Racing into the mists of time

By TED WADDELL
Posted 9/2/20

KAUNEONGA LAKE, NY — The passage of time flows across our world like vapors rising from on a misty morning.

And like the wind, the history of motorsports repeats itself—if not in …

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Racing into the mists of time

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KAUNEONGA LAKE, NY — The passage of time flows across our world like vapors rising from on a misty morning.

And like the wind, the history of motorsports repeats itself—if not in actual races, in the memories of folks who witnessed past events that are passed onto the next generation.

On Saturday, August 22, Bethel Motor Speedway (BMS) paid homage to the Danbury Racearena who, for decades, was a centerpiece of Connecticut’s Great Danbury State Fair, in addition to the local quarter-mile oval track’s regularly scheduled races.

The Danbury Fair was an annual exhibition that started as an agricultural fair in 1821 but did not have a regular schedule until 1869, just a few years after the end of the war between the states drew to a close.

According to a research project by Richard Hutwohl and Kirk Jarvis, who are in the process of creating a documentary titled “Saturday Night at the Races; Memories of the Great Danbury Fair & Racearena,” Hutwohl penned the following in a fundraising promo: “Racing began in 1908, and the Danbury Racearena became a popular focal point for horse racing, the Mighty Midgets, stock cars, modifieds and even boat races.”

Racing at the fair kicked off with horses, and in 1932, a track was constructed on the fairgrounds for the midgets and stockers that eventually replaced the previous harness-racing scene.

The fair operated for a 10-day run every October from 1869 until the organization started to fall into shambles and closed its doors on October 12, 1981.

As a sidelight to local history, the Great Danbury State Fair once featured towering fiberglass sculptures the likes of Uncle Sam and Paul Bunyan, the latter of which was purchased years ago by the late Roy Howard and his wife, Jeryl Abramson, and erected along the highway by Max Yasgur’s old dairy farm near the site of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969.

After Howard and Abramson acquired the huge statue, Bunyan’s lumberjack outfit was repainted to resemble a tie-died “hippie” but has since reportedly made its way back to Danbury.

Anyway, back to the motorsports.

BMS featured an exhibition on the track of several race cars from the days of the Racearena, with several drivers and crew members from the days of the famed fairgrounds track in attendance. They signed autographs for the fans during a special halftime intermission show, during which the track’s co-announcers Fred J. Mulharin and Andy Crane conducted interviews in front of the flagger’s perch.

Taking center stage at halftime was 88-year-old Nick Giardina Sr., one of the greats at the Danbury Racearena and a founding member of the Southern New York Racing Association (SNYRA).

The SNYRA started in 1948 as a dirt track in Valhalla, NY before moving to Brewster in 1950; it found its final home in Danbury two years later.

Nick Giardina was honored at the local short track as grand marshal on the special night of remembrance. During intermission, he posed for photos, flanked by Louis DiLisio Jr., his crew chief for 44 years, and Harry Hansen Jr., a driver of note at the Racearena.

Giardina, a 10-time feature winner at Danbury, stood next to his old ride, a modified Ford Pinto that he sold in the wake of the Racearena’s denouement. He eventually tracked it down in Vermont and then had it restored by Lou Dilesi.

In an article published in the July 25, 2009 edition of “the Plain Truth,” Giardina was interviewed during an annual SNYRA reunion.

Reflecting on his racing career at Danbury, he said of racing Ford flatheads and overheads on the 1,800-foot long dirt track surrounding the old fairgrounds, “It was the biggest thing, nothing like it. We were the most popular track around. They’d fill the stands every Saturday night.”

On Saturday, August 22 at BMS, Giardina was a bit more to the point when asked what racing meant to him: “It’s my life!”

As one generation passes the torch to the next, his son, Nick Giardina, competes in #28, a SK Modified.

Along for the ride with Giardina at BMS were other legendary Racearena drivers, such a Billy Layda (winner of the final feature race at Danbury), John Kerslake, Don Miller, Dave Morehouse, Harry Hansen Jr., Art Knapp, Dan Archiere, John Cole and Jimmy Broderick who, for years, raced on the NASCAR Whelen Modified tour circuit.

Andy Crane wears a couple of caps at the local asphalt short track: promotions, drives Simoncini Racing’s #4NY NASCAR 602 Sportsman and, along with his 13-year-old son, Thomas, and veteran announcer Fred J. Mulharin, calls ‘em as he sees ‘em from the announcer’s booth above the grandstands.

He said his grandfather used to go to Danbury every Saturday night to watch the races. “It’s what got my family into the sport of auto racing.”

“My whole life has been about auto racing. It’s a big part of who I am, and the Danbury Racearena is the reason for this life I’ve gotten to live… I grew up hearing stories about Don Lajoie, Chick Stockwell, Nick Giardina, Kenny Webb, the Pierces and on and on from my grandfather.”

Crane knows a thing or two about auto racing, as over the years he’s mixed it up wheel-to-wheel with NASCAR at Daytona and Charlotte.

Standing center track in front of the grandstands at BMS the other night, and side-by-side with a few of the Danbury legends, Crane said, “At that moment I was actually living my wildest dream and for a second, I felt what it was like to be at the Racearena.”

“It was like a moment from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ where I had to ask, ‘Is this Heaven?’”

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