Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday February 17, 2010

Volume 2, Number 5                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

He’s baaaaack…. After a couple of weeks in the garage area owing to a case of computer failure and a well-deserved vacation taken by our Webmaster the honorable Mr. Tom Ormsby, it’s back to presenting our little slice of racing’s past each & every Wednesday. Mucho-thanks to the many of you that wrote to ask what-was-up, as you’re the ones that make this site a worthwhile endeavor! And with-that, we raise the curtain on another glimpse of the personalities & places that make-up the rich history of the sport we all love.  Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

Pavement Pounders & Denizens of Dirt….     

Captured here piloting a Studebaker Lark-bodied creation following a victory at the former Westboro Speedway in Massachusetts on May 17, 1968 is the late Don Dionne. He was particularly successful up the road at the Seekonk Speedway where he was a long time fan favorite capturing over thirty-wins during a career spanning nearly 3-decades. He won his first show at the “Cement Palace” on September 23, 1967 in the B division. His final feature victory came on July 15, 1989, wheeling John Tyler's Sound Marine Special. His first championship came in 1970 in the B division. In 1979 he became the very-first Seekonk Pro Stock Champion, driving for the Manfredo Brothers, and repeated the feat in 1981. Sadly, we lost Don at age-70 on Tuesday, January 5. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Monteiro)   

And here we have Madison, NY native, the late Walter “Pepper” Eastman at Fonda. A veteran of the Korean War, like so-many of his contemporaries he started racing soon after discharge from the service. Our good friend Lew Boyd of www.coastal181.com wrote the following about Pepper; Walter “Pepper” Eastman was a dirt driver from Madison, New York.  Though not a huge winner, he was unusually popular with his series of 181 Sportsman coupes. Typically huge blue flames would fire from his exhaust collector as he lifted for turns on the dusty Empire State half-miles. The high point in his career was in 1957 when he took the Monroe County championship.  The victory had its macabre side, however. Actually, burly Don Hendenberg had emerged first in points, but, when he died in a highway accident, the title was awarded to Pepper, the runner-up.” On August 14, 1965 Eastman met his demise during a consolation race at Fonda in which his coupe flipped violently after contacting the storied New York State oval’s infamous “Graveyard Wall.” As a side-note, the paint-scheme & number of Eastman’s cars have served as the inspiration for all of Boyd’s (an accomplished racer himself), blue & yellow #181’s over the years. (Grady Photo courtesy Lew Boyd).  

What a lineup of talent! Started in the 1960’s by the late Lou Figari, the original All-Star League (not to be confused with the “Yankee All-Star League”, brainchild of United’s Harvey Tattersall Jr.), really separated the men from the boys in terms of Northeastern Modified stock car racing. Competing on dirt & asphalt, these guys had to be truly-versatile to succeed in the series which during its traveling-peak included nearly twenty different raceways. Everything from tiny 1/5 milers as-in Long Island’s Islip Speedway, to big dirt fairground layouts like Fonda were on the schedule. Scads of victories and championships are represented in this shot - how many of these guys do YOU recognize? (Grady Photo). 

If you were a “Child of the Seventies” as I was, you have to remember this guy. Perhaps nobody did more-with-less than the original “Travelin’ Man”, known in mortal terms as Peter Fiandaca. A staple on the New England circuit when giants like Richie Evans, Bugs Stevens, Geoff Bodine, Ron Bouchard, and the like ruled the roost in Modified racing, “Peta” often defied the odds in beating the big-names in his sometimes ramshackle-looking equipment. When the cost of campaigning in the Modifieds became too-much for his already-stretched budget, he took to racing in the full-bodied ranks. This victory lane image is from Thompson Speedway in 1980. For his extraordinary accomplishments in the sport, Fiandaca was awarded a spot in the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame last month. (Hodge Photo).    

Even-though the quality isn’t perfect, we really like this shot of a young Paul Richardson seated behind the controls of one of his early Super Modified rides. Starting his storied career at Oscar Ridlon’s Pines Speedway in 1965 in the support classes, he soon became one of the premier racers of his region. The very-next year, he won the Hudson Cutdown (early terminology for the class that would develop into the Super Modifieds), championship. In his New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame biography (inducted in 2009), he relayed the following about his early days in the sport; “I had a wife, my first kid, and we lived in my mom’s house”, remembers Paul. “We had nothing.  Not even a road car.  But I’ll tell you this: We had the fastest race car around.” Richardson went-on to become 5th on the all-time NESMRA win-list. Later years saw him competing in the Bush East Series. He retired from the sport in 2004. (Photographer Unknown). 

In the days before the arrival of the Arute family and their complete facelift of Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway in 1969, the facility was not unlike any other fairgrounds track in the county. It was a far-cry from the New England NASCAR showplace it remains today. This shot of the late “Hammerin’ Hank” Stevens behind the wheel of a hulking Coach-bodied mount is culled from the facility’s dirt-era when Mal Barlow was the owner of what was then known as simply “Stafford Springs Speedway.” A top-name in the region for decades, the talented Stevens excelled in both Modifieds and Midgets, and was particularly-successful at another nutmeg state oval, the Waterford Speedbowl. (Shany Photo courtesy of James Scott Haag)

I was inspired to pull this ancient John Grady shot of the late Kenny Shoemaker from the archives after recently re-reading “They Called Me The Shoe” which was published by Lew Boyd’s www.coastal181 back in 2000. It’s a great book and an intimate-look at what it was like to race in the days when Coupes & Coaches ruled the racing landscape of the Northeast. This shot sees “The Shoe” and the Wright/Zautner #24 mount ready to go at the late Victoria Speedway in Duanesburg, New York. Unlike Kenny, whose many accomplishments in the sport occurred over a span of decades, Victoria Speedway was a rather short-lived affair. Originally opened as a horse track, it was actually located on the Victoria Acres Horse Farm. A dirt half-miler, its first auto race was held on August 26, 1960, the last in the fall of 1966. The place was a haven for the best mud-slingers of the era during its brief history. Guys like Shoemaker, Lou Lazzaro, and George Janowski in naming just a few were all frequent winners. (Grady Photo).      

OK, so you say you’re sure you know the driver, but shouldn’t he be behind the wheel of black #V8? If you guessed that this is New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer “Wild Bill” Slater, you’re correct. Captured here at Stafford shortly before his retirement as a driver, the car is the potent Bebe Zalinski coupe, a ride also closely-associated with Bill’s buddy and fellow Hall of Fame member, Gene Bergin. After stepping-out from behind the wheel, Slater went-on to a successful career in the management-side of the sport closely-associated with both the Stafford & Thompson Motor Speedways. As of late the former Langhorne Race of Champions winner (one accomplishment of many), has been laid-up with some serious health issues. Cards of cheer reach the man known as the “Connecticut Valley Rocket” at Bill Slater, 12B Bluefield Drive, Manchester, CT. 06040. (Photo Courtesy of James Scott Haag).   

Here’s one for you aficionados of that fondly remembered Connecticut ¼-miler known as Joe Tinty’s Plainville Stadium. I’d gander to say that our webmaster and former Stadium’ competitor Tom Ormsby probably raced more than a few laps against this guy, “Bubblegum Joe” Bubbico. Once a familiar sight on the ovals of New England, Bubbico eventually moved West and continued his racing career most notably at San Bernardino’s Orange Show Speedway in Southern California where he became a top-competitor in the Late Model class. Still later, he became the Reverend Joe Bubbico, and presently serves the parishioners of “On Track With Jesus” - an independent non-denominational Christian outreach program. Steve Kennedy noted on the back of this shot which he captured in 1975, that this little Coupe was the former Dick Thibeault #58. (Kennedy Photo).

Lastly, we have another shot captured by our friend and photographer par-excellence, Steve Kennedy. It’s September of 1975 at Thompson, and the show is the “Thompson 300” an annual event that routinely drew competitors from all of New England Modified racing. The driver pictured? It’s Nels Wohlstrom who was usually behind the controls of one of his own yellow #69 creations, but opted for “hired gun” status on this day. Nels’ ran well at both Waterford and Thompson, recording many fine finishes during his career. (Kennedy Photo).

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

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