At the starting line

Part I of Sullivan County’s Great Sport Car Race

By TED WADDELL
Posted 8/26/20

FREMONT CENTER, NY — This one’s for you, Jack.

More than a few years ago, John “Jack” Niflot, a friend and co-conspirator in the world of words, loaned me his cherished …

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At the starting line

Part I of Sullivan County’s Great Sport Car Race

Posted

FREMONT CENTER, NY — This one’s for you, Jack.

More than a few years ago, John “Jack” Niflot, a friend and co-conspirator in the world of words, loaned me his cherished copy of the official program for an almost forgotten sport car race in the western part of the county.

The idea was to dash off a story about this one-of-a-kind sport car race on the back roads of Fremont Center, Schaferzak Corners and Obenberg.

But like a lot of things, it got sidetracked by other stuff and was buried in this sports scribblers’ seeming bottomless stack of ‘things to do” under the loose heading of maybe someday... or, perhaps, not.

Jack Niflot (1935-2013) graduated from Delaware Valley High School in 1953 and later served in the U.S. Army from 1957-59 with the Infantry Radio Signal Corps stationed in Alaska.

He worked for 28 years at a local newspaper as an advertising director and pressman and, during his tenure as a newshound, covered the 1969 Woodstock Festival and other noteworthy events of the day.

In 1980, Niflot founded the Basket Creek Historical Society and served as editor of The Echo, the official newsletter of the society. In a 1997 edition of The Echo, Niflot wrote about the road race under the title “The Great Fremont Center Sport Car Races, 1953,” referring to it as “a most colorful part of our local history.”

In his introduction to the article, Niflot penned, “The very first gasoline-powered vehicle sold in America was the Duryea in 1896. The Duryea Motor Wagon Company sold a total of 10 cars that first year. It is said that racing started after a second car was sold. This then brings us to 1953, and the Great Fremont Center Sport Car Race.”

Niflot noted that the pace car was a black Ford ragtag on loan from Carl’s Motor Sales of Callicoon, NY, and that after the races, a victory dinner was held at the Tennanah Lake House where trophies were handed out to the participants.

“Arnie Armstrong vividly recalls that on that day he served more customers than on any other day, before or since,” wrote Niflot of the owner of what used to be Arnie’s Scrounge Lounge, located in the center of Fremont Center, a favorite watering hole for locals and some of the big names from metro-area newspapers.

Continuing, he wrote, “Others recall the high stacks of baled hay on the corners and the noise and smell of burning rubber.”

To put things in perspective on a historical timeline, the year of 1953 saw Queen Elizabeth crowned Queen of England, WWII General Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated as President of the United States, the first summit of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and in the world of automobiles, the introduction of the Corvette, Chevy’s iconic two-seat performance car.

Closer to home, the towns of Tusten and Highland were in the midst of celebrating their 100th Centennials (1853-1953): Tusten presented a week-long happening (July 26-August 1) in Narrowsburg, while Highland featured ceremonies at the Minisink Battlefield on July 31, 1953.

So, a bit more than 67 years after the dust cleared from the quiet backroads of our county tucked away in the Delaware River Valley, and more years than I will admit to after Jack loaned me his now aged-yellowed copy of the official program, here’s the story.

The press promotes and reports on the race

On Thursday, June 18, 1953, the Sullivan County Record of Jeffersonville, NY (volume 85, number 25) published an article titled “Sport Car Races June 28 Come Rain or Shine,” gleaned from the archives of the NYS Historical Newspapers.

“Many committees are busily engaged in caring for the numerous details, not the least of which is the handling of the crowd, which is expected to be the largest ever gathered in one place in Sullivan County,” reported the unknown author, not foreseeing Woodstock a few years in the future.

“All roads lead to Fremont Center on Race Day, June 28. Arrows within a 30-mile radius will show the way... the course is generally regarded as one of the best developed for sport car road racing, and entries are pouring in from points as far away as Takoma, Washington... race headquarters are at the Western Hotel, Callicoon.”

The article continued by extolling the scenic sights of the area, with prose right out of a press release, “…spectators will be treated to views of the beautiful Delaware Valley in Sullivan County at its best. Mountain laurel and rhododendron will be in full bloom, adding spots of color to the already breathtaking sights that await visitors to the Delaware Valley for the first time…”

In conclusion, the author wrote, “This affair marks the opening of the 1953 resort season, which is expected to be a banner one. Sullivan County has become the number one vacation spot in the state.”

Before the sport car race, it was promoted in the local press and a bit farther afield in newspapers such as the New York Times and a few motorsports publications.

The race was covered pictorially by Fred Stabbert Jr., the event’s official photographer and life-long newspaperman, along with Ozzie Owens and Ruth Sands-Bentley, a correspondent from Autosport.

As time passed, photos taken by local residents and spectators lining the racecourse have been tucked away in albums or lost in dusty attics, but hopefully not forever forgotten.

Over the decades, the story of race has been covered in numerous articles, including “The Fabulous Callicoon Sport Car Races,” penned by in 2006 by Carl Goodwin for Vintage Racecar magazine; “The Fabulous Callicoon Sport Car Races,” by John Conway in his November 7, 2008 section of “Retrospect”; Jim Donnell, whose account titled “Controversy in Callicoon: the rudimentary race that couldn’t get a sanction” appeared in the June 2009 issue of Hemmings Sports and Exotics and, later on, Fred Stabbert III’s “Sullivan County’s Amazing Race”.

In his coverage of the race, Goodwin wrote, “The course was mostly a macadam surface with a two-mile unpaved section and even some gravel on the two sharpest turns,” and later quoted Gordon MacKenzie, one of the drivers, as recalling of an especially tight corner in the center of Fremont Center by Arnie’s Scrounge Lounge, as “The bar on the corner was so close to the road that if they’d opened the door, we would have hit it.”

Conway, in his role as county historian, conducted extensive research on the race, and wrote in his article, “It happened only once, but one expert said afterward that the route could have become the best in the country, but the event was never repeated."

“…due to the perceived danger of racing on such a rustic course, and the perceived liability, the Delaware Youth Center decided not to make the event an annual affair…that decision ensured that the Sullivan County Sports Car Races would literally be a once in a lifetime event,” added Conway in wrapping up his article.

In his story about the race, Donnell wrote in part, “…a loosely grouped bunch of guys decided to hold a race for sports cars. Notice that we said ‘bunch’ instead of ‘club’ although most of them were indeed club members…perhaps noting the success of Watkins Glen, farther west, had had with open-road street races, until the little town was overwhelmed by them.”
Donnell added that and his wife Lorna “explored a long-neglected box in our garage” and discovered Ozzie Lyons photographic negatives and a copy of the original race program, and thus was born his article, which noted that the race attracted several big names in the world of sports car racing back in the 50s, such as David Ash, Lake Underwood, Allard specialist Erwin Goldschmidt and Tony Pompeo, an importer of Siata automobiles.

A look at the official; program – June 28, 1953

Billed as the Sullivan County Sport Car Races of Sunday, June 28,1953, the non-sanctioned motorsports race was sponsored by the Delaware Youth Center in Callicoon under the auspices of the Jersey Sport Car Club, Inc. in cooperation with the Connecticut Sports Car Club, Long Island Sport Car Owners Association, M.G. Car Club, Westchester County Sport Car Club, and the Motor Sport Car Club of New York. NB: not all of the cooperating clubs were listed in the official program.

The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) founded in 1944 as the leading sanctioning organization for road racing, rallying and autocross in the United States, reportedly declined to sanction the local event as too risky to hold on public roads, even though they were closed to traffic on race day.

The official program cost 50-cents, and featured ads from several businesses no longer in existence, such as the Sullivan County Sports Car Center under the banner of Kapito Brothers in Monticello, new car dealers for M.G., Morris Minor, Riley, Singer and the legendary Aston Martin. Phone 949.

Or if you were interested in a Jaguar or Porsche, you could dial up Orange 6-6070-71 and talk to the folks at Bekrag Auto Sales Corp, home of the New Jersey Sport Car Center in East Orange, NJ.

A bit closer to home was Carl’s Motor Sales of Callicoon, NY whose ad featured a couple of 1953 Fords, described as “The new standard of the American Road. You can pay more…but you can’t buy better!”. If that tickled your fancy, you could call ‘300’.

Kingsfield Motor Sales of Montclair, NJ pitched the Rootes Group’s Sunbeam-Talbot 3-way convertible and Sunbeam Alpine Sports roadster, while J.S. Inskip of NYC placed an ad extolling the attributes of Aston Martin’s DB2 sports salon and drophead coupe, the “first all-British car to finish at Le Mans”.

A Pegaso Tipo 102 was showcased in a full-page ad from Brewster Automobiles of Oyster Bay, out on Long Island.

James W. Burbank, the county historian back in ’53, contributed “Historical Data Concerning Sullivan County”, a fascinating two-page history of the local area.

Before the race, the motorsports event was promoted in the June 18, 1953 edition of the Sullivan County Record of Jeffersonville, NY, which stated in part…”Many communities are busily engaged in caring for the numerous details, not the least of which is the handling of a crowd, which is expected to be the largest ever gathering in one place in Sullivan County….”

But who could foresee the Aquarian Exposition when “half a million strong” arrived at nearby Bethel, NY in August, 1969.

The article continued, “All roads will lead to Fremont Center…arrows within a 30-mile radius will show the way. The first race is at 11 o’clock and it will run rain or shine.”

“The Fremont Center course is generally regarded as one of the best developed for sports car road racing and entries are pouring in from as far away as Tacoma, Washington…eight and one-half miles in length…the race will be run in five laps, or about 42 miles…”

The event was originally divided into four races (five laps, for a total distance of 42.5 miles): the

Fremont Trophy Race at 11:00 a.m., the Callicoon Trophy Race, at 12:45 p.m. the Delaware Valley Trophy Race at 2:30 p.m., and wrapped up at 3:45 with the Sullivan County Trophy Race, although two accidents in first race forced the organizers to combine the final two races into one, to get the event back on track, timewise.

As an interesting sidelight to the race program, the race committee told spectators that “aerial bombs will mark the beginning and finish of each event.”

In Part II, the River Reporter continues the story of the Sullivan County Sport Car Races with more flashbacks of the history of the race, interviews with local folks who witnessed the event, and photos of sports car racing programs from America in 1953.

In Part III, we conclude with details of the race, and explore the race report to the race committee (courtesy Charlie Mills).

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Jim Greier

My Dad, Charles F. Greier, took movies of this race, which my wife, Rita, edited into some clips of a family memory video. Would be happy to make you a copy if you're interested.

Friday, August 28, 2020