FLIPS USED TO BE, WELL … FLIPPIER – OR SO IT SEEMED
We have some pretty bad wrecks in modern day stock car racing. You
can’t even bring up the subject without thinking of the innocuous – looking
Dale Earnhardt wreck that ended his life, bringing about the HANS device era.
That’s just it. Guys till wreck hard. Oftentimes, they are going faster than
they ever used to in the old days; but there is that factor of safer barriers,
HANS, and all the other great advancements that make the sport safer and so
much more +&$$#! more expensive.
However, wrecks probably not only seemed worse in the earlier days
of racing – they were worse. You might see legs lost; guys flying out of their
cars, much worse fires, and any number of other disasters you, fortunately, so
much less of today. Ken Meahl would be the first to agree with you, most
A small field of local
roadsters prepare for the main event at Seneca Falls Speedway. The Meahl
roadster is likely in the foreground. This is old 8MM, hence the lack of
quality. [Courtesy of David DeLange.
Meahl still is living – out in western New York – at a fairly ripe
old age and that, in itself, is a miracle – given the spills he took in his
racing career. There almost couldn’t be a much more harrowing and dangerous
form of racing than those post – WWII roadsters which briefly proliferated in
a few states including the Empire State. That is where a young Kenny Meahl got
his start – racing a roadster at the old Seneca Falls Speedway.
Merely coming out of that era of racing in one piece is an
accomplishment in itself. The state finally became hyper – aware of just how
dangerous and foolish it all was and put an end to the Seneca Falls Speedway,
the track in Perth, the Champlain Speedway up in Ticonderoga, and all the
other places where the roofless, cageless [and sometimes seat beltless] car
raced. Many roadster drivers never drove again; Kenny Meahl went on to the
class of racing that would define a hall of fame career.
Meahl went on to a
[relatively] safer class of racing. Here, he has his own “Meahl Special” at
the old Stoney Creek Speedway. [DIRT Hall of Fame Photo]
For whatever reasons, the drivers coming out of the more western
reaches of New York often had faster, more powerful stock cars than most of
their competitors from even such storied places as Fonda Speedway and Lebanon
Valley Speedway. I like to think that there were a few early engine builders
who paved the way for the almost – total use of professional engine builders
in today’s sport. Outfits like B&M made engines that kept guys like Ed Ortiz,
Cam Gagliardi, and Meahl one up on the competition for a period of years.
At any rate, Meahl would go on to driver for his friend, Jack
Bentley, then for a too – young – to drive Jerry Cook, and later for Rochester
car owner Red Snediker. In that very successful career [as well as other cars
which I am not aware of] Ken Meahl got more that his share of wins; he also
had a couple of epic spills. And – considering the lack of most of today’s
safety features in those cars, it is a winder he is still around to tell about
Ken with one of the
earlier Jack Bentley cars. [Bentley Collection via David DeLange]
One thing to make absolutely clear is that Meahl’s rides were not
subpar junkers. They had – most probably – any and all of the safety features
in place in sportsman and modified coupes of that era. It’s just that the
speeds these cars were reaching had far outstripped the efforts to keep the
driver in one piece.
The first real good spill was with Bentley’s car – at Syracuse.
The “big races’ at the longer tracks like Syracuse, Langhorne, Trenton, and
the rest resulted in some of the sport’s worst wrecks because the cars were
intended for use on one – third to half – mile local tracks – not something
that was a mile in length ,or close thereof. Meahl had the red Bentley #38 in
close contention at the flathead portion of the big Syracuse show when he ran
up over a wheel on the A3 of Wee Willie Allen, “The Irish Leprechaun” from
What is left of the
Bentley 38 after the Syracuse wreck.
Doncha love the wreckers ?
[Bentley Collection via
After that, Meahl went to driving more for Jerry Cook. Now Cook had the overhead V8 NASCAR sportsman car, and that may be all there was to that: drive flathead for
Bentley and V8’s for Cook. However, I suppose it is also possible that Bentley had had enough after that wreck. I can’t say. Meahl would drive for Cook, until Jerry was 16. The
pair had some real successes, including an upset win over Wimble and Ken Shoemaker at the rustic and little – known track in Vermont – Otter Creek Speedway. Meahl drove Cook’s
gray primered coupe to a win, and none of us had any idea who Ken was [or certainly that his car builder was only as old as we were]. According to the Fonda history book, Meahl
managed to have a pretty spectacular wreck with Cook’s red and white #38 at Fonda in 1962.
Meahl and Cook had a ton of success in their short time together. [Courtesy of Jo Towns via Otto Graham] Below -
Below – Leaving Otter Creek after the big upset win. Ken still fondly recalls this race. [Ladabouche Photo]
Then Meahl went over to Walter “Red” Snediker’s potent #28 sportsman, out of Rochester. Whenever the car would make an appearance at Fonda, he would run like the wind.
This was the golden age at Fonda, and the locals were none too happy to be out – powered by the likes of Meahl and Ed Ortiz. The young Cook, while not terribly experienced yet, was
also right up there in the running.
When Fonda decided to have one of its first big extra distance races on August 24, 1963. It was quite the spectacle. Shoemaker’s car decided to catch fire, and the race was actually won
by veteran Steve Danish, in his potent six cylinder sportsman. Danish, towards the end of a legendary career, obviously had the craft and experience to win the race; but, he may have also
had better mileage. He, however, was not the story that evening – it was Ken Meahl.
Ken poses, unsuspecting, before the fateful Fonda race. Fellow western NY rocket Ed Ortiz’s 0 is visible in the
background. [Courtesy of Bill Fifield]
When the rich race was announced, Meahl and Snediker were quick to submit an entry. The powerful white coupe stood a good chance of winning, although I have to wonder if the
thundering V8 might have run out of gas like several of the others did. Reaching very good speeds during the feature, Meahl’s car got wide, coming out of the tricky turn four and hit the fence.
That started a series of rolls while the car reached such a height, it is said he took the wires down which stretch from the roof of the old covered grandstands to the announcer’s stand in the
Meahl was photographed, with a dazed, goofy expression on his face, being helped to walk away from the crash scene. To his credit, he continued to race for a number of seasons
after that. Again, however, it is doubtful there was much for what today would be standard safety features in Snediker’s car. Most of the pundits around Fonda said they had only seen
one car, ever, reach the heights that Meahl did – and that was Ken, himself, in Cook’s car.
“Gawd, them birdies sing pretty here at where ever the hell I am !” A very dazed Meahl is led away from the crash by
officials and by Chuck Mahoney [to his left], a former Grand National driver who drove like that all the time. [Ed Feuz Collection]
I recall that this was the only time my uncle and I ever talked to my aunt into going with us, from our home near Rutland, Vermont. Between the Shoemaker fire, the Meahl
spectacle, the hysterical people in front of us shrieking and moaning that their friend was dead, and our arrival back home at 4 A.M., Aunt Kaarin didn’t speak to us for a while and never
went to another race. Probably, if Ken Meahl had an aunt, that was about it for her, too.
Safety just wasn’t there in the 1960’s. Fonda would, a season or so later, suffer through a year in which two drivers were killed there – totaling 67% percent of the track’s fatalities
to date. Both were somewhat freakish – like the Earnhardt wreck – but the popular Pepper Eastman and the newcomer, Lou Smith were just as dead. It is a wonder that guys like Meahl,
my friend Jackie Peterson, or any of the other frequent crashers are still alive today, let alone still get around at their age.
Ken, in happier days, with a highly sophisticated safety device called a sprayer mask.
[Dave Dykes Site Photo]
They were just made of different stuff in those days.
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