Saturday Night at the Races
Saturday mornings as a young boy was often spent hanging around with my best friend Ronnie (Kessler)… waiting for the race cars to start rolling by – as they headed down to Savin Rock Speedway. I had the best seat for viewing as they traveled down Sawmill Road – sitting on the cement wall of the bridge at Voss Street… right next to the pond. What boy didn’t like to hang around a pond, but that’s another story.
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a town that offered such great local attractions as Savin Rock and the Speedway – right in my own backyard! What else was in Connecticut at that time – sure it was a pretty state – but what was here? People didn’t travel back then all over the state like they do today, so to literally have this right in your backyard was a treat. And of course, like everything else in life, you don’t realize what you have, until it’s gone! I remember seeing the advertisements for the Racetrack and Savin Rock in the newspaper, especially remembering the luring words of “ride one of the only roller coasters that takes you out over the water” – you’d also hear the spiel on the radio – it’s what enticed you to want to come to the “Rock” – as it was called by the locals.
By three in the afternoon, Ronnie and I were sitting in our favorite spot on the Voss Street Bridge – waiting for the cars. Even if we weren’t going to the races, it was still exciting to see all the cars as they rolled right by us on Sawmill Road. It was that very road, which led directly down to the Savin Rock Speedway. Usually in the morning we would have already seen all the many buses which came from New York and New Jersey – loaded with people ready to spend their last dime to win a prize at the “Rock.” The race cars from the furthest away like Pennsylvania, were often the first ones to roll by as early as three o’clock in the afternoon. Many of the racing teams had a lot of money invested in those cars and drivers, and wherever there was a race – they went! They came pulling the cars on a trailer and often a second truck carrying all their gear followed; the local drivers came later in the afternoon, with much less gear.
I-95 had not even opened until late 1958, so before then many took the back roads or US Highway 1 to West Haven Speedway. Once I-95 opened we often saw the cars backed up on the Exit 42 ramp waiting to head down Sawmill Road. If only we had a camera on those Saturday afternoons, what history we could have saved. But like everyone else, it’s only in my mind now.
As a little kid I never went to the races other than maybe once or twice a year if my Uncle Mikie took me with his boys. While he talked to the gate attendant, we’d sneak in. I’m sure we weren’t pulling the wool over his eyes… he probably did that for all his buddies. People didn’t have money back then to afford to go weekly, and bring all the kids. So if you had a buddy at the gate, he often looked the other way.
Johnny… The King… Cambino
I never remember my parents ever going to the races and I couldn’t understand – “why not!” My mom had a brother racing, and a famous one racing at that – and she didn’t want to go! To a small boy, that made no sense to me. My father never wanted to go either and as far as I can remember, he never went. He thought the whole idea of putting your life at risk when you had a family to support, and ruining good cars was a waste. That was his thinking – his priorities were to take care of his family by working, pure and simple. My aunt Catherine was the only sister of Johnny’s who went often, and she took me a few times until I was old enough to go by myself. Even my grandfather didn’t go… but he always knew when his son won… he was a barber, so he always knew the news!
Over the years there were several troupes who came to the Speedway to put on “Thrill Shows.” A couple of shows that I remember were the Thunderbird Hell Drivers which were billed as two hours of “Automotive Fury and Motorcycling Insanity.” Another troupe was the Lucky Hell Drivers who put on quite an unforgettable show, but you can’t forget the Midgets who Harvey Tattersall always said the crowd demanded! Those events kept you spellbound for a couple of hours as they flipped cars through the air, awed you with T-bone crashes, always comedy and enough rollovers to make the girls jump. It was an evening that you didn’t want to end, but then again you couldn’t wait for the 25 lap non-Ford race to start. Those were the nights Harvey called his “two for one” show.
By the time I was around twelve, my friend Ronnie (Kessler) and I went to the races every Saturday night. We often snuck in on Oak Street – which was eye-shot of the Sky Blazer just across on Summer Street. If I’m remembering right, tickets were about a buck seventy-five for adults and fifty cents for a kid – which was still a lot of money for a kid only receiving a two-dollar a week allowance.
There was always a cop patrolling around the track and we’d wait for our moment of when he turned the corner; you only had a short window of opportunity. I’m sure he knew what we were doing but probably didn’t care that some of us kids jumped over the fence. You had to be strong enough to pull yourself up, and over quickly… if you weren’t in shape – well you didn’t get in. We always jumped over near the short section of bleachers that weren’t under the overhang. Soon as we were over we scurried under the bleachers – not touching anything – coming out on the side. We were then free to walk around sporting our peg pants, looking cool, trying to impress the girls! peg pants were the fad at one time and like everyone else you wanted to always be in style. The craziest fad I remember is when everyone carried a thin black umbrella with a long point at the end – no matter what the weather – it was the style to just carry it.
Once I turned 16 and had a car – a 1961 blue Valiant – I drove to the races. Parking was everywhere down there, from the paid parking areas to all the side streets. By late Saturday night, there wasn’t a parking spot left. We didn’t mind walking so we often opted for a side street – which meant free parking for us. We didn’t have extra money to pay for parking as by that time we weren’t jumping the fence any longer and now paying to get in. It was always a full house… it was the place to be on a Saturday night!
The warm ups for the cars began around 6 p.m. – and once they revved their engines, they were heard pretty far away. Just ask anyone living in West Haven, that’s the first thing they talk about – hearing the roar of the cars on a Saturday night as they revved up those engines. They began the warm-ups by allowing a small group of cars on the track, giving them time to take several laps to warm up. They then opened the gate for them to go back in the pits and let another group out. This gave the crew time enough to adjust anything wrong with the car. Once they all warmed up, the heats began. Sometimes I remember seeing a quarter of the track filled with cars competing for a spot in the regular Saturday night twenty-five lap race. After a few heats, and only picking the first five or so from each heat, they ran a consolation race; this gave cars a chance who’d had earlier problems and missed the regular heats. Once the cars were picked and slots drawn, you began hearing their engines roar as they lined up to exit the pits onto the track. We loved the moment of when the gates opened and they lined up on the track, edging into their pole positions. The main race of the night was the 25-lap stock car event which my uncle Johnny often drove in. This is what drew the crowd! There were also earlier races for the novice classes which weren’t as fast as the stock cars. It was the stock cars – the main event – of what everyone waited for.
Johnny Cambino – Car 39 – Sponsored by Marshall’s Garage
My uncle never cared which spot he drew, and often said that he never thought the front pole was the best place to be; he felt a good driver could win from any pole position and often said, “I’ll just sit right there on the track and wait for an opening and if they give me that opening, I’m gone.” And that’s exactly what he did – once he had an opening, he never hesitated – he’d floor it and the crowd would go crazy. That’s why he won so many races, he was never afraid of taking a shot when it was handed to him.
I remember Johnny telling me about the other drivers, and saying “if they can’t beat me, then they don’t deserve to be on the track.” And that him talking when he drove at an older age, against the young twenty-or-something ones. They hated having him on the track, calling him an old man… but he showed them. Getting beat by him was an insult to their driving ability – Johnny laughed about beating them. He had more skill and knowledge in driving then they had of just being alive at that point.
Johnny Cambino – The Flying 5 – Sponsored by Greco’s Garage
It took money to run those cars and it was the garages and sponsors who owned the cars and footed the bill for the drivers. Johnny drove for several garages around West Haven but I mostly remember Marshall’s Garage – he drove no. 39 for them and it often was in the winner’s circle. He also drove the Flying 5 for Greco’s Garage – that was one of his favorite cars and it flew! At that time Georgie Greco’s one-car bay garage was on Forest Road in Allingtown, but if they weren’t working on it you usually found the race car sitting in his driveway across from Armstrong’s Warehouse.
Much work went into preparing a car for racing – you ripped out pretty much all its interior, installed a special front seat for racing and braced the roof with a roll bar; basically making a cage inside to keep you safe. Those cars had a lot of power coming from the rear, unlike the front-wheel power driven cars today. Besides the makeover of the car, you also needed special tires called “slicks” which gave you the slide needed on the turns. Those stock cars were made from actual cars, not like today’s NASCAR cars, which are built just for racing.
It took talent to build those stock cars and it took talent to get behind the wheel. Johnny told the story that when he first drove, all he knew about racing was just from his own driving experience; he was then a carpenter and a tire builder at Armstrong Rubber, but he had arms of steel. Johnny was hanging around one of the garages one day when someone came looking for a driver – and not being afraid of anything or anyone, he said “I’ll drive” – and that’s how his driving career began.
Johnny & Maggie Cambino
Whenever Johnny won, which was often, we usually were able to go back in the pits; especially if we had run into his girlfriend Maggie (later his wife) in the stands – being his nephew had its rewards at times. Maggie always went in the pits after the race and was in the winning circle with him most nights when he won.
Harvey Tattersall even attended Johnny’s wedding. He had even tried to talk Johnny into getting married in the infield, but Maggie quickly squashed that. Their wedding was a big affair and many friends and fans attended; Tattersal presented him and Maggie with a big trophy after they married.
The Savin Rock Speedway is one of my most remembered memories of growing up in West Haven. I do remember Savin Rock but much of it was already gone, and a young boy only had so much money to spend!
I wrote this story from hearing the many stories my husband told me through the years… and hearing it so often made me feel like I had also been there at the track. Unfortunately I married Steve in 1971, long after all the glory of Savin Rock.
To read more of hubbys stories, click HERE.
© 2023, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved