Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday January 7, 2009

 

Volume 1, Number 2

By Dave Dykes                                                                                      CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

Connecticut’s West Haven Speedway

West Haven Speedway (AKA ”Savin Rock” for its close proximity to amusement park of the same name), started life in 1935 as a 1/5-mile dirt oval. The track was constructed within the confines of Donovan Field, a baseball coliseum named in honor of “Wild Bill” Donovan, a popular early manager of the New York Yankees.

The following season saw the track paved, continuing in that configuration until the gates closed during the war-years. During its formative era, West Haven was celebrated as a top venue for the wildly-popular Midgets, once the “Road to Indy” for any driver aspiring to advance to the big-leagues of racing. Open cockpit Maestros such as Bill Schindler, Johnny Thomson, Ted Tappet, and the Brothers Rice, George and Johnny, bought capacity crowds to the track located close to the warm sea breezes of the Connecticut shore.

With peacetime restored and Americans returning to leisure-time pursuits, the speedway reopened in 1945. While the “Mighty Midgets” were still considered the top short-track draw in the country, a new brand of racing was on the horizon. Stock Cars presented a slam-bang show with full-fields of young chauffeurs looking to become the next local hero. Under the tutelage of Harvey Tattersall’s United Stock Car Racing Club (once the premier sanctioning body in the Northeast), “The Rock” made stars out of drivers like Billy Greco, Johnny “King” Cambino, Tommy Sutcliffe, and Bobby Black – the list goes on.

While the coupes became standard-fare, the Midgets remained a popular attraction. The Speedway continued to host them on a “special event” basis. However, the division also provided “The Rock” with its darkest hour when Al Herman perished in a crash on the evening of June 18, 1960. In addition to being a successful Midget racer, Herman was also a veteran of the AAA and USAC Championship Series. As an Indianapolis 500 competitor, his best finish was a seventh in 1955, earning him Rookie of the Year honors at the “Brickyard”.

While it wasn’t anticipated at the close of what was the final season, West Haven Speedway became a causality of the era’s widespread urban-renewal movement, hosting its last event during the fall of 1967. Many of the top-stars of the tiny 1/5-miler went-on to similar success at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam , MA . (another cornerstone of UNITED), and Joe Tinty’s Plainville Stadium. Ironically, both of those tracks are but memories now.

Some Images From Savin Rock


Savin Rock Amusement Park with the race track on the right marked Donovan Field.


West Havens 4th turn.
 


The 4th turn and front straight covered grandstands.


Tommy Sutcliff the 1962 & 63 Track Champ.


Bill Schindler & Ted Tappet battle it out in West Haven's Midget Heyday.


Bobby Black a perennial West Haven winner.


Johnny "King" Cambino the 1966 Champion, the last year of operation of The West Haven Speedway.
 


Billy Greco, the 1955. 56 & 58 Champion.


Danny Gaudiosi, the 1957, 60 & 64 Champion. Along with Billy Greco, the only 3 time champions in the tracks 17 year existence of running Modifieds.

Phil Salerno and the “Banana Wagon”


One of the more colorful characters in the history of Connecticut’s late Plainville Stadium, Phil Salerno wheeled this hulking coach in the Sportsman division during the early days of Joe Tinty’s tight quarter-miler.

He was an accomplished racer and was linked to some pretty big names during the “Days of the Coupes”. None other than New England Auto Racing Hall Of Famer “Steady Eddie Flemke” once drove a Salerno team car to victory at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, MA. (also a memory now).

His ride known affectionately as the “Banana Wagon”, he gained the affection of fans not only via his racing endeavors, but also for his habit of hurling fresh-bananas into the crowd. A win-win situation, it provided patrons with a healthy race-night snack and it was also great advertisement for Salerno, who happened to be the proprietor of a local produce stand.

And they say today’s big-buck sponsors know how to pitch a product.

Salerno’s era was indeed, a more innocent (and some say better), time period in the annals of New England racing history.

Bobby Mikulak, One Of Plainville’s Finest…..

Every short track has them. The guys that ply their trade season-after-season, perhaps winning on occasion, but mostly just being there out of a love for the sport. They’re not the big headline-grabbers, and mostly fly under-the-radar of the racing press.
 
Bobby Mikulak was one of those guys for years at Connecticut’s Plainville Stadium.

I was introduced to the now-retired Bobby a number of years-ago by our webmaster Tom Ormsby (once a fine racer in his own right). Seems that Tom and Bobby go-back a few years, having traded their share of paint together at the “House That Tinty Built”. Word has it that they also shared more than a few beers together during the wee-hour post-race celebrations that remain a part of Staduim’ lore….

While his buddy Ormsby has since relocated to sunny Florida, Mikulak can often be found these days at the Waterford Speedbowl sharing a race-night brew with another Plainville alumnus, Ronnie Wyckoff. The more things change, the more they stay the same….

The accompanying image captures the little Coupe that started it all for Mikulak back in the late-1960’s.

Richie Evans At “The Monster Mile”

Your author has had this photo of the late nine-time NASCAR National Modified Champion Richie Evans in his archive for eons, but could never place the venue or year. After quizzing New England Auto Racing Hall Of Fame member Pete Zanardi to no-avail, his suggestion was to contact our mutual friend, award-winning racing journalist Bones Bourcier.

Bones’ reports that the image was captured at Dover International Speedway (AKA “The Monster Mile), circa 1970. The Modfieds ran only ran a pair of races at the track before NASCAR deemed it a tad-too risky for its open-wheel brethren.

Veteran fans may recall seeing a spectacular and widely-circulated shot of the late Charlie Jarzombek up on the high-banks, absolutely destroying the catch fence in his familiar Coupe during one of the events. Though he escaped serious injury, Charlie’s scary encounter probably contributed in the decision to discontinue the event – at least for a while.

When the Mods finally returned to Dover in 1977 during the ill-fated “Super Speedway Modified” era, Geoff Bodine relieved an ill Maynard Troyer to win the event. Evans notched a top-5.

The car seen here was actually one of Evans’ familiar “Rusty Nail” Coupes with full-bodied Camaro tinwork – a great example of one of the earliest of Super Speedway Modifieds.

Special thanks to Mr. Bourcier for the information on this classic shot of the “King of the Modifieds”!

That's it for this edition of Racing Through Time. You can email me at

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