Found this very interesting series of articles from 2008 in the Sanford, Maine newspaper about a local ghost track. Seems the Sanford area was a hot bed of racing in the 1950s.
Part II of the story below (The Drivers) holds a surprise as it reveals the Maine track as the original home track for a member of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.
'Friday Night Thunder'': Old Sanford Speedway revisited
By David Dutch
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Courtesy Ray Normandeau: Sanford Speedway on opening day, June 4, 1950
SANFORD, Maine —On a warm Friday night in the summers of the early 1950's, a thunderous roar along the plains of South Sanford could be heard. Was it jet planes taking off from the airport up the road, or was it "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' and his famed "Swamp Rat" rail dragster tuning up for Sunday's drags?
Neither, it was two dozen or more prewar coupes with postwar flathead V-8 engines coming out of turn four in front of the long grandstand full of cheering spectators waiting for the drop of flagman Lefty Ellis' green flag.
Sanford's Thomas Guillemette, a local sawmill owner, was a visionary. Guillemette bought and cleared a flat, sandy, scrub pine lot off Route 109 in mid-summer of 1949 next to the Wells town line. It was like a latter day Field of Dreams. He built an automobile racetrack in hopes that the cars and drivers and fans would come. At this time, Northern New England was seeing a rapid growth in stock car racing. Up the road at Oxford, Beech Ridge in Scarborough and other places, tracks were being built and the cars and fans came.
Stock car racing got it roots from the illegal moonshiners and bootleggers in the hills of the South. Legendary stock car driver-owner Junior Johnson was one of the sport's first superstars. He was a bootlegger during the week and raced the same car Sundays on the local red clay tracks. These men would congregate to test one another in front of small crowds, pass the helmet for a winners share, and compete. Johnson and other good 'ol boys modified their cars to run fast day and night. Thus NASCAR grew from that group of daring men, forming rules and regulations for the cars and drivers and sanctioned races throughout the South.
Following World War II, the sport came into New York and southern New England. Drivers and mechanics home from the war took to the sport immediately. Drivers, who faced death in the war, shrugged off the dangers of racing for a chance to make a few bucks.
Guillemette was born in Canada and first worked in the local mills. He was a hard-working man who carved out his slightly less than a one-third mile track and built a 650 foot wooden grandstand that accommodated several thousand-race fans. He also put in the lighting for night racing and built a judges stand, a concession stand-ticket booth, restroom facilities, and a pit shack. The clay for the track's banks was hauled in from the banks of the Mousam River in West Kennebunk. The little "bull ring," as it was called by many, was the first paved track in Northern New England. The pit area was located between the second and third turns at the front of the slight backstretch with its entrance off turn 2, and exit just before turn 3. It was 60 feet wide and had four distinct turns, unlike most small tracks. Turns three and four were tighter than the first two.
PR Boston of North Berwick sprayed 4,000 gallons of tar on the oval, a sealer was later put on it giving it a fast racing surface. The old speedway was an engineering marvel and ahead of its time, but the semi-banked and paved oval proved to be a problem for most of the cars that were used to running on dirt. The centrifugal force and friction of the pavement caused the wheels and tires to come off. A stream of sparks showered the surface as the wheel or hub dug into the tar to the delight of the fans. The cars had also had difficulty holding the track and these problems eventually led to the track's demise. Later technology improved by modifying the chassis and springs, and they used a wider wheel and tires called racing slicks. The ingenious use of modified truck and other vehicle performance parts made for better racing.
Unknowingly, South Sanford was becoming a center of "speed" in Southern York County. A few years later, drag races at the Sanford Dragway, located at the Sanford airport, would achieve national acclaim. Outboard motorboat racing at Bauneg Beg Pond, and pony racing at Pinebrook Raceway on the Sam Allen Road, were all within a three-mile radius.
Guillemette opened his shiny new track with high expectations in the late spring of 1950 under a partnership that was called the Sanford Stock Car Racing Association. This group apparently leased the track and promoted the racing card in its inaugural season. The officers were: President Charles Pike, Vice-President Ernest Duprey, Business Manager Richard Simpson, Secretary Theodore Webber and Treasurer Lucien Dumais. The Clerk was local lawyer F. William Hochberg and the track physicians were Drs. Cobb and Lincourt. Race officials included judges Gordon Spence, Charles Pierce and Wilfred Roy. Serving as it stewards were Henry Plamondon, Clarence Hartley and Raymond Leferte. Robert Guillemette was the flagman and the track announcer was Robert Marcille.
The first race, slated for Memorial Day, was rained out, but was run the following Sunday when nearly 4000 fans were on hand to watch Sanford fireman Ray Normandeau win the 30-lap feature, edging out Dick Libby through the dust and stones of the yet unpaved surface.
Floodlights that were on poles inside the track were protected with piles of sand, but were still vulnerable. Roger "Cowboy" Rivers, from Dover, and his checkerboard Hudson Hornet coupe seemed to defy the sand barriers and manage to knock down more than his share like candlepins. The wily Rivers was one of the many colorful drivers that graced the now defunct speedway. The promoters and track announcer portrayed him as the villain, like the "heavy" in a B western movie. He drove pedal to the metal and God help anyone who was in his way. He would drive in the warm-ups with his girlfriend's scarf draped around the rear view mirror, and with his arm out the window as he blew kisses to the jeering crowd.
Rivers was worth the price of admission, but other drivers such as Ernie Gahan of Dover, Dick Garrett of Wells, Otis Brayton from Portsmouth and Phil Libby from Bar Mills earned respect by their hard charging driving skills and received star status. "Rivers was a bull in a china shop type of driver," says Gahan.
Gahan was your prototypical driver; a GI home from the war started driving at the old Dover Speedway in 1947 and came to Sanford in 1950. This was the start of a 29-year career that would see him as one of the premier racecar drivers in the United States.
Ernie preferred dirt tracks and dominated at Dover and Cheshire in New Hampshire, Stafford Springs, CT, Fonda and Utica-Rome Speedways in New York State. Gahan was that "hearty breed" of race driver having rolled over a concrete wall and out through the fence of the speedway in Middletown, NY. He stayed overnight in a local hospital with three broken vertebrae in his neck. "I raced two nights later in Fonda with a neck brace and a new car," Gahan recalls from his Berwick home.
In the mid '50's, he became a full time racer and towed his car all over the northeast and south earning money rather than points for track championships. Gahan won the NASCAR Modified National Championship in 1966 beating out Bobby Allison and Ray Hendrick. He also made 11 Grand National (now Sprint Cup) starts and finished 12th behind the great Fireball Roberts at the high banks of Daytona in 1962. His son Bobby, with Ernie's help, is still racing and was a three-time track champion at Beech Ridge and has won championships at several New Hampshire ovals.
Ernie, now 81, a racing pioneer and legend, is a member a half dozen racing Halls of Fame.
Dick Garrett, a Wells, garage mechanic, was crippled by polio as a youngster. He wore a brace on his left leg, but this was not a handicap. Garrett started racing at Beech Ridge in 1949 and proceeded to win three consecutive titles there and two more in '70 and '71. In 1950, he not only won at Beech Ridge, but was crowned the first ever champion at Sanford, and also was track champion at Dover, Lewiston and West Peabody, Massachusetts. Five track championships in that year and was one of the top ten drivers in the country. Garrett was a rough rider and his duels with Gahan, both at the Ridge and Sanford were legendary as were his clashes with Rivers at Dover and Sanford. Garrett is also a Hall of Fame driver.
Otis Brayton was another WWII vet that took up racing. He was one of the most popular drivers at Sanford winning six straight features and the track championship in 1951 with the famed 73U "Pink Lady" owned by Teresa Fogarty of Portsmouth. He later moved to Florida where he was a very successful in modifieds at both Bradenton and Tampa.
Phil Libby raced his #99 at Sanford coming down from Beech Ridge. He won several features at Sanford and a number of championships at Beech Ridge and Oxford. He is also in several Halls of Fame. In notes from his memoirs Libby wrote:
Sanford was a good place to race. Made us (all?) equal, because before that we all ran on dirt. After a lot of racing, small rock would come up (break up?) and hit you in the face. A lot of cars would break wheels. MacDonald was very tough. Garrett always winning. Gahan good too. Brayton fast. Go hard into 1 and 2. One problem we didn't know, was after a rain the cars would drive thru the pits onto the track and carry mud, sand onto the track around turn 3 and 4. If you wasn't careful and got into it, you would go off the track. A good place to race, fast. Only a few years though, too bad.
'Friday Night Thunder' - The drivers
By David Dutch
Thursday, August 28, 2008
SANFORD—Eddie "Hot Rod" MacDonald from Hollis started his brilliant career here in Maine and moved to Georgia in the mid 1950s, courtesy of Uncle Sam. There, known as Eddie Mac, he won several sportsmen's and modified state championships and made three NASCAR cup starts including an eighth place finish at Atlanta. He was elected to the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. Eddie resides in Tifton, GA and visits Maine in the summer.
Local drivers played catch up to Garrett and the New Hampshire drivers. Sanford's Mac McDonald raced very competitively. Arnie Day from Alfred, and "Gentleman Jim" Waterhouse of Lebanon, rubbed fenders and won at Sanford. Sanford drivers included: Dick "Fat" Allen, Larry Curit, Dick Gagnon, Ray Normandeau, Ray Shaw and Dick Libby. Shaw, who had raced at Beech Ridge the previous year, was one of the first drivers to test Sanford's macadam surface.
Notable area drivers included: Dick Eon, Butch Boucher and Paul Tardif from Biddeford, and George Welch from Ogunquit. Other New Hampshire drivers who ran successfully were the popular Tony Collechio who would also be a flagman, "Hammerin Hank" Ellsmore, Julian "Bob" Moore, Charlie Zipp (short for Zerbonopolis), and the Prince brothers, Don and John who raced Nash Couture-built cars from Somersworth.
One local driver recalls his adventure at the track. Tom Hilton, 72, an auto appraiser from Sanford, says " I drove my green '37 Ford 2-door sedan to the track, took off the plates, headlights and taillights, rolled down the windows and I was off racing." This whetted his appetite for racing and he later built and owned a championship car at Beech Ridge and has maintained a lifelong interest in auto racing.
The races were advertised as starting at 8:15 on Friday nights. But that was seldom the case, as they had to wait for the drivers to get out of work, haul their car to the track and set them up for the warm-up laps. Three or four 10-lap qualifying heats, two 15-lap semifinals and an 8-lap consolation race precluded the usual 20-lap feature race. Between the consi and feature there was about a 20-minute intermission to get the cars ready and to sell popcorn. The announcer would play music, usually country western, on an old 45-RPM player. The scratchy strains of Hank Williams, Hank Snow and sometimes a pop singer such as Pat Boone, would reign down over the crowd. York Utilities ran buses to the track and on to Wells Beach.
The cars were mostly 1930s coupes with some 2-door sedans. They were gutted and a roll cage welded inside, just opposite of how modern racecars are fabricated. A bucket seat, preferably an airplane seat, a lap and shoulder harness, a bare necessities instrument panel, and a volatile gas tank in the rear. The drivers did not wear fire protected clothing or gloves, often just jeans and a T-shirt. The fenders were either stripped or shaved to easily change tires and reduce rubbing with other cars. The motors were usually flathead V-8's and later models had overhead valves for more horsepower and multiple carburetors for fuel injection. Truck springs and shocks were adapted to the cars to hold the track at higher speeds.
In perhaps a promoters stunt to attract fans, local personality, professional wrestler and bon vivant, Renaud "Speed" Desruisseaux, drove a car and on the second lap he rolled over four times in front of the grandstand. An August 1950 Portland Press Herald account tells that his seat belt broke, the door flew open and through the twisted metal of the overturned car, the pro-wrestler "escaped" and waved to the enjoyment of the crowd through a cloud of dust.
The inaugural season saw good racing, but they were poorly promoted. The Sanford Stock Car Racing Association disbanded and after Labor Day, the Sanford Lions Club ran it and profits went to charity.
The 1951 season saw a big change. The speedway was now run by a group of local men along with those from the Dover, Portsmouth area. The group was called the Sanford Speedway Racing Club and they set up their own rules and regulations. Dan McCarthy was the track manager and the races were well promoted and advertised. Back issues of the Sanford Tribune and Advocate show women's races, midget auto, pleasure car and obstacle races, as well as a full racing slate on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Even professional wrestling and boxing matches were scheduled for the speedway. Also in June of that year, local businessmen Ralph Lovell, Raoul Juneau and Guillemette mortgaged the property as the Sanford Speedway Inc. Guaranteed purses for the racers attracted better drivers and cars
At the beginning of the season, the speedway promoted "jalopy" racing, a less costly street stock car with local drivers. However, the out of state drivers with experience returned and raced jalopies, and in June the track returned to the modifieds or "souped up" cars that excited the crowd the year before. This group was led by Brayton, Rivers, Moore, Gahan and Waterhouse.
From the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame:
EDDIE MACDONALD SR.
Born: April 30, 1930 - Maine
1947 – First race he went to was with his date (and future wife Ester).
He said it took a while to figure out why a number 8 car would start in
front of a number 2 car … and so on. “We thought cars were, or should
be, numbered in order of starting positions.”
1948 – Drove in his first race. His primitive car had a simpler version of
today’s fuel cells. “It was an old GI war can, wrapped within an old Coke
1949 – First bad wreck. They were going to cut him out with a blowtorch
while gas was spilling everywhere. Half conscious and bleeding like
a stuck pig, he was able to convince the safety crew to turn off the torch.
1959 – Moving to Columbus, Georgia, thanks to the Uncle Sam, Eddie
won the 1959 Georgia State Modified Championship.
1964 – Won the 1964 State of Georgia Sportsman Championship.
1966 – Ventured into the GN (Nextel Cup in 1966), finishing in the top 20
at Daytona in a very independent car.
1980’s worked as flagman in some South Georgia tracks, including the old
Thunder Bowl in Valdosta.
1990 – Began his own racing circuit called the SGOWMA, or the “South
Georgia Open Wheel Modified Association.” For three years he simplified
racing – Cheaper tires, economic engine set-ups, and nerf bars to protect
Motto was “Race Hard to Win and Be Friends”
Historian Mike Bell summed it up best. “Eddie Mac” probably has raced
over a hundred different tracks with twice that number of wins. He would
find a way to get around you, politely or not. He wasn’t afraid of
anything. He enjoyed racing against Tiny Lund at the old Brunswick,
Georgia Golden Isle Speedway more than anywhere. The two were like
Mutt and Jeff of racing: and had a mutual respect and admiration for one
another. Even though Tiny was twice the size of Eddie, behind the wheel,
they were very much alike.
The Maine Vintage Race Car Association website has photos posted of Main State Stock Car Racing Association 1950s passes issued to Georgia Racing Hall of Fame driver, Eddie MacDonald's wife from the days when Eddie raced in his home state of Maine. Red pass is for driver's wife and green pass is for owner's wife.