To Receive NE Hall of Fame Car Owner Award
By Buffy Swanson
The late George Smith Sr. of Folsom, NJ—one of only two car owners in DIRTcar history to win the prestigious Syracuse October classic on two occasions, with two different drivers—will be honored with the Gene DeWitt Car Owner Award during the 2013 DIRTcar Northeast Modified Hall of Fame ceremonies, to be held on Tuesday, June 4, at the Hall of Fame Museum on the Cayuga County (NY) Fairgrounds.
A local team that ran Pleasantville Speedway, the Terruso brothers, came to Dad in 1972 and asked if he’d buy them a tire,” son Glenn Smith recalled how it all got started.
A self-made man who never did anything half-measure, in business or sport, Smith soon was overseeing a racing empire under his Statewide Hi-Way Safety banner, which included everything from dirt Modifieds, Sprint cars, pavement Modifeds, Grand National, Cup and ARCA cars, and even a race track.
Daughter Patti Zellers remembered a string of “Saturday night drivers, many of them one-night stands” in the early years, from Bunky Higbee, Harry McConnell, Larry and Lee Taylor and Jackie Wilson, to such notables as Billy Osmun, Kenny Brightbill, Kenny Weld and Gary Balough behind the wheel of the iconic red-and-white Statewide cars.
From the start, Smith acquired the best—the best builders, the best equipment, the best drivers. With a radical A-frame Mod constructed by the famed Whip Mulligan, a body designed by Richard Ege with input from Balough, powered by a brute big-block built by John Bohlander, Smith took the pole and won his first of two big Syracuse championships in 1974 with Osmun in the seat.
That same year, he bought Bridgeport Speedway in South Jersey, renaming it Statewide Speedway, and pitted his Friday night program against the Goliath of the day, the Reading (PA) Fairgrounds.
Smith never promoted Bridgeport himself. “His gift was putting the right people in place,” Patti said. Emil Prestis, a purchasing agent for Statewide Hi-Way Safety, was named track manager for the surprisingly successful ’75 season, which drew talent like Weld, Balough, Red Coffin, Tighe Scott and others away from Pennsylvania. The following year, George chose to concentrate on his race team, and would lease the track to Lindy Vicari, Ken Brenn Sr. and Steve Shivers before selling it to Flemington Fair Speedway promoter Paul Kuhl in 1989.
His focus back on the race team in 1976, Smith made a decision that would turn out to be a game-changer: When driver Kenny Weld failed to show for a September event at Bridgeport, George put 20-year-old Jimmy Horton in the car.
No longer was the Statewide #3 a pickup ride. For the next 16 seasons, Smith and Horton were a force to be reckoned with, everywhere they went. And they went everywhere, on a journey that ultimately took them both to the top rung of racing’s ladder.
In the dirt Mods, they racked up a ton of wins, locally and on tour with the Super DIRT Series. But it didn’t stop there. After Horton stepped into someone else’s URC Sprint car at Bridgeport and won in 1978, “George said, ‘Let’s get a Sprint car of our own,’” Jimmy recounted.
By 1982 they had it all: The Statewide team would invade Syracuse with a formidable fleet that included two dirt Modifieds, a 320 Mod, a 467 CID Sprint car and a “pancake” car Horton planned to race at Oswego. “From ’79-84, all we did was race. That was all George wanted to do,” Jimmy stated. “We were hitting 120-140 shows a year. There was one stretch where we raced 21 days in a row.”
With Smith orchestrating the operation from the home office, they partnered with LaVern Nance to run part of the World of Outlaws Sprint tour in ’83 (the same year Horton married Smith’s daughter, Patti), with son Glenn and hired gun Charlie Langenstein turning the wrenches. Then, in 1984, the team enlisted Billy Taylor to build them a Busch GN car—and what began as a local dirt-track operation went national.
He had a knack for becoming friends with everyone,” Patti said of her father. Which is how Cup Series champion Bobby Allison became an ally and a mentor in their first foray on the NASCAR scene.
By 1985, the Statewide team became S&H Racing, fielding the #85 Busch Grand National car and the #80 Cup car the following season. They had the most success in the ARCA series, winning an unprecedented five consecutive superspeedway races in 1990, at Daytona, Atlanta, Talladega and Pocono.
But that didn’t keep them away from the dirt Modified battlegrounds back home, where Horton would show up to take down big races like the Lebanon Valley 200, Flemington 200, Super DIRT Series events at Granby, Five Mile Point, Merrittville—and, of course, the biggest one of them
PETROCCI FAMILY NAMED DIRT HALL OF FAME 2013 SAMMONS AWARD WINNER
By Andy Fusco
WEEDSPORT, N.Y.---The family members of the late Robert N. Petrocci, who was the founder of Rolling Wheels Raceway, have been named by the DIRT Hall of Fame selection committee as recipients of the 2013 Leonard H. Sammons Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to Racing.
The honor will be bestowed during the Hall's annual induction ceremony, to be held this year on Tuesday night June 4 at 7 p.m. at the Hall of Fame and Museum in Weedsport, New York. The prize is named for the late founder of the Area Auto Racing News. The newspaper annually sponsors the award.
The racing career of Robert N. Petrocci actually began as a car owner at the Weedsport and Waterloo speedways in the 1960s. Then one night in about 1967, his driver, Dick Fields, won the Weedsport feature, and was promptly disqualified for a reason which Petrocci deemed bogus. Petrocci loaded up his team's hauler and left Weedsport for good, proclaiming his intention to build a rival racetrack right down the road. Within months, he bought a tract of farmland on Route 5 in Elbridge---a mere four miles from Weedsport---and began to make good on his threat. Petrocci's 5/8ths-mile Rolling Wheels oval (named after the family's business, a highly profitable trailer park on the east end of town) opened in the late summer of 1969.
Rolling Wheels ran Sunday afternoons its initial season, suffered dust problems, and switched to Friday nights in 1970. The switch instantly made The Wheels the premier dirt track in Central and Western New York, attracting not only the top local dirt shoes, but also the cream of the crop from the Albany and Buffalo areas as well. That, plus converted asphalt regulars like Merv Treichler and Jim Shampine, made the weekly field at Rolling Wheels second to none. Then on Friday July 31, 1970 tragedy stuck. The races at Rolling Wheels got rained out, so Petrocci and some of his key employees drove to nearby Spencer Speedway to catch the action as spectators. As they watched, a modified hopped the track's fencing and landed in the grandstand. Petrocci was struck badly. The next day, he died of internal bleeding. He was only 38 years old.
With the founder of The Wheels deceased, the responsibility for carrying on fell to his survivors. Robert's parents, Carmen and Virginia, took over the concessions. Wife Joan handled the ticket office. Sons Bob, age 18, and Don, age 16, became the track's co-promoters. Daughter Bonnie, age 11, ran the souvenir stand. Even youngest son Dane, age 8, chipped in with grading, packing, and track prep. So complete and dedicated was the family effort, that the track never missed a night: yes, The Wheels ran as scheduled the very Friday night following Robert N. Petrocci's death.
But merely carrying on wasn't enough. By son Don's estimation, only about two-thirds of The Rolling Wheels facility had been built by the time his father died. So it was up to the remaining family members to not only conduct the races, but to also roll up their sleeves and finish the construction of the late Robert N. Petrocci's dream. And what they built became a showplace.
In the early '70s, the Petrocci family members had all become close friends of Glenn Donnelly, who by then was the new operator at the Weedsport track.The Port and The Wheels became charter members of Donnelly's DIRT organization in 1975. As youngsters, Bobby and Donnie had, by their own admission, struggled with the promotional politics of auto racing management. With Donnelly assuming much of that headache, the Petrocci boys were free to devote their time to conceiving clever promotions and to mastering track prep. Accordingly, The Wheels ascended. It switched to a "specials only" format, attracting killer fields from all over the Northeast for about six to eight shows a year. Moreover, it boasted the best track conditions and the most two-lane, side-by-side racing of any track in the East.
In 1987, the Petroccis sold their track for a handsome multiple to an investment group called Fingerlakes International Inc., which was headed by Donnelly, Howard Commander, Bruno DiMatteo, Jack Turner, and later, Paul Vitale. Although the family was relieved of the day-to-day obligations of speedway management, the Petroccis remained avid race fans and organizers of an annual memorial race at the track in their father's memory. Thereafter, Fingerlakes International sold its interest to the speedway's present operators, the World Racing Group of Concord, N.C.
Sadly, death has continued to burden the Petrocci family. "Grandpa" Carmen died in 1989, and "Grandma" Virginia passed away in 1995. Son Bobby Jr. succumbed to cancer in 2004, at the unfortunate young age of 53. But all are fondly remembered for the contributions they made to make Rolling Wheels the huge success which it remains today. Happily, Robert N. Petrocci's widow Joan, sons Don and Dane, and daughter Bonnie and are alive and well, and are expected to be on hand to accept the family honor at the Hall of Fame on June 4.
New Jersey Official Wendy Kennedy to be Honored at HoF Ceremonies
By Buffy Swanson
New Jersey resident Wendy Kennedy, a long-time official at the storied Flemington Fair Speedway, will see her life’s work recognized as a recipient of the annual Gater Racing News Outstanding Woman in Racing award during the 2013 DIRTcar Northeast Modified Hall of Fame ceremonies, to be held on Tuesday, June 4, at the Hall of Fame Museum on the Cayuga County (NY) Fairgrounds.
The daughter of a British government official, Kennedy had an exotic upbringing – born in the Far East, schooled in England, living in such far-flung locales as Borneo for years on end with her dad – before marrying a British banker.
She was always drawn to the speed and excitement of auto racing, and got quite the opportunity to pursue that attraction during the ’60s, traveling all over Europe following the Formula One series, and hanging out with the likes of such legendary drivers as the late Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill.
“Back in those days, the F1 circuit was small enough so you really got to meet the drivers and get to know them,” Wendy said. “All the partying! It was an exhilarating time -- just magical.”
Kennedy moved to the states in 1970 with her second husband, who worked in pharmaceuticals, and settled in Flemington, NJ. And she discovered two things rather quickly: 1. There was a speedway, right in town; and 2. Racing was very different in the U.S.
“So we went to Flemington Speedway, and sat in the first turn. And there I was, looking very English, wearing a white sundress, with matching handbag and shoes,” Wendy recalled. “I’m sure I never wore that dress again!”
Her husband became a big Stan Ploski fan, while Wendy rooted for Billy Osmun. And even after the couple parted ways, Kennedy continued to attend Flemington each week, learning more and more about American auto racing.
She befriended Frankie Schier, the track’s backstretch flagger, who introduced her to promoter Paul Kuhl up in the “purple room” after a race in 1974. It was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship.
Paul asked me what I thought of the racing. I think he could barely understand me, with my British accent,” Kennedy laughed. “But he invited me to come upstairs in the scoring booth the following week, as an extra pair of eyes.”
The next year, 1975, Kuhl hired Wendy as Flemington’s chief scorer, a position she held until 1983. But Wendy wanted to take on more.
“They needed someone in the pits that the drivers and owners could talk to,” she remembered. “So I began getting info from them prior to each race, and feeding that to [announcer] Bill Singer. I started running the pit shack, the sign-in, helping with the payout and handicapping, and interacting with drivers. I would spend my entire night in the pits.”
When the famed Flemington clay was paved over in 1991, Kennedy stayed on, taking over the public relations and communications duties, “and God knows what else.”
It wasn’t an easy transition.
“We lost all but a very loyal fan base, and we were trying to create another one,” she stated. “And that first year, running the dirt cars on asphalt, we had some pretty bad accidents resulting in serious driver injuries – Ray Evernham, Doug Hoffman, Lenny Boyd, Billy Pauch. We couldn’t make any more changes to the cars; there were too many changes already. We had to come up with another solution.”
Wendy had heard that Lancaster Speedway had installed a safety system pioneered by Bill Colton Sr. to mitigate such injuries -- installing energy-absorbing foam blocks in all four corners of the track. With the help of driver/fabricator Kevin Collins, she pushed Paul Kuhl to try it at Flemington – and it worked.
“It was what we needed,” Wendy affirmed. “There is no doubt in my mind that those foam blocks saved Joe Gosek’s life, as well as others.”
As a pavement track under the NASCAR banner, Flemington hosted the modified Race of Champions from 1992-95, taking over from the Pocono Raceway; the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, 1995-98; and the ARCA 150 in 1999. Wendy was front and center for all these high-profile short-track events.
She remained in the full-time employ of Flemington Fair Speedway and Kuhl Corp. from 1979 until August of 2000, weeks before the speedway closed for good.
In addition to her official duties at the track, Kennedy has