SEMI-WEEKLY COLUMN/BLOG PAGE
BILL’S BACK IN TIME
By Bill Ladabouche
SOME REAL CHARACTERS IN EARLY RACING
In the annals of early stock car racing, being a real character did not necessarily mean you were one stereotypical kind of guy: poorer, lower budget, lower class, or moderately successful. Some of stock car racing’s first participants were, by their very nature, a little different – but they came from all levels.
Courtesy of Rich Palmer
Clem, with his familiar 55 Chevy, when it was unscarred from action, poses in his usual white
outfit at Catamount around 1969 [his best year in that era].
One of northern Vermont’s most successful local racers of all time was a man I would certainly feel comfortable calling a character. Clement “Desperate” Despault, who just ended the 2012 season having run a late model at Devil’s Bow and a Tiger Sportsman at Thunder Road at age 73, is still a feisty character who has held track titles and has won numerous features – mostly in support divisions at Catamount Stadium and Thunder Road.
Given both his nickname and his first race car by the famous announcer and promoter, Ken Squier, Despault is identified with the town of Waterbury, Vermont; but, he was born in Morrisville. A very promising baseball star, Despault probably received his racing inspiration from an uncle, George Desmarais, who raced at the rustic and chaotic Morrisville track in 1950, as well as more organized venues such as Malletts Bay Raceway, in Colchester.
Courtesy of A and A Ward Photography
George Desmarais might have been in this early photo of fans crossing over to the
infield at the crude race track near Morrisville in 1950.
According to Clem, Squier encouraged him to try stock car racing, giving him a large 1950’s era Studebaker to build and run in the B Class at Lower Waterford, Vermont’s Northeastern Speedway. The class ended up running at Squier’s newly – built Thunder road International Speedbowl, when it opened in 1960. Seeing as Despault had moved to Waterbury by then, the Barre track was much easier for him to access, and he soon had himself established as a force in that division, which was boasting the likes of Beaver Dragon, Dickie Southworth, Freddie Mills, Stub Fadden, some of the Ingerson brothers, Larry Demar, and many more established stars and stars in the making.
Courtesy of Cho Lee via Andy Boright
Clem, in his first car, the old Studebaker, winning a B class heat around 1960.
Battling a debilitating condition [spasmodic torticoli – which causes a painful twisted neck] for much of his career, Despault has managed 9 feature wins in the Tigers at Thunder Road, tying him for the all – time wins mark with fellow legends Demar and Russ Ingerson. He was the 1969 Thunder Road Tiger champion, the final year before the Road and Catamount were to start running the more expensive late model sportsman cars. He managed to still effectively compete in 1970 with the same 1955 Chevy he ran as a Tiger as the two tracks used the limited sportsman class as a bridge between the Tigers and the full – fledged sportsman cars that appeared in 1971.
Courtesy of Chris Companion
Clem, with one of his Mopars, in the late model era. He struggled with this racing because of his limited racing budget. Below – Clem thought he had hit a good ride with the Bob Pratt Chevelle, but it turned out to be non – competitive until Mike Barry bought it and nearly completely re-worked it around 1976.
Clem did not prosper in the seventies, when money was the order of the day, and he never had much of a budge to work with, He fielded some Mopars and did try driving for Bob Pratt in a beautiful Chevelle that was too heavy to be competitive. He would return to racing in the 1980’s when Catamount and Thunder Road began the “new Tigers” class, often running with his son, Topo. Desapult was the ACT Tiger Series champion in 1983. Clem has tried fielding Tiger sportsman cars in recent years, winning an occasional heat; but, the limited budget and age have made competing very hard.
Clem, at speed, in one of the New Tigers he ran in the 1980’s.
He never has lost that rough edge he had – both on and off the track. At the tender age of 72, he took after a much younger Eric Williams, as Williams [ a successful late model driver now directing his son’s career] was taking issue with the driving of one of Despault’s Hess Racing team mates. Clem would like to be given another shot at driving the late model at Devil’s Bowl; but, when he hangs up the helmet for good, another of racing’s more colorful characters will fade to the sidelines. Clem finished off with flair in 2013, nearly winning a triple crown at Thunder Road.
A more famous and high – profile character was four – time NASCAR National Sportsman Champion, Rene Charland. Starting in northern Massachusetts and the southern areas of Vermont and New Hampshire, Charland rose quickly, excelling as both a driver and a hopeless prankster. Charland could be maddening on and off the track. Jean – Paul Cabana tells the story of one particular race in Quebec where the long distance necessitated pit stops by all competitors – all, of course except for the visiting Charland. Although nowhere near as fast as many of the local cars, Charland putted his way through the entire 400 lapper without stopping, winning the race.
From the HAMB Website
Charland, at Utica – Rome Speedway, with starter Johnny Telleni. This was his early national championship car, and was likely what he had for the “fuel incident”. Below – The George Hay car he used at Thunder Road during the 1965 season.
Courtesy of Cho Lee via Ken Paulsen
Exasperated, Cabana protested the race, only to find no illegal motor or extra fuel tanks. In the 21st century, when the two met somewhere, Cabana pressed Charland for an explanation of how he managed 400 laps with a fuel – gobbling 327 CI Chevy sportsman engine. It turns out that the Rosner – built rollcage did not leak. Charland, who sadly now resides in a nursing home in Amsterdam, NY and has no idea who he is, retires from the sport as much known for rubber snakes and goosing women as for his myriad accomplishments.
Courtesy of Cho Lee via Andy Boright
Charland, who had arrived in Northern NASCAR with high hopes and a big buck car, found the going a bit rough. With help from Stub Fadden, he is launching off the widow maker turn at Thunder Road. Below – He is walking away, wearing his prized All Star League helmet and having grumpy talk with Bob Quinn as Dick Blake puzzles how to remove the Chevelle.
Courtesy of Cho Lee Family
In that same era where the switch to late models put Clem Despault at a disadvantage, he shared the track with Charland, who had left the coupes behind to field a Jay – Lin Chevelle on the Northern NASCAR circuit in 1971 and 1972. he was not a famous figure held in great esteem in those pits. SO, when he vaulted the widow maker turn at Thunder Road and ended up parked on the lawn above the wall of the track, the crowd was amused, as were most of the pit and track hands. Giving credit where due, it should be pointed out that Charland had run T Road during his successful 1965 national points chase, using a local flathead coupe to gain valuable points. Cabana had also done so that year; and Thunder Road regular Ronnie Marvin finished in the top ten in national points, as well.
Rene Charland ran a stock car for years after the late model debacle. He never stopped talking, taunting, or goosing – despite having a some memorable punchouts with such as the pugnacious Kenny Shoemaker. In this day of businesslike racing operations, you seldom see anyone as loony as Rene Charland; but it should be pointed out that he made racing a business before that was fashionable [and he had fun doing that].
Courtesy of Otto Graham
Charland [right behind car], in the twilight of his race involvement, helps the Dave Lape crew with Bobby Allison’s Syracuse modified around 1984.
Profoundly less prominent and much more serious in approach, Poultney, Vermont’s Dooger Jones qualifies as an official Bill Ladabouche racing character. He just did not fit the mold of the usual car owner. Carrying an inexplicable family nickname into adulthood, Jones was running a small, one – man trucking operation out of Mahwah, NJ in the 1950’s when he happened to break down at a gas station near Castleton Four Corners, VT [in the Fairmont Speedway and Devil’s Bowl neighborhood].
Having to move his disabled tractor trailer out of the way of the gas pumps, he was offered assistance by local man, Robert Brown, who [according to retired Devil’s Bowl driver Charlie Brown] offered Jones a tire that would fit the truck at his nearby farm. This was accomplished and Jones spent the night at the Brown farmhouse. Dooger became friends with the Browns and went on to fall into a lucrative hauling situation in which he had the exclusive hauling contract with the then – rapidly – growing Avon cosmetics corporation.
Courtesy of Phil Butler
Russ Shaw, himself quite a character in racing, with the first Dooger Jones car - the former Jack DuBrul coupe, at Catamount. Below – Nelson Moore, the other Dooger Jones driver, with an early 25VT – at Albany – Saratoga. Note Dooger’s name on front.
Having been helped out with the new trucking deal by an older man named Henderson, Jones named the burgeoning business Henderson Trucking and proceeded to make millions carrying cosmetics all over the country. He began ownership of racing cars with Brown when an acquaintance named Polly Nichols bought a midget, stored it in the Brown barn, and ended up selling it [and a supply of methanol] to Jones and Brown for $250. The pair stored car and buried the volatile fuel for the winter in the barn, along with the Brown pumpkin crop.
With Ray Mullins as their first driver, the pair bought a second midget and ended up having such well – known drivers as Pete Corey, Roger Gauthier, Nelson Moore, and others. Jones later went on to field modified stock cars for Nelson Moore and local terror Russ Shaw, a former CVRA Rookie f the Year who had driven at Fairmont and Devil’s Bowl for owner/builder Norm Scarborough. The first Jones modified was a former Jack DuBrul coupe, which remained black and was re-numbered as 8VT. That coupe, the first in Vermont to have tuned headers, was run a little by Shaw and considerably more by Moore.
Courtesy of the Gauthier Family
Roger Gauthier, one of the better – known drivers of the primary Dooger Jones midget car 222. One of the men in the background could be Jones – we can’t tell. As far as I know, I have no photo of Dooger.
The team would add a 25VT to the stable, which Shaw ran all over in that prestigious modified circuit that included Catamount Stadium, Airborne, Devil’s Bowl, Albany – Saratoga, and other venues. Dooger would also try a brief fling at late models with a primered #8VT that was reportedly the first ride for the Tampa, Florida – native, the wild Danny Perez. Jones would lose his sight by around 1971, would give the midgets away to mechanic Stan Durrum, and would retire from racing. He didn’t drive in the 1950’s, and didn’t go around throwing firecrackers at anyone; he was just a little different as owners go. Although he never reached the flamboyant notoriety of an Austin Dickerman, Dooger left his mark on Vermont racing.
More characters to come at a later date.
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: email@example.com . For those who still don’t like computers - my regular address is: Bill Ladabouche, 23 York Street, Swanton, Vermont 05488.
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