Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday February 25, 2009

Volume 1, Number 9                                                                                       New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week, a rainy, wintry Sunday afternoon and a little spare-time prompted yours truly to dig-deep in the archives and offer-up an extended version of “Racing Through Time”. Hard-to-believe, but this marks the ninth-installment of what started as a casual phone conversation with racing Web Guru Tom Ormsby. Many-thanks go out to Tom (himself once a racer of note), for his friendship, patience and dedication to the cause, and also to buddy Pete Zanardi for his unfaltering inspiration. I’d be remiss in not mentioning all of the readers who have responded via email sharing their memories of the past as well as a few choice anecdotes about what is was like to be a fan or competitor in the “Good Old Days” of our sport. As always, reach me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com  

The Connecticut Valley Rocket Plus More Speedbowl Greats!

“Wild Bill Slater” aka “The Connecticut Valley Rocket” was among the first drivers inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998, and for good reason. Starting his career in the early-50’s, few can claim more accomplishments in the sport. Multiple championships, a much-coveted Langhorne victory, and a long reign as one of Modified racings most-respected officials are all part of the Slater legacy. This Stafford shot is believed to be from 1968, a period in which Bill had assumed the V-8 racing operation from his former car owners, the famed duo of Vitari & Bombacci.

It was in this car (the last in a long-line of identical coupes), that he claimed a Stafford Sportsman title. Note that a guy named “Pete Z” was on the pit crew. That’s none other than fellow Hall of Famer and award-winning auto racing journalist Pete Zanardi, and the two remain the best of friends today. When attending this weekends Speedway Expo at the Big E, be sure to stop-by and say hello to Bill, one of our regions true racing legends. (Dugas Photo).

Since he has more knowledge about the career of this driver than your author, let’s have our Webmaster Tom Ormsby fill us-in on this neat shot of New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Pete Hamilton. Tom states that “This is the Junior Fields-owned Grand National (today known as Sprint Cup), car at Malta, N.Y. in 1971. That year, Pete ran the Cotton Owens Plymouth in twenty events, and this one in two races at Malta and Islip when NASCAR made their annual Northern-Swing. He drove it mainly so he could make an appearance on the Northern tracks. The operation was really under-funded.

He started second at Malta and third at Islip dropping-out both times with mechanical ills. 1971 was the only year Junior Fields owned a car, making just twenty starts out of forty-eight races that year with various drivers including Charlie Glotzbach and J.D McDuffie. The only time the car led a race was with Hamilton at Malta.” (Grady Photo).

The Speedbowl’s Grand Americans of the 1970’s were a great division, producing a wonderful variety of machinery. During its best seasons, the class provided some of the shoreline oval’s closest racing and was a truly affordable endeavor for teams seeking some full-bodied action. Bill Lavoie had one of the nicer G.A. mounts, his racer always impeccably-prepared. Teamed with the late Walt Erb along with assistance from longtime racing wrench Ronnie Daignault, Lavoie enjoyed a successful reign in the class wheeling this little Chevy II entry. (Kennedy Photo).

Local driver Fred Sentell campaigned this 6-cylinder entry in Coupe-era Bowl’ Modified action. A winner in the old Daredevil class before graduating to the headlining division, he got the most out of what was considered a somewhat underpowered source of motivation compared to the standard V-8’s of his fellow competitors. Years later, his son Fred Jr. emerged as a “chip off the old block”, winning in the Street Stocks of 1978 as well as dabbling in both Late Models and Modifieds. (Dugas Photo).

While this car and driver have appeared here before, I couldn’t resist running this really cool Steve Kennedy image of a car that’s simply synonymous with 70’s-era Speedbowl action. Driven by former Bomber champion Ed Bunnell as well as his younger brother standout Modified pilot Donnie, this is the mount that carried Donnie to an incredible underdog victory in the 1976 Bicentennial 200, then the longest Modified event ever-held at Waterford. Ed is behind the controls here as recorded in the Bowl’ infield in 1979. Still a renowned racing shutterbug today, Kennedy was blessed with a knack for getting some really unique shots. This one captures the moment just perfectly. Don Murphy campaigns a restored version of the car on today’s NEAR circuit. (Kennedy Photo).

Jerry Glaude was another of the many drivers hailing from the Norwich, Ct. area that made his mark in the annals of Speedbowl history. Seen here during a 70’s open-show (that’s Lenny Boehler’s Fred DeSarro-driven “Ole Blue” Coupe on the inside), Glaude piloted many different cars during his tenure as a successful hired-gun. This particular mount was rather unique with its then-novel late model tinwork and Mopar power. Waterford was always known for car builders that weren’t afraid to buck the conventional. (Dugas Photo).

Like Glaude, for many years Mark LaJeunesse made the weekly trek down Route 395 to Waterford exit #77 from the burg known as “The Rose City”. Starting his career as a youth in the Quarter Midget ranks, he returned from the armed forces in the early 70’s to begin a Modified career that spanned over thirty seasons. The first victory came in 1974 with many-more following including a triumph in the 2000 Budweiser Modified Nationals. Under the Tattersall UNITED sanction of 1975, he garnered the Sportsman Modified title. This shot captures him ready to go at the Bowl’ in one of his team’s last stock-framed Vega entries on May 6, 1978.

The car was later sold and campaigned at Waterford by Dave Hill, nephew of Modified veteran Leo Hill. In second-generation Lajeunesse action, son Danny currently competes in Thompson Speedway’s SK ranks. (Kennedy Photo).

An imposing pitside figure if there ever-was one (truth-be-told, he’s really a pussycat), the smiling young dude behind this neat Dick Dunn-chauffeured Coupe is none other than its owner, Al “Buddha” Gaudreau. Teamed with Al and his wife Peg, Dunn simply owned the Speedbowl for a time in the 70’s, garnering multiple championships and untold victories. Later painted blue & silver and adorned with sponsorship from Automotive World and M & H tires, the car was appropriately christened “Buddha’s Bullet”. Few teams were tougher than that of “The Bullet” in their era. (Dugas Photo).

In the pages of the Speedbowl history book, the name of the late Owen Bowen will forever be associated with the radical designs that came out of the Ct. River Valley area. Cars such as the trend setting M Pinto of Seabury Tripler, the # 27 Rambler of the late “Wild Bill” Scrivener, and of course, the radical L & M Coupes all fell under the cloak of his unique styling and engineering skills. Here, Bowen is seen here pitside at Waterford during his days as a driver in 1978. (Kennedy Photo).

Modern-day fans know the now-retired Jerry Pearl as a multi-time Connecticut SK Modified Champion. Back when this shot was taken he was wheeling a Coupe at places like Riverside Park, Plainville Stadium, and as pictured here, occasionally at Waterford. Following a short break in the early-70’s, he successfully campaigned a Daredevil entry at the shoreline oval in a car vacated by Bill ‘The Southern Gent” Grainger (a mammoth 57’ Plymouth no-less, with a giant Rebel flag across the roof). From there, it was back to the open-wheel wars, and the rest is history. Jerry is the dad of popular Jeff Pearl, the 1998 Speedbowl SK champion. (Shany Photo).

Though he never scored a feature, youthful Lenny Podbielski was a major player in late- 70’s Speedbowl action. Christened the “Polish Powerhouse” by the Bowl’ PR machine, his AMC Gremlin-shod machines were some of the prettiest cars of the era. Lenny was a popular driver, his pleasant demeanor winning-over a legion of young Speedbowl fans. This paddock shot is from 1978. (Kennedy Photo).

Not-much has to be said about this driver if you’re at-all familiar with Speedbowl history. The late George “Moose” Hewitt began his auto racing career at Waterford in the early 60’s after a successful stint as a professional motorcycle racer. Leaving the Bowl’ for a time, upon his return he became a multi-time champion. This is kind of a rare Waterford shot, seeing him behind the wheel of a Coupe in the 70’s owned by his longtime friend and racing associate, Craig Kirchoff (second from right, and that’s crew chief George Brennan on the extreme right), This car was later campaigned by journeyman racer Gordon Page. (Kennedy Photo).

The late Rick “Sleepy” Knapp was at Waterford for what seemed like forever. Always sporting his signature “Sweet 16” on the flanks of his racers, he was a particularly successful competitor in the full-bodied ranks. Known by fellow drivers as “A guy you could race with” Knapp got the job done with equipment that was often less well-funded than that of his competitors. He later progressed to the Modifieds where he remained a respected racer. The family racing tradition continues today at the Speedbowl through the efforts of his nephew Walt Hovey, a winning Sportsman racer. (Dugas Photo).

Lastly, here’s another driver that was successful in both the “fender” divisions and the Modifieds. Shown here at the dawn of the 70’s in-front of a packed Bowl’ grandstand (those were the days), is “Uncle Don” Steiner in a neat little Corvair-bodied entry. Though the image is black & white, the car was painted a shiny gold, a hallmark of all of Don’s cars. The crossover to late model bodies from the traditional Coupes produced some really memorable Modifieds, and “Uncle Dons” little Vair’ was one of them. (Shany Photo).

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

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