Anything for Speed Transcript

Dec 27, 2018

Back to the Anything for Speed episode.

[racing sounds]

It’s a Thursday night in August, and hundreds of people have come to the Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre to take part in a Vermont tradition.

[racing sounds]

Beaver Dragon: Oh yeah, raced a lot of times at Thunder Road. I’ve had good days and bad days.

This is Beaver Dragon, a legendary auto racer from Milton.

[Finish Line audio]: Dragon winning last night at Plattsburgh, trying to put together two in a row. It’s Dragon on the outside, number 99, Matt Miller on the inside as they battle for the lead. Up, up, up goes Dragon. And oh! They jam on the backstretch.

Beaver Dragon: Thunder Road was not one of my favorite tracks. I won some shows there, but not as many as I won in other places. The bigger tracks, I seemed to do better on bigger tracks than I did at smaller tracks.

Amanda Gustin: Why do you think that is?

Beaver Dragon: I liked the speed.

I know some guys that – I won’t mention their names – that I raced with. If we went to a mile track or something like that, we’d be beat ‘em every time. Because they felt they were going too fast. And “too fast” wasn’t fast enough for me.

People have raced cars in the Green Mountains since 1903. There were racetracks in every corner of the state – at fairgrounds, in farmers’ back fields, and finally at dozens of dedicated racetracks. Thousands of Vermonters have been drivers, mechanics, track officials, and spectators at those tracks over the past 115 years. Today, we’ll hear their voices.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Racing is known for its personalities. And for the past two years, the Vermont Historical Society has been assembling an exhibit about auto racing in Vermont, called “Anything for Speed.” It’s on display right now. They’ve also collected a new archive of oral histories with some of the sport’s most legendary figures. Today, we’ll hear excerpts from those interviews.

Radio announcer: Organizer and motor racing network anchorman Ken Squier was behind the mic on Friday night to call the season opener.

It’s impossible to talk about racing in Vermont without talking about Ken Squier.

Ken Squier (announcing): Bobby Brunelle in the lead. Barcomb in second. There they are going down out of turn 2. Brunelle back in. Barcomb in the 09 pulls up on the back spread. Here comes Bobby flying into the 71. What a tremendous for the lead. The front four out of ten cars. Brunelle’s in front.

Ken grew up in the radio business, and fell in love with cars at a young age.

Ken Squier: Barcomb … whoa! Tied up in the first turn to win them all. Boy you can see the brake marks. Brunelle is furious.

He went on to become a racing announcer and commentator for CBS Sports, and last year he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Ken Squier: There was no racing during World War II – all the racing in the country got shut off. At the conclusion of World War II, the first national championship automobile race – this when the American Automobile Association, AAA sanctioned the deals, was a national championship race in Essex Junction, Vermont. Why, I have no remembrance. But by that time, I was about ten years old, I think it was 1945, I had my heroes and I one of them had to be Ted Horn. And Ted Horne came from California and raced at Essex. And he won by four or five feet. And he was everything I think to everybody that appreciated racing. That’s not fair to say – but he was a big name. And his equipment was always up to snuff. And, that was a good track in Essex. Not only did it set some pretty amazing records for harness racing, but that track was Kentucky clay, and it was super to watch those cars on.

One of the earliest racers to find success on Vermont’s new stock car tracks was New Hampshire native Harold “Hardluck” Hanaford. He didn’t race much into the modern era, but he was the first winner of Thunder Road’s annual Milk Bowl.

Harold Hanaford: I raced in Boltonville Vermont. That’s where the high school used to be – I guess it’s still there. You know where Boltonville is? About where the high school is, off to the side. I raced there for a while. Well, it was small. Dirt track. They hadn’t any preparation other than just to run around till they made a track, just on dirt, you know.

Harold: There was a story that was kind of funny to me. They had this fellow by the name…and he had the name, everybody called him “Dirty Dick.” And we was racing up at Boltonville, and he was in the race, and he had a 37 Ford sedan cut off right behind the seat where you drive, and he had a great big I-beam over his rear end to help hold it down. And I was in the race, and I kept stopping – something kept stopping on my car, and back then hell, all they had was snow fence or something to keep the people away, hell they’d run out on the track, if the race stopped they’d run out on the track. And I had a shorted wire, but I stopped four or five times before I found out what was wrong with it. But about that time Dirty Dick was getting sick of being stopped. He come up to me and he says, why you stopping the race all the time? I says well, I got something wrong in the car. He says next time you stop, he says, you ain’t stopping it, ‘cause I’m going to push you right off the track. He says, this isn’t any kind of a race if you keep stopping it. I didn’t say anything to him, but I had a brother in law and a couple of his buddies, were pretty rough characters back in those days. When Dick went back to get in his car and the race re-starts, the car was gone. And I looked back down over the bank. I couldn’t see the car but I could see some gray birches, the tops of them, weaving right back and forth. My brother in law and a couple of his buddies had pushed his car, while he was talking to me, they’d pushed his car way down over the track and into those gray birches. I think they got more kick out of that than they did any of the races.

Hanaford passed away in the spring of 2018.

Beaver Dragon: Up at Sanair, in Canada, that was pretty close to the biggest track around here. It was almost a mile. I won a lot of races there, and I had some good days, I had some bad days too, of course you do, but at Sanair, I won more I can say I won more than anybody did at Sanair because it was fast, it was fun. But at Sanair when you crashed you crashed big, too.

Beaver Dragon from Milton started racing as a teenager, and he became one of the most successful drivers Vermont has ever known. He had a long career filled with stunning victories and spectacular crashes – and a few near-misses. Today, he still lives in Milton, and still follows racing.

Dragon: I can remember a day up there, went up for a, it was gonna be a big race that day, and we were out there practicing before the race and when they unloaded the car off the truck, the pit crew unloaded the car off the truck, I got in, and the steering wheel was already on. Well, during practice, I kept telling Larry Lauziere, my crew chief, I said, there’s something the matter with this steering. I don’t know what it is, there’s something wrong with it. Well what is it, what’s the matter with it? I said I don’t know – I can’t put my hands on it, but there’s something wrong. And I’m telling him this while I’m going around the racetrack, wide open.

Dragon: And the next lap I gone through the trial, just about wide open, and I came to the fourth corner, and as you start to turn to go on through the fourth corner, I pulled the steering wheel right off. It came right off the shaft. It wasn’t snapped on. Larry had, when he unloaded the car, just set it back on, and I didn’t know, and I’d been driving with it loose and that’s what it was, it was sliding up and down the shaft and I didn’t realize what it was doing.

Dragon: Well, as I came into the fourth corner, apparently I let up on the gas, and I pulled back on the, I must have pulled back on the steering wheel, and it come right off. I immediately threw it on the floor on the passenger side and I grabbed the shaft with my bare hands, which didn’t amount to nothing, and I locked the brakes up. I slid through the corner, all the way on to the straightaway and I could see the wall coming, the fourth turn wall coming, and I thought, here it goes, it’s going to wipe it right out. Just as it got to the wall, the car took a big slide. It turned the other way, and it started down the straightaway and went down toward the inside wall. I stopped about that far from hitting the inside wall. Never hit a thing. All it did was flatten four tires. So I sat there for a minute, and Larry comes on the radio, and he says “What in the hell are you doing?” I said, “Who put the steering wheel on this car?” “Oh, Jesus,” he said, “I forgot to snap it on.” I said, “Tell me about it.” I says, “That was what I was feeling.” He says, “The steering wheel come off?” I say, “Yeah. It come right off.” Well, he didn’t know what to say, of course I didn’t know what to say. So, wrecker comes to pick the car up, we put four new tires on it. I won the show that day. It could’ve wiped the whole car out. It didn’t. 

Beaver’s younger brother Bobby Dragon was an extremely successful racer in his own right. He was a disciplined, thoughtful driver who had a team behind him that constantly worked to find new technologies and improvements to his cars.

Bobby Dragon: It’s how well you’re prepared when you arrive at the racetrack. You don’t want to spend the night working on the car all night to try and get it ready to race. You want it to be prepared when you got there, and we always managed to stay ahead of the curve on that, but my guys were that good as far as race setup goes, as far as spring changes, shock changes, whatever it maybe took to make that car a little bit faster in the corners. It wasn’t all horsepower that was winning races for us at that point in time, because we were competing against some pretty stout engines and stuff that were coming out of Montreal, that were coming down from Massachusetts and around the whole region, and we were still building our own stuff.

John Keefer: Because Bobby Dragon ran so good, it made the other competition follow along, made racing a better show

John Keefer was an engineer at GE in Burlington and one of the key members of Bobby’s racing team. He combined his love of cars with a passion for precision and data, and there are very few people in Vermont today who know as much as he does about race car engines.

John: The improvements that were made on the racetrack, at Catamount and the improvements on Thunder Road had to be made because the cars got better. The cars got better because of guys, teams like ourselves, Dave Dion, those guys had a team, Robbie Crouch, and they were all fierce competitors.

Bobby: The handling of the car was the key. And I was always comfortable with that. I wasn’t much at making calls as far as what we needed to make the car better. I would tell the guys, Frankie and John specifically, what the car was doing, and they would make the calls. We need to go a little bit stiffer in the left rear, spring-wise, and so on, and for the most part, they made it that much better for me, every time.

Bobby still also lives in Milton, and his son, Scott, is a highly successful driver too.

[Finish Line audio]: On the backstretch, it’s still number 48, Robbie Crouch has 71, Bobby Dragon closes up…Dave Dion runs in third, Kourafas looks for room down low… down goes Kourafas on the inside, touring the lunge beneath number 27 Dion, and failing to make the spot. Meanwhile in turn number four, Bobby Dragon gets up on the outside of 48 Robbie Crouch, and we’ve got a battle shaping up for the lead.

Robbie Crouch: Racing, you know what I like about it. The challenge of it…it’s the greatest challenge I think that you can have. Because there’s so many moving parts. You have equipment, and people, and other competitors, and everything has to fall into place for you to win a race. And it just isn’t an easy thing to do.

Robbie Crouch grew up in Florida but came to Vermont when he was nineteen years old to get more racing experience. In the 1980s, he was nearly unbeatable.

Robbie: And you know, I grew up listening to my father complaining about certain drivers, drivers that he had, and the fact that his car got wrecked. I was a kid listening to my father, philosophize on racing, and listening to what he thought was important for a driver to be, so all those things stuck with me, and became the foundation for my driving. So I knew what a great challenge it was to win a race. And really, that was my goal, was to be able to win a race. And I think when I started racing, I knew it was hard, and it was even harder than I thought it was going to be. I was questioning whether I would ever win a race. Or ever be a consistent winner. So to kind of have that challenge and know how big the challenge was is what kept me coming back and what I liked about it, but I also was more scared of losing than – I mean, I had a bigger fear of losing than, and was more motivated by losing — than I was excited about the possibility of winning. Losing is a great motivator and winning just kind of becomes…that was the stated goal, so there’s nothing past that, that you can achieve. Once you win, you’ve achieved what you can. But losing – there’s so many different ways to lose.

Robbie holds the record for the most Milk Bowl wins. He still lives in Vermont, and in 2018 he was inducted into the Vermont Sports Hall of Fame.

Darla Hartt started working for Catamount Stadium and NASCAR North tour as an intern when she was a teenager. She spent her career in the sport, and helped to found the American-Canadian Tour in 1986. She was an eyewitness to many of the changes in Vermont racing over the last few decades.

Darla Hartt: It was an interesting time. The first year was great. The second year, NASCAR, we knew NASCAR wasn’t going to sit around and just vacillate forever, because the Northeast included some demographics that were luscious and alluring to them. So 1987, I believe it was, they came back with a Busch North Tour, which went somewhat against us, they had a different rules package. And, and I can’t tell you at this moment, if theirs were, their cars were more expensive than ours. So they, they grabbed a couple of our drivers….But you know, Tom always said that, that if you lose one, you’re going to gain two. And that was pretty much true, because one of the things that that racing is about is hero worship. But one of the things that keeps it going and keeps it fresh, are those guys that are willing to come out and run last or run 15th, or take pride in the fact that last week, I finished 22nd. And this week I finished 15th; next week, I want to finish in the top 10. So helping to germinate those new potential stars, or those new potential solid runners was fabulous. So great, you lose one of the guys who’s taking money off the top of the purse and you gain two other guys who say, “Now I’ve got a chance.” That was good, that was really good. And through those years we really developed a much wider pool of drivers and teams.

Darla still lives in Waterbury today.

Phil Scott: Twenty years ago I didn’t have any interest in politics whatsoever, but I was a frustrated business owner, and I thought that they could use my voice, maybe some of my experiences, so I ran for office. And I have to say that my name recognition in this county was elevated because of my success on the racetrack. It didn’t keep me in office, but it helped me get elected.

Phil Scott started working on Robbie Crouch’s pit crew when he was sixteen years old, and later got behind the wheel of his own car. In 2016, he was elected governor of Vermont after previously serving as lieutenant governor and as a state senator. Just recently, he won a second term as governor.

Phil Scott: There was a young mom that came up to me and wanted to tell me the story about her daughter. I think it was my first race, my first political race. And she said that she woke up on Tuesday morning on Election Day and her daughter was, I’m going to say, eight, nine years old, came in and said “Mom, you’ve got to go in, you’ve got to go vote today.” And she said “Well, I intend to vote, but why are you so interested?” She said, “Mom, you’ve got to go in, and you’ve got to vote, and you’ve got to vote for Phil Scott.” And she said she looked at her and she said “Well, that surprises me, because Phil Scott’s not one of your favorite drivers. John Donahue is your favorite driver. I’m surprised that you would want me to go vote for Phil Scott.” And she said, “Well, I’m just hoping that if he wins, maybe he’ll quit racing.”

Phil Scott: So, I thought that everyone has their reasons for voting for you. That was probably one. It didn’t come true, I continued to race. And I continue to race today. In fact, I was able to win a race last year as governor, probably the only governor in the US who has accomplished that, which was an amazing feat for me.

Lenny Stockwell: When I was in high school, probably sixteen, seventeen years old, I think the first race I actually went to was at Northfield. And I said, “Someday I’m going to do this. And I did.”

Lenny “Tiger” Stockwell grew up on a farm in Tunbridge, and from an early age he idolized racers like Hardluck Hanaford. After a bad accident, he retired from racing. Now he lives in Braintree and builds engines. His son, Kip Stockwell, was a successful driver in the 1990s and 2000s, and his grandsons are getting ready to move up from go karts to stock cars.

Lenny: And that summer I went probably a dozen times to Northfield. And then the next year we started going to Thunder Road pretty regular. The old flatheads. I was just an old farmboy, I didn’t have a nickel to put into it, but later on I did. And I guess that’s where it started.

Lenny: I took my first racecar to Thunder Road in 1965. I was working at Valley Motor Sales in Bethel. It was just an old car that was out back, and we hauled it in and stripped it out, put a rollcage in it, and away we went….

Lenny: I was a little late getting to the track for the first race. I went out in the heat race, I didn’t have any practice time, and I went down the front stretch and I don’t think I ever left it going into turn one. And where the pit stand is now, the fence stopped right there and I went right over the bank, end over end, down in there. It was quite a start. But after that I calmed down a little bit. I think I raced for seven years, and one year I built five cars, that’s how rough it was.

Lenny: Still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head when I hear a racecar start, seventy years later. It’s…I don’t know. Some people like horses and some people like to go skiing and I wouldn’t give a nickel for either one, but you take me to a racetrack and I’m just…happy.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin and Mike Dougherty. Thanks to our guests for their time and insights. Thanks also to Thunder Road International Speedbowl, and to Joey Kourafas and Greg Gilbert for recordings of the Finish Line radio show.