IN THE SOUTHLANDS WITH BUGSY STEVENS
On Wednesday night, February 19,
Massachusetts-based, three-time NASCAR National Modified Champion
Bugsy Stevens was inducted into the Living Legends of Auto Racing in
The celebration of the Bugsy was particularly
significant because LLOAR has in the past focused largely on
luminaries from the South involved with Grand National and Cup
What a thrill to see the Bug Man walk to the podium
and up the steps up to the microphone under his own power to huge
applause. Various ailments had him in a chair or behind a walker for
some years, while he has worked so valiantly to regain his mobility.
Not to worry. All the while, that character and his famous
sense of humor have remained fully intact and operational.
was an honor to be asked to make the presentation, below:
STEVENS – LIVING LEGENDS OF AUTO RACING – by Lew Boyd
can’t believe how cold it’s been in Boston this winter. The snow
drifts seem higher than the sun in the sky.
And on those dark
mornings with that bone-chilling wind, the phone will ring and
you’ll see that the call is from Edgewater, Florida. That moment is
just like having a kidney stone. You know you can pass it, that it
will hurt along the way, but you’ll feel so much better at the end.
You see, it’s that loveable prankster on the phone from his
winter hangout. He’ll carry on about how he’s sunning himself and
tease you mercilessly about being up in the frigid north with all
those Liberals. Then he’ll spin an old racing tale – probably a
little raunchy – and by then you’ll be all warmed up. It always
happens when you talk with Bugsy Stevens, quite likely the most
popular race car driver ever to come out of New England.
Massachusetts native Pete Hamilton knows Bugsy well. Just before
Pete won the Daytona 500 in 1970, he had won the National Sportsman
Championship the same year Bugsy captured one of this three National
Modified titles. They raced a lot together, and Pete says “Bugsy
just epitomized what a race driver should be, what he should look
and act like.”
How true. After a few years in Texas in the
service, Bugsy spent just a couple of seasons on local New England
tracks before breaking out on the national scene with Lenny Boehler
and the famous Ole Blue #3 Modified in 1965.
From the very
start, Bugsy stood out in the pit area. He was lean and handsome.
His obvious athletic prowess gave him almost an Olympian aura, and
he carried himself with a confidence beyond his years.
the same on the track. Back in Texas, he and Doris, his saintly
wife-to-be, would tow all over hither and yon running a jalopy. One
night they got to Playland Park Speedway in Houston, and Bugs saw
A.J. Foyt racing his midget. He took notice of the way A.J. carried
himself in the car, calmly upright, on top of things. Bugsy mimicked
that posture right through his final lap decades later.
seasons with Lenny Boehler were story book. When they won their
three titles in 1967, ’68, and ’69, it was high time for the
Modifieds. Injected big blocks coupes and coaches – fast and
ferocious as they ever have been, playing to huge crowds from Baton
Rouge to Oxford Plains, Maine. “Strap your balls to the roll cage
and go,” says Bugs. They ran small tracks, big ones, NASCAR and open
competition, dirt and asphalt – always, always running right up
Bugsy became incredibly good. Bones Bourcier, who
wrote the book Bugsy!, put it succinctly: “his game had no flaws.”
Needless to say, some of the Grand National guys were paying
attention to this racy and determined Northerner. At the urging of
some folks like Ralph Moody, Bugs took a shot at Cup racing, and he
was fast. But it went nowhere.
Whether he will admit it or
not, Bugsy is an old New Englander, brought up on a farm. Life was
not easy, and he became focused on paying the bills. By 1970 he had
a growing family, and, bottom line, he could make more money in a
Modified. And rare was the Monday morning when he was not at the
auto salvage business he started and grew in Freetown,
And there was something else. He was just
plain content with what he was doing. One day he was asked to run an
SCCA Trans Am car on the road course at Lime Rock, Connecticut. It
was some hot rod – Parnelli Jones had been in it the year before. It
ended up blowing up, and Bugs watched the race from the hill,
drinking beer with his Modified buddies. Reporter Pete Zanardi asked
him if he was bummed not to be out there with the big boys. Bugsy’s
reply: “There’s Formula One on top and Indy Cars. Then comes the
Modifieds. Everything else is a step down.”
Boehler, Bugs ran a number of glorious seasons with Sonny Koszela’s
stable, shining everywhere, but perhaps most brightly at Stafford,
Connecticut,where he developed a groove of his own. Other top-shelf
owners followed: Joe Brady, Dick Armstrong, John Stygar, Bob
Garbarino, Bob Judkins. So did the wins. Seemingly countless nights,
The Bug motors around Jerry Cook and Eddie
Flemke (#2x) in Sonny Koszela’s
#15 on the
pavement at Malta, NY. (Mike Adaskaveg Photo)
It all seemed so natural, so meant to be.
But the surface won’t tell you what the deep water knows. Fact is
Bugsy’s racing career was an ungodly grind.
The miles to and
from the races were endless, sleepless. Gene Bergin speaks of seeing
Bugs walk into the Norwood Arena, looking awful. “I asked him if he
was sick. He said he had run a 100-lapper in Vermont on Thursday, a
200-lapper down South on Friday, and he was at Norwood right outside
Boston on Saturday – and he was going to run just as hard as he
could. You appreciate a guy like that.”
And, of course, the
gift of racing does tow along its mortgage. No matter how good you
are, race as much as Bugsy Stevens, and you will get hurt.
Way back in the sixties, Bugs flipped Boehler’s Ole Blue out of the
park at Stafford and earned himself a fractured cervical vertebra.
He was forbidden to race for six months. That lasted six days. They
never missed a race.
Then in 1982, same track, same turn, he
dumped Bob Garbarino’s car and left the crash house taped up like a
mummy. In between those two spectaculars he broke his sternum twice
at Seekonk and busted his ribs probably a dozen times. He says, “The
good guys are right up again. After all, nobody ever won anything
But the toughest hurt for Bugsy over these
grueling seasons had to be watching what happened to so many of his
friends. It’s haunting to consider. Back in 1969 here at Daytona,
Bugs was running right behind Don MacTavish when Mac got sideways,
overcorrected, and was killed with horrible violence on TV.
In 1978, Bugsy followed his soul mate Fred DeSarro down the
backstretch of Thompson, Connecticut. Something went wrong, and
Freddie flew up the track in Lenny Boehler’s car, over the sand
banks, and crashed far below. Bugsy was first to the scene. It was
bad. Freddie hung on for just three weeks.
Bugsy beats out Charlie Jarzombek for a heat
race win at the Fred DeSarro memorial race,
(Northeast Motor Sports Museum
Collection, Clint Lawton Photo)
Then in 1985, Bugsy was sitting with his buddy Richie Evans in
the pits at Martinsville, and Richie said “Come on, Bugs, let’s go
run a little.” Off they went for practice, and once again Bugsy was
watching when Richie hit that unforgiving wall. Bugs will tell you,
“Tony Siscone was the first one there and he pulled down the window
net. I went to unbuckle Richie’s helmet. Right away I knew he was
And it wasn’t over. Bugs was there as they pulled a
fatally injured Charlie Jarzombek through the roof of his car at
Martinsville in 1987. Just a few weeks later he trailed Corky
Cookman down the back at Thompson and saw the sparks as Corky’s
front end dropped, sending him into the wall and eternity.
his book it is crystal clear just how profoundly these tragedies
impacted Bugs. He says, “You don’t think racing is a mental game?
Try going through all of that; getting hurt, driving hurt, and
literally watching your friends die. Try dealing with all the
ironies I’ve had to deal with.”
It could be that his mental
toughness is the greatest of all Bugsy Stevens’ capabilities. He
could deal with it – and keep excelling.
And, even more, the
whole time he did it with a flare, a palpable – though certainly
tested – joy of life. He always drew a crowd, and just as he warms
me up by phone in winter, he’d find a way to get folks going, every
one of them. Tales of Bugsy’s pranks and shenanigans are fodder for
every racing reunion in the East.
There were those Lincoln
rental cars that he and Richie would use down South – and how they
would look after a couple of practice laps coming from the airport,
sometimes right into the Atlantic Ocean.
There was the parade
lap before a packed grandstand when Bugsy stopped to hand the
starter a burlap bag with a very frustrated chicken inside.
He’d drop a string of firecrackers into Gene Bergin’s cockpit right
before the feature or taunt poor Freddie DeSarro, deathly afraid of
reptiles, with a big ol’ black snake.
But, even when he would
pull into the race track with his old time Cadillac limousine with
his “chauffeur” Pee Pee Miguel, it was not for his own benefit. It
was for the fans. Bugsy has always cared deeply for other people,
especially the kids. Nobody is out of reach of the mischievous smile
and friendship of this remarkable man.
Thinking of others after a win
in the Ole Blue coupe at Thompson, CT.
(Northeast Motor Sports Museum Collection, Dick
Bugs closes his book by saying: “I’ve lived one hell of a good
life. I mean, what is life all about? Is it about having someone to
love – friends and family – and having people love you back? I have
all that, and I’ve had it for a long time.
“Is it about being
happy, having fun? I think it should be. And I’ve done my best not
to miss out on any of that.”
And so tonight, let us all keep
it going. May we bring up Bugsy Stevens, the very best in auto
racing the North has to offer, for permanent induction into the
Living Legends of Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
|(Mark Chavous Photo)
© 2014 Lew Boyd
- Coastal 181
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