2010-10-07 / Sports

Old Bridge Speedway Reunion will relive track’s storied past

This weekend at Thomas Warne Museum
BY TIM MORRIS
Staff Writer
When the first Old Bridge Stadium Speedway Reunion was held two years ago, a women from Whispering Pines Estates said she was there because she had heard a rumor that there used to be an auto racing track located where her development is. She wanted to know if it was myth or reality. She was assured, by the hundreds of people there, including former drivers and fans, that yes indeed, there once was an Old Bridge Stadium Speedway on Route 516 in Old Bridge.

Vern Chevalier Jr. competed in the final race held at Old Bridge Stadium Speedway in August 1968. On Saturday and Sunday at the Thomas Warne Museum in Old Bridge, memories of the stock car and drag racing days at the track will be rekindled at the speedway’s third annual reunion. Doors will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. Vern Chevalier Jr. competed in the final race held at Old Bridge Stadium Speedway in August 1968. On Saturday and Sunday at the Thomas Warne Museum in Old Bridge, memories of the stock car and drag racing days at the track will be rekindled at the speedway’s third annual reunion. Doors will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. The speedway hosted stock cars and drag racing from 1953 until its final season in 1968.

This weekend, at the Thomas Warne Museum in Old Bridge (2416 Route 516), the history of mid-20th century stock car racing in Central Jersey will be on display for those who experienced it and those curious about a piece of history, when the speedway holds its third reunion.

Rumson’s Vern Chevalier grew up at Old Bridge, where his father, Vern Sr., and Vern’s brothers Bill, Fritz and George all were regulars.

“I used to go there with my family and hang out in the pits,” he recalled. “I got the ‘disease’ [auto racing] very early. It doesn’t go away from you.”

When Chevalier, who is still driving race cars at 61 in the American Le Mans Series, was old enough to race, he, too, took to the half-mile oval. He drove in the speedway’s final race in August 1968. No one at the time knew it would be the final go-around at the track, but it was. The track did not open for the 1969 season and stayed idle for several years until it was turned into a housing complex.

That August ’68 finale was a 100-lap feature for Modifieds that was divided into two 50-lap races, which allowed the drivers to fuel up after 50 laps and restart in the positions they were in when the race was stopped. Vern finished fifth in that race.

“I liked that track a lot, it,” he said. “It was flat. I felt comfortable there.”

One of Chevalier’s lasting memories of Old Bridge Speedway is the track’s enthusiastic fans (the stadium could seat up to 10,000).

“The races were well attended,” he said. “It had a good fan base. All the fans brought signs and banners for their special guy.”

Pete Frazee, Joe Kelly, Jim Hoffman, Don Stumpf and Bill Chevalier were the popular regulars along with Wally Dallenbach of East Brunswick.

Dallenbach would go on to drive in the Indy car series, where he won five races. He drove in the Indianapolis 500 13 times and finished in the top five three times (fourth place in both 1976 and 1977 were his best finishes).

Old Bridge also had its Who’s Who of auto racers who competed there, led by NASCAR king Richard Petty. Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones also made appearances at the Old Bridge oval, according to Earl Krause, who writes for Area Auto Racing News. Krause called the speedway’s fan base “extremely loyal.”

Old Bridge Stadium Speedway featured a range of cars, from Modifieds to the threequarterMidgets and everything between.

The late Pete Frazee of Rahway was the speedway’s winningest driver with 41 career feature wins.

Friday and Sunday evenings were set aside for stock car racing at the track, and Saturday nights were for drag racing beginning in the early 1960s. The 1/16th-mile homestretch of the track was used as the drag strip. It attracted cars off the street to the rails.

The drag racing then was primitive compared to today’s high-tech machines. The short 1/16th-mile track required some nifty braking at the end of the race because there was no runway, just a left-hand turn awaiting the drivers.

Cream Ridge’s Frank Drogan was an early drag racing pioneer. A native of Morganville, Old Bridge was a perfect location for him. Prior to the speedway’s opening for drag racing, drivers from Central Jersey had to go to Long Island or New York State to race. When Old Bridge opened on Saturday nights, it was perfect for Drogan and his fellow drivers, who found something quite unique about Old Bridge.

“It was the first place I ever went to where people paid to see us race,” he recalled. “People never really came to see the drag racers before. It was fun. People really started to show up on Saturday nights.”

Drogan said the record for top-end speed at the track was 100 mile per hour. He pointed out that today’s drag racing machines would be too fast for a drag strip as small as Old Bridge’s was.

Drogan, who built his own race cars, said he “always wanted to go faster.” His red Fiat topped 90 mph at Old Bridge. He noted that he never thought drag racing would reach its current level of popularity.

“We were just doing our thing,” he said. “We were a bunch of kids racing in the streets. We never knew where the sport would go.”

Drivers and fans can relive their memories of Old Bridge Speedway on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days at the Thomas Warne Museum. Along with the drivers, some of the restored racecars from the day will be there along with other memorabilia and films. Anyone with a classic car is invited to bring it to the reunion.

For more information on the Old Bridge Stadium Speedway Reunion, call 723-566- 2108 or go to www.thomas-warnemuseum. com.

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