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    Racing Times Racearena Article

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    Racing Times Racearena Article

    Post by Admin on Mon Sep 01, 2008 9:37 am





    'Checking out Danbury'
    by Dean Nardi from the June/July 1978 edition of 'Racing Times'

    'Somewhere
    under the rainbow lies the proverbial pot of gold for racers. The
    location is no secret - it's in Danbury. But cutting yourself in on the
    action may be difficult.

    Let's face facts! The Southern New
    York Racing Association (hereafter referred to as SNYRA) is the biggest
    closed club this side of the Mafia. This organization provides the cars
    and drivers, hires the officials, settles any and all protests, decides
    upon the rules and regulations for racing, divvies up the purse, buys
    insurance, sells the entire package to the Danbury Fair management, and
    protects their members against the undesired intrusions of high-dollar
    outsiders. In short, they're into everything, just like their Sicilian
    counterparts, except for selling beer and hot dogs.

    Most of
    this information I either already was aware of or elicited from Fred
    Fearn, who is president of the Leahy Corporation. In this capacity,
    Fearn presides over four separate companies, dealing with retail and
    wholesale oil, bottled gas, and, of course, the Danbury State Fair.

    Fearn's
    primary contact with the SNYRA consists of meeting with the
    eight-member liaison committee at monthly intervals. At these meetings,
    anything pertaining to racing at the Fair is discussed, from the
    scheduling of special events to writing an agreement for repaving the
    track (the club has been coughing up a 3% vigorish by taking only 37%,
    instead of 40% of the front gate). The new coat of asphalt was a
    definite necessity, however, as the previous threadbare layer had been
    creating a washboard effect and was causing an inordinate amount of
    crashing.

    The racetrack was covered with clay instead of
    asphalt until 1959, but prior to that, it had a liquid surface, and
    motorboats were raced on your basic Arthurian moat. They even had a
    drawbridge for crossing from the infield to the grandstand as the
    infield was occupied by a dirt track, which was used for midget racing.
    Motorboat racing was a disaster. The boats hadn't as yet acquired
    clutches or brakes, which made cornering a treacherous proposition. It
    was great sport for the fans, though, what with the boats hopping in
    and out of the water like frisky dolphins.

    Finally they gave
    the motorboats the old deep-six, and then the present third-mile
    facility began to coalesce and take form. Apple pie, motherhood, and
    the U.S.A. are positively in vogue here. "We run a family-type show,"
    stated Fearn emphatically, "and our philosophy includes frowning on
    such things as profane language, fisticuffs, and excessive drinking."
    The Fairgrounds does reflect Fearn's philosophy. Everything is painted
    and in working order, and there is real, honest-to-God grass everywhere
    you go. It's almost as if he were expecting a visit from his
    mother-in-law.

    Anyway, what I was looking for was the pulse
    that makes Danbury tick, and to locate this, First I needed access to
    the pits. Not as easy as it sounds. The entrance to the pits is about
    as wide as the entrance to the Lost Dutchman Mine. Either you come with
    a car, have some pertinent business, or you're pleasantly directed to
    the grandstand, thank you.

    Once inside, I figured I'd start
    with Lou Funk Jr., who is a prominent member of the screening committee
    (which rules on the selection of new members). Funk, who drives "the
    only modified Kit Car in the country," won the season-opener the
    previous week despite the hampering effects of a dislodged steering
    shaft.

    I asked Funk how Danbury had managed to become so
    successful, and he answered, "It's the club! I don't know if it would
    work in all parts of the country, but it certainly has here. Most of
    the fellows have been here for thirty years, and now their sons or pit
    crew members are in too."

    Well now that he mentioned it, that
    was one of the things I wanted to determine. Just how does one go about
    obtaining membership in the SNYRA? According to Funk, "We are limited
    to how many numbers we can give out (sixty). The quota has been filled
    for as long as I can remember, and the waiting list is a mile long." I
    was to find out later that there is also a minimum weekly requirement
    of cars (36). Anything less and the club can be held in violation of
    their contract with the Fair. But to let Funk continue, "For instance,
    when I reached the age of twenty-one, my father had a crewmember named
    Bones Stevens. Bones wanted to become a member and so did I. But at
    that particular time there was only one number available. Bones drove
    it and I was the substitute driver, occasionally taking the car out in
    warm-ups. The following year there was another opening and I got it."

    "That's
    fine, Lou" I said. "But how does someone who does not have a connection
    at Danbury get in?" "Our primary concern is taking local people. The
    fans want to watch people they know and can relate to. The next thing
    we look for is if a man can afford to race his car or not. If he can't,
    we don't want him taking bread off his family's table to race."

    The
    further I delved into the machinations of the screening committee, the
    further the conversation lapsed into the silence that comes when you
    drop a pebble into an unexpectedly deep well and wait too long for a
    splash. "No, it's not true we don't look for established racers," funk
    insisted. He bases this judgment on the fact that " Years ago, Paul
    Pettit had all the experience in the world when he came to us. He was a
    NASCAR star, but he got in." Irrefutable evidence, but even as the Log
    Cabin oozed from his mouth, I realized that Pettit was admitted at a
    time when the club sorely needed to extract a few pounds of publicity
    from him.

    Moving on. Everything is spic-and span-clean;
    restrooms, concessions, grounds, brightly painted race cars, uniformed
    crews, snazzy officials. It's obvious they cater to the fans'
    enjoyment.

    "I've been racing here for twelve to thirteen
    years," stated George Bouley. "The place has a special brand of magic
    for me. And besides, you know you'll be racing against the same guys
    every week." "Well what do you think brings the fans (eight or nine
    thousand on the average) out in droves, George?" I asked. "Some may say
    it's the crashing, but I think those people are misinformed. The amount
    of crashing at Danbury is exaggerated. On a given night, any other
    short track can have just as much. I compare our popularity to that of
    football - you like the Giants, I like the Jets. Here the fans all sit
    in clusters according to their favorite drivers. It almost seems as if
    the fans think they're in the car themselves." Bouley has a brand new
    car, which upstaged Funk in all the papers last week. His fuel line
    broke, enveloping the Pinto in flames and leaving George to ponder the
    possibilities of roasting marshmallows. "The cars have undergone
    dramatic changes in the past couple of years, and the fans identify
    with this too." This is quite apparent to anyone who recalls the reign
    of the flathead coupes. As we were talking, a young driver wearing a
    freshly laundered and starched firesuit and an uneasy smile walked past
    us. "This is his first night" Bouley confided. "Hey, what heat are you
    in?' "I don't know," the kid mumbled. "Well you'd better check the
    board," Bouley admonished. "The first heat is on the track right now."

    As
    I approached other drivers, I began to notice a strange, inexplicable
    thing was happening. They were declining interviews as if I had
    appeared to them as a rattlesnake. They were definitely less than
    ingenuous, bordering on downright unfriendliness. It could not have
    been because of my morals, I figured - some individuals who have met me
    insist that I have none - so what was the trouble?

    This was a
    good time to check things out with the SNYRA's officials. Lou Badaracco
    is the president of the club. His hand was severed in a racing accident
    several years ago, and the club has taken care of him admirably.
    Naturally, Lou's fealty is reciprocal, and he faithfully fulfills his
    duties as does Jack Knapp, who was a scorer for fifteen years (never
    missing a Saturday) before ascending to the post of Vice-President.
    Badaracco asked me into his office, and as I entered I heard the
    footsteps of the four other officials falling in behind me. As it
    turned out, they were going to be in on the interview also. You think
    you've seen a tight act? Well these guys are as together as a Mercedes
    450SE. I said "Lou, what's going on here? Do you have omerta - you
    know, a code of silence?" "Of course not," he chuckled. "Then why is
    everyone balking? What are they afraid of? The IRS? Their wives?" "It's
    not that," Badaracco answered. "It's just that a couple of years ago we
    used to post the pay-off on the pit board. Then some writer started
    publishing them and his figures were always too high, so guys became a
    little paranoid of people they don't know." "Yeah, but all in unison?
    Besides," I countered, "I haven't even uttered a word about money."
    Nevertheless, I was checked-out, though exactly what for never became
    clear. Maybe political persuasions? Then, as if the silent treatment
    had never been applied, Badaracco offered to "speak to the boys" about
    lifting the ban, which was fine, but did leave me a trifle confused.

    So
    back I went, wearing my newly awarded security clearance like a press
    badge. Having made a mental note not to re-open any interviews with
    drivers who had previously shut me off (on general principles), I
    looked up Rit Patchen, who had come within a gnat's eyelash of winning
    the track title last season in only his second year behind the wheel.
    "The most important thing," Patchen said, "is that we all have a good
    time. A lot of our friends come to the races. Also, there's no promoter
    telling us what to run for tires, motors, or what have you. We make our
    own rules and live with them."

    Now that's beginning to make
    sense. Buoyed by Patchen's response, I paid a visit to Don Lajoie. He
    is Danbury's Big Name Driver. A name that's well-known throughout New
    England. Lajoie was given a leave of absence from the club for two
    years to try his hand at NASCAR and has since returned to reap even
    greater glories than before. "It's just a freak thing how it worked out
    here," stated Lajoie. "But the reason it's so successful is that,
    unlike Stafford, racing here is still considered a sport. They try to
    control the spending of the dollars. Did you see Troyer's car at the
    Sizzler? If a guy came to race regularly here with that car, most of
    the guys would load up and go home." At that moment, one member of
    Lajoie's pit crew was transporting a sample of fuel to a booth where
    the "track chemist" would check the content of the mixture. Lajoie had
    a race taken from him for having too high an octane rating and is
    understandably wary now. He continued, "You know cheating is done in
    NASCAR all the time. I made the mistake once of letting the gas sit in
    the tank over the winter, and it got stale, which produced an abnormal
    reading. So you see, the guys have to be honest here because if they're
    caught cheating, they're subject to a very healthy fine, loss of
    points, and suspension. NASCAR only inspects the cars selectively
    according to who you are. When you win here they tear you apart because
    you're taking the major chunk of money." Next, I asked Lajoie what the
    straight scoop on new drivers was, and he responded by stating, "They
    like to raise their own from these grounds." Sounds like they are
    cultivating some kind of plant life. "They don't want to let better
    drivers in here, but they won't help the guys just getting started to
    get straightened out either. The newer guys are badly in need of
    experience. Maybe a second division is the solution. The cars have
    become too expensive to be continuously torn up."

    At last I
    had some meaty issues to discuss with Ev Pierce, who is one of the more
    influential members of the SNYRA. "Look how well my son Denis has done
    in one short year. And Patchen. Some drivers make it, some don't. It's
    as simple as that." "How about the driver from New Britain who had his
    application turned down without, according to his car owner, any
    satisfactory explanation?" I inquired. "And he was asked to apply in
    Daytona by one of your own officials." "That was very unfortunate,"
    Pierce sadly commented, sounding a little like John Wayne after seeing
    his buddies killed in a shoot-out. "That official was reprimanded for
    misinterpreting his duties. We have to think of our own. If this driver
    had come to Danbury with the type of race car he has, everyone would
    have dropped down a place."

    As the late Mr. Leahy once said,
    "If you've got a good thing, why change it?" And who's to argue the
    logic of success? Finally, however, someone had admitted that name
    drivers were not being sought instead of swearing to the impartiality
    of the selection process on a six-pack of bibles. And if that's where
    they're at - big deal, at least it works.

    The majority,
    though, are conditioned to espouse the party line. Once you join the
    SNYRA, it seems, you'll find the agreement more binding than
    Kaopectate. The following statements are disjointed and unrelated, but
    they do reflect the feeling that runs deeply through each member of the
    club.

    "When Joe Campanella got injured the club put on a benefit show, which raised $10,000."

    "We're just one big, happy family. This system would work anywhere. It's without a doubt the way to go."

    "Accidents
    in stock cars have to be tolerated. They're appealing to the fans. And
    it's the kind of stuff you don't usually see on the streets (hope
    not!)."

    "The number one feeling is that the club comes first. If you screw up brother, you're out."

    "If Danbury were to close tomorrow, I'd get out of racing."

    Obviously
    to put that much wind into your sails, you've got to have something
    going for you, and Danbury has. In my opinion, the closed format is as
    close to a paradigm of the ultimate racing system as we're likely to
    see. Whatever the case may be, the sort of competition the SNYRA is
    offering is the type that resoundingly pushes the spectator's
    gratification button. And do they ever respond. Just look into the
    stands and you'll see thousands of rabid race fans, their emotions
    rising and falling with the fortunes of their favorites.

    They
    may not want (or need) Bodine, Evans, et al. They may run their club
    with iron-fisted authority. But the beauty of Danbury is its success.
    And I guess that beauty is success; success is beauty - that is all you
    need to know about Danbury. But remember - though underneath all that
    real tinsel you will find one sturdy evergreen. So if you take my
    advice, folks, you'll stop looking underneath tinsel already, and sit
    back and appreciate the racing here.'
    Admin
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