(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)
Kevin, I believe you captured it and did it very well. Until 1961 I was watching the same type show at a little track in Dodge City, Kansas, Friend of mine had a stripped thirty something jalopy with a 48 ford v8. Cut off year for cars was 48 for a while, then IIRC it went to 53 (but no OHV v8’s). The only competitors were the fords and Hudsons. Hudsons had size and twin H power. Chev need not apply.
Shortly after I left for the Navy in 61 the rules changed. That was brought about I imagine by the proliferation of OHV v8s. Too much power to run on a really short track so the sport died out in a lot of venues.
The most excitement was to be had in the pits. Thanks for bringing back the memory.
Once a month guys with real vintage racecars race at Desoto Superspeedway, a 3/8 mile paved oval in Bradenton, Florida. The “Class” is called Racecars of Yesterday, and the scene looks just like this but with fewer cars. “Suped-up” ( like they used to say) Flat Heads and antique in-line sixes galore. And the sounds…nothing sounds like a racing flat head… And the drivers race all out. It’s really fun. I’m sure they tour other tracks, but this is my home one.
Nice write up on the Danbury Races. I used to go when I was in high school in the late 70’s. I used to go to the Danbury State Fair as well.
Don LaJoie was the king of the races. I sold 2 cars to him, and used to walk the junk yard with a friend a pick off parts from cars.
Racing where the budgets were low, the purses big, the tracks made money, and the fans were entertained? Why’d we forget how to do that?
I used to go there as a kid in the 60’s and up until the last race in 81. Great times. Jimmy Smith, Ken Web, Don LaJoie… You could actually hang out after the race and talk to the drivers..
I once visited the mall. I remember they had blown up photos on the wall in one of the enterances showing the fair grounds and track. Always bothered me that they would be proud that they occupied the same site.
“Hey, look at us, we knocked that down for this!!!”
I haven’t been by there in a few years. Wasn’t there a Bob Sharp (of auto racing fame and father of Scott) auto dealership nearby?
Bob Sharp Motors was, and probably still is, located south of Danbury in Wilton, or Georgetown as some would would have it, on Route 7. Back when they were campaigning race cars it was possible to walk into their race shop and watch them prepare and maintain their race cars. I can attest that their race cars were actually based on production cars (not bodies-in-white). They had one shell up on a lift and were scraping away undercoating and sound deadener. That was in the mid-’70s. A few years later any semblance to actual production cars was gone, and so was my interest.
As I’m reading this there is a production car race on the TV (road course), and they told the story behind the BMW 1M running. The owner/driver wanted to run one, but there were only 200 brought into the country. However one was a press car that was rolled – so BMW offered the car to this guy. A bit of bodywork and race prep later and away you go.
I know what you mean though, over here it started about the same time (mid 70’s) with bodies for the factory teams being walked down the line and anything unnecessary being left of, something the private guy struggled to compete with.
I assume you mean “not possible” to run IFS or OHV in your second paragraph Kevin – sounds a bit like the regs for Hambsters!
I gather there were only a handful of sealed oval tracks in Australia during that period, some of which reverted to clay. Last year I went to an old speedway near my home town that last ran 25+ years ago, it was located in a former sand quarry, a 1/4 mile track in a natural bowl, quite unique! It was being used for a stage in a rally, and I was lucky enough to get a ride with one of the officials. Would definitely be a challenge for a flat-track car – because the track is no longer ‘flat’.
Bob Sharp Motors is now Bruce Bennett Nissan, still in the same location.
This reminds me of the Elma racetrack in (Oddly Enough) Elma, WA. My dad raced there for one season in 1958 with a 1933 Ford that he and a buddy put together. Those pictures of the Danbury track could easily be still shots taken from some of our old 8mm home movies! The last time I checked, the Elma track was still very much in operation, though I haven’t been to a race there since the late 70s.
So I was still calling myself “That Guy” when this article first ran? Glad to see one of these old Kevin Martin classics get a rerun.
Great fun! Thanks for posting. In Pine Bluff, Ark. in the 1950s and 60s there were lots of these cars at the local dirt track. Guts without a lot of money could compete and have lots of fun doing it. Never will forget on of the heroes – Firpo Pugh in #222.
A quick web search shows that there is still a lot of dirt track racing going on. Sort of the successor to the tracks you mention. Dirt tracks (actually clay) are preferred because the competition is better and the richest team may not always win. On paved tracks more horsepower equals more wins but on dirt horsepower is not so important because traction issues limit its advantages. Handling and tactics play a much larger role. I’ll say it again – This is great fun.
Great pictures. Thanks for sharing. That first picture in the 23 is actually Cary Archiere (my father).
My dad had a car #90. Back in the late 60’s early 70’s we have no pictures, sad.dad had a driver Skippy.We raced Danbury and Plainville.If anybody has a picture with the car…that would be amazing..to say the least. Red coupe #90
Was searching for racing books and came across your Canandaigua Speedway comments. I work there now and have been attending regularly since 1970. Unfortunately, the Hudsons were long gone by then. Still great racing today.
I am desperately looking for any photos or artical of my father Marshall “Smitty” Smith he drove #56 for SNYRA at Danbury fair track between 1966 – 1976 blue /white flathead. Any info will be appreciated…
Your photos really capture the excitement of the action at those bull rings so long ago. Speaking of the Hudson class, the late “Blazing” Buddy Bardwell campaigned one long after everyone else had gone to overheads. He was quite the legend in northern New England and adjacent New York State……http://www.176racing.com/bardwell.html