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December 21, 2007


There is so much talk these days about what is going wrong with racing. Lots of people have been grumbling recently about the whole dynamic of radios and spotters and the thought that this communication detracts from good competition.

Whether or not that is the case, there is one problem that radios straightened out immediately, and it was not a minute too soon. That was the frightful consequence of what could happen in the old days when the starter did not notice something wrong on the track.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of all time came on Saturday, September 19, 1953 at the Raleigh, NC, Speedway. The spiffy new one-mile paved race track had run a NASCAR Grand National show on Memorial Day that had been an over-the-moon success. Speedway management enthusiastically followed up with a 220-mile Sportsman-Modified race in the early fall.

Sixty cars were scheduled to start the nighttime event that offered up a princely purse of $15,000. The excitement was palpable as the field pulled out of the infield for the parade lap.

All the cars fired up properly with the exception of a Ford coupe driven by a rookie named Bill Blevins. Blevins tried and tried to light it off and was finally push-started by a tow truck. However, when he reached the backstretch, the car stalled completely. Blevins parked it right in the groove, anticipating that someone would come along and push him once again.

Unfortunately, the race starter never saw Blevins dark-colored car stop and he threw the green. It was a sickening sight for the 10,000 fans in attendance. From their higher elevation in the grandstand seats, they could see what had happened – and they knew what was coming.

As the pack roared off turn two, a few early rows missed Blevins, but then the crashing began: Fifteen cars demolished in what must have looked like a bombing in Baghdad. Blevins and another North Carolinian, Jesse Midkiff, were killed instantly. A gaggle of other drivers was hospitalized. It took 90 minutes to clean up the mess. The media, always following the scent of a tragedy, was all over the incident, and it became widely know as “Black Saturday.”

There can be no question that there were many such incidents around the country before radios and track warning lights became commonplace. One took place at the infamous Thompson, CT, Speedway in the ’60s and it is described below in an article originally published in Speedway Scene. It was equally dramatic to the affair in Raleigh, but, miraculously, at Thompson no one died.


By Lew Boyd

Maybe it had to do with the planets. After all, it was right after the summer solstice, at the time of the strawberry moon. Whatever the case, as Bruce Cohen recalls, "June 30, 1968 was one of those off-beat nights at Thompson. There were lots of outside cars, and nothing seemed to be going right."

Dave Balser agrees. "There was trouble the whole evening. Two cars went over the embankment in the heats. Don MacTavish and Lou Austin got all smashed up – and George Pendergast, too. Everyone just wanted to go home."

Finally, just before midnight, the modified feature was lined up, and starter Jimmy Costello unfurled the green. A mixed field of unmuffled big and small blocks, injected and carbureted, soon took pattern, the fast cars moving to the front. A lead pack formed, including Jerry Dostie, Bugsy Stevens, Eddie Flemke, and Freddie DeSarro. Also very much part of the mix were "Wild Bill" Slater and Mario "Fats" Caruso, fresh from their most recent battle in the Norwood war the night before.

Caruso and Slater were both world-class racers. Both had delivered national championship race trophies back to New England, Fats from Trenton and Bill from Langhorne. They were friendly to each other, but it was oh-so-easy for fans to dream up a rivalry between them. They were a study in contrasts. Fats, known as "the Shrewsbury Flash," was one tough-talkin’, beer-guzzlin’ customer. He was notorious for smoking the right rear of whatever he drove in aggressive, take no prisoners demonstrations of testosterone. Bill Slater, however, was a nattily dressed, coffee-sipping momentum driver, especially smooth in the sportsman division. He was almost always aboard the famous black #v-8, "the Connecticut Valley Rocket."

As the Thompson feature neared half way and the leaders entered turn one, Slater watched as Jerry Dostie drifted up to the dirt. "Then he came down across the track," says Bill, "and just kept coming." Slater ran out of room, they crashed, and the #v-8 limped to a stop, just off turn two. Meanwhile, the pack continued a blistering pace down the backstretch and into three.

When Stevens and Flemke, running one-two, reached the fourth turn, veteran race watchers were taking notice. By the time the leaders reached the start-finish line, many people in the stands were on their feet, yelling and waving their arms. Slater had not moved an inch over in turn two, but there was no yellow flag. Jimmy Costello simply had not seen him. Nor, of course, had the other drivers.

Several thousand people held their breath as Stevens and Flemke blasted into one, twenty cars growling at their rear bumpers. Remarkably, coming off two, the leaders were able to react in time and they split around the disabled "Rocket."

The inevitable was, however, inevitable. Driving the wheels off Johnny Stygar’s #$, just as he did to finish third at Norwood the night before, Fats sought to take advantage when he saw Flemke and Stevens veer apart. According to his son Mike, Fats stepped on it, went right up the middle and into Slater. Full tilt boogey.

The result was one of the most savage wrecks in New England history. Bruce Cohen recalls "one of those loud crashes that just make you sick. I was sitting just up from Karen Slater, and she was freaking out. We all were."

The impact launched the #v-8 down the backstretch, while a mangled #$ came to rest in the infield. Both were ablaze. So, too, was the beer keg gas tank torn from the back of Slater’s car and flung through the night air in a huge, blazing arc. Bugsy Stevens shudders as he speaks of stopping by the flag stand and looking across the infield. "It was like a war zone. Fire, destruction everywhere."

There were clearly many acts of bravery that night that will never be reported. Drivers jumped from wrecked cars to help one another, and officials such as Steve Dahl sprinted to the scene. Fats’ situation appeared the worse. When "Suitcase" Tommy Sutcliffe, Slim Jim Baker, and Bill Balser reached him, flames were everywhere. Semi-conscious, he clutched his massively wounded jaw and throat while fire extinguishers were unloaded on him. Balser, who has photographed racing for over fifty years, says he has never seen anything like it.

Meanwhile, the fire in Slater’s car did self-extinguish more quickly. The backside of the coupe was completely gone, and "Wild Bill" was slumped in the seat, out for the count.

As Caruso and Slater were rushed off by ambulance and less injured drivers by car, the police impounded both the #v-8, the #$, and the film in Balser’s camera. It seemed a certainty that the Grim Reaper would soon be coming around. The remainder of the show was cancelled, and a subdued crowd filed silently out of the speedway, acrid smoke still hovering heavily in the summer air.

The racing community waited anxiously for news the next week from the Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam. There was cautious optimism about Slater, and he would, in fact, regain consciousness the next Friday night, full of questions about "where the hell am I?" For Fats, however, the week was pretty grave. Son Mike says "his head was all blown up, huge and deformed, his face and jaw just a mess. He had internal injuries, burnt lungs, and was all screwed up from the fire extinguishing stuff. A priest gave him last rites several times. It was awful for us."

After two weeks, to everyone’s astonishment, he began to stabilize, but it was only then that the doctors realized that he had two broken legs. They were rebroken so they could be aligned and put in casts.

Modified racers were especially tough in the fifties and sixties, a time with no real fire suits, harnessed seat belts, radios, fuel cells, or crash-engineered chassis. Even so, it seems inconceivable that both Fats and Bill would not only be back at the races later that season, but would continue racing. Though neither would see the multiple wins they enjoyed before that fateful night, they both strapped themselves back into modifieds and went back to war. How very appropriate it is that the two became early inductees to the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, Fats would pass away in the eighties, as did his son Dave who had inherited the genes of a champion. Bill Slater, however, still greets his hundreds of racing friends each week, taking tickets at the back gate at Stafford.

Stop for a minute some Friday evening. Ask him about a fiery night at Thompson. And honor him.

© 2007 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181

.: Previous Tearoffs :.

12/1/07 - Ride Along with Erica

11/15/07 - Hangin' Tough

11/1/07 - Tightly In or Easily Out?

10/15/07 - That First Race

10/1/07 - What's in a Name?

9/15/07 - Official Overpopulation

9/1/07 - The Look of a Driver

8/15/07 - Being Junior

8/1/07 - Armond Holley

7/15/07  -  Red Farmer


























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