WEEKLY COLUMN/BLOG PAGE
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
A DARNED UNUSUAL
TRACK IN AN
EQUALLY - UNIQUE TOWN
Northfield, Vermont is a little on the unique side. It is a medium – sized Vermont town in the middle of the state, not far from Barre and Montpelier, and its main claim to fame is likely the presence of the oldest military school in the nation – Norwich University. But, it also lays claim to notoriety in once hosting one of the state’s more unusual stock car venues.
I owe a debt of gratitude to former Northfield native Dick LaCaillade, a Rutland resident who has taken it upon himself to be a patron saint of sorts to that race track. Much of the town information and a good share of the race track material is due to research Dick has done.
Norwich University Site Photo
When you think of Northfield, you tend to think – Norwich University.
Many people in the region assume that Norwich University is in Norwich, Vermont – a Vermont town very near to Dartmouth College and Hanover, NH. And, while it is true that the military school did originate in Norwich, it moved to Norwich many years ago [after a fire, I had always heard]. Northfield was probably unfazed by this auspicious acquisition because it already had [or would have] so many other things to consider interesting.
LaCaillade wrote: “Northfield never ceases to amaze me.
The village and town has just 6,000 people, about the population of one high-rise apartment building in Manhattan. But within its 44 square miles it contains the nation's oldest private military college, and until recently it supported two weekly newspapers.
Northfield, I would argue, can also lay claim to Vermont's finest winning baseball tradition. And let's not forget, back in the day, it had – oddly – an adult theater, and, since 2002, more plausibly, it became home to the National Center for the Study of Counter-Terrorism and Cybercrime.”
Leif Tillotson Photo
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott had the burgeoning Northfield Savings Bank as a sponsor uring the 2008 ACT season. The interesting connection here is that Scott’s ubois Construction firm was started by Ruie Dubois, first Northfield promoter.
I can add to these facts other noteworthy observations like the town can boast one of the fastest – growing, most aggressively – advertised local banks in recent memory. Northfield Savings Bank has spread into many other areas, perhaps because it may have been bought out by a huge corporation that wanted to keeps it s name as a figurehead – I don’t know. But NSB has been a strong supporter of racing at nearby Thunder Road. It has even been a prominent sponsor of star racer, Vermont Lt. Governor Phil Scott. Ironically, Scott carries a connection of sorts to the Northfield race track.
Now let’s focus on the local track whose vestiges lie on a rise above the village. From my friend and ace researcher, John Nelson’s work, we know the track began as the old town fairgrounds. The Dog River Valley Fair began in 1873 at Frank Gold’s Trotting Park, an established track for harness racing. The fair peaked in the early 1920s, but the last fair was held around 1933. So far as is known, no auto racing took place at, or during, the fair. After the fair went out of business the grounds were taken over by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for use as a training camp.
The Fairgrounds Bridge, that leads to the old site of the race track, was badly damaged, during Hurricane
Irene, by the Dog River River, the namesake of the speedway.
In 1949 Roelof (Ruie) DuBois bought the old fairgrounds and prepared the track for auto racing. DuBois, a heavy equipment operator during World War II, founded a construction company on Long Island with his brother. Dubois moved to Vermont in 1947; and brought his business with him, establishing the base in Middlesex, near Montpelier.
Dubois came from a deeply historic French Huguenot family centered – in the 1770’s – in the Hudson Valley of New York, near New Paltz.. His son continued the business, which has survived into the 21st century despite a devastating fire in the winter of 2011 – 2012. Today, the company is considered to be owned by present Vermont Lt. Governor Phil Scott, himself a stock car racing of high standing.
USGS Terraserver Photo
The old Dog River Speedway site was still quite visible from the air in the 1990’s. Below- This old
scenic photo could be showing the race track, the brown oval to the far left [west]
Although it may have had other names briefly, the Northfield track is usually referred to as Dog River Speedway, named for the body of water flowing nearby. The life span of the track was from the late 1950s to mid-1960s [around 1963]. Another name during this period was apparently Northfield Speedway. Dog River Speedway opened on October 2, 1949 with a program of Sprint Cars, plus a 10-lap exhibition stock car race. This makes it arguably the first track in the state of Vermont to host stock car racing. More than 3,000 fans watched the program of time trials, heats, consolation, and the 10-lap Sprint feature. Art Prairie won the Sprint feature, followed by Bud Johnson (2nd) and Ken Gallup (3rd).
Sprinters of this vintage would have been at that Northfield show. Below – Jackie Peterson, who won the Vermont State Championship at Northfield about a year later in Eddie Reynolds’ car, was likely in that sprint race, as well. Jackie
is in the middle, with Reynolds at right.
Everett Ladd of Northfield won the stock car race. This small portion of the program is where the track lays its claim to being first.. Given the other names in the sprint car portion of the show, it is almost certain that South Burlington native Jackie Peterson was running the track that day, as well as the famous racing Soper family from New York. Peterson would a few years later, win a Vermont State Stock Car Championship race at the track. Races in 1950 again featured sprinters as the main draw, with Northfield’s own Mike Busino winning a stock car race. This is the way things went until the 1951 season , when the stock cars became the lead class.
1952 would be the year of the big championship race. The Dog River track was little more than a narrow, paper clip – shaped oval with precipitous dropoffs almost everywhere around it. Like many other tracks of the era, its announcer’s stand had no PA system; so that was handled with a Coca – Cola distributor’s yellow pickup truck with huge speakers mounted on top.
From The Bob Bushey Collection
The paper clip shape of Dog River Speedway is evident in this photo that tells a lot about the track. Notice the Coca-Cola truck that has the track’s PA system, the old judges’ stand, Bob Doyles’ back and white Bardahl van, and the Ralph Bushey #1 car.
John Nelson describes the problems with those dropoffs and many novice participants: “An incident (unfortunately undated) was recounted to me by Don Buck, former race car driver; and Ruie DuBois. Buck and another man built a stock car and hired a man to drive it. When the driver rolled the car during a qualifying race, Buck decided to take over the wheel. The first few laps went smoothly, but then Buck entered the turn and couldn’t turn the steering wheel. The car hurtled off the turn, leaped an embankment, and flipped over, coming to rest at the edge of the woods beside the railroad.
Buck found his helmet pinned between the caved-in roof and steering wheel; to exit he had to wriggle his head out of the helmet. Investigation showed that the car’s steering box had overheated and seized. In an effort to gain power by freeing up the exhaust, Buck and his partner simply removed the stock exhaust manifolds. This allowed hot gases to exit directly from the engine onto the steering box. Although uninjured, Buck let this incident stand as the finale of his race driving career, and DuBois decided to sell the speedway.
Courtesy of Jodie Trayah via Steve Jangraw
The Ed Charbonneau – owned car 99 sits in the infield at an undetermined early ‘50’s track as several local stock car hot shots ham it up. Norm Chaloux is the guy with the big biceps sitting on a car in the background with his arm across his chest.
Among the others are the two Trayah brothers, who claimed
Viola as their sister. [Read on]
Jackie Peterson describes a similar accident during which the car he was driving had slid down one of the embankments heading down – past the railroad tracks – towards the river. He said that another car came rolling over the bank, slowly going over, again and again, finally coming to rest right on the tracks. Another incident saw burly granite cutter, Norm “The Flying Frenchman” Chaloux, driving Ed Charbonneau’s #99 car [which featured an external roll cage] wrecking down the bank, breaking the driver’s collar bone. Chaloux was out for weeks and Charbonneau sold the car.
There is no documentation of any racing for the rest of the 1950’s. But, as Waterford’s Northeastern Speedway and Barre’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl both asphalt tracks] began to enjoy tremendous success in the early 1960’s, an unknown man bought the track and had it paved. The track did enjoy some good fields of cars that would come over from the other two tracks. However, by 1963, it is rumored that the influential Cooley brothers, owners of Cooley Construction [and part of Thunder Road] managed to acquire a sand pit in Northfield in a location that allowed them to prevent access to the Northfield track.
Courtesy of Mike Gilbert
Northfield 1961 champion [in the paved era] Larry Granger, with car owner Libero Buzzi [white suit
at right]. Below – Spade Cooley [far left in back] poses for a 2005 Thunder Road photo in Barre.
T Road star Larry Granger won the last “state championship” race at the track, and he also took the last track points title. The facility had suffered through some accidents in which spectators were injured, and management apparently did not want to take on the powerful Cooleys in court. Local men who raced at the track located off Route 12A included Donald LaCaillade, Frank Bradley, Fred Smith, and Nate Thurston.
One man, Malcom Durkee, spent so much time parked off one of the turns, that they named that portion of the track after him. It is likely that the track inspired one Red Fisk, a Northfield native to begin a career that took through several years of late model sportsman racing with NASCAR.
It cannot be overstated how much the steep dropoffs from the track surfaces played a role in the racing at Northfield. Peterson describes how he won the 1951 state title there. He said that local hot shoe Ronnie Cooley was leading Richford’s Harold “Cannonball” Baker for the win with two laps to go; Peterson was a close third. Baker decided to make a move and the two leaders touched, careening out of the inside groove over the edge of the track. Peterson was surprised to find he could move under them and win. He surmises that Baker and Cooley were so intent on not tumbling over the bank onto the railroad tracks that they lost all their momentum.
Courtesy of William Baker
Cannonball Baker, indisposed here at the track at West Lebanon, NH was apparently a man who could drive himself into a scrape or two. Below – The 8 Ball of local competitor Jim LaFrenniere sits in the pits at Northfield during the pavement
era with his kids guarding the car.
Courtesy of Mike Gilbert
Another of Peterson’s favorite Northfield tales involved one of his girlfriends and one of the powder puff races that were an integral part of stock car shows in the early 1950’s. Viola Trayah, whose brothers Carl and Herb were regulars at all the tracks, was a woman of enormous strength and a real mean streak. When she pulled into the pits to state her car was acting up, Carl berated her in his usual vitriolic fashion. She said nothing, but calmly climbed out of the car and decked her brother, much to the delight of the crowd.
Nelson states that the fairgrounds and track were located on a terrace of the Dog River, just west of the railroad at the end of Fairground Road. This is west off Rt. 12A, about 2 miles south of the center of Northfield Village. Although all structures have been removed, the paper-clip outline of the 1/3-mile paved track is visible on aerial photographs. For quite a few years, anyone who might want to visit the site might be met by a man carrying a shotgun. He was raising emus and was unduly wary that someone was going to steal them. Today, there may be some building development going on at the old track.
Chris DaBica Photo
This view was taken about five years ago at the old Dog River Speedway site. Soon after snapping this Chris was run off the site by the land owner.
Few people appreciate the role that Dog River Speedway played in the history of Vermont stock car racing.
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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