April 15, 2008
THINKING ABOUT RENE
An email came this
morning from Mike Gnip; Mike was a pit crew member for Rene Charland
in upstate New York in the ’70s:
“Just want you to
know that the Champ is not doing too good. He is now in
Gloversville Hospital. I went to see him last week. He was not
like the old Rene. We walked the halls, hand in hand… Rumor by his
county case worker is that they are going to have to put him in a
nursing home… At breakfast he didn’t speak and didn’t joke like he
used to. He told me he wanted to go home with me and help me with
my work around the house, etc. …His condition is getting pretty
Mike’s message is
both sad and shocking. Is there a veteran short track enthusiast on
all the East Coast who doesn’t have an outrageous “Champ” story on
the tip of his tongue? This guy won hundreds of features. He was
NASCAR National Sportsman Champion for four years running in the
’60s. He was a founding member of the Eastern Bandits, that ragtag
band of traveling racers who forever set the standard for what we
now call “road warriors.” And, perhaps most memorably, he was
racing’s self-appointed court jester over the entirety of his
An excerpt from
Coastal 181’s book FONDA, contributed by Bruce Cohen,
captures that Rene of old.
Rene Charland, in addition to his
awesome driving prowess, was the consummate practical joker.
Neither friend nor foe was shown any mercy. For years women were
prohibited from the pits at Fonda; once they were admitted, it was
“Charland Goose Season” from April through October. At any given
moment, you could expect Rene to swipe Fonda’s pace car for a couple
of hot laps, or to ignite a firecracker behind some unsuspecting
victim, or to deftly throw a rubber snake at an official with
And sometimes the snake wasn’t
rubber. Once Rene put a garter snake in a shoe box. As the cars
lined up to race, Rene walked up the staging grid, one car at a
time, stopping with his box at each of the drivers he was about to
run against. ‘Do you like snakes?’ he asked each driver, opening
the box and showing off his pet in order to shake the strapped- in
competition. Finally, he came to Pete Corey.
“Do you like snakes, Pete?” Rene
Modifieds had rear view mirrors back
then, and Corey had been watching Rene’s ploy all along. Suddenly,
Pete grabbed the snake, popped off its head between his thumb and
forefinger, and threw the dead snake on the ground.
“Yeah, Rene. I just love snakes,”
One night after Fonda warm-ups,
Charland’s good buddy, Maynard Forrette, pulled his #006 into the
pit area with a skipping motor. Maynard and his crew got out their
timing light and other needed tools to sort out their problem.
Maynard was on the left front side of the car, revving up the engine
with the carburetor linkage.
Unknown to him, Charland was hiding
with a small hammer near the right rear tire. As Forrette’s motor
would rev up, Charland would hammer out a steady beat on the nerf
bar. As the motor speed dropped, Rene would stop hammering. This
scenario went on for a good five minutes, attracting a large crowd
of curious onlookers. Maynard finally looked up from his labors to
see 30-odd people laughing hysterically. He knew he had been had.
Forrette charged around the back of his car, screaming, “Rene, you
miserable S.O.B., I’ll kill you!” Charland took off like a rocket.
To add insult to injury, that evening, Rene won the modified feature
event in the Roerig Brothers #99, a ride that Forrette had just
But an incident that really sticks in
my mind was at Anthony’s Tavern, on Route 5 in Fonda, a popular
watering hole for post-race libations. On a warm summer’s evening,
Anthony’s would be packed with drivers, owners, pit crews, and fans
re-running the just completed races. On one memorable night, I was
seated at a long table directly across from the Champ. To say the
least, he was in top form, insulting everyone in sight. Two seats
away was a lady of rather large proportions. Rene got started on
her and didn’t stop – his insults were frequent and relentless.
After a few moments, the woman got up and headed towards the bar.
Upon her return, with a large pitcher of beer, she stood behind Rene
and tapped him on the shoulder. She said, “Rene, you’re not the
Champ, you’re a chump.” And then she dumped the contents of the
pitcher on him. For perhaps the only time in his career, a
surprised, chagrined, and soaked Rene Charland was speechless.”
Maybe it’s time for
all of us to stand up and respond one more time to someone who
thrilled us a million times. Not now cheers or catcalls from the
grandstand, but maybe a card to cheer him up. You can write to him
4988 State Highway
Amsterdam, NY 12010
And, when you’re
done, how about sending a quick email to Mike Gnip (firstname.lastname@example.org)
to thank him for being such a good guy.
© 2008 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181