[Somewhat] WEEKLY COLUMN/BLOG PAGE
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2011
WINTHROP/LITTLE FALLS —Mr. Walter Howard “Doc” Nellis 76 of 1221 CR 49 Winthrop, New York (St. Lawrence County), and Rt. 167 Town of Manheim, Little Falls, New York, died Sunday December 25, 2011 at the Massena Memorial Hospital.
Doc as he was known was born in the Town of Manheim on September 28, 1935 the son of the late Howard and Elnora (Ortlieb) Nellis and was a graduate of Dolgeville High School, Class of 1954.
While residing in Winthrop, he was employed by the General Motors Power train Division in Massena as a tool & die maker.
He is survived by cousins.
Graveside Memorial services will be held in the Spring in the Salisbury Rural Cemetery, at the convenience of the family. There are No Calling hours.
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Every once in a while you see an obscure obituary and you realize that – not only was this someone with whom you were familiar – but that this person had a whole life story, albeit not as famous and glitzy as a celebrity. The particular notice which caught my attention [a full year after his passing] was Walter H. Nellis, a 76 man who died with so few surviving friends and relative that his obit was short, and there are no contributions to the memories on his page at the funeral home.
Really, the entire obit consisted of: “Doc as he was known was born in the Town of Manheim on September 28, 1935 the son of the late Howard and Elnora (Ortlieb) Nellis and was a graduate of Dolgeville High School, Class of 1954. While residing in Winthrop, he was employed by the General Motors Power train Division in Massena as a tool & die maker. He is survived by cousins.”
Early arrivals at Fonda sat and watched as the various teams made their appearance at the track. It was a
very significant experience. Today, particularly with asphalt tracks, long practice sessions, and teams
arriving many hours before post time, this is largely a lost pleasure at race tracks.
If this is, indeed, the man I think it is, Walter was known to the 1960’s Fonda Speedway race community as “Doc” Nellis, then from Little Falls, NY. Little Falls is one of those stopovers on the NY canal system west of Fonda, and it once actually had a rudimentary race track before Fonda was ever heard of. From what I can learn, the Nellis family is early and important to the history of that area. The first time I ever went to Fonda, expecting to see all those luminary driving stars that I had only read and heard of previously, I did not arrive expecting to see Doc Nellis.
We sat and watched the cars come in off the NY Thruway and off Route 30A, being hauled across the bridge and through the gates into the infield [where the pits were in those days]. You could gauge the importance of the racing team by the noise the crowd made as they arrived. Fonda crowds, even for those days, were very involved, opinionated, and responsive to the drivers they loved or despised. [I think fans today miss a lot by not being particularly excited about much of anything].
Ed Baccei Photo
The McCready team and Wimble’s 33 leave Otter Creek Speedway in 1962.
There were whoops and hollers of approval when the Dave McCready Cadillac towing Wimble’s #33 arrived, as there were positive noises for the likes of Steve Danish and Ken Shoemaker. There was equal enthusiasm in the opposite direction for a young Louie Lazzaro [I think he had been a bad boy the previous week] and for the always – controversial and tempestuous Pete Corey. Corey even rated a “Put ‘im in the river !!” from one leather lung seated in front of me. Equally interested in those teams not immediately familiar to me, I watched with interest as other haulers arrived to massive indifference.
One such arrival was a pair of cars – nothing alike – which towed in midway through the arrival festivities. There was a red and white sedan #40, which I later would learn was a rare visit to Fonda by Morris regular Harold “Bugs Bunny” Betts, a corpulent veteran of the fifties at various area tracks – usually with sidekick, Bob Deming. The other car, A yellow 1950 Chevy fastback coupe being towed in on a wrecker – do elicit a disgusted, impatient snort from the leather lung in front of me.
Courtesy of Jo Towns via Otto Graham
Harold Betts, probably with the same sedan and different numeral [above] had a little
more luck when running the car with Cobleskill hot shot Don Wayman.
<![endif]>Courtesy of Jo Towns via Otto Graham
“Hoo ! Hoo ! Here comes tonight’s winning car,” the nerdy – looking bespectacled wearer of a Wimble jacket said derisively to the guy sitting next to him, smoking his brains out.
So, of course, me being largely clueless, I looked at the unimpressive Chevy again. Realizing it wasn’t anyone I recognized, I shrugged my shoulders and went back to watching the arrivals. Later on, it would become obvious why the negative comment was made. We had the warmups, led out onto a beautifully – groomed track by the Dick Bennett – owned, Bernie Maruske – sponsored #71 of Lee Millington. This was a spectacle as I never seen one before, the cars flying by at speeds far exceeding anything I had seen at home, even with a few of these same guys at the NASCAR – run Otter Creek Speedway. I don’t recall seeing the predicted winning yellow Chevy #31 out there.
<![endif]>Courtesy of John Grady
The Bernie’s Liquor Shop 71 and Lee Millington was the first Fonda entry I saw.
In one of the first qualifiers, the yellow car came out, on the pole. When introduced, the announcement was greeted with a mixture of dead silence, exasperated moans, and a few chuckles. They had not gone more than five laps, with the faster cars of Corey and Shoemaker tearing to the front, followed by the Skunk – colored H2 of Skip Roots, when they began lapping poor Doc Nellis. Running deliberately around the inside apron of the track, he didn’t seem to impede progress much because all the other cars knew what to expect.
Skip Roots not only blew by Nellis in the heat, but he supplies the only shot of the Nellis car that I have [yellow 31 in the background next to Betts’ red and white 40].
That evening, as he failed, once again to qualify - Doc Nellis would probably stand somewhere with the throngs of other pit personnel, along the front stretch wall, to watch the feature. He had managed to make even Willie Chest look fast.
Betts hadn’t looked much better. I didn’t know then what I do now. The Morris / Midstate cars simply didn’t have the money in them that most of the Fonda teams did. The Morris area guys did achieve some satisfaction in the success of Floyd Wilcox’s #32, a higher level car from the neighborhood in New Berlin, which always ran up front with Jim Luke and Jerry Townley as drivers.
Russ Bergh Photo Ladabouche Collection
Jim Luke and owner Pop Wilcox brought more success at Fonda
to the Morris area racing community than most anyone else
As we walked down to the pits after the race and marveled at how warm the track surface still was, my uncle would head over to see if he could see Steve Danish while I [not realizing I was destined to some day run a sign shop] got interested in some of the better lettering jobs on some of the cars. Standing around Joe Romano’s #97, still being driven then by Terrible Tom Kotary, I found myself next to the pit area of Doc Nellis. There he was, alone and pretty much ignored, hooking up that fireball of a car to his wrecker to head west, back home to Little Falls. He didn’t seem to care if anyone was paying any attention to him.
Courtesy of John Grady
Only Tom Kotary could drive all night at Fonda in a wife beater. I was not as interested in him as I was the lettering on Joe Romano’s coupe. [Below] Terrible Tom Kotary  is one of the cars pitting in the Fonda infield. The Nellis car is exiled, off to the left, pretty much by itself [with hood up].
<![endif]>John Grady Photo
Nellis did look up and see me watching him operate the winch on the old wrecker. He looked surprised, and we nodded at each other. I never saw him again. The next time we went to Fonda was the following year, and – despite the fact he was on the program – I never saw him again. Old Fonda programs I have indicate he actually garnered at least 30 points in 1962. He appears on the 1963 program, including the program for the big August 200 lap National Sportsman Championship race. Nellis entered a “special consolation” that night and finished 19th among an incredible field of mediocre also – rans.
Courtesy of Bob Novak
This portion of the 1962 Fonda program points list shows Nellis, near the bottom of the list, barely staying ahead of Willie Chest. Getting 30 points, for Doc, meant months of persistence and near – last – place finishes. [Below] Bill Fake, who had a pretty memorable crash at Fonda, was a runner at the Little Falls track.
<![endif]>Courtesy of Harold Weaver
Doc Nellis managed only about 22 points in 1963 and showed up in 1964 only once or twice, earning 2 points. Willie Chest helped Nellis maintain the turtle tradition at Fonda until his tragic death in a traffic accident. Actually Doc had managed to stay slightly ahead of Willie in the points. Doc also was shown on the drivers’ list at Victoria Speedway, even more of a mixture of Fonda stars, also – rans, and never – were’s.
One of the small accomplishments in the brief career of Walter Nellis was that August night of the big championship race. He time trialed that balky, heavy Chevy faster than both Henry Bergen [with a BobWhitbeck – built Ford] and Skip Riesegel, who had what appears to have had a better car than Nellis. Nellis’ seemingly biggest feat was during a heat in 1963. Starting last among a heat field that included Bill Wimble, Jeep Herbert, Robbie Kotary, Eddie Pieniazek, Ken Meahl, and Donny Wayman, Nellis managed to finish 7th – ahead of Meahl, Herbert, Wayman, and Kotary. They may have wrecked; but he still outdid them. In the subsequent consi, he outran Jerry Cook.
Other cars would take over being totally outclassed by the Fonda bigwigs. I never heard another word about Doc Nellis, except for a friend of ours in the stands once remarking what an odd speaking voice he thought Nellis had. It is likely that, as speeds increased at Fonda [and so did the costs], he just decided to stay in the bleachers. I don’t know if he ever ran at the old, 1950’s track in Little Falls;, but I bet he was there on one side of the fence or the other.
Courtesy of Otto Graham
Willie Chest was killed in a thruway accident, leaving Doc to forge on alone in the back of Fonda fields. Eventually, others like Chest’s Canajoharie neighbor, Howie Fassett [below] and Joe Gabriel would take over that job.
Well, Walter “Doc” Nellis, from Little Falls, I don’t even have a decent photo of your car; but at least you got into one of my blogs. Many men never will.
Walter H. Nellis
1935 - 2011
Russ Bergh Photo via Bob Novak
A photo of Doc that was sent to me after the blog had been featured and archived.
Please email me if you have any photos to lend me or information and corrections I could benefit from. Please do not submit anything you are not willing to allow me to use on my website - and thanks. Email is: firstname.lastname@example.org . For those who still don’t like computers - my regular address is: Bill Ladabouche, 23 York Street, Swanton, Vermont 05488.
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