Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday February 24, 2010

Volume 2, Number 6                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE


This week its a few images culled from the “Speedbowl Files” (plus one from Plainville), as we’ve lately been getting some requests for shots from Connecticut’s shoreline oval. We’ll keep the opening comments short & sweet, letting the photos do the talking – Enjoy!  Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

More Waterford Wanderings (And One From Plainville)….    

Deservedly-so, much has been written about the driver known as the “Crafty Redhead”, New England Hall of Famer Melvin “Red” Foote. Often lost in the mix is the memory of his brother Russ Foote, who was an accomplished racer in his own-right. In this rather tattered vintage image, Russ is captured pit-side at the Waterford Speedbowl of the 1950’s. Russ claimed one Waterford Modified victory in 1959 during a career that was substantially-shorter than that of his more-celebrated sibling. Russ retired after sailing out of the ballpark in dramatic fashion during the shoreline oval’s 1963 season, while his brother’s last event came at Langley Field, Virginia in 1980.  (Photographer Unknown).  

Seen here in a self-owned Modified during his pre-“Buddha’s Bullet” days (a reference to the famed mount owned by Peg & Al Gaudreau that he’d race to Speedbowl Stardom), is a young Dick Dunn. Bringing to the table a wealth of experience by the time of his pairing with the Gaudreau’s, he went on a rampage in 1972 annexing four-straight Modified titles. Like so-many of his contemporaries, Dunn was a graduate of the Bomber division having first-visited victory lane in that popular support class during the 1959 campaign. By the time of his retirement, he’d scored a total of 40 Waterford Modified victories. (Shany Photo)   

Here’s a neat shot of two of the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl’s most-recognizable car & driver combinations of the sixties and early-seventies. It’s a 1970 100-lap Plainville Stadium Open Competition show, and on the inside is that year’s Speedbowl Modified champion Walt Dombrowski in the famed L&M coupe. Taking the outer-measure of the Stadium’s back-chute is Seabury Tripler in his familiar “M” mount. The next-season, Mr. Tripler played a huge role in forever altering the aesthetics of pavement Modified racing when he introduced the first-ever Pinto-bodied Modified in New England. The car so-inspired Bob Judkins of 2X fame that he built his own and lobbied (along with Stafford’s Jack Arute), to make the then-novel modern sheetmetal legal for the NASCAR Modified division. The days of the Coupes and Coaches were numbered and the “Pinto Revolution” was upon-us by 1971. (Hoyt Photo).   

Here’s an early portrait image of the driver that became the Speedbowl’s first true “Superstar” - the legendary Don Collins. Shot by Howard White of Rhode Island, it was likely captured at Norwood Arena. Contrary to what’s been widely penned about Collins, he was already an experienced hand at the circle game upon his arrival during the shoreline oval’s inaugural year of 1951. Starting his career at the Thompson Speedway in 1948, he’d also competed at places like Seekonk, Norwood, Plainville, and West Peabody prior to starting his winning tradition at the Bowl’. Upon retiring in 1970 his Waterford tally sat at nearly 100 victories and 5 titles in the Modifieds. Don was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2005. (White Photo).     

This is what it looked-like during the dangerous “Cut-Down Era” in New England. Unfortunately, this image is culled from the “Unknown” file, so the chauffer’s identity eludes us. As with other tracks in the region, at the Speedbowl these things were popular, lightweight, ungodly-fast, and unfortunately, sometimes deadly. A spin-off of the more common “Full-Coupes” utilized in seasons prior to this 1954 shot, the division would set the stage for the most-tragic chapter in the history of the Speedbowl. On the evening of Aug 21, 1954 Jack Griffin was critically injured after his Cut-Down flipped violently on the front-chute. He passed-away the next day at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in neighboring New London. Though many New England raceways continued with these flyweights, Waterford management almost immediately mandated a switch-back to the more substantial design configuration of prior seasons. (Shany Photo).

And here’s yet-another graduate of the “New-London-Waterford” Speedbowl (and a good-friend of yours-truly), that went-on to do a thing-or-two in the sport. Known during his formative years behind the wheel as “Little Bill” Harman, there was nothing diminutive in stature about this guy when he got behind the controls of a Coupe like this. From humble beginnings at Waterford, he became one of the premier drivers in all of Modified racing. Ironically, after spending decades chasing victories all over the country (and Canada), it was at the Speedbowl where he concluded his stellar career in the late-70’s. The result of a grinding-crash while wheeling the Joe Zenga-owned Vega, he received serious injuries including a shattered scapula and several broken ribs. At only 42-years of age he called-it-a-day, leaving us to wonder just how-many more checkers would have waved his way had he continued. Now residing in Florida with his lovely wife Donna, Billy was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2004. (Shany Photo).

Unlike today when open-competition shows are virtually non-existent in New England, years-ago it seems like just about every track in the region (save for Danbury’s closed-club deal), had a couple every season. The Speedbowl was no-different. Captured here in the lens of Shany Lorenzent during an early-season open show in 1973 is 1966 Seekonk Speedway champion, Deke Astle. As a kid, I always found the Konk’ cars to look a little “different” when compared to the Modifieds I was accustomed to watching at Waterford. Sporting almost full-bodies and late-model tin, they kind of stuck-out in the Speedbowl’s more “conventional-looking” field (at-least to my young eyes). To-this-day, I still good-naturedly kid friend and aficionado of all-things Seekonk, R.A. Silvia, about his track’s “weird-looking” Modifieds of the old-days. Astle, by-the-way, is part of a racing family dynasty responsible for taking a lot of hardware out of the Seekonk Speedway! (Shany Photo).       

Things got-hot at the Speedbowl’s Waterford 200 on the evening of July 30, 1994, and not in a good-way. The worst fire in the long-history of the track, this one involved among-others, Mark LaJeunesse, the late George “Moose” Hewitt, Dennis Gada, and Larry Lamphear. What started as a pileup on the front-chute turned into this raging inferno when one of the drivers started their car not-realizing a damaged fuel cell was leaking. It took several min. to quell the blaze, and to say that everyone was lucky in escaping unscathed is a huge understatement. I vividly recall feeling the heat at my vantage point in the stands several hundred feet-away where I was seated with my kids and my late mother. For spectators, it was a feeling of utter helplessness for what seemed like an eternity. Scary-stuff…. (Kennedy Photo).    

Seen here is the devastating result of poor Larry Lamphear’s involvement in the blaze. It was a huge-setback for the popular chauffer, a local product who’d been racing at the Speedbowl since 1976 when he purchased a Coupe from his pal, the late Terry Peabody. (Dugas Photo).

Wrapping-up this week’s installment of “RTT” is a 70’s-era shot of a driver that goes-down in Speedbowl history as one of the tracks true “Gentleman Racers”, Donnie Bunnell. Stock car drivers can be a pretty outspoken-bunch when it comes to extolling the virtues (or lack-of), their fellow competitors. Let’s just say that in all the many years that I was a fixture at the Waterford Speedbowl I got to know a lot of those drivers, and I can’t recall a negative comment about Mr. Bunnell ever coming from any of the guys he raced-against. His biggest career victory came in the 1976 Bicentennial 200 when he bested a full field of UNITED Modifieds in his family’s familiar #318 Coupe. This shot captures him as a hired-gun in May of 1978 driving for Frank Konopka. (Kennedy Photo).

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

 
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