Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday December 2, 2009

Volume 1, Number 48                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week brings some unfortunate news, as it was learned that former NASCAR National Modified champion and New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Ernie Gahan passed-away at the age of 82 on Thanksgiving evening. Racing Through Time sends sincere condolences to Gahan family on their loss. Ernie was a great human being and getting to know him a few year-ago remains one of this scribes fondest memories. He will be missed by many.   
 Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com 

A National Champion Passes, And More Memories From The Past...

The Northeastern racing community lost a real treasure when the great Ernie Gahan passed-away at age-82 on Thanksgiving evening. Gahan’s 28-year racing career started during the post-war stock car racing boom of 1948 at New Hampshire’s Dover Speedway. By the time he’d hung-up his helmet in the 1970’s, he’d amassed over 300 career victories. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the sport was being the first New Englander to win a NASCAR National Modified championship in 1966. He was equally successful on both dirt and asphalt. He won a record 21 features on the old dirt at Stafford Speedway in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He had eleven starts in Grand National (now Sprint Cup), series competition, recording two top-ten finishes, one of which was in the 1962 Daytona 500. In 1963 Gahan was credited with saving the life of Marvin Panch by pulling him out of a burning race car at Daytona. For his courage he won the Shuman Award and the Carnegie Medal for Bravery. He was among the first drivers inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. This coupe-era shot captures Ernie during one of his asphalt outings. For a nice piece on Ernie’s career, check-out our friend Lew Boyd’s latest “Tearoffs” column at www.coastal181.com (Grady Photo).

Just a great shot from the true heyday of New England Modified racing. Flying toward the checkers in close formation at the storied and much-missed Norwood Arena in Massachusetts are three of the sports best-ever. On the inside is Ernie Gahan in an early Sonny Kozella #15 “Woodchopper Special”, the middle sees “Wild Bill” Slater in his white #V-8, and hanging-tough on the outside groove it’s Red Foote in his famous #J-2. All of these guys are members of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame, and this shot goes a long-way in illustrating why. (Conley Photo).    

Every now & then, our webmaster and friend, the honorable Mr. Tom Ormsby will submit an image from his vast archive for us to enjoy – kind of a “Tom’s Favorite”. This is one of those shots. The curly-haired little tyke you see here graduated from his days as a youthful peddle-car jockey to accomplish just a thing-or-two in the sport. You’ll have to scroll-down to the next entry to see him all “growed-up”. (Ormsby Collection).

And here’s one Bob Potter during his post-peddle car days. Captured at Thompson in 1977 as the driver of the Yankee Peddler Pinto, few New England Modified drivers enjoyed a career as long and successful as this guy. Starting in the Bomber class at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl in 1962, he began winning shortly thereafter, and before it was over captured 11 championships and hundreds of features at Stafford, Thompson and Waterford.  Always a model of consistency, he ran a streak of 37 straight top-six finishes at Stafford in 1994-95. At Waterford alone, he claimed a combined total of 94 feature victories in 4 different divisions. Deservedly-so, Bob was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007. (Dugas Photo).    

Here’s a rare-one. “Chargin’ Charlie” Jarzombek is seen here hard on the throttle at the late dirt mile known as Pennsylvania’s Nazareth Raceway. Known primarily for his many accomplishments on pavement, as seen-here “Charlie J.” was one multi-talented chauffer. Originally a card-carrying member of the “Long Island Gang”, he began racing there in the late 1960’s, where he dominated at tracks like Islip, Freeport, Riverhead, and West Hampton. Later branching-out, he won 187 feature events at 16 different racetracks from Massachusetts to Florida. Sadly, Jarzombek passed-away in 1987 following an accident in a Modified event at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway. He was posthumously inducted into the New England Auto Racing Fame in 2004. (Smith Photo)  

As one of the premier Northeastern coupe-era racers, Don Diffendorf became widely-recognized as the driver of the legendary # S/360 coupes & coaches. A big winner for many decades at on both dirt and pavement, this image captures him during the very-early stages of his celebrated career. Check-out Don’s rudimentary safety equipment – a leather-sided Brit-inspired “Cromwell-Style” helmet (competitors often referred to them as “brain buckets”), and a short-sleeved t-shirt. For those of us old-enough to remember, it was Don’s #S/360 coach that appeared on the promotional poster for the first-ever “Spring Sizzler” at Stafford on April 16, 1972. The event was promoted by Bruce Cohen, Dr. Dick Berggren, and Lew Boyd. (Grady Photo).

A few weeks-ago we ran some shots of the old Lakeville Speedway (aka Middleborough Fairgrounds, Golden Spur, and Camp Joe Hooker), in Massachusetts. To say-the-least, it generated a huge response. Researching Lakeville has become sort of a “pet project” of yours-truly, but it’s a tough-task as records are hard to come-by. Thanks to pal Lew Boyd, here’s another early image of one of the most historic tracks in all of New England. Originally opening in the late 1920’s, throughout the 1940’s the track hosted a number of events featuring the open-wheel cars of the day. This shot is from 1941. Note the “guardrails” – this was way-before “soft-walls”! (Boyd Collection).      

Another shot of a driver that is widely-recognized as the greatest Modified racer that ever climbed behind the wheel. Rome, New York resident the late Richie Evans was simply the best, period. In 1973, he became the NASCAR National Modified Champion. In 1978, the "Rapid Roman" won a second title and did not relinquish his crown during the next seven years. Evans took over four hundred feature race wins at racetracks from Quebec to Florida before he was killed in a crash at Martinsville, VA. while practicing for the Winn-Dixie 500 tripleheader in late 1985 (three races in one day -- a 200-lap Modified race, a 200-lap Busch Series race, and a 100-lap Late Model race). Before his fatal crash, Evans had clinched NASCAR's inaugural Winston Modified Tour. Seen here with one of his early coupes at a dirt event, Richie was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. (Grady Photo).

Seen here at New York’s Lancaster Speedway in 1971 is Eastern hotshot Cam Gagliardi. Long a presence in the Modified wars of his region, he was a big winner at places like Lancaster, Albany-Saratoga, and Merritville in naming just a few. Cam actually got his start in the sport at the old Buffalo Civic Stadium in Buffalo, New York which operated from 1933 to 1959. Many of the area’s greatest drivers emerged from the Civic Stadium including Gagliardi, Billy Rafter, Chuck Boos, and Bill Torrisi – all were champions. (Reinig Photo).

Lastly, here’s a shot of the late Steve Danish. Along with New England’s Bill Slater, Cropseyville, New York resident Danish was among the first racers to bring a degree of professionalism to short track racing in the Northeast. His racer was always spotless, and he and his crew were known for always being spiffily-attired. Nicknamed "The Cropseyville Courier", among his many triumphs were 32 feature wins at Fonda – no small feat at the joint known as “The Track of Champions”. Danish continued to rack-up victories, winning his last 2 feature races in 1963. Upon the introduction of Modified motors at Fonda in 1966, he retired from racing. Starting his career at age 30 (older than many of his contemporaries), Danish introduced a number of “firsts” in his short but brilliant reign. He’s widely credited as one of the first dirt racers to use “tearoffs” (his early version consisted of placing Saran-Wrap on his windshield), and also utilized a trailer when most competitors were still hauling their rigs with a tow-bar. A true innovator and one of the most-popular and respected racers of his era, Danish passed-way in 2003. (Grady Photo).

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

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