Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday January 06, 2010

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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

The snow is falling on this holiday weekend here in Connecticut, and venturing-outside isn’t in the cards for yours-truly. It’s the perfect day to bask in the warmth of the indoors while perusing the archives for more vintage goodies. As-always enjoy this week’s offerings!
 Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@gmail.com

Reliving The Past On A Snowy New England Weekend…  

Opening this week’s edition of “Racing Through Time” is a 1974 pit-side shot of Nels Wohlstrom, a top-flight Modified driver at what was then known as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. He was a close-associate of fellow racer and multi-time winner Mike Beebe, this car having originated at that teams shop in the Connecticut River Valley area. A popular Bowl’ chauffer and graduate of the Sportsman Sedan class, Wohlstrom notched a bevy of fine finishes while behind the controls of this wild-looking little number at Waterford and Thompson. (Dugas Photo).

Not everyone utilized pre-war tin as a style palette during those halcyon days of the much-heralded “Coupe Era”. Seen here in a Chevy II-bodied mount is Montville, CT. speedster Donnie Bunnell. A Speedbowl Superstar throughout the 1970’s (the era in-which this image was captured), the popular Bunnell was known as a steady and sportsman-like chauffer. Perhaps his biggest moment in the sun was a stunning victory in the 1976 UNITED-sanctioned “Bicentennial 200”, then the longest-ever event staged at the shoreline oval. Note the “Psychedelic” numbers – a sign of the times! (Shany Photo).     

Before graduating to the Modifieds, Walt Dombrowski had claimed the 1963 Speedbowl Bomber championship. The transition was a smooth-affair, with Walt scoring his first checkers in Waterford’s headlining division in 1966. Having secured a seat in the potent L&M coupe, he handily nailed-down the Modified title in 1970. This shot sees Walt “in the office” during the late-1960’s. (Shany Photo).

 Admittedly, we don’t know much about driver Dave Spence, but we sure like his ultra-sanitary little coupe! Seen here during what looks to be the early 1970’s, note that Dave’s car carries a 3-digit number. It was a style practice common to Waterford long-after one & two digit schemes had become the norm at other area raceways. Throughout its early history, the shoreline oval always seemed to march to the beat of a different drummer in that regard. There were an abundance of multi-digit and “letter” cars, such as the Slater V8, the Bunnell #318, Freddie Beaber’s checkerboard #716’s, and the “M” cars of Bill Scrivener & Seabury Tripler. It’s a long-list! (Shany Photo).   

Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Spence, we do know a bit about the career of this fellow. Known as “Gentleman Dick” Watson as well as “The Silver Fox”, the late Watson was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. Dick began and ended his career at Waterford. From that first race in 1953 until his retirement in 1976, he competed at tracks across New England including; West Haven, Plainville Stadium, Lonsdale, Seekonk, Langhorne (dirt & paved), Norwood Arena, Thompson Speedway, & Stafford Motor Speedway. His first victory came at Plainville Stadium. Among his most notable rides were the Bob Garbarino #V-4“Mystic Missile” and the Congdon #76 as seen-here. In 1966 he moved to the NASCAR Modified circuit, winning the Thompson World Series. He scored top-ten point finishes at Thompson in 1966 and '67, and at Stafford in '67 and '68 competing against some of the very best drivers of the era. Dick also competed in several Grand National (now known as Sprint Cup) events. In 1969, at the Thompson 200 he was running fifth on lap 180, with eventual winner David Pearson, when a mechanical failure forced him out of the race with an 11th place finish. In 1972 he returned to Waterford, again experiencing great success at his old haunt. Dick hung up his helmet after a violent crash during a qualifying heat at the shoreline oval in 1976, where he suffered a concussion, lower back injuries, and several broken ribs. (Shany Photo).      

 Like Watson, the racer you see here traces his roots back to the Waterford Speedbowl. Simply one of the best New England Modified drivers to have ever strapped-in behind the wheel, listing the career accomplishments of Bob Potter would take much-more than my space here allows. He started in the Bombers at Waterford in 1962, and before it was over decades-later (though he’s never officially-retired), he’d claimed 11 championships and an estimated 140 features at Stafford, Thompson and Waterford. Nearly 100 of those victories and 6 championships came at Waterford. Celebrating yet-another victory, Bob is seen here in 1972 with Bowl’ flagman Lou Mazzocci. (Shany Photo).  

Here at “Racing Through Time” we’ve always made an effort to showcase racers of all accomplishment levels, not just the big winners. After-all, while there can be only one victor, that’s not-to-say that the rest of the pack wasn’t trying just as hard to grab that elusive checkered flag. Lee Hardy was a journeyman Modified racer at the Speedbowl for much of the late-60’s and early-70’s, recording a number of decent finishes in the process. His equipment was often somewhat-less than that of the top teams, but he remained competitive all-the-same. His last-drive coming during the 1974 campaign, he’s seen here with an early-version of his familiar #88. (Dugas Photo).      

And here’s a 1960’s shot of a racer commonly referred-to as “The Old Master.” New Jersey native and dirt track specialist Frankie Schneider began his career in 1947 by winning $70 for driving his street car to a seventh place at New Jersey’s Flemington Speedway. Schneider is believed to have won at least 750 races in the next thirty years. He routinely raced eight races per week (in several classes). He reportedly scored at least 100 wins in 1958. Schneider won the Langhorne National Open, the country's most noted event for Sportsman and Modified racers, in 1954 and again in 1962. Among the many accolades and awards bestowed upon Schneider was being voted “Driver of the Century” by Area Auto Racing News. Until a few seasons-ago, he occasionally campaigned a Modified at Middletown New York’s Orange County Speedway. (Grady Photo)

Captured at New York’s Lancaster Speedway in 1969 is Billy Rafter, a racer who was as skilled on asphalt as he was on dirt. He started his career racing during the late 1940’s on the short-lived NASCAR Midget circuit (yes, NASCAR did in-fact sanction the open-wheelers for a time in their heyday during the post-war years). Switching to stock cars shortly thereafter, he became almost an immediate success amassing a long-list of accomplishments, among them a New York State NASCAR Modified championship, four victories at Langhorne, and a host of track titles in the Jersey/New York area. Bill was inducted in to the DIRT Hall of Fame in 1992. (Reinig Photo).

Seen here behind the controls of a beast of an injected big-block coupe at Stafford is the late Gino Spada. A standout New England Modified pilot who tasted success at virtually all of the region’s speedplants, Gino was also the longtime proprietor of “Red Barn Radiator” a destination that supplied many of New England’s top Modified teams with their cooling needs. He was a longtime member of the Northeastern Midget Association (NEMA), owning the car successfully campaigned for many seasons by his son Tommy. Sadly, Gino left-us in the fall of last year after a battle with cancer. (Adaskaveg Photo).

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

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