Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday July 18, 2012
   

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Volume 4, Number 29                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                             CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

On Sunday, I received another of those calls that you hope you’ll never get. Not entirely-unexpected, it was learned that our friend “Wild Bill” Slater had passed-away after suffering ill-health in recent years. Anybody who knows me realizes that I’ve benefited tremendously from my relationship with award-winning journalist Pete Zanardi who’s first, been a supremely-valued friend over the years, and second, afforded me many opportunities to meet my childhood heroes personally (why he took such an interest in an untalented trade paper hack such as myself remains one of my life’s pleasant mysteries). Anyway, Slater & Zanardi, both members of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame, remained close over the years, and Bill was the first driver from what could only be considered the “Golden Age of New England Modified Racing” that I was introduced-to courtesy of Mr. Zanardi. The original “Connecticut Valley Rocket” will certainly be missed by many of us in the New England racing fraternity. Our sincere condolences are offered to his family & many friends. And Thanks goes to my friend and Webmaster Tom Ormsby for burning the mid-night oil putting together the Photo Video Tribute to our mutual friend Bill Slater.   
Email me at:
 

Bill Slater
Calling Hours are Monday July 23rd from 4:00 to 7:00 P.M.
Tierney Funeral Home
219 West Center Street
Manchester, Ct.

Burial will be Private

 

NOTE: We have now put a comment box at the end of the web site. Please feel free to leave your comments.

Another Week In The Books, And We Bid Farewell To An Icon Of New England Modified Racing….      

Of all the photos of the late “Wild Bill” Slater in the Racing Through Time archives (and there are many), this one remains a personal favorite. After quite-handily conquering the ovals of his native New England, Slater has just reached the zenith of his career in what could only be considered the era’s crown jewel of Modified racing. Gazing skyward flanked by the trophy queen and his car owners Bob Vitari & Vic Bombaci, driving the potent #V8 coupe Slater has just defeated a stellar field to take the 1965 Race of Champions at Pennsylvania’s storied Langhorne Speedway. He was among the first inductees into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998, while Vitari & Bombaci took their places among our regions greatest in 2006. (Photo Courtesy Tom Ormsby).

In the days before NASCAR gained a presence in New England, it was the Tattersall family’s United Stock Car Racing Club that reigned-supreme. One of the organizations earliest stars was New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member the late “Moneybags” Moe Gherzi seen here celebrating a victory. Overwhelmingly recalled for competition of the modified-variety, United also sanctioned a successful “Late Model” division not-unlike what NASCAR was busy developing in the Southern states. Many of United’s top stars took a turn successfully wheeling the full-fendered rides, and Moe was one of them. That’s United’s late Harvey Tattersall Jr. (also a Hall of Famer), on the right and Riverside Park owner Ed Carroll, Sr. (Shany Photo).

Here’s another neat United shot which we think was captured at old 1/5-miler at the late & much-missed Riverside Park in Agawam, Massachusetts. The driver is the much-accomplished Hoppy Jensen, and the car is one of the famous #44 machines of New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer Fred "Sharkey” Gaudiosi that play so-heavily in the history of modified racing in New England. We really like the old coach-bodied creations, and this one is a gem! (Shany Photo).

Not a scene often recorded at what was then known as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. See the guy putting that nifty coupe on its nose? That’s none-other than Don Collins, another New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member and absolutely one of the best to have ever emerged from the Connecticut track affectionately-nicknamed “The Shoreline Oval.” Nobody has more wins in the Modified division at Waterford than this racer. Though Collins also competed at other venues, he spent much of his career at the Speedbowl where he scored more than 100 features in both Modified and Non-Ford competition along with five Modified championships. The first title came in 1955, the final in 1969. (Shany Photo).               

It ranked among the most-terrifying accidents ever witnessed in the Speedbowl’s then-short history, and during the last event of 1954 the driver inside this flaming cut-down nearly paid the ultimate price. Alas, the late “Hammerin’ Hank Stevens” was from the old-mold; he overcame the results of this accident in-which he received life threatening burns and endured months of healing to return as a Speedbowl winner. A flyweight-style of modified definitely not for the faint of heart, Hank’s car was what was known as a “cut-down” and this occurred when he was hit from behind and his jerry-can fuel tank exploded. Earlier that season, poor Jack Griffin had perished from injuries sustained when his cut-down went into a violent series of flips in August. The cut-downs were subsequently outlawed at all Connecticut tracks prior to the start of the 1955 campaign, signaling a return to the more-substantial full-coupes. (Shany Photo).   

Captured here early in his career at Riverside Park, New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member, the late Jerry Humiston was one of the premier-players within Harvey Tattersall’s United Racing Club. Three-times a track champion (1954, 59, and 61), he raced at The Park’ during what many consider the tracks most-competitive era. One of the most-popular and accomplished drivers of his time, Humiston’s prominent place in the history of New England modified racing is rightly-deserved (Shany Photo).  

This New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member needs little-introduction to those of us who recall the true “Glory Days” of New England short track racing. From his HOF biography; Fred Luchesi’s career in racing started in the late 1940’s, and lasted until his retirement in the late 1960s.  During that career, Fred drove coupes, modifieds, midgets, and late models.  He competed against nationally known drivers like Fonty Flock, Red Byron, and Ted Tappett, and raced against local drivers like Moon Burgess. Fred is modest when asked about championships. “Oh, I dunno. Three at Westboro, 2 or 3 at Lonsdale, 1 at Norwood, oh, and 3 at Waterford”, Fred recalls.  One year at Lonsdale, Fred "Lead Foot” Luchesi took down every main event of the season but one, finishing 2nd to NEAR Hall of Farmer Dave Hunphrey in that race. Fred recalls those early days in racing, when he’d load up his car with race tires, tools, and his two man pit crew, and drive the race car from Pawtucket, RI. all the way up to Victoriaville in Canada for that day’s race.  Another early memory is those Sunday mornings driving the race car to Thompson to compete.  He would roll the car down Slater Street in Pawtucket, and fire it up at the bottom of the hill, in front of the St John the Baptist church.  It wasn’t until sometime later that a friend informed Fred that every Sunday, when he fired up the car, the service would be halted, and the priest would take time to “bless that race car out in front of the church”. (Shany Photo).     

We really enjoy these early Shany “portrait shots” of the pioneers of the sport, and this one’s a dandy! One of the real chargers when Harvey Tattersall’s once influential United Stock Car Racing Club ruled the New England modified roost rather than NASCAR, Tommy Sutcliffe enjoyed a long-reign at the front of the pack. Twice a champion at Connecticut’s late West Haven Speedway, he was a top competitor all over our region for decades winning a boatload of features. This one captures the guy nicknamed “Suitcase Sutcliffe” (for reasons unknown to this scribe), when he was a part of the starting field at Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl of the early 1960s. (Shany Photo).

As we all know, stock car racing can be a dangerous business, and during its decades-long history, the Waterford Speedbowl has not been immune to tragedy. Pictured here early in his career (at a venue we’re unsure-of), is John “Jack” K. Griffin who holds the unfortunate distinction of being the shoreline ovals singular racing fatality. On a Saturday evening in August of 1954, he was racing his “cut-down” style coupe in the Speedbowl Sportsman feature (a particularly-messy event that had already experienced 2 red flag periods), when another accident occurred directly in-front of him. He tried to avoid the wreck, but clipped the wheel of another competitor and rolled several times. Sadly, he died of his injuries in the early hours of the next day at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, CT. (Shany Photo).

Popular, young, and talented; Ed Moody was the 1962 track champion in the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl’s Bomber division, once an immensely-popular class at the shoreline oval, and certainly a fertile training-ground for some of that tracks greatest modified drivers. Winner of 44 main events in the class, he also scored a pair of modified features before calling-it-a-day. (Shany Photo).  

BONUS SHOT: Captured following a win at Riverside in the potent Czarnecki coupe, here’s a New England Modified shoe who’s accomplishments in the sport have kind of “slipped through the cracks”; he remains a highly-underrated racer historically-speaking, and the numbers prove-it. Starting his career in Florida, Ronnie Wyckoff quickly became one of the regions premier drivers after relocating Northward in the early 1960s. A 3-time Riverside 500 champion, he found success at virtually all of New England’s Modified venues during his long career, and drove for the some of the best in car-owners. As evidenced by his triple in the Riverside 500 events, he was particularly good at the long-distance shows. Though Plainville Stadium records are incomplete at this time (we’re working on-it), it’s estimated that Ronnie’s win-total at that track-alone approaches 40. Couple that with a parcel of victories at Riverside Park between 1974-1980, and you have what could only be considered a stellar career. (Shany Photo)

 

A Speedway Line Report & Racing Through Time
Photo Video Tribute to our Friend Bill Slater
Note: Part 8 of the 2003 Nostalgia Weekend Video will return next week.

 
 

 

 

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

This Weeks Comments:

(3 days ago) Gary Miron said:

This was terrific,usta watch him race at Albany-Saratoga,we never get to know the drivers as well as we should. A character,for sure. Thanks guys,this was terrific.

(4 days ago) Nick Fontaine said:

Thanks for the great video tribute memories of one of the greatest race car driver of all time, Wild Bill Slater. Will be missed, remembered, but never forgotten.R.I.P. Bill!

(4 days ago) Sonny Koszela said:

What a wonderful tribute. Thanks, Sonny and Henriette Koszela

Tony Mordino said:

Great Bill Slater Video & Column
The Web contributors (Tom & Dave) deserve recognition and credit for their efforts. There are many people including myself who look forward to their column every week. This site has allowed us to re-live many precious moments from Racing's past.
Thanks Again.

(5 days ago) Greg Goodspeed said:

Very nice! Bill won the first race that I went to, Waterford 1967.

(5 days ago) ray cote said:

great stuff. thanks

(5 days ago) Malcolm Phillips said:

I remember the night that Bill got out of the 11 car and went right into the V 8. Thanks for the memories! Gone...but not forgotten.

(5 days ago) Cal in clinton said:

awsome trbute

(5 days ago) Marge Litteral said:

Great tribute to a "Great" driver

(5 days ago) Judy A. said:

Tears are flowing. Thank you for creating such a beautiful tribute for one of our "Great" drivers. I truly appreciate everyones dedication in keeping all the history alive for all of us fans.

Larry F. said:

Great job guys. I remember going to the races at the much missed Riverside park back in the early 60's. These race car drivers were as tough as nails and had no fear. They deserve a lot of respect which is what you did with this video of Wild Bill Slater

mike said:

thanks for the memories, bill. one of the ALL TIME GREATS. a real race car driver!

(5 days ago) Dave Dykes said:

Folks, a special-thanks goes out to my friend & Webmaster Tom Ormsby for putting-together the wonderful video tribute on Bill for all of us to enjoy. Tom's been a great partner in "RTT" for the last 3-plus years, and it's def. been a joint-effort.

(5 days ago) Anonymous said:

Dave?

(5 days ago) Mike Guerette said:

Thanks for the outstanding tribute for a true gentleman and racer.I miss the stories he told at the pit gate at Stafford.

(5 days ago) Ed P said:

Dave - that picture of the 44 has to be from about 1949. notice the car doesn't even have the truck rear end with the beefier axles yet, which didn't catch on until a few years later.

(5 days ago) Mike Ray said:

Thank you;Brought tears to my eyes!What a great tribute!

 
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