2020: K – April A to Z… Family Stories
I’m back in 2020 for my fifth year of participating in the yearly April A to Z challenge… and as usual I racked my brain scribbling ideas on paper since the end of last April. It wasn’t until January, that the light bulb finally went off in scrolling through the 85+ of unfinished blog posts in my draft folder. Bingo… there was my A to Z topic…
Family Stories as told to me… mostly by my husband!
From the moment I married into this Italian family… I fell in love with their stories… their memories… and the family. My husband grew up in West Haven, Connecticut… where there was so much to enjoy as a young boy… especially a place known as Savin Rock… although long gone now. It somewhat once resembled Coney Island… and even larger when his parents, aunts and uncles grew up. They had stories… and I was always an eager listener whenever they told those stories… remembering, and scribbling down to preserve, just as I did with the family recipes that had once only been in their heads. 2020 has became the year I’m telling many of those stories… along with my husband’s memories to preserve for the generations to come. Many of those who told me their stories, are no longer with us… and I hope to keep their memory alive in these stories… as they are now my family also… and I love them all!
My previous years of A to Z Challenges are:
Come sit a spell and enjoy!
King of West Haven Speedway…
I was lucky enough to have viewed the priceless ‘Legend” scrapbooks created by Maggie Cambino… first as a star-struck girlfriend… and later as a wife. Within those covers are excerpts of the many newspaper clippings and photographs… documenting King Cambo’s life and more. I’m sharing many of the excerpts of those newspaper clippings here.
July 15, 1952 – New Haven Register: “25-Lap Non-Ford Feature billed at Races Tonight” – A bumper crop of non-Ford cars is expected tonight at the West haven Speedway when racing director Harvey Tatttersall Jr. stages a dual show.
Jokko Maggiacomo of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and Johnny Cambino of West Haven, will be shooting for their fifth and third straight successes of the season in their respective racing divisions. Jokko is a pre-race choice to extend his reign, where the novice (Cambino), Saw Mill Road driver, will have to battle it out with an expected entry list of 35 cars to gain the laurels.
Cambino, who is 21-years old, is a freshman in the racing field, but the hard driving Italian youth has displayed plenty of savvy behind the “wheel” of his “souped” up junker and he isn’t being taken lightly by the others.
Cambino will be up against a strong field which will include Gil Gay of Bridgeport, returning to action after sustaining slight injuries in a crackup at Bridgeport’s Candlelight Stadium, Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven, Ken Strong, Art O’Malley and many others.
July 16, 1952: New Haven Register: (Friday) – Bob Glen of North Haven clinched the 25-lap non-Ford event, edging out Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven and Johnny Cambino of West Haven in a three-way fight which wasn’t clinched until the final lap. Cambino might have finished in the chips had he not been forced wide on the third base turn and Gilbert sneaked into second position.
July 24, 1952 – New Haven Register: “Two 25-Lap test features Races at Speedway Tonight” – Although the forecast indicates more torrid heat spells, the weather probably won’t be any hotter than the action tonight at the West Haven Speedway where a pair of 25-lap features are on the agenda for the weekly United Stock Car Racing Club’s program.
The customer’s are expected to see another “ding dong” action-packed show when the “junkers” swing into action. A duel is expected between Johnny Cambino, a popular shore-town youngster, and Bobby Glenn of North haven, who is driving for a West Haven club. Glenn won the feature last week over-taking Cambino after the latter’s car developed engine trouble.
July 25, 1952 – New Haven Register: Bobby Glen, of North haven, staved off plenty of “bumping” in the 25-lap non-Ford feature to blaze home in front of Dave Scott of Seymour and Johnny Cambino, the brilliant West Haven youth, in a heated race.
Several crashes, including one which sent Al Barnett’s car sailing through the fence on the far turn in the backstretch – it thrilled the enthusiasts on hand for the show. Barnett’s a New Haven boy – he escaped with nothing more than a case of shock. Johnny Cambino, Bill Boyd and Phil Cook, finished in that order in the first heat in the non-Ford races.
July 30, 1952 – New Haven Register: “Junkies to Roll at Rock Race Oval Tomorrow Night” – Fans are buzzing about the prospective duel tomorrow night between Bob Glenn of North Haven, the racing games newest sensation in the non-Ford division – and 21 year old John Cambino of West Haven, who has been putting on some spectacular shows at the West Haven Speedway this season.
Tomorrow’s meeting of over 45 cars should be another dog fight. The operators of the “junkies” from neighborhood garages along the West Haven shore have been gunning for each other since they started driving at the Savin Rock track.
August 3, 1952 – New Haven Register: (Sunday) “200-Lap Pleasure Car Race Slated At Speedway Tonight” – The biggest auto derby to come to Savin Rock in over a decade is scheduled for the West Haven Speedway tonight at 8 p.m. when the 200-lap Grand National Pleasure Car Classic, featuring all late-model American made products driven by some of the outstanding pilots in the country, will run for the trophy and prize money.
Racing director, Harvey Tattersall Jr. also has arranged to run the non-Ford cars in a spectacular 25-lap event in conjunction with the main event, and in this car the brigade from the “ash can” derby will have Hank Gilbert, Johnny Cambino, Gil Gay and North Haven’s Bob Glenn among those battling it out for the verdict in their respective fields.
August 4, 1952 – The New Haven Register: (Monday) – ”Cambino Wins” – In the non-ford feature, Johnny Cambino of West Haven, a 21 year-old sensation, thrilled the gathering with a brilliant demonstration of driving as he roared across the finish line a scant three-yards ahead of Hammering Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven in the 25-lap co-feature. Cambino and Gilbert were riding neck and neck the last five laps and the packed house was thrilled.
August 22, 1952 – The New Haven Register: (Monday) – “Area Drivers Draw Fans for Speedway Event” – The feature event is listed for 25-laps and a duel between Johnny Cambino of West Haven, Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven, Dave Scott of Seymour, and North Haven’s sensational Bob Glenn.
A destruction or “race of doom” in which six cars will clash – the destruction race went over with a terrific bang here three weeks ago and the show is being repeated again by popular demand.
September 28, 1952 – New Haven Register: Bobby Glenn of North Haven zoomed to a spectacular victory in the 100-lap Map Cap event at the West Haven Speedway last night; Johnny Cambino of West Haven trailed Glenn both times while Fair Haven’s, Frank Gilbert, was third at the end of the first 50 laps.
October 17, 1952 – New Haven Register: “Speedway Finals to Settle Duel for Track Honors” – When the non-Ford cars stage their final race of the season, a three-way duel for title honors between Bob Glenn of North Haven, Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven and West Haven’s Johnny Cambino, looms. The fans will probably be treated to an action-packed show with flips at the rate of a dime, a dozen.
May 2, 1953 – New Haven Register: “45 Car Field Set For Debut at Speedway” – Many of the outstanding car drivers in the “junkies” or non-Ford class will be on hand for the West Haven opener, including last years champion, Bob Glen, of North Haven – runner up, Johnny Cambino of West haven – Elm City drivers of Frankie Belbusti, Stan Johnson, Johnny Proto – along with Art O”Malley and Dave Scott of Seymour, Red Ray and Gil Gay of Bridgeport, and the latest newcomer, Rocky Reynolds, a strong favorite from the Elm City section. The West Haven drivers, Johnny Cambino and Frankie Belbusti are not to be overlooked.
“King Cams” driving the “Flying 5.”
May 04, 1953 – New Haven Register: Hometown Drivers Dominate Picture at West Haven Oval” – Hometown product, Johnny Cambino, is dominating the picture at the West Haven Speedway after five weeks.
May 10, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Bobby Glen Takes Feature Before Big Crowd At Rock” – Bobby Glenn took the non-Ford junker thriller by about a car-length over Stan Johnson of New Haven, Johnny Cambino of West Haven was third, even after his car struck another one in the last lap and was tossed high in the air. The racer came down on all four wheels to enable the shore town driver to continue on and grab show money.
May 22, 1953 – New Haven Register: (Saturday) “Stan Johnson Seeks Repeat in Race Feature At Rock”- Boston, who won last Saturday, is scheduled to be on hand along with Johnny Cambino, Frankie Belbusti, Art O’Malley, Dave Scott, Johnny Timko and a host of other drivers from all over the state.
A torrid fight is predicted between the Johnson-Boston-Cambino trio. The customer’s on hand Thursday were thrilled when Cambino fought his way from eighth place and came within one lap of finishing in third slot with one of the best displays of driving skill witnessed here this season.
Cambino, red-hot on the road, hasn’t been able to manufacture a feature win at home. Tonight he figures it to be his night. It could very well be it if he drives like he did the other night.
May 29, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Cambino Choice to Win Rock Race on Saturday Night”- Front-running Johnny Cambino will carry a seven-point lead into Saturday’s 100-lap race which will be staged at the West Haven Speedway on Saturday night, highlighting the Memorial Day weekend. The veteran West Haven driver will be a strong choice to win the event which is being staged for the Register Fresh Air Fund and will carry a winner’s purse of $1000.
May 30, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Nordino Takes Rock Thriller Over Cambino” Elm City driver captures 25-lap non-Ford feature by fender length! Some 500 fans who braved chilly off-shore winds from Long Island Sound at the West Haven Speedway were treated to one of the season’s best races in the non-Ford stock events last night as Al Mordino of New Haven shaded West Haven’s Johnny Cambino by a fender length to gain the 25-lap feature.
Cambino, driving hard and starting from far behind in the field of 15 cars, nearly pulled the event out of the fire after Johnny Porto went into a spin and was knocked out of the running.
June 7, 1953 – New Haven Register: (Sunday) “Bill Boston Takes Feature before 3,200 at Speedway”- Customers had a close-up view of another smash as Johnny Cambino put his car out of commission by cracking into the grandstand.
June 20, 1953 – New Haven Register: (Friday) – The biggest mid-week crowd of 1.946 turned up at the West Haven Speedway last night and was treated to a stock car racing program packed with action. Johnny Cambino, popular West Haven boy, wrecked himself out of the main event in the early laps, blowing a tire and smashing into the guard rail. He was uninjured.
June 28, 1953 – New Haven Register: (Sunday) – “Cambino Featured at West Haven Speedway” – Johnny Cambino of West Haven, who has had more than his share of tough luck on his hometown track this season, came through last night to win the 50-lap feature race at West Haven Speedway.
About 3000 fans saw Cambino take over the lead in the eighth lap and pace the field from there on in. It was only the second win of the season for Cambino of the Savin Rock oval.
July 1, 1953 – New Haven Register: (Wednesday) – “Three Big Shows Scheduled For Speedway Track” – They’ll be some early fireworks at the West Haven Speedway tomorrow night at 8:30 when racing director, Harvey Tattersall Jr. lights the fuse for a double-barrel program of stock car racing with a couple of big features on tap.
The other half of the show will feature the non-Fords in a 25-lap race. Johnny Cambino, winner of the 50-lap race here last Saturday and again in Bridgeport on Monday, will try again for his third straight triumph. Cambino’s triumph puts him into the running for the title honors at the shore-town track.
July 5, 1953 – New Haven Register: “200 Lap Race Tops Program at Raceway: Event For Late-Model Pleasure Cars Listed Tonight at Rock” – An estimated 4000 racing fans are expected to jam the West Haven Speedway tonight for the second annual Grand National Late-Model Pleasure Car Race feature event. Jokko Maggiacomo of Poughkeepsie, N. Y. will go against a strong field of cars headed by West Haven’s Johnny Cambino, a contender for the track title this season on the basis of his brilliant record.
July 17, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Cambino Buzzes Home First For Eight Speedway Triumph” – It wasn’t too long ago that Johnny Cambino was in the midst of a slump and threatened to “scrap” his car to get another one. But today Johnny’s car is priceless after he won his eighth major non-Ford win at the West Haven Speedway last night.
The customer’s who went down to the track to escape the heat were twice as warm from heat generated by the dashing cars which tossed fenders at each other all night long – plus spins and near flips which came at the end of a baker’s dozen.
Racing director, Harvey Tattersall was satisfied with the turnout of 1,700 paying customers’… their best Thursday night paying delegation thus far this season. Cambino was at his best in a lively modified feature.
Cambino, a 22 year-old youth who works in Armstrong Rubber pushing a truck around loaded with tires all day – rolled his hot-rod around the track in the fast time of 6:15:33 to edge out Art O’Malley of Shelton and Elmer Wheeler of New Haven in the 25-lap non-Ford feature.
The West Haven boy (Cambino) didn’t have to exert himself as he coasted during the last five laps to win in a freeze.
Brainard, like Cambino, experienced little difficulty in winning the modified event. Herb Golde of Bridgeport took second place, but the action centered on the battle for third spot which found Jokko Maggiacomo out-dueling Moon Burgress in a race which kept the fans buzzing through out Brainard’s time of 6:59:85.
July 19, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Belbusti Speedway Winner After Cambino Cracks Up” – Frank Belbusti of West Haven scored a five-length victory over Leo Tancredi of Clintonville in the 25-lap feature for non-Ford’s at the West Haven Speedway last night. Johnny Cambino, the favorite was knocked out of the race when his car was smashed up against the crash rail on the 17th lap.
It was after the re-start, the second one in the race, that Belbusti got his break and took over the lead from Johnny Timko. Stan Johnson of New haven finished third. No time was given due to the re-starts.
Bill Greco of New Haven won the first semi-final as he finished ahead of Tancredi and Belbusti. His time was announced as 3:41:16. Cambino took the second semi– with George Rasutek of Seymour second. A crowd of 2,600 was on hand for the show.
July 23, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Modifieds, Non-Fords Share Billing at Shore-Town Track” – The “Big Bertha’s” in both the modified and non-ford divisions of racing will be seen in action tonight at the West Haven Speedway. Racing director, Harvey Tattersall Jr., has another four-star spectacular on the agenda for the area fans when a pair of 25-lap features, together with a six car demolition race, highlights the program. Qualifying heat races, starting at 8:30 p.m. will get the program off and running – one of the biggest crowds of the season is expected. Johnny Cambino, scheduled to drive a rebuilt car, Billy Boston, Johnny Porto and Elmer Wheeler, will also be among the cars fighting for the main-go tonight.
July 1953 – New Haven Register: “Speedway Brass Finds Nothing’s New – Except Sunday” – Harvey Tattersall was toying with the idea of running a motor boat show at the West Haven Speedway. He could have very well, but unfortunately the boats weren’t available and thus the scheduled program of stock car races was flooded out. An estimated two-foot of water covered the major part of the track and despite the fact that the rain ceased shortly after 5 p.m., it was impossible to get the track in shape for the pair of 25-lap events. Tattersall said the entire program would be staged next Thursday night.
Frank Belbusti, the top driver in the United Stock Car organization, will head the list of car drivers for the show, which will also include Hank Gilbert, Elmer Wheeler, Art O’Malley, Johnny Cambino, Chuck Ceresa, Johnny Porto, Billy Greco and many others.
July, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Two Features Due Tomorrow at Speedway; Non-Ford and Modified Cars to Race Separately at West Haven Track” – In addition to the modified event, Tattersall has another feature on tap for the non-Ford cars and in this race Johnny Cambino of West Haven, will be out for his eight major win of the season. Cambino who attempted to post his seventh at Savin Rock last week, but flunked out, annexed the win in Bridgeport where he won the main go.
August 1, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Two Major Events Headline Races at Speedway Tonight” – Two major events, a 100-lap championship race for the non-Ford cars and a demolition event with a field of 18 cars, which will lead the action tonight at the West Haven Speedway starting at 8:30.
Area fans have seen some thrilling smack-ups this season at the shore-town oval, but tonight the wrecks should come at the rate of a “dime a dozen.” The showing of 18 cars in the wrecking race marks the first time that director Harvey Tattersall has pitted such a large number together in one event – and the customers turning out should be in for a barrel of spills, thrills and spine-tingling action.
Interest however, is focused on the extra-lap race, the third to be staged here this season. Both of the previous winners, Hank Gilbert of Fair Haven and Johnny Porto of New Haven, will be in the field. The track leader, Frankie Belbusti of West haven, will also be on hand along with Johnny Cambino, Billy Boston and Elmer Wheeler, three of the other top contenders for the title this season.
August 9, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Greco Scores Fourth Win at West Haven Speedway” – Bill Greco gunned to his fourth victory in his last 5 outings when he copped the 25-lap non-Ford feature before 2,665 at the West Haven Speedway last night. In the second heat, a double crackup occurred on the tight base turn when cars operated by Stan Pliska and Johnny Cambino collided and went into the wall.
Johnny Cambino and the K7
September 20, 1953 – New Haven Register: “Ceresa, Cambino Duel Ends in Crack-Up on 47th Lap – Fialla Takes Second” – Dick Myers of Milford broke into the lead two laps from the finish to take the 50-lap feature for non-fords at the West Haven Speedway last night. Bridgeport’s Chuck Ceresa and West Haven’s Johnny Cambino were fighting it down the stretch when a crack-up cost them a chance at the top money.
In the second semi it was Cambino, Bob Rich of this city and Bill Boston finishing in that order. Cambino’s winning time was 3:18:49. A crowd of 1,780 saw last nights show.
1953: (Friday) “Cambino Scoots by Tangled Mordino to Cop West Haven Stock Car Feature” – Don’t ever give Johnny Cambino a break or he’ll make you pay for it. That’s what happened last night before 2000 spectators at the West Haven Speedway when Waterbury’s Tony Mordino tangled up some 150 feet away from pay-off territory – with the net result being a victory for Cambino.
The 22 year-old West Haven boy was breathing down Mordino’s neck during the last two laps when the non-Ford driver smacked into an unidentified car on the turn, blew a tire, but managed to finish in second place while Cambino powered through on the inside to rack up his sixth straight major win of the season.
The last lap was the event which stirred the fans. Cambino’s maneuver in driving on the inside forced the issue and brought him extra stipends in his pay envelope. Johnny was clocked at 6:15:35.
April 19, 1954: New Haven Register – The people who turned out for last week’s stock car racing program at the Savin Rock track went home mighty pleased. They got plenty of action which was more than enough to offset the chilly blasts which swept in from Long Island Sound.
“That was some show,” commented Director Harvey Tattersall yesterday, “We are still getting letters and phone calls on the show, complimenting the drivers and the United group for the spectacular performances the drivers put on. It was one of the best I’ve seen here in years,” added the prominent United official.
Three of the stock car drivers who will appear at the West Haven Speedway tomorrow night for the 1954 inaugural show are Johnny Cambino of West Haven, Frank Belbusti, last year’s track champion, also from West Haven, and Bill Boston, of Bridgeport.
1957: ….And the way things shape up at the Oval thus far – the combination of Greco-Gaudiosi – Mordino appear to be the hottest cars, but fellows like Cheshire’s Jim Crashe, Frank Belbusti and Johnny Cambino are giving all the boys a real rough session of it and any one of them are capable of upsetting the leaders.
50’s – New Haven Register: “Cambino is Riding High in New Stock Race Car”- For years, Johnny Cambino, a West Haven stock car driver, drove Car 727 at the shore town speedway and then all of a sudden he gave up the car.
“Watch this one,” Cambino said pointing to the sleek No. 7, which he is now driving. He has the small six-cylinder vehicle running in top style, so much so in fact, that the West Havener is no leading the pack’s individual point standing race. Cambino went into last week’s race leading by ten points over Dan Gaudiosi of Waterbury, 181 to 171.
May 04. 62 – New Haven Register: “Hometown Drivers Dominate Picture at West Haven Oval” – Hometown products are dominating the picture at the West Haven Speedway after five weeks. Johnny Cambino, a veteran 10-year man at the shore town track, has taken a slim lead over Sherman Saunders of Prospect to lead the non-Ford drivers from within the United Stock Car Club racing at the oval.
The West Haven boy, by virtue of winning his last two features, moved into first place in the long standing battle over Saunders, 53 to 52, and has high hopes of increasing his lead on Saturday night when a 50-lap race will be staged.
The race is so tight for the non-Fords that four points separated three other drivers: Dan Gaudiosi, 49; Bernie Palmer, 47: and Ralph Zullo, 45 are running behind the Cambino – Saunders pair for the lead and the outcome of Saturday’s events, could play a major role in drastic changes prior to the running of the Memorial Day 100-lap event which will be for The Register Fresh Air Fund.
May 26, 1962: New Haven Register “Cambino is Victories in West Haven’s Oval Race” – Johnny Cambino, a 5’4” veteran driver, won the feature 100 lap race at the West Haven Speedway last night before 1,800 fans. Cambino, driving George Greco’s car, pulled away from the field midway in the race, when his nearest rival, Tommy Sutcliffe went into a spin on the 40th lap. Sutcliffe was never able to make a race out of it again.
June, 1962: New Haven Register – Cambino Eyes Speedway Jackpot as Spur to Honeymoon Junket – Popular Oval Driver Will Be Married After “Fund” Show: Chunky Johnny Cambino, one of the old-time favorites at the West Haven Speedway will be racing his last race at the Oval on Saturday night – at least for maybe three weeks – and he hopes to make it a memorable night.
“It won the $1000 lap-event the last time out and I could really use the money this time,” said the soft-spoken Cambino last night as he checked repairs being made to his car in preparation for the race which will aid the Register Fresh Air Fund. And Cambino has a good reason for wanting to make it tow straight. For come July 4th – Johnny will march down the aisle with Miss Margaret Giordano at St. Bernadette’s Church in New Haven – and he could use the money for his honeymoon trip.
August 14, 1962: New Haven Register – “Old College Try Wins for Cambino at West Haven” – Johnny Cambino gave it the old college try here tonight but missed by an eyelash in winning his third straight feature race at the Speedway
While a roaring crowd gave the drivers a resounding ovation, Bobby Williams, of North Haven, flashed across the finish line edging out Cambino who came from about eight car-lengths during the final two laps of the 50-lap race, to lose a thriller.
Cambino, making a gallant effort to get back into the thick of the point standing race gained some ground as a result of finishing second, while Tommy Sutcliffe, the top rated driver, finished fourth.
August 19, 1962: New Haven Register – “Top Drivers Due for Race at Speedway” – Johnny Cambino, veteran West Haven driver will be among Easters stars competing tonight in special race at West Haven Speedway.
July 25, 1992:Waterford Speedbowl – “John “King Cambo” Cambino is Loctite Legends Invitational Qualifying Winner” – In the first of two 15 lap LEGEND race qualifiers, John Cambino strapped himself into Joe Machniks Sportsman, #46, after a twelve-year absence from the drivers seat, to claim the win in convincing style. “It feels like I never left,” Cambino said in victory lane. The personable Cambino competed on the Connecticut short tracks for 31 years and was a threat to the winners purse when he pulled into the Speedbowl pits as an outsider. In this race, he started in the last row and steadily passed the competition to take the lead away and lead the last two laps.
August 8, 1992: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene, Waterford CT – The names are the same. Their hair has grayed, some waistlines have expanded. But the men who will fill the twenty-car field in the LOCTITE Legends Final event at Waterford Speedbowl on August 15th still possess the talent that has given them legendary status as some of the Northeast’s great stock car drivers. Consider John, “King Cambo,” Cambino, one of the regular outsiders who would come down and steal the money away from Waterford Speedbowl regulars in era’s gone by.
He was the first 15-lap LOCTITE Legends Race Series qualifying winner, assuring himself of a start in the final. Despite a twelve-year long retirement, Cambino was as smooth as many of today’s stars when he overcame the competition with the Joe Machnik-owned Limited Sportsman.
August 9, 1993: Connecticut Post – “Here and There” – Hamden’s Johnny Cambino added another win to his collection Saturday night by taking the extra-distance 25-lap held over Limited Sportsman race at Waterford Speedbowl.
August 1993: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – “While Ageless Cambino Scores Third Limited Win of the Season” – Johnny Cambino used his years of experience to claim his third victory of the season in the hold-over 25 lap feature from July 30th. Cambino, starting seventh at the initial drop of green, took the lead from Caprio on lap 3 and refused to yield to the challenges of Ed Reed, Jr.
“I was a little foxy tonight – he was right on me bangin’ like a son of a gun. He’d start to get alongside of me so I would start to take him on wide. That’s 35 years of racing experience. I was just thinking where is this snotty little kid going,” commented Cambino on Reed. “I should have won a couple last year following the end of me fourteen-year retirement, but I needed to get familiar with the drivers.” Only a driver with Cambino’s experience could get away with called Ed Reed, Jr., a division standout, a “snotty nose kid.”
May 22, 1993: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – Hamden’s John Cambino, at 62, the oldest active racer in the state, had his best finish of the season with a fourth. King Cambino has started another racing career. The veteran is having a lot of laughs in his second career, holding off whipper-snappers who were not even a glimmer when Johnny was first winning features.
August 20, 1993: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – West Haven Reunion: 63-years old Johnny Cambino has to be a main feature of any West Haven reunion. Last week, at the Waterford Speedbowl, we understand that Cambino, who is running a strictly stock, strictly for laughs at the bowl, may have beat up a 22-year old competitor and stuffed him in the trunk of his own race car, or somebody’s race car. The point is, we say he “may have” done this thing because we did not actually witness the event…. But, we did overhear two Waterford cops talking about it, so chances are it just may have happened.”
“Cambino reliving glory days at 62”
Sept. 7, 1993: Connecticut Post – Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he’s led a physical life. Or perhaps having developed a mental toughness is the reason. Then again, it could be his verve for life or his slapstick sense of humor.
Whether you can credit it to a tangible or an intangible, it really doesn’t matter. Johnny Cambino has made a successful return to stock-car racing and he’s done it at an age when most former wheel turners get their pleasure out of watching ESPN’s Saturday Night Thunder.
At age 62, Cambino is rubbing fenders and driving past some of the best of them in his class – Limited Sportsman – every Saturday night at the Waterford Speedbowl. The former West Haven resident who moved to Hamden 10 years ago, got back into racing in 1992 after being away from it for 14 years. An invitation from car owners, Ignazio Puleo and his son, Mike, to compete in the “Waterford Legends” race did it!
“Everybody, including the guy who built our race cars, Chuck Zentarski, kept telling us about this guy,” said Puleo, owner of Grand Prix Auto. “Then, this old guy shows up and I had my doubts. But, believe me, that changed when he got into the car.”
Cambino won that ‘92 Legends event, pitting old-time drivers against each other in Sportsman cars. “I decided to hang around the garage after that and help them with the car,” said Cambino, who kicked off his career in 1950 at the defunct West Haven Speedway located in the old Savin Rock amusement park.
Cambino’s second chance to drive full time became a reality late in September when Puleo’s regular driver, Joe Machnik, decided to retire.
“When he asked me if I wanted to do it, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind,” Cambino said. My wife, Maggie, said to me, “Do you really want to do this?” I said, “Hell, yes, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. Hell, I could be in St. Lawrence (one of West Haven’s largest cemeteries) next year.”
After running two races in ‘92, Cambino really got fired up over the winter. He and the Puleo’s built a new car for 1993 and so far in 17 events, Cambino has finished in the top ten 12 times. He’s currently sixth in points going into the final six weekends of racing.
“These guys are tough.” said Cambino who competes against 18 and 19 year olds who weren’t born until he had reached the twilight years of his Modified racing career. “I really think that they’re a little crazier than guys were years ago. Maybe that goes with the times. I’ll tell you… they don’t show any respect for their elders.”
Cambino arrived in racing almost at the beginning of the stock-car era. He competed for 17 years in West Haven against some rough and tumble characters. Drivers like Stratford’s Billy Greco, Southington’s Tony Mordino, the late Dan Galullo and Watertown’s Danny Gaudioso never gave an inch on the track, and if it wasn’t settled there, it could be finalized later with fists. Racing back then wasn’t for the meek!
A good part of Cambino’s bull-like strength came from wheeling the old, coupe-bodied cars which required arms of steel to steer.
After the Rock – a tight, fifth of a mile oval with four uniquely different corners closed, following the 1966 season, Cambino moved on to Riverside Park. Over the years, he’s raced at ovals all over the Northeast for at least a dozen different local car owners including West Haven’s Marshall Carboni, George Greco and Dickie Mills.
“Cost got out of hand,” said Cambino who won track titles at West Haven in 1962 and 1966 to go along with 170 career feature wins. “Back in 1978, the costs were already getting very high. I got out because of the expense.” Having always been a competitor, Cambino found little interest in either watching racing on television or going to local tracks. “I felt I had to get it out of my blood,” he said. “Oh, every spring I’d get the jitters. But I never figured that I’d be back in a race car.”
“Johnny ran a few practice laps and looked pretty good,” Mike said. “We were getting ready for the Legends race and he had already gotten into the car. I went over to help strap him in and he was asleep. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it might have been past his bedtime.”
King Cambo, however, was only taking a little nap…. he woke up in plenty of time to win!
“I took that car out and ran one straightaway and it felt like I hadn’t ever left,” he said. “Most of these guys don’t like an old man beating them. That’s the bottom line. We hear the comments every week – What are you trying to do, you old goat? You ought to go back to the convalescent home.”
It doesn’t bother the unshakeable Cambino because he’s loving every minute of his “second career.”
“I’m just this “little old guy” who drives his pickup truck to the track on Saturday night,” said Cambino, who mimics an old man behind the wheel. “Then I put that helmet on and, son of a gun, it happens. Sometimes, I don’t even know myself!”
October 10, 1993: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – Congratulations Johnny Cambino on your open competition strictly stock win at Waterford Speedbowl. And while we touch on the “Comeback Crew,” it is just no end of chuckles to see Johnny Cambino running a Strictly Stock at the Waterford Speedbowl. Johnny was 19-years old in 1951, when he started racing. He had epic battles with the likes of Greco and Sutcliff at the West Haven Speedway. Today, at what we guess has to be 61 years of age, Cambino is running hot, hard laps in the class of racer that is shortest on rules and longest on ingenuity… so the B/S hat gets a second tip this week. Go get’em Johnny-Boy!
September 10, 1993: West Haven News – “Cambino loved by his fans” First it was Moe Quigley. It was during the war years – World War I – that fans turned out at Donovan Field. The Sailors played a great brand of baseball and many lineups were sprinkled with Major League players.
Then along came Harvey Tattersall, Jr., and he packed the place on Saturday nights with stock-car racing crowds between 1950 and 1962. After that Donovan Field was a victim of bulldozers and the start of redevelopment in 1963.
One of the all-time racing favorites was a “hometown boy.” He’s now 62-years-old and still driving in the Sportsman’s Class at the Waterford Speedball in New London. We’re talking about Johnny Cambino. Short and shout, Cambino always had a warm smile for everyone. In West Haven he was always a big favorite and a solid competitor, along with Billy Greco, another West Haven driver at that time.
Cambino worked for many years at The Armstrong Rubber Company until the plant closed. He was a tire-curer. He now lives in Hamden with his wife, the former Margaret Giordano, and his son, Johnny, and daughters, Gina and Nancy.
John Cambino, while driving at West Haven, was perhaps one of the best stock-car racers and he managed to win many features and titles over the years.
October 12, 1993: Connecticut Post – Hamden’s Johnny Cambino attained a season-long goal by taking the extra-distance 30-lap Limited Sportsman feature. “I started in 1950 and used to race all over the place,” said Cambino, who drives a Malibu with a Chevy engine in the Limited Sportsman class at Waterford. “Most of the places, like the West Haven Speedway (1935-67) have closed down. I won about 170 features and 12 different track championships in what was called the Sportsmen’s class back then.” “It got to be a little too much, so I took 12 years off until last year. Waterford was having a Legends Race and I was invited. I blew the doors off of everyone in the race. That got racing back in my blood! I figured if I can beat those guys so easy. I might as well get back in it. You’ve got to understand, a race car driver would do this for nothing. It’s a tough sport, but you just love it so much.”
October 15, 1993: Trackside – “King Cambo” Still Racing: There are a ton of “pows,” “booms,” “zings” and “pooms” left in Johnny Cambino’s vocabulary. And, of course, there are enough “sons of a bitches” left to keep little old ladies within his earshot cringing for the next 10 years. And, for certain, there is enough power left in his right foot, and strength remaining in his arms to still teach a few of the young fellas a lesson or two. And this year, when he was 62, he raced the entire season at the Waterford Speedbowl in the Limited Sportsman division. Cambino, short and bullish with an unforgettable face. By mid-season of this past year, Cambino had more than made his presence known at Waterford, one of the best closed-wheel racing tracks you’ll find anywhere. On given weeks, King Cambo was beating guys almost three times younger than he is. Cambino admits it wasn’t that difficult going back. “I swear (and he usually does), it took me one straightaway to get the feel back,” he said. “Son of a bitch, those 14 years that I was away felt like a break between heats.” The former West Haven resident departed racing in 1978 after a last-fling race at Islip Speedway on Long Island. “We couldn’t afford it anymore, not at the local level that we were running,” Cambino said. “The sponsors were few and far between.” Cambino was one of a few drivers of Italian heritage, some of the others being Billy Greco, Tony Mordino, Danny Gaudiosi, and the late Danny Galullo.
When the Rock went the way of the wrecker’s ball after that 1966 season, Cambino joined many of his old rivals at Riverside Park, where he raced up to and including 1978. He also raced some open competition shows – then he disappeared.
“I spent my Friday and Saturday nights walking the dog, watching television and doing other screwy things,” Cambino said. “I never went to the races, I couldn’t. I didn’t even watch them on television. Oh, I did go once to Waterford to watch Georgie Greco, but that was it. I figured I had to get it out of my blood and the best way was to stay away.” That lasted until the summer of 1992 when Chuck Zentarski, a good friend of Cambino’s, suggested to Ignazio Puleo and his son, Michael, that Cambino would be a great choice for the upcoming Legends Race at Waterford.
“I remember hearing about him,” said Cambino, pointing a finger at Ignazio. “All he kept saying was, I don’t know, I don’t know.” Finally Chuck said, “listen, if he wrecks the car, I’ll fix it.” That sold the Puleo’s and Machnik on Cambino who went out and won the Legends event. “He was unbelievable,” Ignazio said. “The guy could get that car around and he still does.” Michael vividly remembers that first night. “Johnny was sitting in the car waiting, so I went over to help him get strapped in and he’s got his eyes closed,” Michael said. “Here I thought, God, this old man is falling asleep. Maybe it was past his bedtime.” After the initial race, Cambino began coming around helping with the car and advising Machnik. “I kept telling him, “stay down against these sons of a guns because they’ll kill you. The car is plenty fast enough to finish well.”
“I can’t get any respect out there,” Johnny said about this crop of drivers he’s competed against all season long. “Here they should be respecting their elders and they’re damn near killing me. I thing the bottom line is, they hate getting beat by an old man. We hear it every night in the pits, you old bastard, you should be in a convalescent hospital. Believe me, some of my friends are” Johnny replied.
“It’s funny,” he said, “when I thought of coming back, my wife, Margaret, said, “do you really want to do this?” I quickly replied, “don’t tell me what to do. I gotta do it and I’ve got to do it now.”
So every Saturday night this past summer, Johnny Cambino, got in his 1973 Dodge pickup truck and headed for the Speedbowl to relive part of his past.
“Here I was,” Cambino said. “Just this little old man walking through the pits. But, son of a bitch, I’d get in that race car, put on that helmet and at times, I didn’t know who I was.” If his competitors didn’t know about Cambino before, they certainly have found out about this old warrior now. Even Johnny Cambino isn’t sure how much longer he will go on. “Who the heck knows,” he said. “I might be racing at 72. Why not? What the hell’s to stop us?” Not much has in the last 43 years since Johnny Cambino was introduced to racing!
May 3, 1994: Ct. Post – Auto Racing – 63-year old racer shows he’s not finished yet: There was still plenty of spring in his step as he emerged from the race car to be greeted by the big gathering Sunday evening at Waterford Speedbowl. For 63-year-old Johnny Cambino, winning the 30-lap Limited Sportsman feature portion of Busch Blast Off ‘94 fulfilled a promise he made late in the 1992 season. “I said then and I’ll say it again now,” the veteran racer said. “I can beat these kids and I knew I would. Once I got out in front,” said Cambino, who started third and took the lead in the third lap of the 30-lap race, “I could run my race and use the track the way I wanted to.”
May 1994: “The Son Of B/S Report – What’s the Big Deal About Being 63?” – Johnny Cambino has a question for all these writer that have been hanging around his #7 Limited Sportsman. “What’s the big deal about being 63?” – he asked when we approached him for a story in the program book. “I don’t know what 63 is supposed to feel like, but I don’t think I feel it,” explains the Hamden, CT. (orthopedic) hotfoot.
“You don’t quit racing in 1978 after 38 years of going for it every week. We were running a modified at Agawam and things just got out of control. The tires were $190 apiece and you had to buy at least three a week, plus the fuel, plus the entry fees. We just ran out of sponsors that could pay us enough to keep going.”
“I Got The Bug!”…. “Then two years ago I get a phone call, they want me to drive some car in the “Legends” race at Waterford, and I said “what’s that?” Don’t forget, I was out of a race car for 14 years so I said let me try this thing, and I’ll tell you what… I went half a straightway and I put my foot into it, and it was like I never left.” I said, “I gotta get back into a car”… “I Got The Bug!”
Johnny Cambino is mid-stream in a new racing career, strapped into a whole new class of car, and in front of a whole new audience. He has been racing stock cars, almost since there were stock cars. He remembers when almost every corner of West Haven had a gas station on it, and none of them sold milk or Gatorade.
“It was like this,” says Cambino. “Every garage had a car, and it was one station trying to beat the other stations in town as much as anything. You could ride around all day, going from station to station breaking chops, and getting everybody worked up over the next race.”
Cambino started racing in August of 1950. Because so much time has passed since his first career in racing, it is hard to talk about those years and have anyone in the Speedbowl grandstand today relate to what you are talking about.
Basically, Harvey Tattersall, Jr., who sold the Speedbowl to the present owners, and his father Harvey, Sr., the real old man, operated a local Nascar-like circuit called United Stock Car Racing Club. They managed or promoted almost every track that was in operation from the 50’s through the mid-60’s, at one time or another. So a guy like Johnny Cambino could race for Tattersall almost six nights a week.
Johnny was the hometown favorite at a short quarter mile bullring in West Haven at Savin Rock. It was known as “The Rock” and Johnny was the “King of the Rock.” They raced “Non-Ford” coupes and it was just what it said…anything but a Ford. Because Tattersall thought the Fords had an advantage that other makes couldn’t compete with in their suspension. But, Cambino and his crew figured a way to get their Dodge and Chrysler powered race cars around faster than any Ford known to man.
Then a gang of outsiders from “up in the valley” toward Waterbury brought down their Hudson Hornet powered coupes, and the Hudson having a twin-carb set up, became the new exotic machine. Cambino went to the local Chrysler dealer and got a letter from him saying that Chrysler in fact had a twin-carb arrangement on some models, and that was their answer to the Waterbury invaders.
“That gang from Waterbury was crazy,” claims the King. “We fought with our hands sometimes, but, they’d just as soon bring out the tire irons. Those were crazy times. Harvey had two huge West Haven cops… both over six foot, six inches, and they loved to bang heads, so we always pointed the finger at the Waterbury crowd when trouble started. One of those cops was named George Fitch, and he was actually a sparring partner for Joe Louis. They were all the army Harvey needed!”
With a past like that, we figure running a Limited Sportsman at the Speedbowl must be pretty tame. “Naw, I’m having the time of my life out here,” says Johnny. “In two weeks my son, Johnny (what else?) will have a car out here and then I’ll be racing against my own kid, and I’m really looking forward to that!” Cambino’s nephew Joey is already out there with his own L/S car – when twenty-five year old Johnny Jr. gets on the track, Joe Golas will have his hands full just keeping the “Cambino’s” straight!
Well, Cambino won a bunch of championships; he ran West Haven Thursday and Saturday nights… Monday night was a round track at Candlelight Park in Bridgeport. Then on Wednesday night it was Waterford, Plainville on Fridays, and that was his week.
Cambino has a 71-year old pit crew member, Santo Figuaro. Santo says he can’t believe what a difference running this car at the Speedbowl has made in Johnny. He says it has knocked 20 years off him, and has his wife scratching her head. John’s two daughters, Gina and Nancy, are also in the pits helping out most weeks as well, so the Cambino family is well occupied with their growing race team.
May 14, 1994: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene “King Takes Close On” – In what many Waterford fans said was one of the best races ever, Johnny, 63-year old Johnny “ The King” Cambino nailed down yet another trophy from New England Heirlooms when he steered his #7 to his 2nd victory in 3 tries. Being in the right place at the right time means a lot and Johnny took advantage of a very small opening to squeeze through to take the laurels. Cambino’s car once again handled superbly and made it possible for the 63 year old veteran to take the lead from Mike Caprio of New Haven on the last of 20 laps. “When the back of Caprio’s car started chopping, I knew that was just what I needed and I got on the gas,” Cambino reported after the race. There was less than a car length between them at the finish.
May 17, 1994: Connecticut Post – Johnny Cambino won his second Limited Sportsman feature of the season Saturday night. .
May 31, 1994: Connecticut Post – Starting 20th in Saturday night’s 20-lap Limited Sportsman feature at the Waterford Speedbowl didn’t bother Hamden’s Johnny Cambino one bit. Cambino got his car rolling well to the outside first, then to the inside and finished second to Dan Green. Cambino now has two wins and a second in five Waterford races.
October 11, 1994: Connecticut Post – “Driver comes roaring back after disqualification”- Five weeks ago, veteran racer Johnny (King) Cambino left the Waterford Speedbowl in a huff after being disqualified from a Limited Sportsman feature for using a non-stock part. When he finally returned to the track Sunday afternoon, the short, stocky 63-year-old was bouncing around like a 20-year old after winning the 50-lap season closing Limited race at Waterford. “I told some people I was going to come back here and win,” Cambino said. “I still say these guys don’t like to see an old man like me win.” And WIN he did. He used an outside line, then an inside one to capture his fourth victory this year at Waterford. Cambino’s team was still fuming about the Spet. 3rd disqualifications Sunday. Cambino not only had to beat the competition Sunday, but he was faced with numerous restarts as the feature turned into a crash-fest.
June 13, 1995: Connecticut Post – “Westport Driver Thanks Cambino” – Westport driver, Robert Lozyniak, who races in the Strictly Stock division at the Waterford Speedbowl, won his first feature event Saturday night. And as soon as he reached the Speedbowl’s cozy press box, he praised veteran, Johnny Cambino, for his help. The 63-year old Cambino has been around the sport since 1950. “There were an awful lot of restarts tonight (6),” Lozyniak said. “So I had to be good on each one. That older gentleman (Cambino) taught me some tricks about restarts. He’s got 35-some years doing this. He knows what he’s talking about!”
July 28, 1995: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – “First Thompson Win” – In the 20-lap Strictly Stock feature, 64-year old race car driver, Johnny Cambino, pulled off a feat rarely accomplished at Thompson Speedway when he put his #7 Malibu under Glen Rose for the lead. Cambino then held off Lance Jennison and Boss to garner his first win of the ‘95 season. Also, it’s believed that Cambino is the oldest driver to take down a checkered flag at the Connecticut oval.
64-year old John Cambino showed that Strictly Street dominator, Glenn Boss, could be stopped – winning the main event after a torrid battle with Lance Jennison. Cambino and Jennison both got by early leader, Boss, then settled the race among themselves. Johnny Cambino outran a couple of younger generations for his trophy.
September 8, 1995: Waterford Speedbowl Speedway Scene – The Strictly Stock 20-lapper saw John Bernardo and Russ Wholly dicing at the front during the early stages. By the half-way mark in the race, Wholly was on top with John Connell now sitting second and Johnny Cambino and John Leger ahead of Bernardo and taking up the chase.
Cambino then dove under Connell with Leger in tow and another time around and the two passed Wholly to set the pace. Leger tried high and low to overtake the ageless veteran, but to no avail. Cambino crossed the strip a car length in front. Another Thompson victory for John Cambino!
August 1996: “Racing Review” – West Haven Speedway was located in the Savin Rock Amusement Park in West Haven, CT. This fast little 1/5th mile oval actually opened as a dirt track in July of 1935. West Haven would continue operating until 1941 (holding mostly Midget events) until the war intervened on auto racing in 1941. Also known as the West Haven Motordrome, the track resumed operation in 1945, and in short order, the Stock Cars took over from the Midgets as the feature division. Many of Modified racing’s early stars were graduates of West Haven, most notably Wild Bill Greco and Johnny Cambino. Having been paved in 1945, the track continued operations until the 1966 season.
May 28, 1998: West Haven Voice – “Looking back….. The Speedway and John “The King” Cambino” Johnny “ – The “King” Cambino now lives in Hamden, but for decades the West Haven Speedway was his home on weekends for United Stock Car Racing Association events. At the Savin Rock race track, he drove a vintage ‘31 or ‘32 Hudson coupe (#12) and several other cars to numerous victories. Though a dangerous sport, his luck held. Savin Rock had at least two driver deaths. Roll bars and Nomex suits would eventually keep the Grim Reaper away from many tracks, but until the 50’s, even seat belts were almost any kind of belt one could screw down. Modern safety releasers were either optional or unavailable.
John resumed his racing career in the 1990’s and became a proto-typical “John Glenn” of the asphalt as he is now approaching his seventh decade of his life. Obviously, he began his career as a teenager, when flat-head sixes and eights were the norm and “deuce coupes” were available for a few hundred dollars.
I’m told John is still working at the family contracting business, so good luck for the “long tomorrow” as my dad used to say. He retired again in 1996. Johnny “The King” was a regular winner at the West Haven Speedway.
August 21, 1998: New Haven Register “Waterford Track Features Legends” – Waterford Speedway will hold a tribute to the automobile this weekend with its 10th annual “Heroes at the Bowl” event Saturday and a car show and racing event Sunday featuring the New England Antique Racers and Atlantic Coast Old-Timers.
Nearly 30 drivers, including about a dozen former division championships at the track will be on hand for the “Heroes at the Bowl” event. The drivers will be honored and many will compete in a special “Heroes at the Bowl” race featuring Strictly Stock cars. The track will also hold its normal racing features Saturday with Modifieds, Late Model Pro Stock and Mini Stock action. Some of the driving ‘Legends’ expected to appear are Johnny Cambino of West Haven and Dick Watson of Westbrook. “This is going to be a great nostalgia weekend for us,” said Waterford Speedway Promoter Terry Eames.
June 20, 2002: West Haven Voice – “King Cambo” Still has the Competitive Edge “ – “Living Legend” is a term that has become overused, but every once in a while we meet a Living Legend; immortals whose place in history is already assured and who continue to possess and demonstrate those very qualities that made them great. Johnny Cambino more than qualifies as a genuine “Living Legend.” A tough-talking, no-nonsense throwback to the era of Bogart and John Wayne, even at 72 Cambino comes across as unsentimental and rock-hard, with a bone-crushing handshake, lively personality, and outrageous sense of humor. Born on York Street 72 years ago, Cambino lived here for 59 years before moving to Hamden with his wife, Margaret, and daughter Gina. His parents, Joseph and Minnie, were both originally from Italy – Minnie from Bari, and Joseph from Tramonti. The couple bought a small farmhouse on Meloy Road, where they eventually raised seven children. Joseph earned his living as a barber, owning Buddy’s Barbershop. “Times were tough, but we had a lot of fun,” Cambino says. “Today – don’t lose West Haven. But back when the Rock was here, there was a lot of action, you know what I mean? Always something to do. Today they got nothing. What do the kids do?”
When it comes to the Rock in its heyday, Cambino certainly knows whereof he speaks. For most of the 50’s and 60’s he ruled the Rock as “King Cambo,” the stock car driver who couldn’t be beat, the guy that everybody either loved or hated. “I was always a competitor,” Johnny says. “I got my old man’s temper, but I don’t know where this competitiveness came from. Ever since I was a kid, nobody was gonna beat me. Somebody jumps off a step, I’d jump off two. Somebody skips a rock on the water 5 times, I’ve gotta do 10. It doesn’t matter if it kills me, I’ll do you one better.”
One thing was certain, every appearance by Cambino promised to be electrifying, a fact underscored by the tumultuous boos and cheers that would greet him at every race. From 1950 through 1966, Cambino was the undisputed King of the legendary West Haven Speedway. However, his entry into racing was a bit of a fluke. “Somebody was bragging one day about Al Barnett and what a great racer he was, what a great car he had, and of course that was bound to get me started. You know me – I gotta be the best, so I shoot back, Aaah, he’s nothing” – I can beat him. And I’d never raced before! I’m 19 years old, and out of nowhere, I’m gonna take on the best driver around.” Johnny lets out a belly laugh, his voice straining as he continues to tell a story he clearly relishes to this day. “So the next thing I know, I’m talkin’ my friend out of his car – a ‘37 Plymouth Coupe. We chopped it ourselves, and got Bill the Greek over at Furniture Transport to sponsor us. Remember, before this I’d never even been to a race.”
Johnny pauses, just long enough to spark another in a long line of cigarettes. “Anyways, the day of the race comes, and the word is out, “Johnny’s gonna race!” All the guys, all the broads, are down there at the track. Hundreds of cars! I never seen anything like it! There were 30 cars in there for the first qualifying heat, and I gotta finish at least 6th! I’m so green, I remember askin’ someone just before the race. “What do those flags mean?” Ha! Do you believe it? The Green Flag means go, somebody told me, and the next thing I know, we’re off! Anyways, believe it or not, in my first race I qualify.”
“But Al Barnett, his car gets all beat to hell, and Bill the Greek, he says for me to let Al drive my car because he’s got more experience. I agree, see, but I’m pissed, and I say I’ll only do it if I can drive his banged-up car. I didn’t care; there was no way I was not gonna go out there and race. I came in 6th that night, but I learned, see, from that experience, and the next week I went back and won. From then on, I won more than I lost, I’ll tell ya that.” Indeed, driving his legendary “Flying 5” in one year alone, Johnny won 12 out of 18 races.
Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Cambino raced for just about every garage in town. In fact, they used to compete with each other to see whose car Johnny would choose to drive. In 1954 his racing career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the U. S. Army, where he served in Korea. But upon his return in 1956, he simply picked up right where he’d left off, winning as though he’d never been away.
Considering the excitement, the celebrity, and of course the girls that came with being “King Cambo,” it’s a wonder that Johnny ever settled down. “I held out for as long as I could,” he laughs. “I was 32 before I tied the knot – 40 years ago.”
Johnny met his wife Margaret on a blind date. “Ray Sousa fixed us up. She was the first Italian girl I ever dated. I was 26 at the time, and she was 19, a junior in college in New Haven. She lived over in Morris Cove and wanted to be a teacher. I met her at the beach, took her for a boat ride out to Chuck Island. One thing led to another. I took her to watch me race, and she thought I was something else.” After a four-year engagement, the West Haven Speedway’s most-eligible-bachelor finally settled down. Together, he and Margaret had three kids, a boy and two girls.
Johnny continued his success on the racetrack as well, driving his famous “No. 7” car and winning the very last Championship Race at the West Haven Speedway before it closed forever in 1966. He then continued racing up until 1980, at Riverside and other racetracks. He also freelanced, but after awhile things got too expensive, and it became increasingly difficult to handle injuries, such as painfully dislocating his foot at the age of 50. After a truly amazing run of over 30 years, it looked like “King Cambo” was finally through with racing. Then, quite unexpectedly, in 1992, he was asked by the owners of Grand Prix Auto to participate in the Legends Race at Waterford. “Everybody kept telling us about this guy – this amazing driver,” Ignazio Puleo, owner of Grand Prix, said. “Then this old man shows up! I had my doubts. But believe me, that all changed once I saw him drive.”
Johnny chuckles at the memory. “The engines were a joke – little 350’s. They’re tellin’ me before the qualifying heat, ‘Now take it easy, don’t worry” – Ha! I passed every car in the pack. Then I slowed down and passed ‘em all again – just to show ‘em! After the heat, everybody’s goin’ ‘Where’d you get this guy from?” King Cambo was back!”
Due to inclement weather, the official race was postponed till the following week. When the big day finally came, Johnny was his usual, confident self. “They strap me into my car, and then, while I’m waitin’ for the race to go on, I take a little nap. They find me sleepin’ behind the wheel, and they’re havin’ a fit! “Don’t worry, I keep tellin’ ‘em; we’re gonna win this one.” Of course, they think I’m nuts. And then we get put in last place to start off. But guess what? I went from last place to first in just 10 laps!” “I’m doin’ high-low shots, see? Takin’ ‘em up with me, and then ZOOM, breaking away! Man, I got the bug again! I was 62 years old, and I was winnin’ – beatin’ ‘em all! From that day on I never lost a qualifying heat.” “So there I am, 63, 64 years old, doin’ 110 miles an hour on The Thompsonville Speedway Track. And I’m drivin’ good, you know! I’m getttin’ the younger guys to drive better.”
You can see in Johnny’s eyes how triumphant, how fulfilling a time it must have been. But then, in ‘96 it came to an abrupt end.
“I’m racin’ good; I’m ahead in points, when one guy forces me into a wall at 100 miles an hour. I come through that okay, but then I’m spun around, and here comes another car with the whole pack following behind him. BOOM! I break my neck. My whole body goes numb, and I remember thinkin’ ‘This is it.’ But then my body came back. The doctors told me later, if it hadn’t been such a clean break, I woulda been paralyzed or dead. So I was lucky.”
Miraculously, Johnny had the strength and presence of mind to push himself up through the hole they cut in his roof. “I survived,” he says today, six years later, “but that did me in. I was through with racing. This time for good.”
It is perhaps surprising to hear that the accomplishment of which Cambino is proudest has nothing to do with racing. “It’s probably the things I’ve built, the buildings like Greco’s and Marshall’s Garage – I built those; and the young guys I’ve influenced. A lot of the kids I met on the track ended up workin’ with me, learnin’ the trade with me – guys like Dickie Mills and John Murphy.”
Yes it’s difficult to get Johnny to analyze or reflect too much on the past. He prefers to look ahead and stay active, still working as a contractor as well as hunting and fishing on occasion. “King Cambo” is, was, and always will be one of West Haven’s sons who truly knew how to “seize the moment” every single day.
July 2, 2004: Speedway Scene – “Johnny Cambino Passes At 73” – Johnny Cambino, 73, passed away June 29th at Branford Hospice. Johnny began racing in 1951 at West Haven Speedway in the non-Ford division and continued until the track closed in 1966.
After West Haven closed, Johnny moved to modifieds at Riverside, where he had five modified wins. He also ran modifieds at Plainville, Seekonk, Waterford, Thompson, Westboro, Monadnock, Claremont, Islip and Freeport.
His first retirement came in 1980… he’d heard about a legend’s race at Waterford in 1992, and got a ride in the Grand Prix Auto #7 Sportsman… and won first time out. He came out of retirement to drive the car regularly at Waterford and Thompson, winning about ten more features. A bad crash at Thompson ended his career in 1996 at age 66 while leading the point standings at Thompson. Johnny drove for many owners including the Don Baldwin #190, Eddie Greco’s 98, George Creco’s #5, Marshall Carboni’s 39, Johnny Maturo’s #7 and 73, Roger Solhem’s K7 and 73, Roger Solhem’s K7, Ralph Solhem’s #04, Richie’s Amoco’s 73, Dick Mill’s 83 and Ignazio Puleo’s #7. Johnny’s career included eight straight wins in 1951 and 12 wins in George Greco’s car in 1962.
Steve: “I learned many things from Uncle Johnny. He lived life to the fullest, living his dream and passion of racing for many years. He began racing at Savin Rock as a young man, and even after giving it up when The Rock closed, he later made a come-back at the age of 62 – driving just as fierce as he did in his youth. And beating many of the younger racers! One thing about his racing I admired – he never threw the towel in – no matter what pole he started from, or where he was in the pack, even if it was at the end. He never gave up trying to win until the checkered flag was thrown. He always told me that – he was never a quitter – he’d fight till the end. It was a thrill for me, as a young boy, telling my friends that he was my uncle. He was well-known at Savin Rock and well liked. Even when he did lose, he lost graciously with a smile. I always wanted to be there on Saturday nights when he raced… rooting at the fence for him. He was a Legend!”
……Johnny lived his life – His Way!
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