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BILL’S BACK IN TIME

By Bill Ladabouche

BACK THEN, THEY JUST SAW STUFF DIFFERENTLY

        My mother, who is now gone at age 95, was talking to me one day about the things people used to do things back when she was a girl. Of course, here, we're talking about the milk and ice men going through with their wagons and her neighbors fighting over the horse manure left in the street. If you're not of a certain age group with parents from the Depression era than you haven't been through the stories of how they made lollipops last for sixteen years and how they walked to school fourteen miles in knee deep snow,  etc. They liked it... they loved it ! They NEVER complained !
        But even in 1950, when stock car racing was only in infant stages, people still looked at things a helluva lot differently than our spoiled butts look at them today. For one thing, most of the guys who decided to take up racing had just been through WWII. Stuff that would daunt most of us just seemdd tame compared to marching through Italy in 1943 with you fearing your General Patton almost more than the Werhmacht.

  
Courtesy of Dan Ody
This was what they raced when mother was a girl, but we won't go that far back. Great judges' stand ! Seeing as
Danny Ody found this, it must be somewhere in New York.


          Back in the day, guys were just delighted in the glory of being able to get out there and drive a car around faster than allowed on the highway. In fact, for many, just to drive a car around – period ! Many, many young men did not have cars after WWII because 1.) there weren't enough cars available per capita due to the war and 2.) many of the “boys” couldn't afford them. So it was, the JOY of getting into a jalopy and letting 'er rip was enough for many of them. Many of today's spoiled little snots stomp off in a rage if the tire stagger is temporarily off.

          So it is, that you see an entirely different scenario in many of those old 1950 photos of guys around stock cars. Case in point – the safety gear. We hesitate [and rightfully so] to send drivers out without full cages, fuel cells, automatic extinguisher systems, HANS devices, fireproof suits, cooling helmets, and – God forbid – extra hats to put on the second they exit a car. Joe the ex – WWII dogface, climbed into his jalopy with almost anything that passed for a helmet, a minimal, poor roll cage, and maybe a lap belt. I guess we just didn't know any better.



From Checkered Review Site
Reggie Brown, an early New Hampshire competitor, sports the football helmet. Below- Future national champion,
Dick Nephew holds one of those “jockey” helmets early in his career.


From the Nephew Family Collection


         There were some positively amazing “helmets” worn then. My favorites seemed to be in vogue around the New Hampshire tracks in 1949 through around 1952 – the football helmets. I guess some guys must have kept those terrible leather football helmets when high schools started to get sissy and upgrade to the plastic ones. Many a Claremont and Franklin Motordrome driver smiled proudly out the window wearing one of these beauties – a freaking leather helmet. The best ones were those that had since lost the chin strap. Considering how many early drivers were completely ejected from a flipping coupe, it makes me cringe now. Didn't bother them then [well, maybe their wives and mothers a little].

        Then came the earlier drivers' helmets. The real old ones did not look much different that what many harness racers wore on their sulkies at the state fair. These things were like a hard baseball hat with a chin strap. That was all many of the drivers had until the Cromwell helmet came out in the early '50's. The familiar Cromwell [worn by some guys well into the 1960's] was regular protective helmet on the top of the head with an improved chin strap. I remember particularly – even at Fonda [that bastion of the latest in NASCAR sportsman racing] – Pete Corey and George Baumgardner were among those who still wore a Cromwell. The first time I saw Corey in practice at Fonda, he leaned so far to left in turn one his helmet actually stuck out the window of the Tony Villano 37. They were probably a little more comfortable. Both had started out in roadsters, so what did they fear ?



From Cavalcade of Auto Racing
This page from a 1963 magazine shows about every degree and evolutionary level of helmet, all running Lebanon Valley at the same time.
Jim, Jim and Fuzzy have the jockeys; Nels has the Cromwell style while Bob, Chuck, and George have the newer type at that time.

         The mid 1960's seemed to be the cutoff point for racing with the profoundly unsafe equipment. A Cavalcade of Auto Racing page on Lebanon Valley Speedway around 1963 shows a lineup of driver mug shots that displays a variety of headwear ranging from those old jockey helmets – to the Cromwell style – the more modern open – faced Bell -type helmets. By the '70's you saw a lot of drivers beginning to get the full – face – shield helmets. But nothing must have compared to the thrill of flying through the open roof of a 1934 Ford coupe wearing an old football helmet.

         Another very prominent and frequent practice you saw back in the day was the photo of a driver [and maybe the crew and other bystanders] posing proudly in front of a badly wrecked or burned car [maybe both]. They seemed genuinely delighted to be there and not particularly phased by the carnage sitting behind them. Canadians were great for doing this [among a myriad of other hairy things]. Perhaps the reason for this bliss was the relatively small amount of money they had tied up in the race car – in most cases.


Courtesy of R.A. Silvia
A slightly arrogant – looking Frankie Carmouche gets some free publicity after depositing his car on the railing at Seekonk Speedway.
Below – Reggie Caldwell looks strangely pleased in front of his burnt – to – a crisp car.


Courtesy of George Hill via Scott Haskell

         One of the early photos sent up to me by R.A. Silvia, a historian from the southern Massachusetts / Rhode Island area, shows a jaunty Frankie Carmouche, posed in front of his car which has obviously had “uh awful accident” as Jimmy Barton used to say. The momentary fame achieved from this wreck may have served Frankie better than wherever he may have finished in the race. I have seen New Hampshire driver Reggie Caldwell, who did race on into a slightly more sophisticated era, standing proudly next to his badly – fire – damaged car at Franklin, NH's short – lived Hurricane Road Speedway. Can you see one of today's drivers standing, smiling away, in front of the car they just totaled ?


Courtesy of Doug Farrow
Johnny Gammell reacts the way you expect after dumping the beautiful Hawaii 5-0 Chevy of Joey LaQuerre.
He might be subdued because it was late in his career and he probably had a feeling this was his last decent ride.

 

        People just had a whole different attitude about even going to the races in 1950. It was not uncommon to have people really dress up to attend races in the early days [until they learned that attending a dusty dirt track in ones Sunday best was not all that smart]. One of my favorite shots shows one particular Canadian man, still in his Sunday best, with the family 1950 Mercury. The hood is off and there is a number 2 on the side – probably in shoe polish. I wonder how that worked out. This particular scene was at the long – dormant Autodrome Ste-Monique.

         Albert Hassall, a former track safety worker in Quebec relates the story of another such guy. He said he knew the man had just come from church, and was still wearing his Sunday best when he arrived, off Route 90, at the Noel Speedway in Brassard. He said the guy manged to tip the car [a regular stock car] over in a big, watery area in the infield. With the driver shedding layers and trying to shake off the mud, crew members were feeling around in the water for his missing wallet. I wonder how it went when he went home to Madame Race Driver that evening.

Courtesy of Michel Jacques via Pascal Cote
Here's the man in the suit ready to risk it all with the family car. Oh boy !
Below - This look at a Malletts Bay crowd shows they knew how to dress
by 1952.


From the Bushey Family via Jack Anderson


          Old 8MM movie footage of races – both at Quebec's Bouvrette Speedway in St. Jerome and at venues in the States show visiting dignitaries, dressed to the nines, arriving to watch races [probably for the first and only time]. Given there were no good facilities at early tracks to protect dressed – up spectators, they must have gotten pretty well dusted up. The Bouvrette track was a horse racing venue, but it had no areas protected behind glass either. Photos of places like the old Malletts Bay Raceway in Colchester, VT show that people got smart real quickly as to how they dressed for racing.

           A final attitude of the early fifties that is no longer in vogue has to do with the way women were viewed in those days. Every track, without many exceptions, held what were called Powder Puff Derbies – many every single week. Obviously, this is where the little woman got to leave her kitchen, take off the apron and high heels, and drive someone's race car. Today, with female drivers right in there with the males in almost any division one can name, a Powder Puff derby would be considered downright demeaning.


Courtesy of Chris Companion
Cheryl Paquette may be the last Powder Puff champion at Catamount. Below- Mrs. Ruth Elms is among the winners of a Puff at Northeastern Speedway.


Courtesy of Northeastern Speedway Site

 

          I recall a couple of such events at Catamount Stadium, ending around 1973 or 74. You could already see the changing of the guard, as Powder Puffers were sharing the same program with female regulars like Barbie Jean Willard, Linda Alexander, and others. These races were taken with considerable seriousness by the competitors, especially at certain tracks like Northeastern Speedway. The legendary Powder Puff moment was when Mrs. Jerry Bigelow took exception to Mrs. Perley Densmore and put her off, over the bank – nearly killing her. The Densmore roll cage collapsed, and Mabel spent four days in the hospital.

          Biggie Bigelow, one of the perpetrator's sons, has been after his mother for a long time to find out more about that incident. According to Big, when if she did it on purpose, his mother said “No, of course not !” Later she admitted she did give Mabel a shot. There is also a story about the Powder at Malletts Bay Raceway wherein Clarence “Cornfield' Rock got slugged by Mrs. Cornfield for lending his car to a hussy for the derby there. The poor man had already wrecked his P30Jr; so, it was a bad day all around.


Courtesy of the Northeastern Speedway Site
The badly crushed Mabel Densmore car. Nice cage, Perley.


         And then there were those hats ! Of course, in the 1950's, no one was going around giving away advertising baseball hats - and teams who would be so disposed would have had a hard time finding anywhere to buy racing hats in thise days. But it is hard to through toom any 1950's racing photos without some guy standing there wearing a hat that looked like a WWII general's hat. What was with those thing s !? I guess a lot of gas stations [yes, gas stations] made their employees wear them; and you do see ads - right up to the Maytag repairman where men are wearing those things. I dunno, I guess it was just something people did instead of buying themselves a personal hat.

         The other deal with odd headgear seemedto mostly have to do with officials in those days. Apparently, expecting to go on safari anytime that afternoon, they would don these pith helmets and parade around the pits in a very officious manner. I do get it, to some extent. Races were less often at night and that summer sun could be pretty brutal. I even have one of Malletts bay Raceway driver Red Dooley sporting one of those Jungle Jim rigs.

 


Courtesy of Joan Swinton Walker

A big confab goes on in the infield at Ticonderoga's Champlain Speedway and a guy with a general hat listens in.
Below - A track official walks past Steve Danish's car at Granville, NY's Mettowee Speedway in 1951.



Courtesy of Mark LeFrancois

         Today's racing is still fun to attend, and most of the people involved are great people to know. BUT, the sport is seriously lacking in characters and it just isn't as much of a hoot as it was in the days when some guy's gas tank would fall out and he would run over it on the next lap [if there was enough gas in the fuel line].

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: wladabou@comcast.net . For those who still don’t like computers - my regular address is: Bill Ladabouche, 23 York Street, Swanton, Vermont 05488.

AS ALWAYS, DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT THE REST OF MY WEBSITE
www.catamountstadium.com

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