SOMEWHAT WEEKLY COLUMN/BLOG PAGE
This was a column I did for The Racin' Paper, in 2006.
A lot of my readers never got to see this one.
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
MOMENTS BEFORE THE
Sometimes the Waiting is Half the Show
It sometimes drives me absolutely insane when the weather is threatening, the Thunder Road program, is less than half done, and the management will be dicking around with politicians throwing cow manure off a shovel, having an outhouse race staged, or sitting around while some other similar performance holds the stage. As mad as it makes me, I do sort of get what Ken Squier is doing that for.
Half of the show is developing the anticipation. I do notice where, during these innocuous activities, Squier [if he is on the mike] will continually and almost subliminally interject references to the upcoming feature race. Some of my most favorite and pleasant memories about racing – particularly when I was much younger – were about things that were observed well before any racing began.
Courtesy of Norm Vadnais
The anticipation, on the opening day of Fairmont Speedway, had built up in the hot sun for hours by the
time Bob Hoffer’s T Bird paced the first feature race. Below - A better, but less wide angle shot of the same moment.
Courtesy of Ron Hoffer
When C.J. Richards re-opened the long – dormant Fairmont Speedway in 1962, we anxiously trooped over the on a hot Memorial Day afternoon to see some of the only appreciable stockcar action made available in Rutland County since 1952. A very young Richards and his inexperienced staff struggled to get he show underway while we sat in the baking sun, listening to the same album of John Philip Sousa march tunes, over and over again. The less motivated fans began to grumble, and a few even vacated much – needed bleacher seats to go home. But me ? I would have waited six hours, if need be; I could see those wonderful stock cars, sitting out there in the infield. Despite the discomfort, it still is a magic, pre – race moment. [And, the resulting races that day did not disappoint].
At my one visit to the Orange County Speedway, in Middletown, NY, what I remember the most was walking around what actually the location of fair’s midway – behind the stands – in the period before the first races were flagged off. Yes, I would be seeing some superstars I didn’t usually get to see like Will Cagle, Fuzzy Van Horn, and Bobby Rossell; but smelling the foods, watching an artist do oil paintings of the Orange County cars, and listening to the local fans arguing about whose driver was better was an experience for myself and my young, New Jersey – born brother – in – law.
Moody Family Photo
Peeking through the Devil’s Bowl pit fence in the late 1960’s might get you a look at Wes Moody [foreground],
his car owner Dickie Dame [white jacket], his crewman, Denton Dow [bent over], and rival driver Rapid Ralph Palmer.
There were little things at certain tracks that made for pre – race tradition. At Devil’s Bowl, fans would press their faces against the chain link fence separating the spectator area from the pits, hoping to have their favorite driver or perhaps somebody’s crewman come over to talk. Usually, with his family restricted to the spectator area, even the most famous driver would want to spend a few moments with the little lady and the kids before the heats began.
And, with clay tracks like Devil’s Bowl, what was a mind – numbingly boring, incessant practice on paved tracks was something quite different on dirt. Whether it was the painstakingly – groomed Fonda oval or the somewhat – less – fussed – over surface at the Bowl, no promoter was going to allow much of a practice session, as it would tear up the racing surface prematurely. So, when cars finally came out for their sparse hot laps before qualifying, the headlining division would have first dibs, and nobody got to run much more than three or four frantic laps under green.
Moody Family Photo
Cars including Ryan’s 128, Jack Harrison’s 30, Wes Moody’s 63, and the 38 of Vince Quenneville run in the Devil’s Bowl track around 1968.
At Catamount, where practice sessions droned on for hours before a race program began, few of the fans even bothered to watch. The big thing there was the solemn placing of the blanket. Even though the Milton oval had huge stands compared to Devil’s Bowl, one had to put down ones blanket to ensure getting one’s usual seat. Contrast to somewhere like Fonda, where no one got there that early and you could lose teeth taking somebody’s customary Saturday seat.
From Dan Ody’s 8MM DVD
Don Wayman’s 555, with Joe Ciganenko in the Trinkhaus 62 on the outside run in the track at Fonda around 1953 or 1954. Practice laps were few, but the long, parade-like run – in laps served to whet the appetites of the crowd for action.
Of course, in the case of Catamount, there was always my first visit to the track in 1965. I think it may have been only my second trip to any paved track, and the entire concept of seeing extending practice was foreign. Couple that with the situation where my friends and I noticed the flagger was actually wearing a necktie.; that freaked my friend, Bob out. At home, flagger Danny Rumpf did look sharp – but he wore the usual open – necked striped shirt and white pants with a vertical stripe along the seam [not a necktie]. Next, we saw Ken Squier, in the tower, wearing asuit and talking up the races. Our announcers wore T-shirts. The last straw was looking out, onto the track, and seeing a driver whiz by in a coupe, wearing [you guessed it] a necktie. That turned out to be businessman/owner Jack DuBrul. But, to put it mildly, we had a slightly different take on the new track by the time we almost left and went home.
Courtesy of Chris Companion
Jack Paradee was still wearing his necktie to flag races at Catamount as late as 1972,
as he congratulates heat winner Clem Despault.
At the Albany – Saratoga Speedway, in the small town of Malta, it was not even anything that happened on the grounds of the track, itself. The little settlement, surrounded by the historically – significant grounds made famous by the multi - site Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution, featured an eatery known simply as Dunsters’s. Run, by the Pemberton family, which has furnished some of NASCAR racing’s better – known names, ran this little stopoff, where one might expect to sit and have a beer next to the likes of Jean – Paul Cabana or Rene Charland. If you glanced out the window to the highway, an few hours before a race program, you might see one of Harry Coonradt’s semi late models being pulled up the road by a chain, with a crewman inside, steering. All part of the ambience.
John Grady Photo
Look out the window at Dunsters before the races in Malta and you might see Harry Coonradt’s
car going by, towed by nothing but a chain.
Although it did not fall off once races began, the big thing in the pre – race period at Thunder Road International Speedbowl was the teenage socializing. There are adults who grew up in Barre at T Road every Thursday night who really are not aware that racing took place out on the track. They were not there for that. In direct contrast to Airborne Speedway fans who make it a habit of arriving during qualifying races, T Road fans are there before the gates open, and get a close eye on both the practice and at their favorites [through the pit fence].
Bob Dodge Photo Courtesy of Troy Dodge
The teens may not have cared about the feature lineup at Thunder Road, but look
how attentive every single adult is – only one guy is turned away.
As far as I am concerned, the best moments before races came at Fonda Speedway – especially in that first year I was able to attend. Fonda regular fans were some of the earlier arrivers, as they liked to sit and watch across the grounds, across the Mohawk River, and over to Route 30A, where the tow vehicles coming off the New York Thruway would come into view, prompting either cheers or boos [depending on whose rig came into sight]. The more controversial Corey and Lazarro would get mixed responses while the more popular Danish and Wimble rigs would elicit mostly cheers.
But, for me there, was so much more ambience to drink in upon arriving early at the irregularly – shaped Montgomery County Fairgrounds track. The preparation of the clay surface for the evening was second to none. For hours before the show, the water truck would saturate the track with water, probably from the nearby river. About two hours before the first practice laps, a tractor would emerge pulling a strange trailer – like rig with about 18 wheels. Meanwhile, just watching the crusty regulars find their customary seats while bitching and arguing with other regulars who did not love the same driver.
Above – The Fonda track crew watered incessantly before the races. Below – The “tractor thing” with all the wheels chugs into turn one.
About an hour from race time, six or seven gaudily painted cars would emerge from the infield. Owned by, and advertising for Conover Auto Parts of Johnstown, these cars would drive around the track for the better part of that hour, a practice that manicured the already – well – prepped clay. I recall wondering uncomfortably on our first visit to Fonda, if these were the race cars for about a minute. Had we come all this way to see those things ? We should have known better, as we had seen New York style sportsman cars in Vermont for two years at Otter Creek Speedway.
Good God ! Are these the cars !? They can’t be the cars !
It was simple to know who had arrived and who had not because, in those earlier days, the pits were in the infield, along that tiny drag strip. Cars came either on simple one or two – axle trailers or they were stiff – hitched behind either someone’s car or a pickup. Some of the classier rigs had tow vehicles that matched the car. That first summer Saturday evening for me and my uncle at Fonda, the expectation was about unbearable when they finally ordered cars out for the warmups. The first car I ever saw chugging down the front stretch was the red and white Bernie’s Liquor Shop – sponsored #71, owned by Dick Bennett and driven by Lee Millington, of Palatine Bridge.
Courtesy of Gerry LaVallee
Lee Millington, from nearby Palatine Bridge and the long – lived Bernie’s Liquor
Shop 71 of Dick Bennett out of Gloversville.
Watching the fast warmups was no anti – climax to all that buildup. Being used to seeing flatheads and six cylinders struggle around bumpy tracks at home, we were no prepared for the sheer speed we beheld as dozens of overhead V-8 sportsman coupes whizzed by us on the front straightaway so fast, it literally almost made you dizzy. That speed, and the sight of Pete Corey, in the Tony Villano, Sr 37NY, leaning into turn one with his yellow Cromwell helmet sticking completely out of the driver side window, inspired complete awe. After that four hours of pre – race experience coupled with years of hearing about Fonda at home, the racing almost was an anticlimax.
You can compare and contrast all of these pre race experiences with the sheer boredom that one felt waiting at the top of a pasture hill for something to start happening at Otter Creek Speedway, near Vergennes. We were so grateful to have races to see, in the late summer of 1961, after having had virtually none for seven years, that we sat patiently as the neophyte track management apparently struggled mightily to get their small field of cars organized for heats.
Russ Bergh Photo via Bill Fifield
Pete Corey was a very potent entry in the Tony Villano 37NY, around 1963.
Not much would change for the rural track that abbreviated season, although they tried. You couldn’t see much anyway, as the tiny bleacher section was quite far up the hill from the racing surface. The track did have the sense eventually to hire Fairmont announcer Bill Barsalow, Sr, a Fair Haven businessman and auctioneer, to emcee their shows. Barsalow could, at least, keep a line of chatter and entertaining stories going while other futile attempts to entertain the waiting crowd, such as highly – ineffective track clowns, dragged on.
Cavalcade of Auto Racing Photo
Folksy, with a dry sense of humor - Fairmont and Otter Creek announcer Bill Barsalow [right] poses with his boss, CJ Richards and Ray Pritchard [center] at Fairmont Speedway around 1962. Below – The huge distance between the Otter Creek track and its spectators made for reduced enthusiasm.
If magic moments were what you were looking for in the earlier days of stock car racing, you found a track like Fonda or even the old Fairmont Speedway, where the pits could be observed, and there was always a buzz about the latest driver change or who was caught cheating at what. You didn’t pick a track with bleachers a quarter mile from the track with a sparse bleacher full of farmers who were much more interested in complaining about a recalcitrant hay baler than anything going on with a stock car. Today, it is harder to build up that same pre – race feeling. We are so conditioned by constant media encroachment, commercialism, and hype – it takes a lot to get excited simply by the prospect that the races are starting soon. Maybe that still lives at Thunder Road; but not in too many other places.
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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