'Checking out Danbury'

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'Checking out Danbury'

Post by KaptainSteve on Tue Jan 22, 2008 11:51 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.'

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