Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday June 22, 2011

 Volume 3, Number 24                                                                                     New Column Every Wednesday


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This week we present a selection of shots from the files of our good and fellow NEAR member friend R.A. Silvia. One of the nation’s premier auto racing historians for decades, his files document the origins the sport in New England literally from the very beginning. Please enjoy this week’s trip down memory lane courtesy of Mr. Silvia! In some sad news, sincere condolences go out to the family of famed New England car builder & New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame member Richie Garuti who passed-away on June 13 at age 83. Email reaches me at foreveryounginct@yahoo.com              

A Trip Through “The Silvia Files”…

Captured here in the 1950s with their driver the late “Moneybags Moe” Gherzi, are the Garuti brothers, Richie & Ray. From their New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame biography; Rich and Ray Garuti are truly New England auto racing pioneers, building their first stock car for Plainville Stadium early in the 1950s. They continued to build winning cars for over two decades, scoring on both the United Stock Club and NASCAR circuits.  The numbers 14 and 28 will forever be associated with the New Britain, CT natives. They began with the Midgets, first maintaining somebody else's car before acquiring their own. Johnny DeLeo remembers some impressive runs in the #14  V60-powered Kurtis.  Modifieds, however, is where they made their mark. George Lombardo, Moe Gherzi, Ed Flemke, Jocco Maggiacomo and Smokey Boutwell were the principal drivers. The cars out of Ray's Garage in the Kensington section of Berlin, CT had dominating seasons with Lombardo at Plainville Stadium and  with Gherzi at the Waterford Speedbowl before moving  on to Riverside Park, United's flagship for over two decades.  It became a two-car operation in 1956, Gherzi and Flemke (in the #28) combining to win the 500 that season. It was also the first of two Riverside championships (the other being '58) Flemke won driving for the Garutis.  Maggiacomo added two more 500 wins to the Riverside resume, teaming with Bobby Bishop in '64 and Billy Greco in '65, the latter his last race.They moved on to NASCAR with Flemke and Boutwell, the latter winning the 1969 Stafford championship in his final season. More folklore, the car, with Flemke aboard, won the first race at Stafford under the Arute family ownership in 1970. They were a force at Thompson as well. Richie Garuti passed-away on June 13 at the age of 83. Our sincere condolences are offered to his family & many friends. (Farone Collection).

Here’s a nice flathead-era shot of the late Ralph “Hop” Harrington.  Equally proficient on dirt or asphalt, he began racing on the dirt at the Kingston Rhode Island Fairgrounds in 1948. He captured multiple championships at Norwood, Lonsdale, Kingston, and Westboro and an estimated 300 feature victories. An expert car builder, following his retirement as a driver he continued building cars for celebrated New England car owner Dick Armstrong who’s machines where steered to many victories by top drivers such as Gene Bergin & Geoff Bodine. It’s worth noting that everyone mentioned in this caption is a member of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame! (Silvia Collection).  

It’s Seekonk Speedway in the 1960’s, and following Barney Mattie # 7 through traffic is the late, great Ed Flemke Sr. in the famed $ coupe. Winner, mentor, and innovator, few individuals meant more to New England Modified racing than Mr. Flemke. Starting his career during the emerging popularity of stock cars in the post-war era, it’s estimated that he won over 500 feature events during a career which spanned 3-decades. Along the way, he helped many young drivers get their starts, including Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton. As an expert car builder, he designed the “Flemke Front End” a chassis component that remained the standard in Modified construction for years. Ed was among the first inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. (Silvia Collection).                               

This shot features one of New England Modified racing’s longest campaigners, the late Roland “Pappy” LaPierre. Captured here early in his career at Seekonk, he was still running a hectic schedule after many of his contemporaries had called it a day. It was only after a serious crash in the Plasse Maverick-bodied mount at Stafford in the 1970’s that he decided to retire. Pappy holds the dubious distinction of capturing the last-ever checkered flag for the Modified division at Massachusetts’ storied Norwood Arena. On Saturday evening Oct 4, 1969, the 54 year old veteran bested Ed Flemke Sr., Bugs Stevens, and Fred DeSarro for the win. Pappy’s son Roland Jr. also enjoyed a long & successful tenure in the Modifieds, and his great-grandson Nick Teto is the guy behind the successful Yankee Racer website (Silvia Collection).         

Here’s a neat shot for you aficionados of Connecticut’s “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. When I first took a peek at this shot, it really perplexed me as I’d thought I’d seen almost all of the shots ever taken of the famed L&M machine. We’ll let R.A. Silvia explain; That L&M shot was taken (by me actually) at Seekonk in 1965. In that particular year Anthony Venditti ran his own somewhat-hybrid modified class before falling to the lure of the taxi cabs in 1966.  This L&M was a Henry J-bodied machine that was driven by Butch Perring. It did not take any features that year but did end up tenth in the final point standings.  The driver was also listed as “Don Perring” from Saybrook, CT. And there you have it, folks! (Silvia Collection).             

Though he’s captured here at Seekonk doing a bit of “clowning-around” this guy was a super-frequent victory lane visitor during his long & successful career. From his New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame 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 Humphrey 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.” (Silvia Collection).      

“The Little Man With The Big Cigar” is what announcers were fond of calling the much-celebrated Deke Astle during his decades as a top racer in New England. While we’ll admit to knowing little about the origins of this shot, we know it’s Deke, it was captured at Seekonk, and that the car looks to be a Crosley. From the get-go, New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer the late D. Anthony Venditti was never afraid to try something different at his Seekonk Speedway up in Massachusetts. This is a prime example of that statement! (Silvia Collection).                        

Here’s another coupe-era Seekonk shot, this time it’s the late Tex Barry who was ultra-popular at the Bay State oval. Barry won many features at the ‘Konk during his long career. Ironically, he also passed-away at the track that was such a huge part of his life for so-long. A number of years-ago and following his retirement as a driver, Tex was cheering his son on to winning a Pro Stock feature at Seekonk. Just as his boy was passing the checkered flag for the win, Tex collapsed of a fatal heart attack. Talk about an ironic (and unfortunate) twist of fate…. (Silvia Collection).                      

Seen here snagging an early career victory at Seekonk while wheeling the famed Lenny Boehler #3 is Bugsy Stevens. Enjoying a long career that included 3 NASCAR National Modified championships while driving for Boehler he went on to become Stafford Motor Speedway’s winningist driver with 72 modified feature victories. His numerous track championships include Stafford Motor Speedway (4), Seekonk Speedway, (3), Norwood Arena, (2), Albany Saratoga, Catamount and Thompson. His big wins include the 73 Spring Sizzler, a pair of 500 lappers at Thompson and several victories at Trenton and Martinsville. Both Stevens and Boehler are members of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame. (Silvia Collection).                     

They were ultra-light, rather fragile, obviously dangerous, and above-all, FAST. The “Cut-Down Era” in New England produced some of the regions most memorable racing-ever, but it was more than one racer of the time that paid a hefty price to sit behind the controls of one of these machines in competition. The guy you see here is the late Gavin Couper, known during the height of his career as “The King of the Cutdowns.” As relayed by our pal Lew Boyd of Coastal 181 publications (himself a former racer of note). Couper once quipped that “There was nuthin’ like it, but, I’ll tell you, you could get hurt just lookin’ at one.” Rest-assured, these were dangerous machines. (Silvia Collection)

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

 
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