It is June 1976. I am seven years old. And I fell in love.
The kind of love you remember from that first cute girl in Kindergarten. Or a favorite Saturday morning cartoon. Or a song from Moms car radio while still strapped to a booster seat.
My heartfelt feelings were directed towards northeast asphalt modifieds. The first racecar I ever saw. The only racecar I ever knew at the time.
Like most people involved in racing, be it the casual fan up to the professional competitor, we all have a soft spot for our favorite driver or type of car. Usually this impression revolves around our initial experience. In todays racing world people can develop a like for a driver based upon a victory lane interview during that first race they finally sat down to watch on TV. Or maybe a car seen in a mall show that was, for no better word, just COOL. In the mid-1970s my tastes were developed at a Saturday night grassroots speedway, the Danbury Fair Racearena in Connecticut.
When a boy is on summer vacation the world is a beautiful place. After a successful completion of first grade there was a lot more time for fun and visiting with friends and family. I hung out with my cousin a lot. He being two years older was elevated in status in my mind.
One day he had in his possession a racing program. I thumbed through the Racearena Review as it was called and was absolutely fascinated with the black and white images I saw. Cars, cars, and more cars. Modifieds to be exact.
One page to the next I kept turning. Real cars that men were driving, looking like life-sized models of ones I had only seen on a toy store shelf. Massive tires protruded on all four corners. Cars at speed. Cars side-by-side battling for position. Cars posed with the driver proudly standing alongside. And cars crashing. Oh, how they did crash. Not photos of fender benders. I mean crashes. Cars on top of one another, on their sides, upside down. I was captivated.
I asked where he got this magazine. He said he and his Dad went to the Racearena last Saturday night. I asked my father if we could go with them this weekend. He agreed. That Saturday I got a whole lot more than I was expecting.
Saturday finally arrived and it started with the usual fare. Awake early and to the television. Cartoons were starting and I couldnt miss anything. Scooby Doo, Super Friends, Pink Panther, Captain Marvel, and the rest but not too loud. I needed to keep the volume low. I understood I liked them but not everyone was willing to sacrifice their extra sleep for Speed Buggy.
Morning cartoons turn into early afternoon cartoons and after my weekly parental poking and prodding, I finally got out of my PJs and into actual clothes. I am sure the next part of my day was spent playing in the yard. Following that, I would say without exaggeration, began moments that would start to mold my life.
Mid-afternoon rolled around and I climbed into my fathers pickup truck and headed out for the races. Our first stop was a building in town I had passed many times.
The driveway was dirt, narrow, and passed between a sign shop and a set of trees. It passed over a one-lane bridge that was as long as it was narrow and carried us over a small brook. We pulled up to a cinder block structure set back from the road. The buildings face held a small sign: New Milford Radiator. We parked and got out.
Not walking through the front door of the business but around to our left. Down another dirt, narrow driveway alongside that same brook we just drove over. My dad and I came around the rear; turned to our right, walked through an overhead door and I could not have been more in shock than if I met Santa Clause himself.
There sat an actual modified.
A group of men, probably 8 or 10, were busy working in and around the car. Each gave their own greeting of Hey Jimmy or some variation to my father. Others tossed some jokes his way. I stared at the racecar with intensity reserved for hypnosis. There were those huge tires again. No front fenders. A homemade hood. Steel tubing for a front bumper. A shiny black AMC Gremlin body. White roof. An orange number two on the doors. Thick headers covering part of the number. On the quarter panels were painted the words Colonial Wines and Liquors. It was the business my Dad owned and, as I learned, a sponsor of the car. There was the word in my head again to describe it all. Cool.
Hey Webby my father called across the room. This is my son Patrick. A solid man around my Dads age sporting a crew cut came walking over. He had dark hair with hints of gray and two arms full of tattoos. A loud but friendly voice greeted me by saying hello.
Patrick, Dad began, This is Kenny Webb. He drives this car.
We shook hands. And in my eyes a hero was born.
Webb gave me a piece of paper about three feet long. I unrolled it and was surprised by my new gift, a poster of this very car at speed going around the speedway. It was a black and white image that was in clear focus but had a blurred background, perfect for a speeding modified. Webb pulled out a blue colored marker and made out a personal autograph. He rolled my new poster back up, secured it with a rubber band and handed it back to me. I rushed it into my Dads truck for safety. I didnt want anything to tarnish my new treasure.
Some nervous conversation came out of my mouth trying to be one of the guys in the shop. But that went a little clumsily at best.
Work continued on the car as time drifted by. Soon it was ready and loaded onto the trailer. This was another amazing procedure to me, sort of like staging a rocketship. This fast machine sat silent and confined. Straps tethered it to the trailer, which was just an open platform, two axles, and a pair of tire grooves for the car to roll onto. Enclosed racecar trailers were nearly non-existent at the time. This one didnt even have as much as a tire rack or a tool box. Pulled by a black pickup truck with tools and tires in the bed, the racecar headed to Danbury.
I climbed back into my Dads truck and we followed, arriving at the Fairgrounds in about a half-an-hour. Seen from the highway, there were 20-foot statues of Fairly Tale characters surrounding the property. Paul Bunyon and Geronimo were two of the figures that appeared to stand guard over the speedway but almost as if it were made to welcome a young boy.
Large groups of people were already gathering in the parking lots waiting for the ticket booths to open. We met up with my Cousin Mike and Uncle Tom as my Father headed to the pit area. Dad would be with Webbs crew and meet up with me after the races. I went with my Cousin and Uncle to the grandstand area.
Racearena Review vendors greeted us upon clearing the turnstiles. This was my next purchase after my ticket with the money Dad had given me. I was going to get a program of my very own after several days of waiting. There was a photo of a single car on the cover each week denoting the previous weeks feature winner. This edition featured none other than Kenny Webb.
There was the car I had spent the afternoon with. My Fathers business in clear view. An image similar to my new poster. The man I had just met. My new hero. There was his car spotlighted for the thousands to see. I felt a real attachment like I was in an inner circle that all these race fans wanted to be a part of.
We found our seats and I alternated my attention between reading about last weeks race action and track history and the empty silent racetrack in front of me. Danbury was a paved one-third mile oval surrounded by a white guardrail and towering covered grandstands. The infield was filled with plush green grass that could pass for a golf course.
Waiting for racing to begin Mike took me down a tall set of concrete stairs exiting through the stands and onto the midway where all the concessions were. Some of the crowd gathered and gave off an echo that multiplied the head count. That distinctive smell of fried dough that all fairgrounds have permeated the air. Directly next to any food booth one could smell what was cooking only a few feet away. After some sodas and unhealthy but great tasting snacks, we returned to our seats.
Mike explained the race procedure to me: warm ups for all cars, 10-lap heat races to qualify the initial feature starters, a consolation race to give unqualified cars one more chance to make the main event, and the 25-lap feature.
When practice did start the modifieds entered the speedway from the pit area off turns three and four. A gate in turn four was opened and a line of racers slowly entered the track. Mike was telling me who was good, who wasnt, who he liked, who he didnt.
The different colored cars looked like a giant rainbow. The bodies, stripes, and number styles were all different. Some were nice, sleek, and good-looking. Others not so much. But no two were alike.
Following a few slow laps the flagman twirled his green flag and the drivers accelerated. The thundering roar of race engines shattered the quiet, early evening summer air. Their speed looked unreachable by highway standards. I was impressed and excited. Roughly ten laps of practice were spun off when the flagman waved a yellow flag signaling all cars to slow. The turn three gate was opened and they exited the track. Another group was lined up and ready off turn four for their turn. I remember saying to myself I want to do this the rest of my life.
The procedure was repeated until all teams had a turn, including Webb. When his car appeared on the speedway I probably looked no where else during his laps. He was in a later round that appeared to have a little more star power than the earlier cars. Men that would define the Southern New York Racing Associations history were with him. Don LaJoie, Chick Stockwell, Jimmy Smith, Fred Foshay, Billy Layda, and Bones Stevens were names revered in the local community.
Webbs heat came and went, qualifying for the feature. I enjoyed all the race action although the lap-by-lap memories are faded. I have been to so many races since then some details have faded from my mind. Others are engraved into it. Later in the night is a memory that I picture like it was a photo on the wall. Kenny Webb winning the feature at my first race ever.
After the race he exited his car at the start/finish line and was joined by his pit crew as fans clung to the catchfence on the grandstand side. I saw Webb posing for photographs with the checkered flag, my Dad, and all the other guys I met at the shop earlier that afternoon. Thousands of fans strained to get a clear view. I was too young to be allowed across the track but definitely felt like part of the family.
Tom, Mike, and I walked out towards the parking lot but stopped short. We waited along with even more of the crowd on a track exit road where the cars were trailered out on the way home. Webbs truck and trailer eventually came through and we met up with my father. I got back in his truck and clung to my poster all the way home.
What a day this was. I think anything that could happen to attach me to this sport and these cars did. The stars lined up perfectly. Auto racing grabbed me and hasnt let go.
I returned to the Racearena many times before it was shut down to make way for a shopping mall in 1981. Some drivers continued racing elsewhere, some did not. Webb continued somewhat but eventually did retire. I ventured out to other tracks in the region; Stafford Springs, Thompson, Riverside Park, Middletown and Lebanon Valley after that. I attended my first then-Grand national race in 1984 at Pocono. I started working on modifieds in 1987 and have since worked on several professional NASCAR teams. I now make a living in the motorsports business. I was captured by racing that day in Danbury, Connecticut and it has shaped my life ever since. I am still in love.
This past week Kenny Webb passed from this world to the next. To himself he was just a racer living his life and racing the best he could. He was one of the men who may not have known the influence and the effect he had on race fans lives. From the young boys who looked up to him or their favorite Racearena driver, to fellow competitors who admired him and The Deuce as ones to beat.
To me he was the first race car driver who I looked up to as a hero. He was my guy on the racetrack before I had heard of Richard Petty or David Pearson. Webbs passing shows that our heroes are not the immortal beings we make them out to be. They are humans just like the rest of us. And that makes their accomplishments that much more admirable.
When we are gone, all that remains are the memories we left with those whose lives we touched. A community and a generation looked up to Webb and the men of the New Southern New York Racing Association.
God speed Kenny. Thanks for the memories.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Thursdays at 9pm ET. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com