BILL'S BACK IN TIME COLUMN PAGE
Copies of my column in Mark Thomas' "Racin' Paper"
Column #16 from Column 28
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
PROBABLY, A REALLY COMMON REASON FOR STARTING A RACE TRACK IN THE 1950’s
In most areas of the country, one man or one family can be very central to the establishment or development of whatever kind of auto racing flourished in that area. In the Rutland County area of Vermont, Al Romano was such a person. By the close of World War Two, Al’s father, Patsy Romano, had begun a small trucking company. While brother Jim seemed destined more for management, Al became somewhat of a whiz with the mechanical and maintenance end of the business. Thus, the groundwork for racing had been laid.
Around the region, by the end of the 1940’s, tracks were springing up in many places – like Bennington, Vermont; Fair Haven, Vermont; North Granville, New York; West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and a town in New York of the same name. The Young family, of Fair Haven, had taken the old fairgrounds there and christened the track Fairmont Park Motor Speedway. They promoted the new sport of stock car racing. Al Romano noticed all this.
What happened next would be good stuff for a Hollywood movie. Al and some of his buddies were tired of hassles from the police when they tried out their cars on the streets and roads around Rutland; so, they took to using a runway at the none-too-busy Rutland Airport, a few miles south of town. This created with a problem both with neighbors, airport personnel, and with the owners of the nearby Beacon Restaurant. Nobody had a sense of humor.
Courtesy of Ed Fabian
Al Romano poses in front of the famous cement retaining wall at Pico Raceway.
One night, Sheriff Gino Franzoni was down, dealing with the airport hot rodders, and the parents were called in. Somewhat of a vociferous man, Patsy Romano took the side of his diminutive son and hollered that the kids needed somewhere “to let off steam”. He was taken by surprise when Franzoni did a one hundred eighty degree turnabout and agreed with him.
Then and there, was the seed of an idea for what would become Pico Raceway. The problem was that race tracks were usually located in someone’s pasture somewhere, far away from the more populated areas of a municipality – and Rutland neighbors weren’t offering up any of their pasture lands for the track. It turned out that Abe Newman, an acquaintance of Franzoni whose farm was struggling, was recruited as the third partner. With Romano’s somewhat limited connections, Pico Raceway was begun – at least on paper.
Excavator Frank Fabian [with his enthusiastic fifteen year-old son, Ed] was secured to do the grading and contouring of the track and grounds. The Newman house was razed, as well. Some pretty well – engineered and solid bleachers were constructed, along with two or three pretty basic buildings. A judges stand of sorts was erected in the infield, which served as the pit area, as well. The group managed to acquire some electric power. A formidable cement retaining wall was build to separate the track from the slightly-elevated bleachers as the spectators would sit well above the track. The racing surface was contoured with impressively – banked turns such that – when a driver went off certain parts of the track, he took quite a ride.
Jerry King Collection
Fans sat considerably up from the track. This photo of a heat lineup in 1952 gives you an idea of their view of the track. [Jerry King Photo]
Romano and his cohort, Big Bill Anderson were already active by this then. They had built a yellow 1933 Ford coupe, the 8 Ball, and had tried it at the track in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. A second, white #33, ended up in the hands of Anderson, a future clothier in downtown Rutland, as well as a future supporter of 1960’s star Chet Doaner. The Pico track attracted the attention of some of the state’s media, like the Rutland Herald newspaper and a New York television station.
A reporter from that TV station tracked down Big Bill and, at the Anderson house, inquired as to how much of the #33 Bill actually owned. Conscious that his wife was listening, Anderson answered “about one third”. The early weeks of the track saw problems with dust and with stones coming up out of the clay that the Fabians had trucked in from other Rutland County locations. One stone came into the car and struck Anderson, slightly injuring him.
As was mentioned, Al Romano was quite the mechanic, and he was off and running with various innovations on his permanent car, a 1937 Chevy coupe numbered 303, called “The Bumblebee”. The 303 had a flip – up windshield inside the car, an idea many of the big – name New York invaders soon copied. Before the advent of the racing slick, Al experimented with dual wheels on the Bumblebee. The nickname came from a split manifold and two very long, straight exhaust pipes that gave the car a distinctive, brazzing sound as it traversed the track. The track announcer would dutifully intone “303, the Bumblebee” on a regular basis.
Courtesy of Les King
Link Pettit throws the 00 around Turns 3 and 4 at Pico. The high banking caused infield wetness quite often.
Romano was a hard runner in his day. One disgruntled competitor went so far as to accuse him of leaving rough, unground welds on his rear bumper so he could cut down opponent’s tires late in a race. No proof of that story – either way- was ever offered. Anderson does relate that – around 1951 – Al got to running a little too well in West Lebanon with the 8 Ball. The locals dumped him more than just a little, in their frustration with the invader from Vermont.
The Pico track never made any money and was continually hounded by creditors, who included the Fabians in their numbers. As if to compound the Fabians’ frustrations, one week, Frank and Ed drove over to the track to collect some money owed them. Track employees were spray painting the bleachers and the brand new Fabian car was downwind. The rest is history, and so was Pico after a few years.
With one year as Green Mountain Speedway, it had sunk into a sea of red ink by 1954. Bigger tracks like Fonda, in New York, and the tracks at Bennington, and New Lebanon, NY were taking the competition away. It had problems with vehicles getting stuck in the infield, because the high banking funneled water down into the infield every time it rained or they watered too vigorously. Many people avoided paying and watched the race from the Rutland Railroad tracks that nearly ran over the grounds of the race track. Debts hadn’t been settled, and there had been a fatality at the nearby Fairmont track.
A huge General Electric plant was eventually built on the track site, leveling off the famous bank upon which the bleachers overlooked the action. The plant was nearly larger than the entire grounds of Pico. Only a portion of the backstretch and part of turn three can be discerned today, at the periphery of the GE plants’ grounds, in a lawn that runs outside the rear fence. Ed Fabian, now 71, was able to point out some trees that seemed to be the same as those in the picture of Romano at speed in the Bumblebee.
McDowell Photo Courtesy of Vogel Family
wide angle shot from 1951, the cars race down
the front chute.
Note the cement wall has not been built, and the dust is terrific.
Pico Raceway had belonged to the birth of today’s most popular spectator sport. It had hosted the obscure drivers like Carroll “Crash” Davis, and “Steady Tony” Provencher. It had welcomed little – known outsiders like Eddie Walheiser and had also put out the welcome mat to future legends of the sport. Steve Danish, the Cropseyville Courier, led New York invaders like Kenny Shoemaker, Spence Parkhurst, Walt Brown, Pete Corey, Jollie Ollie Palmer, and Jeep Herbert against the New Englanders like Ernie Gahan, Buddy Bardwell, Rene Charland, Don Rounds, and George Janoski. Those names, alone, would be enough to ensure immortality for any track; but, Pico would lie in almost total obscurity had I not lifted it from the dead on my website. How much more of our stock history remains undiscovered ?
Jollie Ollie Palmer, shown here in this early McDowell photo at Stateline Speedway is a driver I clearly remember at Pico during its final season.
Courtesy of the Provencher Family
Steady Tony Provencher, in 1952.
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