(first posted 9/1/2012) Nineteen sixty-five was a seminal year at Indy. The transition from front-engine roadsters to rear- engine “funny cars” was in full swing. It would be the last year that a front-engine car would qualify for the 500, let alone participate. Little guys, like Portland’s Rolla Vollstedt, would participate for another several years, but big-buck teams and big-time sponsors would become the rule. However, things were different at a small Connecticut track that seemed mired in the past.
As late as 1971, when these photos were taken, the Southern New York Racing Association (SNYRA) sanctioned Saturday night racing at the Danbury Racearena (aka Danbury State Fair) and another nearby track located in southern New York state. SNYRA rules dated back to the late 1940s and early ‘50s, making it impossible to run overhead-valve engines and independent front suspensions. That meant the only competitive formula involved a flathead Ford V8 and a solid front axle.
The Racearena was a paved, one-third mile oval. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house, and you had to get to the track well before racing began just to get one. Those seats routinely held crowds of 7,000 to 10,000 paying customers. Fields were full, since 40% of the gate constituted the purse. On a good night, top driver/owners reported hauling in $4,000–half my annual salary in 1971.
Two-door coupes were known as (surprise!) Coupes, and two-door sedans were known as Coaches. All cars were flat-towed to the track; usually, spare tires were hauled inside the race cars themselves.
Ride height was checked by an on-track official with a pole attached to an appropriately-sized block of wood. I don’t think it cost more than a couple of bucks to get in, and the show lasted for hours.
I shot these photos with a Miranda-G SLR and a very slow 180 mm telephoto lens on Ektachrome 400 pushed two stops. It was challenging to shoot the cars at dusk, but as ambient light disappeared it was impossible to capture anything except these ghost-like images.
Don LaJoie was a five-time Racearena track champ and the all-time leading feature winner. His car had a fantastic Candy Apple Red paint job that glistened under the lights, a thing of beauty. LaJoie, who owned a junkyard in South Norwalk, CT, once gave me five bucks for my 1960 Plymouth Fury four-door hardtop (a future COAL) which, with 135,000 miles (217,000 km), had served me well. Don LaJoie is the father of two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie.
These images foreshadow the fate of flathead Ford racers, who raced until 1973; after that, they truly became ghosts. Nevertheless, it was well past the lifespan of Ford flatties in the rest of the country. In the early ’70s, Car and Driver magazine ran an article about the track expressing amazement that such tracks (and sanctioning bodies) still existed.
I do remember another, equally anachronistic track of the era. In 1966, during a family vacation in the Finger Lakes district of New York State in our 1957 Chevy (again, a future COAL), we found out about a race taking place that night, at a half-mile dirt track in nearby Canandaigua, NY. As a major bonus, that night’s program featured a DEMOLITION DERBY!
What made the race at Canandaigua (now Canandaigua Motorsports Park) so cool was that the featured (fast) class comprised ’48-’53 Hudson 308 cu in straight sixes. They were fast, and very entertaining on the dirt. Other engine/chassis combinations were allowed, which obviously were not competitive given the all-Hudson field. What a great window into the past! The Hudsons were far more entertaining than the demo derby.
Back to the Danbury Racearena. As mentioned, 1973 was the final year the flatheads ran. The following year’s bodies of choice? Gremlins, Pintos, and Vegas, running 302 Chevys or Fords. They were faster, but so what? The final race at the Racearena was run in 1981. Today, the track is a shopping mall.
(All photos by the author)