The Frontstretch: Graveyard Shift: That’s History! NASCAR’s Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story At a Time by Amy Henderson -- Friday February 4, 2005

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In an era where even large tracks like Darlington and Rockingham succumb to the changing economy of racing, it’s hard to imagine that they were once the big tracks. Where the Nextel Cup circuit now graces only a handful of tracks with its presence, that was not always the case. Before NASCAR’s post-1972 “Modern Era”, its top series, then called Grand National, visited dozens of tracks of all shapes and sizes, in small towns and cities alike.

Ranging from tiny dirt ovals to the Superspeedway at Darlington, the Grand National Schedule often included upwards of 60 points-paying events. Eventually even bigger tracks were added at Daytona and Talladega, but still the small tracks flourished. Many hosted local legends as well as NASCAR’s heroes of the day.

One such track was the tiny clay oval in Fonda, New York, a small upstate town on the banks of the Mohawk River that reported a population of 810 in the 200 census. The ½ mile track, which is still in existence, today features IMCA Modifieds and several feature classes. But in the 1950’s and 60’s, Fonda played host to names such as Petty (both Lee and Richard raced there), Allison (Bobby and Donnie), David Pearson, Baker (both Buck and Buddy) Junior Johnson, and the Flock brothers, among others in the four Grand National races that Fonda hosted. Richard Petty won twice at Fonda. Pearson and Johnson account for the other two races. The winner’s purse ran around $1200.

Often, local racers overshadowed racing’s biggest stars. Maybe they didn’t beat them, or even race against them, but their names were held in equal if not higher regard as their more famous colleagues. Rome, New York is located northwest of Fonda, and produced Modified legends Richie Evans and Jerry Cook, who between them won fifteen NASCAR Modified championships. In a row. They ran at Fonda, as did countless others. Four-time NASCAR Sportsman Division (now Busch Series) champion Rene Charland ended his career at Fonda. Local racer Lou “The Legend” Lazzaro raced at Fonda from the 1060’s until his death in 2000, winning 113 feature races and winning races in 30 different years at the speedway. Lazzaro certainly deserves the nickname he earned on those statistics.

One other thing about the small tracks in NASCAR’s past: without the facilities of today, officials and drivers sometimes had to improvise. Daytona’s new infield, they did not possess. One of my favorite stories about Fonda Speedway involves a messy crash and no room for the field to go under caution. NASCAR did not throw the red flag, presumably because there wasn’t enough room for that, either. Thinking on the fly, the pace car driver led the field down an access road off turn two. The thing was, the access road led into the local cemetery, where the filed wound, single-file, around the headstones of deceased locals, and back onto the track, thus avoiding the wreck. Although many of the graves had been moved when the fairgrounds on which the track is located was built in 1863, many families could not afford such an endeavor, and so their loved ones were treated to a front row seat some 100 years later. The cemetery was completely moved in 1980.

Fonda Speedway has not hosted a NASCAR Nextel Cup race since 1968. However the track, and countless others like it, continue to produce the kind of racing that is the very heart of NASCAR. Yes, that’s definitely history.

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Nate Salter
02/08/2005 02:18 PM
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I don’t know if you were aware that the first time that Nascar ever raced outside of the United States was at the dirt 1/2 mile called Stamford Park, just outside of Niagara Falls, Ontario.
The following year, and each summer until 1960 they came to the Canadian National Exhibition 1/3mile paved oval for a “Sweepstakes Division” race. It was at the CNE on July 18, 1958 that Richard Petty ran his first official NASCAR event, finishing 17th. Lee won the race and actualy put Richard in the wall because he was getting in the way as a lapped car. I was there that day and have been following Nascar from that long gone era when they drove the cars from track to track and run whut they brung.

Nate Salter

 

Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.