Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday June 10, 2009

Volume 1, Number 24                                                                                       New Column Every Wednesday


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The New England racing community lost one of its staunchest supporters last week when Marvin Rifchin of M & H Tire Company fame passed-away at age 94. Rifchin’s initial involvement with the sport came during the post-war Midget racing boom as a car owner. Later switching to stock cars, his racers won events at many of our regions speedways. With his father Harry (the “H” in M & H), he formed the company that became a primary supplier of racing tires until 1986. Never one to ignore a down-on-his-luck racer, Marvin’s generosity was felt by many over the years. It was more than one driver that was able to make the starting field via an “M & H Freebie”. He was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1999.  Contact me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com

Hudsons, Non-Fords, and a Speedbowl Legend…      

We begin this week’s column with an ancient image of a car manufactured by a company that was once a major-player in the world of stock car racing both locally, and in the big leagues. The late Hudson Motor Company produced some of the most popular automobiles in America, and was particularly successful in the early days of NASCAR with their “Fabulous Hudson Hornet”. This shot captures one of Hudson’s products closer to home at the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl of the fifties. The driver is the great Benny Derosier and the car was owned by Chester, Connecticut’s Barney Tiezzi. Barney’s son Joe later carried-on the family tradition becoming one of our region’s top drivers. Note the license plate & light on the roof-post, an indication that the car may have been flat-towed. Back-then, trailers were considered a luxury for some teams. (Shany Photo).      

The late “Moneybags” Moe Gherzi was one of the guys defined our sport during its infancy. Already an established star when this shot was captured in the lens of Shany Lorenzent, he was one of the most-prolific winners in early “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl action. Often nattily-attired on race night, Moe bought a degree of class to the sport when greasy t-shirts seemed the norm. He earned his nickname via a penchant for claiming some of the biggest purses of the era. After vacating the driver’s seat, Gherzi served a long residency as the Race Director at the late Plainville Stadium. Note that this little coupe, an early Garuti Brothers creation, is one of the more extreme examples of the notorious “Cut-Down” era. In addition to being lowered, it’s also sectioned up-the-middle. Not a man of small-stature, it was undoubtedly close-quarters for “Moneybags” as he wrestled his way through the pack. (Shany Photo).

As a multi-time champion at the shoreline oval, the late Charlie Webster held-court over a huge fan-following, undoubtedly being one of the shoreline oval’s most popular early stars. Shown here in an Eisenhower-era shot behind the controls of what was known as a “Non-Ford”, Webster recorded titles in the division on three occasions in addition to taking the Modified crown in 1966. Note Charlie’s snazzy attire in this shot. A silk shirt serving as a “firesuit” along with a (then) state-of-the-art “Cromwell” helmet (a strikingly-simple affair with leather straps for sides, many early racers flippantly referred to them as “brain-buckets”). It took sheer skill and nerves of steel to tame one of these early beasts. The record book reveals that Charlie Webster possessed both in ample amounts. For many returning war veterans of the post-war era, stock car racing seemed tame when compared to the adrenalin-pumping adventures they’d experienced defending their country overseas. These were tough men. (Shany Photo).  

And here we have a driver whose name became synonymous with the “New London Waterford” Speedbowl, the much-accomplished Don Collins. Arguably the greatest driver to have ever emerged from the shoreline oval, he set the standard from his debut in the early-fifties until his retirement at the dawn of the seventies. He was the first driver to amass over one-hundred victories (including both Modified & Non-Ford competition), the first to garner five championships, and perhaps more importantly, he was among the first to set an example in true-sportsmanship and class. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2005, his career actually began at the Thompson Speedway in 1948 when he’d built a car for another would-be racer. When the guy didn’t show-up, a young Collins took the wheel, and we all know the rest of the story. His career a relatively brief-affair by today’s standards, it’s anyone’s guess how many more checkers waited had he not called-it-quits in 1970 while still very-much in his prime. (White Photo).

Seen here during early-seventies action is journeyman Speedbowl Modified racer, Don Kibbe. Proving to be an ample shoe, he recorded multiple victories running against the likes of Bowl stalwarts such as Don Collins, Dick Dunn, Bob Potter, Dick Watson, etc. during what many deem to be one of the most competitive eras in the track’s history. Though Don is long-retired, the Kibbe family continues to be a force within sport today competing within the ranks of the Northeast Midget Association (NEMA). (Shany Photo)

Another driver that would forsake the Modifieds for action within the world of NEMA was John Ferrell, captured here during the seventies in this Waterford pitside image. Today, it’s John’s daughter Kelly who’s the racer in the family, competing on the Midget trail. In addition to her NEMA endeavors, she’s a top-pilot at Whip City Speedway, as well as a veteran “Chile Bowl” competitor. The “CB” of-course is one of the most revered gatherings of the nation’s Midget racing contingent. It’s not unlike the “Indy 500” of one of the oldest and historically-rich of all American short-track divisions. (Kennedy Photo).

Stafford Springs Motor Speedway has always been a difficult place to master, whether you’re talking about the dirt of the Mal Barlow days, or the time period in which the Arute family was busy turning the joint into the showplace of speed it remains today. “Underdog” status may have won you the hearts of the fans, but when racing weekly against guys like Bugs, Freddie, Ronnie B., and the rest of the top-shoes that made up the “Stafford Seventies” it was tough, no-matter how much support you got from the stands. The unassuming guy you see here is a fellow by the name of Win Barrows. A close associate of the late George “Moose” Hewitt, he wheeled this little entry that was wrenched by famed Hewitt team mechanic George Brennan (second from left). Ole’ Win recorded a number of favorable finishes competing against the best that New England Modified racing had to offer. (Grady Photo).

Though it reads “ERRY” on that period-perfect racing jacket (perhaps his busy schedule prevented the missus from righting that minor spelling err), most of you will recognize this young fella’ as none-other than one Jerry Cook, six-time NASCAR Modified champion. Cook’s career began at the tender age of 13, and he won his first track title at New York’s Utica-Rome Speedway in 1969. Hailing from that fertile racing community of Rome, New York (also the home of the late, great Richie Evans), “Cookie” took the checkers on 342 occasions before calling it quits in 1982. After retiring, he remained with NASCAR in a managerial capacity, helping to shape today’s Modified Tour. An inductee into several Racing Hall of Fames, he was named as one of “NASCAR’s 50-Greatest Drivers” in 1998. This sixties shot captures the versatile Cook during one of his Northeastern dirt track outings. (Grady Photo).        

Last week we ran a shot of George Allum during his days as a young Daredevil division pilot at the Waterford Speedbowl. We also stated that he was one of the “fender guys” that emerged to become one of the shoreline oval’s top Modified stars. Here’s a shot of where his stint in the track’s premier division all-began as the driver of the “Family Affair” coupe. Pictured to Allums’s right is brother-in-law and car owner Moe “Bumzy” DeSaulniers. Also part of the team and seen here are father-in-law Francois, and yet two more brother-in-laws, Bob & Ray. It was indeed a “Family Affair” in every-sense of the word! Soon after this image was captured, George found open-wheel racing to his liking and the rest is as they say, “History”. This is the car that provided the team with their earliest of Modified successes. It was later painted in the more-familiar red & silver combination. (Dugas Photo).

Lastly, we’ll take a peek at the early-days of one of the true craftsmen of local short track racing. The successful racing career of “Jiggs” Beetham is well-documented at area tracks as both a driver and owner, but perhaps one of the things he’s most-remembered for is creating simply beautiful race cars. Though it’s showing a little wear from a few encounters in a class that was definitely of the “contact-variety”, this early Beetham Daredevil entry was no-exception. One of my personal favorites of the Beetham stable of racers was the “Golden Hurricane” Modified coupe created in the late-seventies. The car remains active today on the vintage racing circuit. Oh yeah, that’s “Jiggs” on the left looking much-the-same as he does today! (Dugas Photo).

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

 
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