Taking A Look At New England Auto Racing History

Wednesday September 2, 2009

Volume 1, Number 35                                                                                      New Column Every Wednesday


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By Dave Dykes                                                                              CLICK ON PHOTO FOR FULL SIZE

This week’s stroll through the archives yields a truly-diverse collection of images. Everything from a local wide-eyed youngin’ that later realized a dream, to a former “Modified Guy” that made a big splash wheeling one of King Richard’s chariots on the high-banks of the South. There’s even a few notable Midget speedsters appearing in this installment. As always, enjoy!     
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Yet Another Weekly Slice Of Racing History…..       

A personal glimpse into the past; Back in the days when popular Speedbowl coupe-era star Joe Coullard housed his racer on the corner of Clark Lane and Fog Plain Road in Waterford, the little guy you see behind the wheel used to beg his parents to stop for a visit whenever they were in the area. Joe being the dutiful host, would let the youngster get behind the wheel and dream of the day when he’d be just like his pal Joe, going-around in circles on the track that was then known as the “New London-Waterford” Speedbowl. A few years down-the-road, little Gary Welch got his chance…. (Welch Family Photo).   

And here’s Gary Welch all grown-up and about to take his early Daredevil entry out for a spin on the 1/3-mile tarmac of the Bowl’. The car had formally been wheeled by his cousin Paul Jutila, and was owned by Bob Hayes who worked with Welch at East Lyme Chevron. Typical of the times, it was almost completely-stock save for a few rudimentary safety appointments. Somewhat novel by Waterford-standards, it was a Ford product amidst a field that was overwhelmingly populated by General Motors entries (save for the ultra-successful Gada team). The firesuit he’s wearing is one of the old single-layer Drag-All numbers that were so-popular then. Years-later your author was gifted with the suit by Welch (a long-time family friend), and used it in his brief & unspectacular Street Stock career in the late-70’s. Ironically, our car was a former Paul Jutila mount. (Shippee Photo).

And here we have a long-gone Connecticut oval that unfortunately, is often forgotten. Cherry Park Speedway in Avon originally debuted as a dirt 1/2-mile oval in 1939. Shuttered during World War II, it reopened in 1946 (no-doubt inspired by the post-war Midget craze), reconfigured to a more-compact 1/5-mile layout. Paved later that year, it operated until 1954 when the site was sold for development. Seen in this terrific Midget action-shot is the great Bill Schindler battling with the much-celebrated Al Keller. Sadly, both racers became casualties of the dangerous early days of American motorsports. Schindler perished in a Sprint Car at Allentown Pennsylvania on September 20, 1952, while Keller lost his life in a USAC Champ Car at Phoenix Arizona on November 19, 1961. (Photographer Unknown).

Another image culled from the Cherry Park file, this infield shot captures some pretty-lofty Midget racing talent. Pictured from left-right are Ernie Gesell, Ernie McCoy, and Ray Nestor. A National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame member, Gessel had a long and successful career. He won the NMARC title in 1937 and was second in the ARDC point-tally in 1940. A big-winner during the post-war era, he also journeyed to the Midwest several times where he won features at Dowagiac, MI (Rendezvous Bowl), Crown Point, and South Bend, Indiana. McCoy was one of the era’s most well-traveled competitors, excelling in ARDC, AAA, and USAC. In addition to the Midgets, he also successfully wheeled Sprint Cars and Indy cars. Like McCoy, Nestor was also a graduate of pre-war AAA Midget action, later becoming a force within the ARDC. (Photographer Unknown).

Seen here during the early days of Connecticut’s Stafford Springs Motor Speedway is the legendary Johnny Thomson. Inducted into the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2002, the Lowell, MA. native was truly one of New England’s most versatile racers. Starting his career at Seekonk in 1947, six-years later was competing in the Indianapolis 500. Racing in the Bay State Racing Association, the United Car Owners Association, ARDC and AAA, he won the New England championship in 1948, with 32 wins, then repeated as champion in 1949. In 1952 he won the AAA Eastern Midget Championship, capturing the Eastern Sprint Car Championship in 1954. While still in his prime, Thomson perished from injuries suffered in a USAC Sprint Car race at Allentown, PA. on September 24, 1960. (Photographer Unknown).  

Our last visual foray into this week’s slice of Midget racing history captures an image of New Britain, CT. native, the late Johnny Kay (real name John Kapustinski). Like Thomson, Kay is a member of the New England Auto Racing Hall of Fame, and justifiably-so. As a winner on both the NEMA & ARDC Midget circuits for many years (along with forays into AAA and USAC Indy & Champ Car competition), he was long-considered one of the best during a career that was unfortunately, compromised by a serious crash while still at the top of his game. As a side-note, after retiring from driving Kay became a talented racing photographer, staying close to the sport he loved. (Photographer Unknown).

Getting-back to more familiar RTT subject matter, this gem of a photo by our friend Steve Kennedy captures one Angie Cerease at the wheel of the famed L & M Coupe. An absolute- terror at Waterford, Angie found himself at Joe Tinty’s Plainville Stadium on this night in the early-seventies (probably one of those great mid-week opens). The guy to the inside of him in the #59? Why, that’s a driver that’s accomplished a thing-or-two in the sport – the name Reggie Ruggiero ring a bell? (Steve Kennedy Photo).

Known as the “Norwalk Nightrider” to the dedicated fans of the Waterford Speedbowl, few were better in the “fender” divisions than Bill Sweet. Seen here during the early days of the Daredevil division (observe the street rubber and the fact that his 55’ Chevy’s 4-doors are chained-shut), Sweet managed to snag a pair of championships along with nearly fifty feature victories before calling it a day in the seventies. It should be noted that even qualifying for a feature in the class was an accomplishment when this shot was captured. So-many competitors filled the pits, that A and B main events were common. Fast-forward to today, and you’ll see most tracks struggling to even complete a feature starting grid! (Shany Photo).     

Popular legend dictates that it was fellow competitor, the great Kenny Shoemaker that dubbed him the “Crescent Hillbilly” after an on-track altercation left “The Shoe” stammering for the proper choice of words. Legend also has it that Pete Corey actually rather-enjoyed the moniker that was a nod to his geographic origins in the capital district of New York State. In actuality, Corey and Shoemaker may have waged many battles on the track, but there was a vast degree of respect shared between the two legendary racers. This shot captures Pete with his 1955 Chevy, a car that was constructed to run Lebanon Valley Speedway following his departure from Fonda. Jimmy Bosco of Commercial Tire in New Britain, CT. was a long-time Corey sponsor. (Grady Photo).

Few racers from our region accomplished more than this guy, New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, Pete Hamilton. Following a whirlwind eastern career that started at the Norwood Arena in the Hobby Division, in short-order he’d conquered the tough Modified circuit by 1967 capturing that years NASCAR National Modified Sportsman Championship. Moving south, he became the 1968 NASCAR Grand National (now known as the Sprint Cup Series), Rookie of the Year. After hooking-up with Petty Enterprises, he went on to great fame within the top-realm of stock car racing, capturing the Daytona 500 in 1970 as well as both Talladega events. He’s captured here during an early outing on the high-banks of Daytona. (Grady Photo).

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

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