– SO TYPICAL OF THOSE
1950’s BOOM TRACKS THAT CAME AND WENT
Like so many other post – World War II booms,
the explosion of stock car racing onto the American racing scene pretty much
waited until the 1950’s, with only a few tracks running stock cars in the late
1940’s. The state of Maine was no exception. With a few venues like the Unity
and Lewiston fairgrounds tracks getting a head start in the late ‘40’s, most
of the tracks got their start around 1950 or 1951.
June 4, 1950 was the date when Sanford
Speedway first opened for racing. As was the case with most such tracks, the
original owners experienced problems making ends meet. Thomas Guillemette, a
local saw mill owner, had purchased and cleared a sandy lot off Route 109 and
had overseen the sculpting out of the scrub pine lot there of a track, with
which he had hoped to cash in on the burgeoning sport of stock car racing.
Although, before WWII, there had been some “mud buggy” racing in the region –
these unsafe, roadster – like cars were not brought back after the war.
Sanford Speedway, as it turned
out, was not the typical rustic bull ring, scratched out in a pasture with few
amenities, as was the case with over half the race tracks of the day. David
Dutch, in his articles about the track, describes just how hard Guillemette
tried to make a top notch facility: “Guillemette
was born in Canada and first worked in the local mills. He was a hard-working
man who carved out his slightly less than a one-third mile track and built a
650 foot wooden grandstand that accommodated several thousand-race fans. He
also put in the lighting for night racing and built a judges stand, a
concession stand-ticket booth, restroom facilities, and a pit shack. The clay
for the track's banks was hauled in from the banks of the Mousam River in West
Kennebunk. The little "bull ring," as it was called by many, was the first
paved track in Northern New England. The pit area was located between the
second and third turns at the front of the slight backstretch with its
entrance off turn 2, and exit just before turn 3. It was 60 feet wide and had
four distinct turns, unlike most small tracks. Turns three and four were
tighter than the first two.
PR Boston of North Berwick sprayed 4,000 gallons of tar on
the oval, a sealer was later put on it giving it a fast racing surface. The
old speedway was an engineering marvel and ahead of its time, but the
semi-banked and paved oval proved to be a problem for most of the cars that
were used to running on dirt. The centrifugal force and friction of the
pavement caused the wheels and tires to come off. A stream of sparks showered
the surface as the wheel or hub dug into the tar to the delight of the fans.
The cars had also had difficulty holding the track and these problems
eventually led to the track's demise. Later technology improved by modifying
the chassis and springs, and they used a wider wheel and tires called racing
slicks. The ingenious use of modified truck and other vehicle performance
parts made for better racing. ”
From David Dutcher Article – Fosters Daily
Ray Normaneau, who just
happened to be of French descent, won a
popular win in the inaugural Sanford program.
Like the owner, himself, a
sizable percentage of the area supporters seemed to be of French Canadian
descent, their families probably having come to work in the many mills in
that area of Maine, just like other New England mill towns such as Winooski,
Vermont and in northern Massachusetts. Crowds were treated to the best
performance that the Sanford Stock Car Racing Association could provide.
Again, unlike so many of the fly – by – night tracks in the Northeast,
Guillemette’s track had a full slate of association officers [most with French
surnames], and medical personnel.
According to Dutch’s research,
the Sanford track had to contend with the odors emanating from across the
road, at LeHoux’s Pig Farm. Uncomfortable spectators would be glad to have the
nasty pig smell replaced, in the course of the show, by burning rubber, hot
motor oil, and hopefully somebody’s hot dogs.
Guillemette’s team tried their best to keep the crowds comfortable
and entertained, supplying a liberal amount of country music throughout the
From the Maine Vintage Racing Site
Future Hall of Famer
and Sanford Speedway participant Phil Libby had this run of
bad fortune at the Lewiston fairgrounds in 1949.
The opening show, delayed once
by inclement weather, saw local fireman Ray Normandeau outlast future Maine
racing hall – of – famer Dick Libby for the feature win, fighting through the
dust and stones from the not – yet – paved oval. Racing at Sanford shaped up
to be the locals, like Normandeau, against established Beech Ridge stars and
some big – name drivers from New Hampshire. The locals never did quite handle
the bigger stars. Local drivers included such as Normandeau; Sanford's Mac
McDonald; Arnie Day, Alfred; Dick "Fat" Allen, Larry Curit, and Dick Gagnon,
all from Sanford; Ray Shaw; and future stars, Phil and Dick Libby. Other
notable locals included: Dick Eon, Butch Boucher and Paul Tardif from
Biddeford, and George Welch from Ogunquit.
Donny Moore Photo via David Dutch, Fosters
Roger Rivers [furthest
right standing] and his checkered car.
One of the highest
– profile drivers was Dover, New Hampshire’s Roger “Cowboy” Rivers, with his
checkerboard – painted Hudson. Rivers, described by the great Ernie Gahan as
“a bull in china shop”, relished his image as the track villain. He was a
rough driver and did little things to provoke the crowd. The Granite State
contingent was a tough bunch to beat. The much – traveled Ernie Gahan, another
Dover driver, was driving a well – financed Stoney’s Diner team car and would
end up as the 1965 NASCAR National Modified Champion in his storied career.
This grainy photo from
a Beech Ridge program in the 1950’s
shows Gahan in one of the Stoney’s Diner team cars. Below -
Ernie Gahan wins a feature at Keene, NH’s Safford Park
race track in 1957. Gahan had begun his career at Sanford
and other McConnell venues.
Courtesy of Walt Perkins
Along with Gahan and Rivers,
was Tony Collicchio, who would drive in a number of circuits before finishing
a successful career at Barre, Vermont’s Thunder Road in the 1960s’. With Gahan
and Collicchio, often traveled Charlie Zip [short for a long Greek name] came
such luminaries as the Prince brothers, driving specially – built cars by Nash
Couture, Bob Moore, and Hammerin’ Hank Ellsmore.
Alas, Guillemette, for all his
industry, did not promote his shows well and the SSCRA disbanded at the end of
the year. The following year, after the local Lions Club had tried their hand
at running the track, a Portsmouth, NH group headed by Dan McCarthy
established the Sanford Speedway, Inc. group and ran the show in 1951. They
tried more promotion, such as having a local, well – known wrestler driver
drive a car. In June of 1951 Guillemette and local businessmen Ralph Lovell
and Raoul Juneau mortgaged the property as the Sanford Speedway Inc. The
operators introduced a jalopy division, but ended up back with the “modifieds”
of Gahan and his counterparts at the end of the season.
With 1952 came a new season and
the need for another promoter. Enter local racing promoter Jim “JB’ McConnell,
who decided to branch out from his successful Beech Ridge Speedway operation
and run the Sanford Speedway, near Sanford and Wells, Maine. McConnell had
been experimenting with putting on shows at several Maine locations where he
could just lease existing tracks [mostly fairground ovals]; but, Sanford was
actually built for the purpose.
The McConnell operations were – for that era
– fairly smoothly – run productions, complete with a specially – lettered
truck, a permanent set of officials, and the organization’s own doctor, who
brought along an ambulance [at a time when a lot of tracks used a local hearse
or someone’s station wagon]. Foster’s Democrat writer David Dutch wrote about
this “staff” : “McConnell
brought his officials including Robert "Doc" Christopher, track doctor and his
ambulance, and flagman Harold "Lefty" Ellis from Beech Ridge. Ellis was a
flamboyant; devil may care character and the darling of women in the stands.
According to the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame:Lefty was one of the early
"daredevil' flagmen, controlling the race on the track with stock cars roaring
by within a few feet of his unprotected body. One his favorite "death defying"
stunts was to stand in the middle of the track, waving the green flag as the
stock cars raced by on both sides. ”
McConnell’s Maine State Stock Car Racing Association
brought with it a lot more clout than one single track operator could wield –
especially in the area of publicity. The MSSCRA instituted a new support
division called the Bombers, which – as it did at Beech Ridge – offered the
novice and less – experienced man a chance at the sport. It was in this class,
similar to the B Coupes of later years, that stars like Dick Wolstenhume and
Dick McCabe got their starts.
From the Maine Vintage Racing Site
The McConnell dog and
pony show came in with this
elaborate [for that era] speedway truck.
This Bomber class – while furnishing good action
and a chance to race – would be a good part of the cause of Sanford Speedway’s
downfall. McConnell was all – too familiar with how tenuous was crowd safety
in those days. At his flagship track , Beech Ridge, he had seen a fast car out
of Utica, NY nearly go through the catch fence on the main straightaway, a
year or so before. His promotional slogan of “Thrills, Spills and Plenty of
accidents" became prophetic.
The crowds had long become used to helter – skelter action, with cars
leaving and returning to the track, and much contact all around from many
inexperienced Bomber drivers going too fast for their skills. On Sunday,
August 26, 1953, when a wheel, hub and part of the axle flew off Bob Moore's
car and penetrtated a 20-foot catch fence, killing 60-year-old spectator,
Joseph William DeRoche of Sanford. This accident and a few others led to the
closing of what had been one of the more successful of that time in that
USGS Terraserver Photo
The once – well –laid –
out Sanford Speedway site was still visible on satellite photos in the 1990’s.
Today, Beech Ridge Speedway continues on, as
strong as ever; but, it is difficult to even find traces of Guillemette’s once
– well – built little third mile facility. Much like others of its era, like
Champlain Speedway, in Ticonderoga, NY; Pico Raceway, in Rutland, VT; and the
Rhythm Inn track in Millers Falls, MA – it disappeared into history. These
tracks died from safety concerns, nonpayment of incurred debts, and from the
obsolescence of the type of racing they featured. But, all those Sanfords all
over the Northeast played a major role in bringing the sport of stock car
I wish to acknowledge that a lot of the
historical material for this column came from David Dutch’s beautifully –
written three – part series on the Sanford track, as seen in the Foster’s
Daily Democrat website. It seemed pointless to repeat the same research,
already so well done. I hope it gives David some additional audience for his
Courtesy of Frank Simek
Ernie Gahan, of Dover,
NH is arguably the most famous graduate
of Sanford Speedway’s ranks.
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