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 Rene Charland  (John Grady Photo)

April 15, 2008


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 bad.”

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 34-year career.

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 reptile phobia.

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 taunted.

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,” Corey answered.

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 vacated.

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 at:

Rene Charland
The Wilkinson Center

Memorial Healthcare
4988 State Highway
Amsterdam, NY 12010

And, when you’re done, how about sending a quick email to Mike Gnip ( to thank him for being such a good guy.

© 2008 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181

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.: Previous Tearoffs :.

3/26/08 - Carl and Corey

3/4/08 - A Cool Track with Cool Racers

2/14/08 - Doug Wolfgang

1/25/08 - Frankie Schneider

1/7/08 - When Drivers Can't See

12/21/07 - When Starters Couldn't See

12/1/07 - Ride Along with Erica Santos

11/15/07 - Tough Drivers

11/1/07 - Cockpit Safety

10/15/07 - That First Race

10/1/07 - Racing Nicknames

9/15/07 - Too Many Officials

9/1/07 - The Look of a Real Driver

8/15/07 - Being Dale Junior

8/1/07 - Armond Holley

7/15/07  -  Red Farmer


























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