After the checkered flag

Part III of Sullivan County’s Great Sport Car Race

By TED WADDELL
Posted 12/30/20

FREMONT CENTER, NY — On Sunday, June 28, 1953, a motorsports event advertised as the Sullivan County Sport Car Race wrapped up with a series of races on the local highways and rural byways of …

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After the checkered flag

Part III of Sullivan County’s Great Sport Car Race

Posted

FREMONT CENTER, NY — On Sunday, June 28, 1953, a motorsports event advertised as the Sullivan County Sport Car Race wrapped up with a series of races on the local highways and rural byways of the western part of the country.

What turned out to be a one-time race spanned three days, June 26 to 28 in 1953.

In continuing the River Reporter’s four-part retrospective of this race—which, according to legend, could have put the area on the map as another Watkins Glen—we take a look at the genesis of the race, the race committee and the official report to the race committee penned shortly after the competition.

Back in the early 1950s, Bill Bergner, president of the Delaware Youth Center in Callicoon, NY, had the notion to buy a sports car.

So Lew Schulz, a car dealer in the Garden State and president of the Jersey Sport Car Club, stepped up to the plate and sold him a sporty set of wheels. Then Schulz talked Bergner into staging a sports car race in the outreaches of the western part of the county as a fundraiser to benefit the area’s local kids.

To refresh your memory, read parts one and two

After the checkered flag, the race committee takes a hard look at the race

In an 11-page document with a cover letter prepared for the race committee, titled “Report of the Sullivan County Sport Car Races held on June 28th, 1953,” the authors took a critical look at the races with consideration of holding similar events in the future.

We discovered the document courtesy of Charlie Mills of Callicoon, NY—the son of Dr. George R. Mills, a member of the original race committee and one of the guiding lights behind the historic event—whom we contacted while researching the scattered history of this race. Mills found an original copy of the report tucked away in his files. Printed on onionskin paper, it is an illuminating document that he believes was typed by his father’s secretary almost 70 years ago.

“It’s the only copy that I know of,” he said, adding of the report’s provenance, “It was typed on onionskin paper. Most likely by my father’s secretary who often used that kind of paper. It wasn’t signed, but it was most likely written by either my father or Dr. Rumble.”

In 1953, Dr. Edmund T. Rumble Jr. served as president of the Delaware Youth Center and, until 1967, practiced medicine in Callicoon, where he was associated with the late Dr. Mills.

Dr. Rumble served in the U.S. Navy as a medical officer aboard the USS John Penn, an attack transport, and was rescued from the waters of the South Pacific after his ship was sunk during WWII.

In 1943, off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, a Japanese aircraft struck the ship’s mainmast, and almost immediately thereafter a torpedo dropped from another enemy fighter struck the hull, sending APA-23 to the bottom. Dr. Rumble (1909-2001) was one of about 35 survivors.

Dr. Mills built the original Callicoon Hospital in 1932 after arriving in the rural riverside hamlet in 1929 at the age of 34. Later, he teamed up with fellow physician Dr. Rumble to raise funds to build a community pool at the site of Delaware Athletic Association (as it was known in the 1930s) after several children drowned in the adjacent river.

As noted in a previous article, the Sullivan County Sport Car Race was held as a fundraiser for the local youth and community center.

Nuts and rusty bolts: excerpts from the June 28, 1953 race committee report

According to the authors of the report, while there were a limited number of local sports car fans, “They make up in enthusiasm for their lack of number. So, the organizers of the race had a two-fold agenda: bring visitors into the area and “be a possible source of revenue” for a charity.

Starting in the early spring of 1952, the committee got the wheels rolling, but soon started to encounter numerous bureaucratic roadblocks: A petition to the state to use approximately six miles of public roadway for the race was eventually denied, and the committee, in essence, took a temporary back seat in the project.

In March of the following year, the committee was reactivated and came up with the idea of ditching state-owned roads in favor of some 5.75 miles of county highways, added to about 2.75 miles of town road.

Then came the search for sponsorship from organized sports car clubs, a move the committee hoped would attract some noted drivers of the day to sign up for the race.

At first, the NYS region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) appeared to be interested in the road race, and in the wake of on-site meetings and inspections, a representative of the SCCA was quoted by the authors of the report as telling the committee, “You have got yourself a race, boys.”

Then, the Sullivan County Sport Car Races hit a speedbump. According to the report, “The race committee began to hear rumors that there was internal dissension in the SCCA, and that some people were not in favor of the course, thinking it was hazardous because of the 2.75[-mile] stretch of town road.”

After a few weeks, the SCCA national committee informed the state region that they could not sponsor the race. This was after the town spent more than $10,000 to widen and resurface the road, and the county kicked in “thousands of dollars improving [its part] of the proposed course.”

After the SCCA pulled the plug, the race committee contacted several sports car clubs in a last-minute effort to get sponsorships and drivers: the Jersey Sport Car Club of Morristown, NJ, MG Sports Car Club, the Motor Sports Car Club of New York, the Long Island Sports Car Owners Association and the Connecticut Sports Car Club.

“Obstacles of many sorts were thrown in the path of the race committee,” the report states. “The SCCA was giving active opposition to the race, going so far as to insert a front-page notice on its national newsletter, dated May 31, 1953, stating that the course was extremely dangerous... competitors should refrain from entering the race.”

In the aftermath of the SCCA’s opposition, all but three of the race’s co-sponsors hit reverse gear except for the Jersey Sport Car Club, Long Island Sports Car Owners Association and the Motor Sports Car Club of America.

And then the race was finally on the road, backed by local police and volunteer firefighters, a radio communications system, four ambulances, four nurses and six physicians “in attendance around the course.”

As an interesting sidelight, volunteers tried to raise a few bucks by selling official programs at 50 cents a pop, booster tags for a dollar and parking tickets priced at $1.25.

According to the report to the committee, the authors sent a couple of brickbats in the direction of the trio of sports car clubs that co-sponsored the event, citing “a lack of organization... did not have sufficient flagmen nor telephone operators... could not furnish the promised number of racing cars and drivers....”

“It should be stressed here that the sole blame is not to be placed on the sponsoring clubs. They were left high and dry by the other clubs... they are to be commended upon their courage to defy the SCCA, and deserve credit for not letting the Delaware Youth Center down after it had spent so much in preparation.”

Wrapping it up: race committee report has its final say

“The results of the race prove that most of the spectators enjoyed it, especially those seeing their first race,” spelled out the authors.

On the day of the race, three accidents were reported: two in the MG event on a section of the county-owned road, and another when a car flipped and overturned after pranging a hay bale in the corner.

“The driver walked away, and no one was hurt.”

According to the report, there were two more accidents on the racecourse, but they were credited to local motorists not involved with the race.

On Saturday night, a driver and his passenger hit a newly installed hub railing. The driver was severely injured and spent the next two weeks in a hospital.

“He would probably have been killed outright if the old-fashioned stone boulders had not been removed and the new hub railing installed” as a safety measure prior to the race.

Also on the day before the race, a woman reportedly driving a sports car veered 15 feet off the roadway and smashed into a telephone pole.

“The financial return to the Delaware Youth Center, Inc. was very disappointing,” reads the report, noting a deficit of approximately $4,000 [fewer] spectators than expected, and the inexperience of both the race committee and the sponsoring car clubs.

“On the question of another race next year, the local people and community want to have one, as was indicated by the 100 percent approval at a post-race meeting held on July 10, [1953].”

In conclusion, the authors of the report got out their torches and pitchforks with a brief synopsis of the race.

“The race committee is undetermined whether they want to go through another race. It was through the cooperation of the local people that so much was able to be done in such a short time. However, the race committee was disappointed in the sports car clubs themselves and their numbers, and feels that, in general, they do not assume the responsibility and have the integrity that one would expect of sportsmen.”

The authors continued by stating that it was an “uphill fight all the time, overcoming what at times seemed like insurmountable obstacles, plus criticism at every point, and actual attempts to make the race a failure.”

In conclusion, the report stated that future races were up in the air, and any decisions to stage another sports car race would depend on the clubs and fans of motorsports.

“We have the racecourse, which with a few more minor improvements can be one of the fastest and safest courses. If the sports car clubs could not be sportsmen enough to overcome their internal friction and bickering, and do not act in a more responsible way than they acted this year, then we don’t want another race.”

So sadly, another “Great Sullivan County Sport Car Race” was never destined to be, and the race of 1953 faded into relative obscurity, except in the memories of those folks who were part of it all, almost 70 years past.

In an upcoming edition of the River Reporter, we conclude the series with Part IV, a conversation with Jim Greier who ran a hot dog stand along with the race course in Fremont Center, while his father Charles F. Greier preserved the race for future generations using an 8mm camera. 

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