Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday July 1, 2009

Volume 1, Number 27                                                                                       New Column Every Wednesday

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A weekend with nary a drop of rain afforded yours-truly with some much needed “outdoor-time”. Visiting with friends, car shows, and other pleasurable pursuits left me with little planning-time for this installment. My, how the summer weekends fly-by when life is good! On that note, please enjoy another “varied assortment” from the RTT files… Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com

Varied Assortment Part III…..         

Pictured here is the late Russ McLean, the 1969 Sportsman-Modified champion at the much-missed UNITED-sanctioned Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass. Fondly-recalled as a very popular racer amongst both fans and competitors. His lone feature victory occurred on the evening of April 17, 1971 in the car seen here. Utilizing a dose of tongue-in-cheek humor during what was perhaps a less politically-correct era, note that McLean’s sanitary little Coupe was christened “The Other Woman”. (Grady Photo).

Few drivers got-around more than my old friend, New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, “Wild Bill” Slater.  In addition to being a master at the most notable of Modified haunts, he also excelled on the high-banks of the NASCAR super-speedways. He’s seen here taking a break for a cold drink during one of his yearly Daytona sojourns. Note the absence of a fire suit and the rudimentary safety appointments on Bill’s Chevrolet. The cars were truly closer to stock back-then, and were more than a handful to navigate at the speeds these guys were eclipsing. (Photographer unknown).

We’ve ran shots of this driver before, but this one just begs to be seen. Few New England Modified drivers had more going for them than the late Don MacTavish. Starting his career at the age of 15 racing at the much-celebrated Norwood Arena, he quickly gained popularity as one of the regions brightest young upstarts. In 1963 he progressed to NASCAR’s Sportsman Division and in 1966 took the NASCAR National Sportsman Championship, his closest competitors being Ralph Earnhardt, "Wild" Bill Slater and Rene Charland. During his Daytona debut on February 22, 1969, “Mac” lost his life in a horrific crash during the Permatex 300. To say this regions racing community was stunned and saddened is an understatement. MacTavish was posthumously inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2001 (Grady Photo).

Ken Canestrari was another early competitor gifted-enough to win on both dirt and asphalt. A terror at places like Fonda, he also excelled at joints like the paved circle at Utica-Rome. Enjoying a long & successful career as one of the best of what’s sometimes called the “Middle-Region” of the nations Modified racing network, this early shot captures Ken with one of his ultra-sanitary Coupes – a trademark of this sometimes historically-underrated racer. (Grady Photo).

Seen here pit-side at Fonda, New York in the fifties, is Connecticut’s George Janowski. Nicknamed “The Polish Earthmover”- a nod to nationality and many-deeds as the winning pilot of this Coupe, he’s a former champion on the Barlow-era dirt of the Stafford Springs Motor Speedway. One of the real movers & shakers of his generation, George was considered a threat to win whether it was close to his home base in the Nutmeg State, or on the surface of some dirt-joint up in the wilds of the Maine-Vermont region. As it’s been relayed here previously, racing almost every-night of the week was not uncommon for the teams of the post-war era. It was simply a super-busy period in the history of Northeastern Modified racing, and there were lots-more tracks! (Grady Photo).

Some guys are just born with a knack for driving race cars, and this fellow was a real “Natural”. The multi-talented Gene Bergin saw action in everything from Modifieds to Midgets, and darned if he wasn’t able to win in all of them. During a career that spanned three-decades, he was always one of the guys to beat whether it was asphalt or dirt. Among his many accomplishments, is the distinction of being the first-ever Stafford pavement champion in 1967. This shot captures him at Malta, New York. Bergin was among the first drivers inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. (Grady Photo).

With an impish grin and a practical joke waiting for anyone who happed to be in spitting-distance, the late George Pendergast was one of the really good-things about the formative years of our sport. Not to be portrayed as simply a “Character”, he was a skilled and accomplished racer as-well. In the 1960’s, a win at the famed Norwood Arena meant that you had really arrived. As relayed in “Hot Cars, Cool Drivers” by Lew Boyd www.coastal181.com the wild revelry in the Pendergast pit area following his first-ever triumph at the fabled Massachusetts speedplant somehow resulted in ole’ George breaking his arm. They simply don’t make em’ like George (or Norwood), anymore…. (Grady Photo).

Talk to any racing scribe that was active during the sixties and seventies about S.J. Evonsion, and you’re likely to get a favorable response. He remains one of the racers that the media remembers as a guy that was always an informative and pleasurable interview. Well-traveled during his time, S.J. tasted success at many Modified tracks in the New England region, but is perhaps best recalled as one of the top-shoes at Riverside Park where he garnered the 1972 track championship. This shot captures a young S.J. during the early-seventies. (Grady Photo)     

Captured here at a sixties Modified show during a break from his USAC Indy Car endeavors is the late, great Jim Hurtubise. A ten-time starter of the Indy 500, “Herk” was a truly-versatile racer, successfully competing in a myriad of different divisions during his long, storied career. Regarded as a true underdog when he was racing at the nation’s highest-rung of competition, he was a crowd-favorite, especially when behind the controls of his front-engine Mallard Roadsters. It was a time when the rest of the Indy-set had long-abandoned the design in-favor of the more technically advanced rear-engine cars. Pictured here with the Gill Bruss owned #2. Sadly, Jim passed-away from a heart-attack in 1989 at age-56. (Grady Photo).

And here we have the late Bobby Santos, fondly recalled as the “Frito Bandito” in New England racing circles. Yet another driver that traces his roots back to the Norwood Arena where he got his start in the Hobby Division of the early-fifties, he went-on to become a dominant force in the Modified wars. Driving for renowned car-owners such as Art Barry, Bill Simon (as pictured here), and Joe Brady among others, he was a threat to-win each time he donned the Nomex. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, Bobby passed-away in December of 2006. However, the Santos racing legacy continues through his grandchildren. Bobby III and Erica are both active and successful drivers. Bobby III has victories in ISMA Supers, NEMA Midgets, PRA Big Cars, and USAC. Erica has proven to be a fast and consistent NEMA competitor as well, showing that the Santos legacy of success is secure. (Grady Photo).

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

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