shot was captured at Plainville Stadium, most New England Modified racers had bid-goodbye to the traditional stylings of the old coupes and coaches. At Joe Tinty’s ¼-miler however, they could still be captured in-action probably more than at any track in our region. That’s Fred Murtha in a neat little 3-window entry lining-up next to our friend, Larry Lafayette. According to our Webmaster Tom Ormsby who ran a lot of laps with Murtha, the car was a real-looker. (Kennedy Photo).

Ernie Gahan was simply one of the best-ever on any surface. Starting his career at New Hampshire’s Dover Speedway in 1948, he recorded over 300 career victories coast-to-coast before running his final event in 1975. As a sidenote, he’s also credited for helping to save the life of Marvin Panch in a fiery Daytona crash in 1963, a deed that earned him the Shuman Award and the Carnegie Medal for Bravery. This shot captures in an early version of one of the Kozela “Woodchopper Specials”. The first New Englander to capture a NASCAR National Modified Championship (1966), Gahan was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. If you ever get a chance to talk with Ernie, please-do. Not-only is he a great guy. but he can truly relay what it was like to compete during the early-days of our sport! (Grady Photo).

Here’s kind of a rare shot. That’s New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Bugs Stevens standing beside the Corvair-bodied “Log Roller Special” built and designed by Dave Tourigny. A departure from the more familiar coupes & coaches of the era, the car was rather radical for it’s time, employing some pretty fancy features. This shot was captured at one of the high-speed venues of the day, perhaps Trenton. (Grady Photo).

It’s the opening event of 1972 at Plainville Stadium, and that’s a young Reggie Ruggiero posing next to his self-owned coupe, the car that he’d use to start his fourth-season on Joe Tinty’s ¼-mile circle of tarmac. You have to wonder if at this point in his career, “The Reg” ever dreamed that he’d become one of the most accomplished and admired drivers in all of New England Modified racing. After subbing for an injured Don Moon one year at the Stadium and winning fourteen features in the process, Ruggiero so-impressed NASCAR Modified owner Mario Fiore that he was pegged to replace the late Gary Colturi in the potent #44. As the old saying goes, “The Rest is History”. For more on Reggie, visit www.vintagemodifieds.com (Hoyt Photo).

The great Sonny Seamon is pictured here at Utica-Rome behind the controls of an absolutely classic-looking coach. Seamon was blessed with not-only superior driving abilities winning tons of races over the course of his long career; he was also regarded as one of the premier car-builders of his era. Longtime friend and top racing photographer John Grady wrote the following on the back of this shot; “Dave, I’m sending you this one because Sonny was not only a super racer, but also a great builder. This is simply a BEAUTIFUL sedan!” (Grady Photo).

Before becoming a star on the NASCAR Modified Tour, Mike “Magic Shoes” McLaughlin was a youngster mixing-it-up weekly on the dirt of New York State’s historically-rich Fonda Speedway. A former NASCAR Modified Tour Champion, and BUSH Series competitor, McLaughlin got his start at age 20 at Maple Grove Raceway before becoming one of the youngest drivers on the prestigious DIRT circuit, later making a successful move to asphalt Modifieds. Now retired from driving, McLaughlin has continued his involvement in the sport, most recently working with Joe Gibbs Racing. (Grady Photo).

A smiling Gary Membrino is seen here at Plainville Stadium in 1973. Membrino’s mount was typical of the “new-style” cars that entered the picture during the early-70’s. Gary is a former Stadium track champion and the nephew of New England Modified legend “Jap” Membrino. As seen here, the sub-compact American Motors Gremlin body was a popular choice for those looking to update their sheetmetal with something other than the more widely-used Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega. Note Gary’s seating-posture. Cockpit design has come a long-way since the 70’s! (Kennedy Photo).       

Known as “Rebel” Harris owing to his South Carolina roots, the late Daniel Duncan Harris was an experienced chauffer by the time of his untimely demise at the old Onteora Speedway in Olive Bridge New Jersey on June 21, 1963. According to newspaper reports of the day, Harris’ car flipped end-over-end several times going into the first-turn on the first circuit of the 25-lap main event. Harris was ejected from his coupe in mid-flight, succumbing to his injuries at nearby Kingston Hospital only 15 min. after arrival. While it’s perhaps no-more than a racing “urban legend”, there are those that to this-day blame Rebel’s death on his reluctance to wear a racing harness. Onteora Speedway was a relatively short-lived affair, the dirt half-miler operating from only 1960-1966. (Grady Photo).      

Lastly, here at Racing Through Time we receive a lot of requests for photos, and images of this driver are right near the top of the list. Perhaps no driver in the history of the place is more synonymous with the Waterford Speedbowl than the late Fred “Fuzzy” Baer. There from the very-start in 1951, “Fuzzy” along with his dad and crew-chief “Pops” started in the days of those ramshackle coupes, completing his career in a contemporary Vega creation in the 1980’s. His last seasons saw him as a hired gun for the LaJeunesse team. When in good equipment, Fuzzy showed everyone that he could still get it done, and that was the case when he was steering this little coupe as the 70’s turned-into the 80’s. On a personal note, Fred was a good friend of this scribe, and I miss him still. (Kennedy Photo).

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

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