WEEKLY COLUMN/BLOG PAGE
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
VALLEY FAIR WAS NEVER A GREAT PLACE FOR AUTO
RACING TO GAIN A FOOTHOLD IN VERMONT
The Champlain Valley Exposition grounds in Essex Junction, Vermont, should have been the ideal place for some of the biggest and most successful racing promotions in the history of auto racing in that state; but – for a number of reasons – it never worked out that way. It would seem that having a large race track located in the most populous and developed county in the state would add up to strong potential for success. Then, considering that, in the early 1950’s, there were at least six race tracks operating in the county, the lack of success at CVE was even harder to understand.
From Early American Cars Website
This Oakland Speedster, minus some body parts, may well have looked like the one raced at the 1923 Champlain Valley Exposition in the fair’s first car race. Below – A Hudson touring car, similar [but with fewer body parts] to the one below won the race.
From Early American Cars Website
The first auto race at the fairgrounds was a four – car affair, with local men running stripped – down passenger cars as a sort of almost – sideshow amusement. The fair would host AAA – sanctioned events until 1955, when that organization bowed out of auto racing entirely, leading to the rise of USAC, the group that would run the Indy 500. In that 29 year AAA period, CVE races were promoted by Ralph Hankinson [before WWII] and Sam Nunis, after the war.
Taurtoise Motorsports Website
Sam Nunis and Ted Horn, at that time one of the nation’s top drivers. Horn probably ran at least once at the Essex Junction track.
The big names at the post – 1950’s race events consisted of the biggest names in sprint car racing at the time. At first, the drivers who raced at Essex Junction were not “household” racing names. Barney Oldfield, Joie Chitwood, and Ralph DePalma, while famous in racing circles, were not generally known to the average person as today’s racing stars are. Tommy Hinnershitz, of Pennsylvania was the top dog in the latter 1940’s and the early 1950’s, when a young, hearing – impaired South Burlington man named Jackie Peterson appeared on the scene with a somewhat – homemade yellow sprint car to try his luck against the big open wheel names.
According to research done by my friend John Nelson and from conversations with Peterson, now 90, he could get the car up to competitive speeds but could not manage avoid mechanical breakdowns. The 1932 CVE race had featured a wreck by a “John Peterson”, but this man was no relationship to Jackie. Peterson’s first try at the AAA racing was in 19590 at Essex, after he had campaigned his #16 sprinter at the long – closed Champlain Speedway in Ticonderoga, NY in 1949 and also at the Green Mountain Speedway near Sheldon, VT. Nelson writes : “Driving a Chrysler-powered (flathead six) racer, Peterson finished 4th in his heat and presumably suffered mechanical difficulties, as he did not start in the consolation race or feature.” Peterson would try again, the following year, and again have mechanical problems.
Peterson Photo Collection
South Burlington’s Jackie Peterson made the fifteen minute haul over to Essex Junction to
run with the big boys in 1950 with his home made sprint car.
1952 was the beginning of significant problems with racing programs at the fairgrounds track. Both the Champlain Valley Exposition track and one at the Vermont State Fairgrounds in Rutland were simply not appropriately outfitted for the increasingly – fast auto races that were on – going by the 1950’s. The only barrier was a three – foot high wooden rail fence that, at once, gave spectators a false sense of security and which would splinter into deadly missiles of wood on hard contact by a metal race car. Famous open wheel driver, Bill Schindler and prominent stock car driver Pete Corey both lost legs to these barriers in the 1950’s.
Then, too, the CVE surface was almost impossible to maintain. The track management, perhaps better suited to deal with horses, would pour hundreds of gallons of water and calcium chloride on the track only to have the baking afternoon sun dry it out. The result was serious holes, ruts, and billowing clouds of dust that blanketed spectator and driver, alike. In 1952, the promoters of the Malletts Bay Raceway in Colchester put on a racing program at the fairgrounds on the July 4th weekend. One of Carl Trayah’s few racing triumphs was overshadowed by the death of Arthur Bessette, a mechanic.
Burlington Free Photo Courtesy of Emerson
This sensationalized photo shows Arthur Bessette, about to be struck by the white car of Clyde Yarnell, with the Ellis car narrowly missing the man.
Bessette, who sometimes did some tech inspections at one of the local tracks, was severely inebriated at the July 4 races and had been sent away from the grounds. Without officials knowing it, he had hailed a taxi and returned to the races. For some unknown reason, he was insisting on standing almost on the racing surface. Cars driven by Clyde Yarnell, Sr,. and Arthur Ellis locked wheels and careened into the infield at the very spot Bessette was. Deputy Sheriff Sid Gordon was nearly hit, too as he struggled to pull Bessette out of the path of the cars.
The local Burlington Free Press, while minimizing the race results, sensationalized the Bessette tragedy with photos of him about to be struck and of his body, lying near the track covered with a blanket. Yarnell was so distraught he barely could sleep for months. This incident, along with another spectator accident at the nearby Colchester Raceway would cause States Attorney Lawrence DeShaw to try preventing further stock car racing, using the Sunday Blue Laws from the past century.
Owen Family Collection
Gordy Owen [above, 2nd from left] and Bob Bushey [below looking at camera] were two Chittenden County stock car stars who not only ran stock car races at CVE but who sought rides in open wheel cars, too.
Bushey Family Collection
Open wheel racing continued from that time, until almost 1980 at the CVE track, under the auspices of various sanctioning bodies and featuring the stars of whichever era was in effect. Another stock car program was run in 1954, under the banner of the United Stock Car Racing Club, run by Harvey Tattersall. Local stars Bob Bushey and Gordy Owens ran, along with several out – of – state stars, the best known of which was future four – time NASCAR National Sportsman Champion Rene Charland, then running out of Holyoke, MA.
That USCRC event went off without many problems; but, ironically, it was the same Tattersall group that appeared at the fairgrounds in Rutland in 1963, featuring their “Grand American” division of new or nearly new late model race cars. In that race, Bob Devine, running third behind Roy Halquist and Dick Dixon, veered off the backstretch, through the flimsy three – foot rails, and sheared off the leg of a woman simply standing by her car, taking a break from walking around at the fair. Devine told me in 2011, he still could not deal well with that memory.
Courtesy of Cho Lee
Rene Charland, shown here around 1954, may well have been the most accomplished of all the racers who drove at the CVE fair track. he won the NASCAR National Sportsman championship four years in a row in the 1960’s. This early car
could be where his trademark #3 came from.
The Champlain Valley Exposition open wheel races would go from the sanction of the AAA, to the United Racing Club. It was in this sanction, in 1960, that Billy McDonald, driving Peterson’s old sprinter, achieved a 4th place finish in the feature – the best ever done by a Vermonter in such races. The fair eventually switched to the ARDC, a midget racing group, which afforded the crowd the only chance in Vermont to see future legend Mario Andretti race. Despite the smaller cars, the accidents and spectator injuries continued. The URC did continue to stage races, as well, and fans were treated to several performances by one of the greats of that time – Hank Rogers.
The open wheel races at the fair, while troublesome, did treat locals to stars like Hinnershitz, Rogers, Red Riegel, DePalma, Oldfield, Bobby Courtwright, Len Duncan, Joe Csiki, Dutch Schaeffer, Don Gillette, Lou Johnson, King Carpenter [who could briefly run at Thunder Road], future Indy driver Steve Krisiloff, Dick Tobias, Leroy Felty, and more. They also heard to announcing of such nationally – famous men as Chris Economaki [National Speed Sport News] and Vermont’s own Ken Squier. The last race was an ARDC affair in 1981, after which the need for parking room and a stage area for the rapidly – expanding fair concerts caused the track to be destroyed.
Courtesy of Jim Howard
A very young Ken Squier [above] and the already – famous Chris Economaki both announced racing at CVE. At least Chris didn’t have to announce during a fatality, as did Squier with the death of Arthur Bessette.
From The Vintage Racer.Com
Amazingly, in almost 50 years of auto racing on an inadequate track, only two or three drivers were hurt badly enough to require hospitalization. The Bessette death, clearly not entirely the fault of the management, left the biggest blot on the memory of racing there. Legendary local stock car racing star Harmon, Beaver” Dragon, from nearby Milton, never raced there but recalls being shocked, as a youngster, to twice see midget drivers remove a artificial leg to climb into their cars. One of these was Pete Corey, usually a New York stock car driver. The other was probably Bill Schindler.
Dragon Family Collection
Beaver Dragon did try out Bob Riley’s midget, but not at Essex Junction.
From 1923, when a Winooski man named Ryerson drove a Hudson touring car to a win over some other local men with supposedly faster stripped – down cars – to second – generation open wheel driver Hank Rogers, Jr.’s win in an ARDC midget in 1981, the Champlain Valley Exposition tried bravely to stage acceptable and entertaining car races at their half – mile horse track. They certainly had a variety of classes and plenty of the type of “action” the casual fair – goer wanted. Not serious race fans, these “goers” wanted to see accidents – and they got that, along with their Sunday best fair outfits being covered with dirt.
The Rutland fairgrounds, which I attended, weren’t much better. With the CVE track gone and the Rutland venue being positively forbidden to stage car racing, it appears as though fair car races, at least in Vermont, are a thing of the past. And probably, judging from the carnage , it is a good thing.
Courtesy of the FE Hart Family
The Frank Hart family claims this is an infield shot looking at the stands at CVE. If it is,
it gives evidence to how large fair racing crowds could be.
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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