Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday June 24, 2009

Volume 1, Number 26                                                                                       New Column Every Wednesday


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Yet another week passes in this rain-forest otherwise known as New England, and with it floats-in another edition of “Racing through Time”. All weather conditions-aside, this week we touch-on a couple of Waterford veterans, a whole slew of Dirt Trackers, and even a noted racer from Australia. Enjoy! At the bottom of the page is a video bonus from the old Reading Fairgrounds Raceway.  
Contact me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com

Waterford Vets Worthy of Mention, Dirt Track Stormers, & Racing from “Across the Pond”….          

Pictured here celebrating his first-ever victory at the 1/3-miler known as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl on September 7, 1974 is a young Mark LaJeunesse. It was future champion Jerry Pearl that he’d out-dueled to the checkers in one of the seasons more hotly-contested features. Starting his career as a kid in the Quarter Midgets, LaJeunesse jumped right-into the Modifieds upon returning from armed forces service in Vietnam during the early-seventies. Though his first ride was an updated ex-Freddie Doolittle creation, subsequent machines were all self-designed and exquisitely hand-crafted at the team’s modest shop in Norwich, CT. Chief-wrench on the family team was father Al (kneeling, third-from-left), who’d been working on race cars for decades, most notably the ride of family relative and famed Waterford shoe, “Dirty Dick” Beaureguard. LaJeunesse called Waterford home for three-decades, scoring the United Stock Car Racing Club’s 1975 Sportsman-Modified title, and nearly twenty feature victories including the 2000 Budweiser Modified Nationals. Another son of the “Rose City” won that night too, as “Big Mike” Daigneault annexed the Sportsman Sedan main event. LaJeunesse and Daigneault are but two of a large group of great drivers from nearby Norwich that called the Speedbowl home for many years. (Shany Photo).    

New Jersey’s Elton Hildreth was one of the true chargers of his era, his name weighing heavily in the auto racing history of his native state. One of the joints that he really lit-up was the old Vineland Speedway. On any given Friday night, the titans of Jersey Modified racing would descend upon the half-miler to do battle. From 1954 through 1956, the track was dirt and attracted the very best broadsliders including nationally recognized hot shoes Frankie Schneider in his red “Deuce” coupe, local hero Al Tasnady in his #44 coach, and even the great Wally Dallenbach. Like many of their early Vineland contemporaries, Elton, Frankie and Al won more than their fair share of feature races before moving onto other dirt ovals in the region when Vineland was paved for the 1957 season. Hildreth of course, also added numerous pavement successes to his portfolio in future years. In addition to the Modified endeavors, his long career also included many early NASCAR Grand National starts in Nash products, a brand he knew-well having been a dealer for that once-popular independent automaker. This shot captures Elton during the later-stages of his reign as a top-shoe, his mount shod by Rambler American tinwork. Special thanks goes-out to old friend Lew Boyd of Coastal 181 Publishing www.coastal181.com for providing us with this great shot! (Lew Boyd Collection).

 This shot captures a young Bob Tauscher during his days as a “Coupe Jockey”. Before things progressed and changed favorably to reflect a new state of safety-consciousness, guys like Bob saw a lot of their racing buddies maimed (and worse), while participating in the dangerous early days of our sport. Tauscher is actually fairly well-equipped here, at least taking advantage of a new-style Bell helmet instead of utilizing one of the old Brit-inspired Cromwell “Brain Buckets” so-popular back-then. However, note the absence of a firesuit, certainly one of the best things to ever develop in racing-safety. Enjoying a successful tenure in our region, Bob scored a total of five checkers at the late Riverside Park during the Tattersall/UNITED era, taking his last Agawam win on the evening of July 6, 1974. This is an early to mid-60's Eastern States Exposition Fairgrounds event shot. (Grady Photo).

Shown here in the early 1970’s displaying a wide-smile for the camera is the wheelman of the memorable King Chevrolet Coach, the late Mike Grbac. One of the real heavy-hitters of late-sixties and seventies- era dirt Modified racing, the native of New Brunswick, New Jersey was extremely popular with both fans and his fellow competitors. During that absolutely-brutal season of 1978, the racing fraternity was further saddened when Grbac passed-away from injuries suffered while competing at the Schmidt’s 200 in October at the Reading Fairgrounds. His crash brought to three the total of Northeastern Modified drivers who suffered fatal injuries in the last quarter of 1978. The great Fred DeSarro lost his life from injuries sustained at Connecticut’s Thompson Speedway in the fall, and unlucky Kurt Bronson died in a fiery crash at New York’s Can-Am Speedway. During that same cursed period of 1978 three other drivers were critically injured in crashes but thankfully recovered - Rich Wrobel at Lancaster, Ollie Silva at Monodnock, and Pete Walker at Oswego. It was to say the least, a bleak time for our regions racing fraternity. (Grady Photo).  

Recalled as a true dirt-specialist, Northeastern Coupe-era star Don Wayman started his career during the post-war stock car boom of the late-forties, first climbing behind the wheel in 1947 at the old Clearview Speedway in South Westerloo, New York (a short-lived and dusty 1/3-mile dirt oval that operated for only three-seasons). Particularly successful on the pre-tarmac surface of the old Mal Barlow-owned Stafford Fairgrounds in Connecticut (now known as Jack Arute’s Stafford Motor Speedway), he was constantly in-demand with the top car-owners of his era. Always busy, the personable chauffer successfully maintained a hectic (and winning), three-track schedule in the sixties, running weekly at Fonda, Victoria, and Stafford. Shown here with one of his more-memorable rides, the Cliff Wright-prepared Toll Gate Ice Cream Special, Wayman closed the curtain on his long, victory-laden career in 1976, his last ride the Paul Braver-owned #17. (Grady Photo).

When you think of Charles “Chick” Stockwell, your mind immediately conjures-up images of overwhelming success as the all-time winner on the ultra-competitive surface of the late SNYRA-sanctioned Danbury Fair Racearena in Connecticut. Nine championships, 207 victories, and a stint as “Most Popular Driver” for six-years (1976-1981), are bound to sew-up his association with what was once considered one of the most-successful short track operations in America. However, Stockwell’s accomplishments are much further-reaching than his deeds experienced at Danbury. Racing as much as three and four times a week (a common thread for drivers of his generation), he successfully conquered the New York state dirt ovals of Orange County, Lebanon Valley, and Rhinebeck (AKA Dutch’s County Fairgrounds), the latter bringing him the 1957 championship. During the fifties, he also campaigned at Nutmeg State speedplants such as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl, Thompson Speedway, Plainville Stadium, and the Stafford Fairgrounds. Extremely versatile, Stockwell was also successful within the full-bodied divisions, annexing the 1963 & 64 United Stock Car Racing Club’s Grand American titles. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, this ancient John Grady image captures a youthful Chick during one of his many dirt-slingin’ expeditions. (Grady Photo).

It took a real tough-guy to wheel one of these overpowered, ungainly beasts around the dirt ovals of the Northeast during the formative days of our chosen sport, and this fellow fit the bill quite-nicely, thank you. The late Kenny Shoemaker was simply “The Man” in the days when a little Coupe (with whitewalls, no-less), could not-only gain notoriety amongst the fans of dirt-slingin’, but would also pad your wallet pretty-well if you were up to the task. Truth-be-told, he was also a terror on the paved ovals of his generation. To list the number of victories and top car-owners that he drove for during his heyday would simply take more space than this weekly column allows. Hailed as one of the best-ever, “The Shoe” is justifiably an inductee of several stock car racing Hall of Fames. Kenny passed-away in 2001 leaving-behind a huge legion of fans and fellow competitors that recall him as one of the most exciting drivers to have-ever graced a Northeastern speedway.  (Grady Photo).

From humble beginnings at Oscar “Cannonball” Ridlon’s fondly-remembered Pines Speedway in West Peabody, Massachusetts to the bricks of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, what a ride it’s been for the seemingly forever-young and still-active Bentley Warren! Among New England’s most-accomplished racers, Warren got his start at “The Pines” in the fifties where he scored his first-ever victory in 57’. From there it was onto triumphs in twelve different states while wheeling everything from Supers to Silver Crown cars – his career seemingly runs the gamut to include everything with wheels. For a time in the 70’s, Warren also competed on the Indy Car circuit starting two Indy 500’s. This shot captures him at Pocono as a star on the nation’s top open-wheel circuit. Bentley was inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2007. (Grady Photo)     

Though today it’s a haven for dirt racing aficionados, New York’s Fulton Speedway actually began as a paved track. Opening in June of 1961, it continued to host the best in tarmac Modified racing until the fall of 1979, a time in-which management sensed that pavement racing was in the throes of a downswing in their region. Reopening as the “New Fulton Speedway” in the spring of 1980, fans were greeted to a well-groomed clay surface with many of the sports big-names in attendance. Since that time, Fulton (AKA Milray Speedway in its earliest days), has continued to be a Mecca for the ultra-successful DIRT Motorsports group. This image shot during the final event of the season in 1970 captures among others, the #18 Corvair of the legendary Donald “Dutch” Hoag, and the famous #4 Coupe of the equally-celebrated Lou “Monks” Lazzaro. (Grady Photo).

Boy, do we get mail! Here at “Racing Through Time” it’s welcomed and not unusual to receive an occasional email from one of our readers. Apparently, there’s at-least a few folks in “Cyber-Land” that enjoy our weekly glimpse from the past. Not quite being a “Techie” (we’ll leave that to our Webmaster, the honorable Mr. Ormbsy), I guess it never really occurred to yours-truly just how much of an impact this “Internet” has made in the way of world-wide communication. Pictured here is John Anderson, a noted veteran racer that hails from “across the pond” in you guessed-it – Australia! John wrote to me recently sharing some of his memories of what it was like to race during the early days of Aussie short-tracking. Though he’s slowed-up a bit, he still climbs-behind the wheel on occasion to take-part in his passion for competition. This shot captures him during the 1968 campaign as a young racer at his countries Queensland Speedway. Note his right-handed driving position, the norm for racing in Anderson’s part of the world. Thanks for sharing, John! (Anderson Photo).

     
 

 

 

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