Pico Raceway’s life was short and its memories are sketchy. It was only open for a few years in the 1950s, but it deserves to be remembered. It was a showcase for some pretty talented drivers and it opened to plenty of fanfare and a large crowd.
Unfortunately, the accounts of its history are full of conflicts.
Bill Ladabouche, a Proctor native and a teacher in Milton, is a stock car racing historian and has gathered as much information as he could on this facility, as well as others that once dotted the Vermont landscape.
West Rutland’s Ed Fabian recalled that the impetus for building the speedway was an incident at the local airport where the sheriff was called to stop young people from drag racing.
“There was a big blowout down there,” is the way Fabian described the airport incident at a recent roundtable discussion on Pico Raceway hosted by the Rutland Historical Society.
Pico Raceway was constructed, at least in part, to give those people a place to race.
The half-mile dirt track was constructed in 1951 on Route 7 South, on the site now occupied by the General Electric plant. It was founded by Abe Newman, Geno Franzoni (the sheriff) and Pasquale “Patsy” Romano. They created Pico Raceway, Inc., with Newman as president, Franzoni as treasurer and Romano as clerk.
Rutland Town voters approved Sunday racing by a vote of 125-64 in August of 1951 and racing began later that month.
About 4,000 fans gathered for the first day of stock car racing.
Ladabouche recalled attending some of the races with his uncle Jake Ladabouche, who many Proctor residents still remember as their town’s constable. Bill was only five or six years old at the time.
Unfortunately, there is not a great history of the old track. Bill Ladabouche said the Romano family recently disposed of the records and papers pertaining to the track before he was able to contact them.
C.J. Richards, founder and longtime race director of Devil’s Bowl in West Haven, used the roundtable to share his idea of starting a Vermont racing museum on Route 22A, which is where Devil’s Bowl and the Champlain Valley Racing Association are located.
The lost history of the Pico Raceway and other tracks underscores the value such a museum would have.
A Rutland Herald photo taken by the late Aldo Merusi captures the size of the crowd watching a race at Pico Raceway. The bleachers had a capacity of 1,800 and the crowd was estimated at 4,000.
Ladabouche has a Web site devoted to the history of stock car racing in Vermont, including a section devoted to Pico Raceway.
Despite his young age while attending races there, he recalls Al Romano’s 303 car at those races and shares an anecdote about it on the site.
“I can remember Al Romano’s 303 car, nicknamed the Bumblebee because of the distinctive noise the exhaust pipes made. ‘Three oh three, the Bumble Bee,’ the track announcer Red Wildey, would dutifully intone every time he mentioned his boss’s car.”
During the short time it was open, the track attracted some prominent drivers. Ladabouche lists them as Steve Danish from Cropeysville, N.Y., “Jeep” Herbert of Schenectady, N.Y., Dave Brooks of Manchester, Gene Trao of Manchester Depot, New Yorker Spence Parkhurst, George Janoski of Stafford Springs, Conn., Buddy Bardwell of Keene, N.H., and “Jollie” Ollie Palmer of Westmere, N.Y.
Less-prominent drivers, but who were well-known locally, also competed at Pico. Ladabouche puts Fair Haven’s Vic Lowe, Proctor’s Tony Provencher, Pittsford’s Henry LaVictoire, Cavendish’s Carroll “Crash” Davis and Rutland’s Jerry King in this category.
Provencher’s son Dale, a 1968 Proctor High School graduate, was a fixture as a crew member at Devil’s Bowl, before he died a few years ago.
King was in attendance at the recent roundtable discussion about Pico Raceway. He raced a 1930s Ford Coupe that was numbered “5 Aces.” He still lives in Rutland and operates a gun shop in his home on Elm Street.
The Fairmont Raceway in Fair Haven was open while racing was going on at Pico Raceway and the tracks competed for drivers. This was mentioned in a Rutland Herald story with the headline “Race War.”
“They did get lights up in 1952,” Rutland Historical Society’s Jim Davidson said during the discussion about the Rutland speedplant.
“I bought some of those lights when I opened Fairmont Speedway in 1963,” Richards said.
There were some recollections of a Pico Motel in the area and of its owner complaining of the dirt kicked up by the cars.
Some say there was so much dust, you could hardly see the cars.
“If it was paved in the beginning, it would have been a tremendous success,” maintained Richards.
Clay had been trucked in from Clarendon Springs for the track’s surface.
Butch Jelley is still racing at age 67 and he’s seen a lot tracks. He never raced at Pico Speedway, but he does recall attending races there.
Jelley is an institution in stock car racing circles, having won feature races in five different decades.
He raced at other defunct tracks like State Line in Bennington and one at the old Manchester Fairgrounds.
“I remember racing in a jalopy race at the Manchester Fairgrounds in 1957,” he said recently, while holding court at his store in Andover.
Those were just a couple of many tracks that have long faded into history, only yellowed newspapers in a few scrapbooks chronicling the feats carved on their surfaces by drivers, some also forgotten.
Ladabouche said there were five tracks in Colchester alone that were operating at the same time.
“There was no shortage of tracks then, that’s for sure,” said Proctor’s Dan Kearney, who had the only known poster of Pico Raceway framed and treasures it among his vast collection of racing autographs and memorabilia.
Other tracks that are only memories include the likes of Otter Creek Speedway in Vergennes, Davis Racetrack in Enosburg Falls, Dog River Speedway in Northfield, East Corinth Speedway, Webster Flats in Lyndonville and Mettawee Speedway just across the state line in Granville, N.Y.
It’s all part of a colorful Vermont stock car racing history. It is one that Bill Ladabouche is working hard to preserve on his Web site and one that seems to be crying out for C.J. Richards’ concept of a museum.
Contact Tom Haley/The Rutland Herald