John Velte ruffled through a black binder, packed with paper. Each page was a simple print out, labelled, with new hand-written notes or stars. The stuffed two-inch binder was bursting; each section divided by more than a dozen colored tabs: Late Model, Modified, Fatalities.
It’s the concise and somewhat official, yet incomplete, history of one of the region’s most beloved and popular ovals: Maple Grove Speedway. Maple Grove Speedway tested the best.
And as Velte, the son of racer Rollie Velte, rummaged through, items jumped off the various pages. A name tripped an anecdote about a win. A win total was in question. A victory was logged in a special car, or a fact assumed to be true could be contradicted. Around him, a buzz filled Floral Hall at the Seneca County Fairgrounds.
A new buzz, but a familiar one; Maple Grove Speedway had a new lease on life.
Years in the making, race cars were back on the Seneca County Fairgrounds in Waterloo, coming together to remember the scores of talent and pay tribute to a lost speedway.
“I spent the last four years getting information together for a book, collecting data and putting together posters,” said Velte, who first visited the oval as an 10-year old perched in the covered grandstands, in 1964.
That grandstand footprint was occupied by a food vendor and carnival ride this week; the covered grandstand burned down long ago. It is believed to have been lost around 1964. The old fairgrounds sign that was affixed to a section of guardrail is gone from the Swift Street entrance, replaced by a new pole barn for displaying antique tractors. The racers’ old club house has been razed, and replaced in part by a horse barn and parking area.
“Once the track had the grass growing up around it, and we had the barn built across turn one, we knew we could no longer go around it,” Velte said. “Waterloo has a good history, the track has a good past. We didn’t want it to die.”
The track was a make-or-break oval in the 50s and 60s. The stars of the northeast came to run at the track. The clay surface never went away, and even the tires of the period didn’t break grip. The only tire spin was on the narrow-footprinted late models. Otherwise, it was fast. Real fast. Legendary fast. Scary fast.
The silhouette is still visible, with most of the egg-shaped oval discernable. The banking remains, along with the infield berm in turns 3 and four. But the red clay is long since gone, replaced with cinder mix for horse racing. The track was testy as best, and terrifying at its worst. The maple trees along Inslee Street and Wright Avenue caught a car or two. Drivers perished in the competition. The lore of the track suggests some racers unloaded, took testing laps, and then loaded back up because of the speed and skill needed to navigate the track.
The village flourished off the impact, with drivers lodging up, eating and spending tourist dollars in the area. Chicks Diner — now Connies — on the corner of Swift and Main Streets, was a main stop, with drivers stopping on their way into or on their way home from the track.
“The history of the track was the track — how fast, how talented the drivers had to be. And the drivers. Everyone raced here, it stayed grippy, and it was hard to figure out. And the people that supported it, coming from all over or from here in town,” Velte said. “And about maybe 10 people caused its demise.”
There were complaints about noise, dust, traffic and the uproar spiraled into the track closing in 1977.
As word spread about Velte’s book, which he is working on with writer, scorekeeper, and author Gary Spaid, longtime Maple Grove supporters encouraged Velte to share his collection of donated memorabilia, and do the abstract ‘something’ to remember the track.
“I had all these people giving me stuff, and they were asking how can we start getting together again. Can we do it?,” Velte said.
Shouldering the sense of duty, Velte started to move forward, and quickly called local racing historian, Waterloo Stock Car Racing Association Reunion organizer and radio host Chuck Brownell.
Brownell had been contacted about some sort of tribute, or if he might rekindle his former reunion activities. But, he was done. However, with the shared goal of preserving history, Velte was able to coax him off the bench to help out.
“John said, ‘If I do it, will you help?,” Brownell said, gesturing to the decorated walls and cars, so as to say ‘and here we are.’
“We came up with a plan, we did a presentation at the monthly meeting about having a tribute, and they approved it. It has been great,” Velte said.
Brownell was seated behind the Ron Narducci No. 98, a virtually untouched example of the cars that raced at Maple Grove, and with Ken Marsteiner, who had a handful of hand-built replicas of Maple Grove cars.
“The bad part is all the drivers are gone; there are only a few left,” Brownell said.
And he’s correct, there has been a stark hole left in the history of the oval, with many drivers passing on. With them went their histories and stories; their novelty and rivalries. But thankfully, their families knew the memorabilia had some value, and large chunks were preserved, if not donated to Velte.
Those pooled collections helped transform the atmosphere inside Floral Hall.
There was heavy foot traffic, and seven race cars with ties to Maple Grove Speedway — and then Waterloo Speedway from 1976 until the closure — on display. Video from most of the known archive was playing for fans, and dozens of pictures, trophies and framed programs served as a reminder of the extensive history of the oval. Duprey video helped mash the various VHS tapes and 8mm reels into a 5-hour program covering the gamut of Maple Grove history.
“The response has been great,” Velte said. “The response on Facebook, the comments, there are always more pictures going up.”
“Everyone loves it,” Brownell added, watching the Swarthout family rehash a race from long ago through the side windows of the Narducci machine. He alluded to how important moments like these are. The moments might be fleeting, but it’s part of the passed-down history of racing all over the country. The old guard of racers relay stories, great tales that get told over and over, while never losing their intrigue.
He talked about the bickering between Reakes and Gordie Wood, and how during one of his reunion events ‘finally’ Gordie Wood came to the event. He said he would build a car and go race against Reakes at some of the antique events, and he did. With several drivers returning this week to the display, the stories were shared again.
Walt Mitchell, who ranks fourth on the list in late model wins with nine at Maple Grove, made a rare appearance. Brownell offered a correction to Mitchell’s own history. The start of his racing career was not in the invented eights at Weedsport, but instead in a 1949 Mercury at Waterloo before Mitchell enlisted in the service. Brownell even had the story about Mitchell’s number, which was originally 4. The next race, there was already a 4, so Mitchell raced No. 14, adding a 1. When he returned from the service, he couldn’t get the number back again, and this time added a 2, making the No. 24. Bill Updike is believed to have 24 late model wins between 1961 and 1977, with Velte winning 18 and Dick Deline won 12 times.
Kim Jennejohn was on hand, with Bob Hunter’s archives. Hunter, her husband, was the track photographer at Maple Grove but has since passed away. All his archives and negatives have been digitized.
In addition to the Narducci No. 98, now owned by Al Ritz in Seneca Falls, Jim Hilimire had his Ray Preston/Ray Beardsley No. 66, Sam Reakes No. 111 and the John McArdell No. 11 on hand. Those three cars all continue to race in various antique events locally. The antique racing club schedules overlapped the Seneca County Fair, and limited the number of cars that were on hand for the weekend. Hillmire and Ritz committed to the show and made sure their rides were there. A Dave Kneisel No. 711 was also on display. A second unrestored 50s-era entry was on display as well, and is also owned by Ritz.
“Jim was a fan of Rollie, he committed a year ago,” Velte said, noting this event would have been in 2020 if not for the fair closing down in lieu of COVID-19 restrictions.
Ray Preston is the grandfather to sprint car driver Jonathan Preston, and father of ESS winner Ray Preston. Reakes won the inaugural Waterloo Expo, and Sammy Reakes IV has driven sportsman and 360 sprint cars. The McArdell No. 11 was the original Tantillo special.
Cars last circled the ‘Clay Country’ in 1997, during the Waterloo Stock Car Racing Association reunion during Waterloo Expo II. Loren Fish won that event, with Reakes winning the first Expo in 1996. Formally, the last WSCRA race was in August 1977, promoted by Dominic Tantillo.
Reakes stands as the career win leader at Maple Grove Speedway, winning 29 sportsman features there. John McArdell, Bobby Cain and Cliff Kotary are tied in second, with 17. Rollie Velte is eighth with five wins. In terms of the 70s era, Gary Ilug and George Ely pulled down five victories each in Sportsman division racing. The win counts are as complete as possible and marked as ‘to date’ because periodic results are still resurfacing. Velte worked with Steve Paine to put as much of the historical timeline down on vinyl prints hung on the walls.
There is hope this will become a more permanent tribute inside Floral Hall, with the history of the oval preserved on the grounds where the famous track was situated. But that, if it becomes a reality, will come in time. In the interim, the old stories and the wall hangings and placquards will have to do.
Individuals looking for details on the Maple Grove Speedway history, or who have information or items to share can visit the commemorative facebook page. It can be found under ‘Maple Grove Speedway Waterloo, New York.’
The Super DIRTcar Series Liberty 100 was postponed again due to wet grounds. The top 20 positions had been set and the top 12 redraw completed when rain sidelined the feature July 20.
The balance of the feature will be contested as part of a twin-60 program on August 4. The Super DIRTcar Series was scheduled to be back at Land of Legends Raceway that day for the
Tim Fuller drew the pole, and fast-timer and heat winner Peter Britten will start outside the front row. Alan Johnson and Dave Marcucilli will start on the pole of the two last-chance qualifier events. Sunday was the annual Hall of Fame weekend at Weedsport, and the series will head off to Orange County Fair Speedway July 29, for the Battle of the Midway event.
The Empire Super Sprints were also rained out after the heat races at Land of Legends Raceway, and will make up their event August 7 in a combined program with the Patriot Sprint Tour.
Saturday, Chris Donnelly won at Bradford, VT’s Bear Ridge Saturday night, topping Matt Tanner and Jason Barney. Friday, at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Paulie Colagiovanni won the ESS main over Chuck Hebing and Jeff Cook.
Thursday, the Short Track Super Series’ Richie Evans Remembered 61 at Utica-Rome Speedway went to Stewart Friesen. The win paid $6,161.61 and adds to Friesen’s tour-best win total.
A series of yellow flags offered Matt Sheppard the chance to solve a flawless Friesen, but the opening never presented itself. Behind Sheppard, Rocky Warner surged to third ahead of Mat Williamson and Alan Johnson. Friesen also won the dash event.
Payton Talbot won the 602 Sportsman main over Tim Hartman and Alan Fink. Rocco Leone and Brian Calabrese filled the top five. Utica-Rome was off Friday night.
At Can-Am, Tim Fuller scored the DIRTcar 358-Modified win. Ryan Bartlett stayed hot, racing to second ahead of Carey Terrance, Billy Dunn and Lance Willix. Dustin Hutton took home the DIRTcar Sportsman checkers, with Frank Sibley and Eric Neir in tow. Kevin Fetterly won the Pro Stock feature over Justin White and Tyler Bushey. Tony Frezzo (Thunderstock) and Franklin Mackin (limited Sportsman) earned class wins.
At Brewerton, Tim Sears was again triumphant in DIRTcar Modified action, with Kevin Root and Pat Ward chasing. Jimmy Phelps and Billy Decker were next. Zach Sobotka bagged a DIRTcar Sportsman class win over Brent Joy and Dale Caswell. Justin Williams (Mod Lites) and Damien Belcher (four-cylinders) took class wins.
At Outlaw Friday night, Bobby Varin scored a headline modified win over Danny Johnson and Phil Vigneri. Kyle Coffey and Steve Paine filled the top five. Andrew Jacobsen powered into victory lane in the Hoosier Sportsman feature, edging Adam Hilton and Alex Payne. Nichole Hoag and Brett Buono registered top fives. Alex Payne posted a win in the American Racer Sportsman feature, with Kreg Cooker and Carter Cooker looking up from podium positions. Chris Fisher and Ben Feldman earned top five credit.
Glenn Whritenour bested Adam Depuy and Jared Hill in the Street Stock feature. Brian Grant took the checkers in the four-cylinder main ahead of Brian Avery and Mike Stone. Marc Minutolo won the Hobby Stock feature over Jason Rhoads and Shawn LLoyd.
The sixth-annual Steve Kent Memorial Summer Nationals are set for July 30. The card will include the ULMS Super Late Models, $3,000-to-win 360 sprints and $3,000-to-win modifieds plus extra money for open-tire Sportsman, Street Stocks, four-cylinders and hobby stocks.
Ron Davis III recorded a DIRTcar 358-Mod win at Fulton, holding off a surging Tim Sears Jr. and Pat Ward. Larry Wight and Jackson Gill filled out the top five. In the dual DIRTcar Sportsman program, Austin Germinio won over Tyler Corcoran and Richie Riggs in the opening main while Chris Mackey won over AJ Miller and Tony Finch in the second. Chad Homan won the Late Model feature. Zach Buff and Scott Kline won the Novice Sportsman features, respectively and Tom Mackey won the Mod Lite main.
At Land of Legends Raceway, Erick Rudolph registered a winning effort among the modified campaigners, winning over Alan Johnson, Matt Farnham, Justin Haers and Peter Britten. Zach Sobotka posted his second win of the weekend at LOLR, taking the Sportsman main over Matt Guererri and Paul Guererri. Nick Guererri and Alex Payne filled the top five.
Darryl Ruggles bagged the 305 sprint main ahead of Brandyn Griffin and Bobby Parrow. Jimmy Grant won the Street Stock feature with Josh Pangrazio and Mike Welch giving chase. Justin Eldredge won the Hobby Stock main ahead of Casey Wagner and Tyler Burnell.
At Thunder Mountain, Ryan Jordan pulled down the Modified win over Shaun Walker and Rusty Smith. Jordan McCreadie won the DIRTcar 358-modified feature with Lance Willix and Colton Wilson in tow. AJay Potrzebowski scored the DIRTcar 602 Sportsman feature with Will Eastman and Alan Fink following. Tom Donahue (600cc modifieds), Damon Decker (Street Stocks), Jason Rhodes (Factory Stocks), Steve Schrader (Budget Sportsman) and Liam Zacharias (Junior Slingshots) earned divisional wins.
Oswego was scheduled to be off, and looks forward to the Jack Murphy Memorial ISMA MSS King of Wings X on July 31. The 350 supermodifieds are also on the card. Oswego regular Jeff Abold won the HyMiler Fast Forty; the annual 100-lap Sandusky Hy-Miler was Sunday, with Abold joined by fellow Oswego stars Dave Shullick Jr., Otto Sitterly and Tyler Thompson.