Book Review - A History of Auto Racing in New England, Volume 1

Book Review - A History of Auto Racing in New England, Volume 1
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A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1, by Dick Berggren.  Book review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz.  January 2015.

     The North East Motor Sports Museum has started on a project to record and save the auto racing history and heritage in the New England area.  One of their projects is A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1, by numerous contributors and authors, and copyrighted by Dick Berggren, who supplied many of the photographs and captions.  Most of the books that I review follow the biography of a race car driver and then intersperse the material with photographs and brief descriptions of the tracks and people that they knew.  A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1, differs in that the authors give us a glimpse into the racetracks and the officials who worked to bring racing to the New England states.  I’ve written biographies and histories and bios are by far the easiest to write.  There is a great need for histories on localities, race tracks and drag strips.  The first thing that caught my eye was the word Volume 1.  It told me right away that the men and women behind this historical project were serious about preserving their history.  The second thing that I checked, as I always do, was to see if they included an index.  Many well-written histories on auto racing lack indexes.  They are tiresome to do and many pictorial books simply can’t or won’t bother with them.  I was surprised and delighted to find 13 pages of indexing.  Right there I can tell you if the book is worthy of a recommendation or not.

     A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1, is a hardbound book with a cloth binding, using high-quality photographic paper.  It has 298 pages, with 485 photographs, three in color on the back cover and 482 black and white photographs throughout the book.  The captions are thorough and complete, and in many cases they can stand alone without further textual support.  The photographs themselves vary from very clear to medium based on the age of the pictures; some of which go as far back as the early 1900’s.  As a historian I have no problem with the quality of these photographs.  There were also three charts and I would recommend that any future volumes include more charts as they are easier than texts when trying to determine race results and championships won.  I would also like to see a regional map of New England and where the race tracks and drag strips were located.  Maps can add a substantial clarity to where events took place.  I am still awestruck by the 13 pages of indexing.  It isn’t only historians who are thankful for a good index; the public also scans the index for people they know.  I did find an error; Wally Parks was listed on page 225, but showed up on page 226.  That is a minor detail and on the whole the editors are to be praised for their index.  The publisher is 181 Coastal and you can order the book directly from them or through the museum.  The address is 29 Water Street, Newburyport, Massachusetts 01950 (www.coastal181.com).  The ISBN for identification is 13:978-0-985-7735-5-7.  They also have a toll free number to call at 877-907-8181.  The price varies from $35 to $41 depending if you have the book shipped to you.

     A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1 has a short introduction by Dick Berggren and 13 chapters.  A number of writers and editors worked on the book and it appears that they wanted to give a well-rounded view of racing in New England.  Another approach would have been to give each volume their own racing genre; oval track, drag, road course (sports car), midget, stock and open wheel racing.  But I can understand why they used a more eclectic process; better to reach out to all forms of racing in the beginning.  The format they used works very well.  It also sustains interest as the chapters are not overly long and the subject changes and varies.  Another facet that I liked was that they discussed how timing and racing associations formed, what troubles they faced and how the facilities fared over time.  I got a better appreciation for what racers had to face in New England as opposed to what we had to deal with in California.  I also feel that there is a lot more to the story of auto racing in New England that will come out in future volumes.  I have to admit that I thought I knew more about this region than I really did.  This is a very common feeling; which is why I encourage everyone in racing to write down their biographies and leave it to their families and to museums.  After that we all need to caption our photo albums, write down our stories (which are not the same as biographies) and leave a record of our most prized possessions.

     Chapter One was written by Dick Berggren and is about the history of the Rockingham Board track in Rockingham, New Hampshire.  The West Coast had a number of famous board tracks, but Rockingham certainly deserves credit for its banking, on a one and a quarter mile oval.  Like all board tracks the racing was fast, dangerous and thrilling.  It was also lethal.  Four years after the board track was built the facility was dismantled, but the track lives on among those few who are still living who were there in the late 1920’s, and in books and photographs.  Chapter Two was written by Sammy Weisberg with Dick Monahan.  Midget racing began in California in the early 1930’s for more than just financial reason.  The great depression was in full swing and smaller cars and tracks made it easier to promote and make money.  It was also fast and furious and struck a chord with the public.  By 1937 midget racing was a staple throughout New England and lasted for decades, eventually evolving into a version that is still run today. 

     Chapter Three is called the Story of the Modifieds, written by Lew Boyd and Bones Bourcier.  In every sport the desire for speed increases the need for money to compete and thrive.  The little midgets soon were dominated by Offy engines and the best high speed parts, and a reaction set in.  Modified coupes and jalopies that could be hopped up with speed equipment offered a cheaper alternative to midgets and open wheel cars.  These cars, banged up and dented, were deceptively fast and slippery to drive and the crowds went wild for them.  Chapter Four is about the early NASCAR years and was written by Andy Fusco.  Lew Boyd wrote on Supermodifieds in Chapter Five.  Dave Moody wrote on the history of auto racing in Vermont in Chapter Six.  Bob Morris wrote on Maine’s racing history in Chapter Seven.  Dick Berggren wrote on racing icon Bob Bahre in Chapter Eight and auto racing in Rhode Island in Chapter Nine.

     In Chapter Ten Tom Cotter tells us the story of road racing (sports cars) in the New England area.  If there is one motor sport that can call New England home it has to be sports car racing.  We might have to borrow New York and a few Great Lake states and add it to New England, but the Northeast can rightfully take pride in its early sports car and road course racing history.  Road course racing started along with land speed time trial runs as far back as the first automobiles took to dirt roads.  The Vanderbilt Cup was highly sought after.  It was after World War II that returning servicemen brought back with them exotic European sports cars.  Hill climbs and rallies followed and clubs started up all over.  Wherever there were winding roads, hills and Air Force landing strips, road racing flourished.  But the most respected had to be Lime Rock and the man who epitomized what road racing was all about was John Fitch.  Everybody, it seemed, raced at Lime Rock; Walt Hansgen, Chuck Daigh, Dick Thompson, Rodger Ward, Bob Holbert, Briggs Cunningham, Bruce Kessler, etal.  I knew Daigh and Ward and spoke to Fitch on the phone.  Nicer gentlemen you will never meet.  Others who raced in New England included Paul Newman, Mark Donohue, Carroll Shelby, Swede Savage, and Dan Gurney.  Further west was Watkins Glen.  The Northeast was a road racers heaven and still is.

     Chapter Eleven is entitled Drag Racing in New England and was written by Lew Boyd with Gil Coraine.  I’m aware of Bill Bader, Bob Tasca, Marv Rifchin, Joe Lombardo, Arnie Shuman, Gil Coraine, New England Dragway and the Northeast Hot Rod Reunion at Epping.  Every year the drag racers made the famous loop of the country starting in Southern California in February and working their way East and North and up through New England before moving to the Midwest and finally ending their exodus back in Southern California in November.  When they got to New England there were the local drivers waiting to see the traveling pro drag cars and race against them.  I was unprepared for the richness of the smaller tracks all over the Northeast.  Drag racing history is rich and varied in New England, which is why the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum decided to create a third Hot Rod Reunion and place it squarely in the middle of the region (Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont).  It hasn’t been easy for drag racers in the Northeast as many tracks have been forced to close due to population growth and development.

     Chapter Twelve was written by Lew Boyd and is called the Final Lap, a tribute to all those racers who lost their life doing what they loved to do; go racing.  Chapter Thirteen is a pictorial history of racing in the area and was compiled by Dick Berggren.  The text is easy to read and quite comprehensive.  There are short biographies on many racers and officials.  I skipped over some of the chapters because of the length of this review, but I found all of the writers creditable and interesting.  A few paragraphs in some of the chapters were very short, but that is due to the writers trying to compile a complete history, often where there is a paucity of records and resources to draw from.  While A HISTORY OF AUTO RACING IN NEW ENGLAND, Volume 1, is a regional history, I found that there is interest to readers who enjoy knowing the complete history of their sport, no matter where the racing occurred.  As you can see in drag racing and road course racing, New England is integral in knowing the overall history of auto racing.  It’s also a seminal book.  A seminal source is one that you build your library around.  There are other books that touch on race tracks and racers in the Northeast, but they are normally biographies.  This is a book that all New England race fans need to build their auto racing library around.  I rate this book a 7 ½ sparkplugs (out of 8) and heartily recommend reading it.

Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM

Cover photo via NHMS