BILL'S SOMEWHAT WEEKLY BLOG
Since I seem to have lost my forum, Mark Thomas' "Racin' Paper", I will apparently enter the 21st Century and start doing my column as a
blog. In certain times of the year, this may not be weekly; but I promise to keep it regular. Many of the site regulars have only been able to
get my columns via this site, anyway, and representing the very newspaper that was given out at Thunder Road gave me no press courtesies.
So, I might as well do it this way and reach some different readers. Let me know what you think. -Bill
Week of August 11, 2012
BILL'S BACK IN TIME
POOR OL’ VICTORIA COULD NEVER GET NO RESPECT
Rodney Dangerfield would have felt strong kinship with the horseshoe – shaped half – mile dirt track called Victoria Speedway. Whether it was Mother Nature, or Father NASCAR, the track couldn’t get no respect as it struggled along, from 1960 – into the middle part of the decade. The first year, the track couldn’t get a NASCAR sanction from Bob Sall, the director of everything NASCAR in the Northeast.
Lou D’ Amico, the track’s founder, promoter, and President, gave us some hint of the frustration involved with running the snakebitten track with the article he put in the Schenectady Gazette that announced the beginning of one of his seasons at the Dunnsville oval. Much of the first part of the article talks about weather.
This is a shot at the old Victoria race layout. Check out the flatness of the surrounding farm land. It is a wonder those light poles were not knocked down regularly. [Courtesy of Dan Ody]
The track, in one particular season, had somewhere around 50% of its programs cancelled by rain. The article states : “Cognizant of the likelihood of cold evenings, in the early season, Victoria President Lou D'Amico has scheduled the Sunday afternoon
opening to give the stock car fans, starved for a glimpse of their favorite sport through the long winter months, a chance to see stock car action as early as possible without freezing in the process!”
Victoria’s early years have some charming little anecdotal stories like the one where one particular local man brought his family to one of the first race programs, and parked them in some sort of a hay wagon outside the fence, off to the west of the track. As they eagerly awaited the dropping of the green flag, the program suddenly came to a halt. The police who had been hired to oversee the program came trotting out to the fence, where the embarrassed family stood. As it turned out, the father knew someone in the track management and - from that time on – the family worked at the track every week, selling programs, hot dogs, or whatever.
The track had modest grandstands and a judges' stand which
Mel Austin once moved off its foundation. [Courtesy of Dan Ody]
That family, as well as the fans who did pay to watch Victoria races, got see some drivers win features who would not, ordinarily have had much of a chance – particularly at Fonda. Jeep Herbert, entering the end of a distinguished career, found Victory Lane at Victoria with both the Frank Trinkhaus car and Vince Barbuto’s beautiful #2.. Roger Gauthier, a good driver who seldom had competitive equipment when he raced at Fonda, got to enjoy a win in a special race at Victoria for non-feature winners.
Jack Farquhar, the Racing Judge, won a Victoria feature while still running for the Amsterdam – based Teresco and Mancini 685 team. This was before he took over the Barbuto car, abandoned Fonda, and went off the Lebanon Valley to a successful career. Vermont driver Black Jack DuBrul got to win a qualifier at Victoria. He also suffered a bunch of lost teeth in a bad wreck there. Then too, fans got to see strange stuff like Mel Austin and his 99Jr hitting the announcer’s stand and moving it several inches off the foundation.
Jack DuBrul, who found racing against the best NASCAR sportsman teams in the Northeast to be a real chore, got this consi win around 1964. [Courtesy of Bob Novak]
In the Fonda history book, Lew Boyd, Jim Rigney, and Andy Fusco liberally sprinkle Victoria references and anecdotes throughout their book, as – for a few years – one could really think about the stock car scene at Fonda, without considering what had happened at Victoria, the night before. Many of Russ Bergh’s photo’s, sold at the Checkerboard Stand at Fonda, featured drivers actually posing at Victoria.
Because of that NASCAR – less season in 1960, teams deciding to defy the autocratic Florida sanctioning body thought it best to send their drivers out under assumed names, and sometimes to even alter the car’s number. For example, Floyd “Pop” Wilcox, the New Berlin, NY car owner fielded his car with Driver Jerry Townley known as Jay Tee. The car’s usual number, 32, would be carefully altered to 62. The fact that this appeared to be infringing on Frank Trinkhaus’s car number did not concern Wilcox because the Fly Creek team would change their 62 to X, at Victoria.
Jeep Herbert [racing as Bob Alou]won one with the Frank’s Speed Shop car disguised as #X.
He won another feature [Below] with the Vince Barbuto car. [Herbert Family Photos]
Racing pseudonyms became art forms at Victoria. NASCAR National Champion, Rene Charland, would be known as either Nutsy Fagan [or Lesley Fagin, if a more convincing name was required]. Schuyler Falls’ Bill Wimble, another national champion, was apt to go as Bud Smith. Louie Lazzaro used the name of one of his posse, Peter Bianco. Some of the names sounded perfectly logical and bore no relation to anyone in he driver’s background: huge Paul Marshall disguised himself as Dick Lasky; and Donny Wayman went by George Wayne.
Then there were the guys who had to stretch things. Harold Betts, a portly Midstate regular who occasionally toyed with Fonda, used the name Bugs Bunny; and, as a matter of fact, he became more associated with that name than his own. The king of the racing names was the lovable and popular veteran from Rotterdam, Howard “Jeep” Herbert. He variously raced under such names as Bob Alou, Pete Moss, Flex Hose, and others. These names were also necessary when NASCAR drivers sought to run in the high - paying Lebanon Valley open competition races of the 1960’s.
Harold “Bugs Bunny” Betts  sits on a Victoria heat pole with Wayne Coon, another lower budget runner. Also seen is Red Knoblauch’s 13, with Johnny Perry and the Richard Welch 77 on the inside. Below - another Victoria start. [Ladabouche Collection]
What made Victoria the most compelling was the fact that – especially in its inaugural season, it attracted an eclectic field of Fonda cars, Midstate cars, and Lebanon Valley cars – a brew that would almost never finds itself mixed together under any other circumstances. The aforementioned NASCAR teams of such as Wimble, Lazzaro, Herbert, and Townley – as well as those of Ken Shoemaker, Pete Corey, some of the Kotarys, Irv Taylor, and dozens more would take the track against Valley regulars such as Stretch Van Steenberg and his #1 sedan, Doug Garrison, and Howie Westervelt [ a driver who ran at both tracks, off and on]. Add to this a few Midstate stars, legendary Screamin’ Sammy Reakes, Connecticut area drivers like Bobby Leach and Bill Gurney - and you had what should have been a dream track.
Stretch Van Steenberg, the Lebanon valley champ at the time, used this car at
Victoria in the first season’s action. [Courtesy of Mike Visconti]
By 1965, the heavily – publicized and well – financed Albany – Saratoga Speedway was about to be unveiled, seizing Friday nights away from the already – financially desperate Victoria. Trouble had been brewing for some time, with teams becoming tired of NASCAR’s tyrannical control of their racing environment, as well as some discontent with what they thought was not enough payout growth to match growing racing expense. As a result, many top Fonda teams were skipping down to Stafford Springs Speedway, in Connecticut, to better – paying shows on Friday nights.
George Baumgardner, with Richard Welch’s 77, shown here at
Stafford on a Friday night – not at Victoria – in 1965. [Ladabouche Collection]
By mid – Summer, a driver boycott was about to explode into being, and poor Victoria, now exiled to Wednesday nights, was going to get hit first. The drivers pulled into Dunnsville, as usual, but they all drive into the parking lot at the motel across Route 20. Drivers who were not so interested in the strike felt very uncomfortable entering the track, with names like Wimble, Shoemaker, Corey, Ernie Gahan, and Irv Taylor sitting across the road, arms folded, glaring at everyone who approached. The boycott was about to get a case of the hiccups.
The first hiccup came when Ed Fuez and Jim Gage, with blessings from NASCAR, sent Gigi Conover to Gahan with $250. They knew that the professional New Hampshire driver raced all week and lived off his winnings. He would become the first of the big names to break ranks. [Later, that winter, according to the Fonda book, NASCAR screwed Gahan out of that money by docking his season’s payout by that amount].
Ernie Gahan was one of the hiccups. He was screwed over by the very organization whose
national championship he would win that year. [Cavalcade of Auto Racing Photo]
The next hiccup came when that same management group got on the phone and called New Jersey area teams to haul up to Victoria for $100 towing money each and a promise that they were “helping a NASCAR track that wasn’t getting decent –sized fields”. As the early evening wore on and fans were hanging back, not wanting to buy tickets to a race that might not happen, a convoy and stock car haulers came down Route 20.
The convoy included the likes of Will Cagle, Pee Wee Griffin, Bobby Pickell, and Gil Hearne [father of Brent Hearne]. The haulers pulled into Victoria and the sound of big block motors, not otherwise allowed at area NASCAR tracks, were heard roaring to life. Supposedly, later, when they found out they were strikebreakers, these drivers did not end up taking the track either.
The big, menacing Emery “Pee Wee” Griffin, one of the unwitting strike breakers, would not have thought of himself as a hiccup. [Ace Lane Photo from 3 Wide Site]
The final hiccup came when the headstrong young Saranac Lake driver, Wes “Slugger” Moody showed up, not knowing anything about any strike. Moody ,who is quick to relate how just about every lap he ran at Fonda involved getting pounded on by resentful Fonda regulars who didn’t like the Airborne Speedway invaders, advised Ken Shoemaker, a man he particularly despised, that the strikers hadn’t ever done anything for him except make his life miserable at Fonda and they could go perform an unnatural act upon themselves. In he went – following 17 year – old David Lape, who had been told by the olders that this was not his problem.
The boycott eventually fell apart, but nothing could save the poor horse track. By the 1966 season, it was no longer in operation. Even if they were attracting fields of cars on Wednesday nights, there were not enough fans who could afford to be pay for two or three race programs a week. Then too, were the ones who didn’t want to be out late on a work night. What should have been a great set-up: a track near Fonda, attracting the same cars as Fonda, as well as others, and whose Friday night program could be used as a shakedown cruise for the sportsman teams before the big Saturday night shows at Fonda – just did not work out that way.
The typical poster of that era. They were very hopeful it would attract success. [Courtesy of Ken Gypson]
Today, the old Victoria track is still perfectly visible, out on Route 20. Apparently, it is occasionally used for training horses, or something like that. Except for inclusion into the various dead race tracks lists that sprout out on internet chat sites, about the only other attention the Victoria track gets is at gatherings like the Lost Race Tracks conferences at the Saratoga Auto Museum. It is one of my disappointments in life – as far as racing goes – that I never saw a race at Victoria.
George Baumgardner made a short trip to Victoria from Saratoga while NASCAR National Sportsman Champion Dick Nephew had a four – hour tow to get there on a Friday night. [Photo from an ebay auction] Below – The track is still very visible in this 2006 aerial view. [Historic Aerials Website]
Please email me at email@example.com 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. 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 MY WEBSITE: www.catamountstadium.com
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