BILL'S BACK IN TIME COLUMN PAGE
Copies of my column in Mark Thomas' "Racin' Paper"
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
Site Column #55 from My Column 70
NOBODY CAN SAY THEY DIDN’T TRY
When I recently got to spend the weekend with Wes and Deb Moody, one of the highlights of a really great time was getting to ride around the former Saranac Lake Speedway, located behind Jim Hoyt’s house. The old track mostly resembles a path through the woods now, but if you look real hard – you can spot ARMCO barriers, metal fencing, and cement walls out in the overgrowth by the path that follows around the track.
Look carefully and you can see the ARMCO barriers snaking through the underbrush. [Ladabouche Photo]
According to those like Wes and Jim, who knew and loved it, Saranac Lake was a “oner” – there wasn’t another one quite like it anywhere. One of the main straightaways went uphill, and the other [as if to rectify] went downhill. Wes points out that he and Jim were in on the building of the track, as one was the actual son of long-suffering owner Aaron Hoyt, and the other might just as well have been the other son. Both endeavored equally hard to drive poor old Aaron crazy with their shenanigans.
Not having much for excavating equipment or a budget to hire a firm with, the Saranac Lake builders did most of the work with a single axle Ford dump truck, an old road grader, and a backhoe. The boys would drive somewhere off site to get the clay. Spreading each new load was something to behold: back the old truck up, and jumpstart it, lurching forward and disseminating the clay as best they could. This worked until they literally tore the box off the chassis.
Most activities at
Saranac Lake were somewhat informal. Here is the registration stand for the
track, a table
on the lawn. That's Chief Pit Steward Kay Hanson at right. [Bob Mackey Photo Courtesy of John Rock and Bobby Castine]
The track went together either in 1959 or 1960 – Wes was not sure, and Jim wasn’t home to ask. Wes recalls the place was never very formal. People would stop by the back of Aaron’s barn [the track was on the Hoyt farm] and register. Aaron was always worried that an errant stock car would crash through his barn, so he would always leave the manure spreader, strategically – placed, in between track and barn. Of course, one night it happened: Paul Whitmarsh came barreling off turn four, off the track, and into the manure spreader. He crawled out spitting and coughing, cow crap was everywhere. It took Paul two weeks to get it all out of the car [and probably some of his orifices]. But, the Hoyt barn was unblemished.
The hi-jinks would continue. One time, this guy was cleaning out an old oil truck to use as the water truck. He was very nervous about, and was in the middle of cleaning out the tank with a fairly unstable solution of some sort. When he swung the brush around and contacted the tank, Moody, who had snuck into position, struck the tank mightily with a sledge hammer. Needless to say, the track had a vacant position to fill that week [and Moody was lucky it wasn’t his].
Wes Moody poses at the track with an unidentified crewman. Note the Hoyt barn in the background,
sitting there blissfully protected by the spreader. [Moody Collection]
Jim Hoyt says the track never lacked for competitors. Besides the
locals and the several teams who towed down from the Airborne area, the track
would attract Fonda regulars when they ran on Friday nights. There was no Malta
then. But the best turnouts, every year, were when the races at Fonda were
cancelled for the Montgomery County fair.
Some very strange and unique competition took place at Saranac Lake. Firstly, there was that bastardized mutation of a Studebaker that Fran Kane had built. Numbered 32/6 so that both Dick Nephew and Rod Ritchie could drive it, the strange-looking rig was actually quite competitive at Saranac Lake, according to Fran. The car ran a season or two before its success caused some of the other teams to get it declared illegal.
Fran Kane stands beside his creation, the Nephew / Ritchie Studebaker. [Courtesy of Mike Watts]
One of the local cars was the big blue #11 Hudson Terraplane of Upper Jay’s Shirley Wallace. One night, Wallace had the veteran Jackie Peterson in the car, and a big hunk of clay took out the radiator. The severely hearing – impaired Peterson began sticking his head out the window to see what was wrong with the car. By the time was race was over, Jackie came into the pits, a big hunk of clay having hit him in the face. With snot running down, he yelled to the crew, “She’s skippin !”. You have to know Jackie to appreciate that one.
Saranac Lake was not always the happiest place for Airborne’s frequent champion, Melvin “Bob” Bruno, of Schuyler Falls. Bruno related to me that, one time, he sailed off a turn and landed in the parking lot – striking the car of one of his political rivals. That little trip caused him years of trouble in county politics. The guys car was a prized street rod. Another time, the highly – favored Bruno was beaten by a young Jim Hoyt. When Bruno drove over to the Hoyt pits to complain about some contact on the track, Wes Moody’s brother, Sonny clocked him one – right through the window.
Rushlaw, with his nose-thumbing device on the roof. [Courtesy of Mike Watts]
John Rushlaw won a lot of races at Saranac Lake. His #43 hobby cars were usually built by Mac Bushey, from Vermontville, NY. Rushlaw had a device rigged up on the back of the car whereby this little figure would pop up and thumb its nose at whomever was in second place behind John. The little half mile track near Lake Colby was a place some of the little guys could shine.
Wilmington’s Charlie Draper was another of Saranac Lake’s homegrown talents. Draper had a number of cars – mostly of a very unusual nature. When some of the Fairmont Speedway drivers began to invade Saranac Lake in 1965, Charlie returned the favor by counter – invading Fairmont. His little black and yellow #1, sponsored by Little Joe’s Cocktail Lounge, would usually act as the rabbit in the Fairmont feature, setting the pace for a number of laps before the Quennevilles, the Tetraults, the Gauthiers, and the rest would catch him and go on by.
Charlie Draper enjoys a
peaceful moment before having to try and load his car on the hauler.
[Bob Frazier Photo Courtesy of Norm Vadnais]
Wes and the others used to wait, eagerly, every week for Draper to load his car on the hauler. Charlie had this hauler with a particularly short wheelbase and even shorter ramp. He would approach the hauler at an alarmingly high speed and literally crash onto the truck. Draper’s Wilmington neighbor, Rod Ritchie, was one of Saranac Lake’s best. The Ritchie #32’s were a frequent sight in Victory Lane. One can always recognize a Saranac Lake victory photo. Starter Art Prairie would always stand to the side of the winner, holding the checkered flag over the roof of the car so as not to obscure driver or numerals of the winning car.
Local youngster Bernie Kentile, who would achieve notoriety decades later for having a horrific fire at Devil’s Bowl, was a new star at Saranac Lake. He had a few rides in Dick Nephew’s famed #6, but his prettiest ride was the former Royce Tucker 14VT, which Kentile purchased and hired a signpainter to change the number to 141 NY. The yellow and black coupe may have been the single prettiest car I ever saw from that era.
The former Royce Tucker car sits, re-numbered, for Bernie Kentile to drive at Saranac Lake. [Moody Collection]
The second shot is one of mine, when the car was still owned by the Tucker family, at Vergennes.
Saranac Lake has had a long and interesting line of drivers in its short tenure. The best of Airborne Speedway raced at least frequently down in the woods at Saranac Lake: Dick Nephew, the 1961 NASCAR National Sportsman Co-Champion; his co-champion, Bill Wimble; Charlie Trombley; Bob Bruno; Gaston Desmarais; Buck Holliday; Ernie Reid; and Rusty Reid. Add to this, the local contingent of Moody, Hoyt, Ritchie, Bud Besor, Pat Patterson, Draper, and Sonny Sawyer. Occasionally, the track would get the Zeigler brothers – Bob and Dick, from Boonville, NY, out West.
But, the best part of Saranac Lake will always be the antics of the drivers and staff. Starter Art Prairie once told Bob Bruno that if Bruno won another damned feature, he would let Bob ride around the track on the front bumper of the #66. Well, Bruno did and Art did – although he was never quite the same again. And then there was this track clown whose main schtick was to go out near the track and act like his dumped in his drawers as a car would pass by in a carefully – choreographed move. One night, Vince Quenneville had gotten sick of the clown and came down through at full speed. Out of turn four came Quenneville, sideways and roaring. That night, the clown almost didn’t have any acting to do with the drawers.
Art Prairie had a unique way of displaying his feature winners. Here, the winner is Vince
“The Clown Killer” Quenneville. [Courtesy of Mike Watts]
Sadly, Saranac Lake was never a financial success – or even close to it. The weather of the Adirondack Mountains makes for frequent rain – and they sometimes lost more shows than they had. Then there was the fact that the Hoyts could not afford to fence in the entire property, making the woods a perfect place to sneak into the track. Even the town doctor, Dr. Trudeau, would drive a horse and buggy onto the property and watch from outside. With money going out the window at too fast a rate and the State of New York finding fault with the Hoyt’s dust control methods, Aaron saw the writing on the wall and closed the place before the end of the decade.
If you were sit out in Jim Hoyt’s back yard on a moonlit Saturday night in the Summer, in the cool mountain air of Saranac Lake, you might just be able to still hear Charlie Draper ramming that #1 coupe up onto the back of his old hauler. And, somewhere, Aaron Hoyt would be chuckling away, watching him. But old Aaron would still have one eye peeled for whatever shenanigans his son and Wes Moody would be up to next. The worst part is, they managed to also influence a young track worker named Brian Ross, who went to be a pretty fair modified driver and party animal, himself.
Jim Hoyt, son of the Saranac Lake track owner, had a fast coupe. He had built it with tech advice from supermodified driver Eddie Bellinger. It flew at Fonda; but, he disintegrated the car at Fonda, that same year. [Moody Collection]
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