As we continue eastward on our trek to find the coolest abandoned drag strips in the country, the terrain becomes a little rougher, and it’s easy to see why it was more popular to build tracks out West. The hilly lands of Pennsylvania, and many of its neighboring states to the north, cost additional time and money to build a drag strip, but that didn’t hinder the determined drag racing enthusiasts of the late 1950s.
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By the end of the 1960s, a plethora of tracks had been built in numerous Northeastern states, most of which no longer exist. Fortunately, the hallowed grounds of many of these historic racing facilities remain, although dismantled with very few artifacts left behind.
The Northeast had many drag strips, but the extreme northern areas didn’t have the drag racing fever, due to the inclement seasonal weather conditions. The weather, along with the quickly developing eastern seaboard, meant that Northeastern drag strips had a hard time standing the test of time. Growing populations have been a big killer of all sorts of race tracks, so the influx in the late 1950s and early 1960s eventually led to the demise of several well-known drag strips.
At one time there were three tracks on Long Island alone, but none of them survived the growth of the area. And while many other tracks were in rural areas, a general lack of interest and a poor economy brought an end to several racing facilities. Other reasons, involving local governments and complaining neighbors, were among the causes of many track closings, which was a common problem across the country from the early 1970s to today.
Track landscapes and designs here were different than in any regions to the west, but they made for some very interesting facilities. Many were built by scooping out enough earth for a flat racing surface, leaving the shutdown area and spectator areas rather hilly. This was also common practice in the South, as the mountainous terrain made it difficult to completely restructure an entire piece of property, where track owners could easily dig just enough for the track itself.
This variety in landscape made for a different spectator experience from track to track, as the seating arrangements were generally based on the lay of the land. Some tracks positioned the spectators on the main level, while others had the spectators looking down on the cars. Either way, Northeastern tracks had plenty of character, which make them fairly easy to identify from photographs.
As for the cars that made Northeastern drag racing so popular, doorslammers played a big role, whether they ran in the Gas classes, Altered classes, or Stock classes. With easy access to chassis builders and “store bought” dragster frames, it was no wonder the West Coast racing crowd had a heavy dragster influence in the late 1950s. Companies such as Chassis Research and Dragmaster supplied ready-to-run chassis setups, but they catered mainly to West Coast racers.
The long shipping distance and high cost led many East Coast racers to build their own dragsters, until Pat Bilbow started selling altered roadster and dragster chassis in 1959. He built the frames in his shop, Lyndwood Welding. His work helped shape the drag racing scene in the Northeast by providing racers with quality frames that normally weren’t accessible. From 1959 to 1964, Pat built a few hundred dragster frames under the Lyndwood name, meaning that there was a Lyndwood chassis–equipped rail racing at most Northern tracks pretty much every weekend. These days, Pat’s son Bob Bilbow campaigns his father’s personal dragster, which has been immaculately restored to its early-1960s configuration.
Regardless of the Eastern dragster deficiency, the drag racing scene was as hot as in any other part of the country. Pennsylvania had several drag strips on both sides of the state, while Maryland had a few tracks of its own. Big-name tracks such as New York National Speedway, Pittsburgh International Dragway, and Connecticut Dragway drew enormous crowds on a regular basis, while the smaller tracks enjoyed success as well.
Unfortunately, many of the tracks did not survive the wrath of the general public and its hatred for all things loud, fast, and dangerous. It ultimately hurt the sport of drag racing, but the hardcore guys still found a place to race, even if it meant they had to make a long haul to the track. This enthusiasm has kept the sport alive, but the future of this drag racing lifestyle shouldn’t be taken for granted.
New laws and regulations can bring a track’s success to a screeching halt, which means that historic track owners have to hope for the best and continue to uphold their respective legacies. Dedicated gearheads with an undeniable passion for drag racing have kept this sport afloat, and you can bet they’ll fight for their right to race, regardless of their location. The Northeast was made up of wild cars, unforgettable drivers, and unique drag strips, which resulted in a combination that left many young car enthusiasts hooked for life.
DOVER DRAG STRIP
The birth of East Coast drag racing was a few years after the big boom in California, and it even came after the Midwest car guys formed a few race tracks atop their farm land. The late 1950s saw an increase in East Coast hot rod activity, so folks scrambled to find places to race, without the risk of getting caught by local law enforcement. From small towns to bigger cities, the drag racing scene in the Northeast was on the rise. In New York state, drag racing got its start in 1959, when racers assembled in Montgomery to race at the airport. Quarter-mile races were held with times and speeds recorded with less-than-optimal equipment. Being the first of its type in the area, drag racing was very popular and drew crowds from surrounding towns, counties, and states.
One particular weekend, Mark Mastriani and the Danbury Modifiers traveled to Montgomery for a race. Chet Anderson from Brookfield, Connecticut, rode with Mastriani in his 1955 Chevy to see what drag racing was all about. While Mastriani raced his car, Anderson spent a great deal of time checking out the surroundings. The very next day, Anderson began searching for a place to build his own track in Connecticut. He had met Frank Marrata at Montgomery and asked him to be his partner.
Marrata ultimately turned him down on the business offer, but later built Connecticut Dragway in East Haddem, Connecticut. Regardless of his failed attempt at a partnership, Anderson purchased 144 acres of farmland in Wingdale, New
York. After acquiring the property, Joe Archiere entered the picture as a business partner, who just so happened to have the heavy equipment to build the track.
Anderson and Archiere opened the track on May 14, 1961, and called it Dover Drag Strip. They enlisted the help of the Danbury Modifiers car club to be the crew and inspectors. Before any of the track workers arrived that morning, a 1959 Pontiac was already parked at the gate in anticipation of the first race. In fact, the determined gearhead had spent the night in his car to make sure he was first in line at the new drag strip. The man in the Pontiac was James “Grover” Grove, who became the first paid customer and still has the ticket.
As the track grew in popularity, it needed some form of guidance, so Charles “Van” Van Muren was hired as the Dover’s first track manager. Before the Christmas tree was installed, the track’s flagman starter was George Hosford, who was known for his acrobatics. Al Svarplaitis also served as starter. In terms of management, Tim Hallock took over in 1962 followed by several others. Joe Tanner held the longest term as manager, as he ran the track from 1965 until 1973. Chris Swift was the track’s final manager, staying until the final race in 1976.
Track announcers were Harry “Blue Goose” Loper, followed by Ralph “Chink” Butera, Gary Teto, and then Dino “Weirdo” Lawrence from 1965 to 1972. Joe Tanner’s son Charlie took over until Dover closed its doors. Frank Rice and Mike Mannion ran and repaired the timing clocks. Other details include the concession stand, which was always run by the American Legion.
Though it was only sanctioned by the NHRA for one year, the track enjoyed lots of success, but it did have its share of safety concerns, which may be the reason behind NHRA pulling out. A harsh dropoff on the left side of the shutdown area, and less-than-adequate guardrails probably didn’t pass NHRA’s regulations, so it was a short-lived sanction from the well-known organization.
The 1970s was a tough time for drag strips across the country, and Dover was no exception. It suffered from low attendance, which was due to small payouts and a severe lack of updates to the facility. Dover went its entire course of operation without finish-line scoreboards, and while other tracks eventually updated their equipment, Dover stuck with what it had. Also remember that the 1970s was a tough time for all gearheads because of high gas prices and strict emissions standards. It was simply a slump that Dover couldn’t overcome, especially when you consider the offer that Anderson and Archiere got for the property.
After the track closed its doors on May 23, 1976, the property was used to harvest peat moss. During the digging, workers hit a natural spring, which created a sizable lake, just a few feet from what remained of the track’s shutdown area.
Today, the track’s original landscape has changed drastically. Most of the track’s surface is long gone, aside from the shutdown area, but lots of memories reside in this historic New York drag strip. Sure, there were plenty of other tracks in New York, including several popular destinations on Long Island, but Dover Drag Strip held a special place in hundreds of racers’ hearts, and still does to this day. In fact, Ron Frost, a longtime Dover attendee and racer, requested to have his ashes spread on the track’s property when he passed away. His time came a few years ago and his request was granted, with the funeral held in the shutdown area of Dover.
PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL DRAGWAY
There’s no doubt that the Northeast had its share of great drag strips, but the western Pennsylvania guys cannot deny the impact Pittsburgh International Dragway (PID) had on the local racing scene. With a location just southwest of Pittsburgh, the track had a great following, and has an interesting history.
PID started its life as Campbell Airport, which was located in a hollow and built by Charles E. Campbell in the late 1950s. The airport had a unique landscape, as it rested in a deep valley and shared an entrance with the Charles E. Campbell Coal Company’s Maude Mine. The mine operated from 1949 to 1962, and the Campbell Airport’s first location was in operation until 1962, which was a turning point in Campbell’s businesses. The valley configuration didn’t provide great conditions for flying, so he moved the airport to the top of the hill, leaving the old runway unused.
Since PID started life as an airport, it had plenty of length for a quarter-mile track, and the mining operation meant that heavy-duty scales were already on the property. This meant Campbell had to put out very little effort to initially open the track and begin having races. That simplicity didn’t last long for the unique Pennsylvania track drag as racing became more and more competitive with new rules and class designations.
The new racing facility became known as Pittsburgh International Dragway, and it quickly gained popularity as drag racing exploded into the car guy world in the early 1960s. Campbell partnered with Eddie Witzberger, who owned a nearby circle track, Heidelberg Raceway. Heidelberg was the home of NASCAR legend Lee Petty’s first win, and was a popular track for many years.
Witzberger got into the drag racing industry after a local promoter encouraged him to hold drag races on the straightaway of Heidelberg Raceway, long before PID came on the scene. The local promoter who encouraged Witzberger to get into drag racing was Walt Mentzer, a Pittsburgh hot rodder who worked for the NHRA in the early 1950s, formed the AHRA in the mid 1950s, and helped form the NASCAR drag racing division in the 1960s. With an excellent resume, Mentzer was the perfect candidate to help build the drag strip and make it a great place to race.
The unique partnership meant that Campbell owned half of the circle track, and Witzberger owned half of the drag strip. Witzberger’s involvement with NASCAR, along with Mentzer’s willingness to work hard, helped create the NASCAR drag racing division, so PID was one of the first tracks to carry the sanction.
The NASCAR drag racing circuit had a great following of racers, which always influences spectator attendance. With big races on a regular basis, the track gained notoriety and quickly became a destination for the big names of the sport, be it for national events or match races. After NASCAR left the drag racing world, the track was later sanctioned by the NHRA, and even hosted a World Championship event.
As mentioned, the track was located in a valley and most of the landscape wasn’t altered from its original state. The property was flat where it needed to be, and went uphill in all directions. The staging lanes were downhill, which was quite handy for racers because they could roll their cars all the way onto the track without running the engine or pushing. In addition, the shutdown area was uphill, so it helped the cars stop, while also providing a downhill slope for the return. This hilly landscape was perfect for racers, and the track was known to work well for a variety of cars. PID had a long list of classes during its operation, from Factory Stock to Top Fuel and everything in between.
Unfortunately, PID didn’t have a very long history but the track lived through the heyday of drag racing and folded up when grassroots racing had become a thing of the past. The economy had a lot to do with the closure of PID but it was also related to a new drag strip that opened in the Pittsburgh area, Keystone Raceway Park. The new track’s builder was none other than Walt Mentzer, one of the guys who helped manage PID in the early days. Keystone drew larger crowds, and is still in operation, although it has been renamed Pittsburgh Raceway Park after a change in ownership.
Due to a number of causes, PID closed its doors forever in 1976, leaving behind a legacy that many racers remember. The pavement is still there but badly damaged from years of neglect. Nothing else remains of the track but diehard PID supporters, including photographer Bill Truby, began holding a reunion event in 1997 at Pittsburgh Raceway Park, and still holds it every year. It allows the old racers, fans, and workers to relive the days of PID, even though the original track is nothing more than an overgrown strip of pavement today.
In the Northeast, the farther north you go, the fewer drag strips you find. The harsh winters and short summers are simply not conducive to drag racing. In Connecticut, there was only one drag strip, Connecticut Dragway.
Located in the small town of East Haddam, most folks considered Connecticut Dragway to be located in Colchester, as the old highway maps rarely listed East Haddam. Unlike today when we rely so heavily on our phones and GPS devices to get us where we’re going, old-time racers knew that if you found Colchester you were close enough to ask for directions, or at least follow another racer to the track. Connecticut Dragway quickly became a hotspot for Northeastern racers and drew big crowds because of its actionpacked event schedule.
The track got its start in 1961, when Frank Marratta built it from the ground up as a purpose-built drag strip. Most tracks from the late 1950s and early 1960s were originally airport runways, but Connecticut Dragway was built specifically for racing. Marratta had been exposed to drag racing in years prior, and actually received an offer to become a partner in the Dover Drag Strip project less than a year before opening his own track. Without question, going out on his own was a gamble, but it paid off as the track saw lots of success through the years.
During the 1960s, Connecticut Dragway had numerous big-name match races and other major events. It carried that momentum into the late 1960s and early 1970s when funny cars reigned supreme. Huge funny car events made the track famous, and the wide-open feel of the track inspired quite a bit of confidence in the drivers of the era. With no guardrails lining the pavement, racers had a bit of space to reel in their race cars before actually making contact with anything. It certainly made for exciting racing, especially when all the big dogs rolled into town.
The track continued to prosper, but felt the same effects of the economy as did many other drag strips in the United States. With little warning, the muscle car era ended and the general public suddenly became more interested in economy cars to fight the higher gas prices and insurance premiums. This sent a ripple through the industry, and by 1978, Connecticut Dragway closed its gates.
Fortunately, Marratta held on to the property and a group of racers and investors approached him about reopening the track. They were successful in bringing it back, and even renewed the NHRA sanction, but it was a short-lived success. Connecticut International Raceway, as it was known at the time, closed again at the end of the 1985 racing season.
The property remained untouched for many years until Consumers Union purchased the land several years ago. The company had previously rented racing facilities such as Lime Rock Park to keep all of their work and research in a consistent environment. The company owns Consumer Reports, which does a wide range of testing for various products, including new cars, trucks, and SUVs. The drag strip was resurfaced and reconfigured to include a driving course as well as two skid pads. Consumer Reports uses the 4,100-foot expanse of pavement for all sorts of testing, and puts all 327 acres of the property to use with intense off-road courses and many other test courses.
Although Connecticut Dragway will never again be used for its original purpose, it still lives on in the little town of East Haddam. The timing tower still stands on the property, which is considered a historical site. Unfortunately, Consumers Union does not open the facility to the public, and it is not accessible for viewing.
For the folks wanting to learn more about Connecticut Dragway or possibly see some of the awesome machinery that raced there many years ago, a reunion event is held every year, organized by the Connecticut Street Rod Association. As for the track, it will continue to see use by its new owners, which is a fate better than most tracks featured in this book.
Maratta vs Andretti
One of the best stories from Connecticut Dragway has to be the highly publicized match race between Frank Marratta, owner of the track, and Indy car legend Mario Andretti in 1968. The craziest part is the fact that it was scheduled for the Sunday of the Indy 500, which is generally a busy day for Indy racers. However, rain had pushed time trials onto Sunday’s schedule, delaying the main event.
Andretti had qualified third for the 500, but flew in a private plane for the special match race in Connecticut. The plane landed on the drag strip(!) and Andretti hopped in a Tascaprepped Cobra Jet Mustang to do battle with Marratta, who piloted a Norwood-prepped Camaro.
Both cars ran mid-11-second ETs, and Andretti didn’t cut the track owner any slack. In fact, he won every round of the match race, and then flew back to Indianapolis, where he finished in the last position of the Indy 500, after only completing two laps when his engine blew.
POCONO DRAG LODGE
These days, if you enjoy going to the drag strip, you might daydream about what it would be like to have your own track. You might even drive by a piece of property and think, “That would make a great drag strip.” Today, it would be completely absurd to come home from a local drag strip and decide to build your own. During the 1960s, however, it was a different ballgame and gearheads were not afraid to take a chance when it came to having another place to race. John Perugino and his sons Jim and Joe took that gamble and built Pocono Drag Lodge in 1963.
Perugino’s inspiration for the drag strip was the Forty Fort Airport drags in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania. During the late 1950s, the airport held big drag racing events, and Perugino decided that a purpose-built drag strip would be a great opportunity for racers and spectators. So he and his two sons bought a piece of property in Bear Creek, Pennsylvania, and broke ground on what became known as the Pocono Drag Lodge (PDL).
PDL was home to lots of big-time racers, and the Peruginos had huge plans for the facility; the drag strip was only one part. They planned to have other race tracks on the property, as well as hotels in the surrounding area, but the rural location didn’t lend itself well to the big plans. However, the track enjoyed lots of success in the heyday of drag racing, although it didn’t exactly explode onto the scene when it opened in the summer of 1963. Even with the modest start, Pocono took off and found its niche, which gave the Peruginos peace of mind regarding their $360,000 investment. PDL was home to Super Stock races, as well as a number of dragster-based events, which were popular in the 1960s all across the United States.
During the track’s operation, it had a number of A-list drag racers blast down its quarter mile of asphalt. PDL was the home track for five-time NHRA champion Joe Amato long before he made the big time with his Top Fuel dragster efforts. The track was never home to any groundbreaking events in the NHRA or AHRA world, but it certainly provided a great place to race for many racers, especially those in northeast Pennsylvania. Like most tracks, PDL had many high-level match races, which consistently drew big crowds and kept the track on everyone’s radar.
The track’s luck ran out in the summer of 1972, when Hurricane Agnes tore through the Northeast. The hurricane left behind a devastating trail of damage from the overwhelming floods. The drag strip didn’t receive much damage, but Perugino’s construction business took his focus during the rebuilding of the surrounding communities. During this time, drag strip operations were postponed, but it wasn’t made known that the track would not reopen until later in the year. The hurricane hit at about the same time as the end of the muscle car era, which caused a severe downward spiral in the car guy world. This lack of interest led the Perugino family to officially close PDL and focus on the construction business.
Fast forward nearly forty years, the track remained vacant until Charlie Hulsizer took the initiative to create a PDL reunion. The idea involved cleaning up the abandoned property and holding a car show on the actual drag strip. Obviously, this required permission from the owners, which happened to be Joe Perugino, who was very receptive to the event idea. Hulsizer had never actually attended PDL during its operation, but his desire to bring back those memories resulted in many hours of work to prepare the property for an event of this magnitude.
Hulsizer found that the property still had many of the landmarks that had made the track special. He found engine parts and other artifacts, proving that the Peruginos literally walked away from the property and never even had the desire to clear it out. Luckily, the property stayed in the family and didn’t fall victim to further development.
Even though the track was in very poor shape when Hulsizer first saw it, he and many others worked hard to get it ready for the reunion. His efforts were successful, as the event went off without a hitch. It is now an annual show, where nostalgia drag cars can be seen, and all the old-time racers can swap stories about their time at PDL. It’s generally held in the summer, and it’s quickly growing into a must-attend event for anyone interested in the history of drag racing. Hulsizer and other PDL enthusiasts, including Jack Thomas, have recreated the magic of PDL by repainting the old tower to its former appearance. Unfortunately, a windstorm in early 2012 sent the tower toppling down, but a new structure is being built in its place to replicate the look of the original tower.
Other remaining features of PDL include the “Start” wording painted on the starting line and the “Finish” wording down track. The wooden bleachers are still around and the entire track surface is still there. In the shutdown area, the surrounding land was used for shale mining during the later years of the track’s operation, which can be seen in some of the later photographs. After nearly forty years of growth, the earth had almost reclaimed the historic track, but thanks to countless hours of work, the Pocono Drag Lodge is back in action for one event per year: the Reunion.
Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks