WHEN CHARACTERS COULD RACE*
|Isn't it curious how selective
our memories can be?
Think back on racing in the 20th
century. The heroes who come to mind are the guys who ran
the top division, the likes of Scott Bloomquist, Sammy
Swindell, Richie Evans - dashing dudes who drove shiny,
brilliantly crafted machinery.
But there was a whole
other side of the racing equation. The "B" division often
filled out the show without the flash. It was about
balls-to-the-wall racing, with impossible numbers of
battered, entry-level cars, crashing and bashing with
Most of the old-time
bomber pilots have slipped silently into racing obscurity.
In the 1960s, however, one particularly outrageous character
was known by every dedicated racing fan in eastern New
England. He was Alfred "Blackie" Crockett.
Crockett was born in 1919 into a long-time farming family in
Randolph, Massachusetts. The Crocketts had owned hundreds of
acres on North Street near the Central Cemetery, but over
the years as New England farming declined, the land was
largely sold off.
Randolph itself was never as tony
as nearby towns like Dover and Milton. And it always had its
unusual citizens. It was known for the Rum Pot Rustlers, a
particularly seamy motorcycle gang. Even against that
background, Blackie stood out as a notable character, and
during the years he actually lived in South Boston, he was
fondly nicknamed "the Mayor of Randolph."
Happy-go-lucky Blackie had a couple of dozen trades. Much of
his time was spent running a septic-service business for his
mom, a Cochato Indian. He built the trucks, the tanks, and
he did the pumping. It was total commitment. As friend Fred
Levangie says, "If it was silver and shiny, like someone's
high school ring, no problem. He'd jump right in and
Blackie knew everyone. He plowed snow
for the town and was everyone's fix-it man. Whether your hay
baler was busted or you just really needed a laugh, you'd
pop over to the old Crockett place on North Street. There
were derelict cars everywhere, some upside down or hanging
from the crane from hell. Nothing was new; everything was
used for three lifetimes. Especially Blackie's clothes, says
The times were less regulated than they are
now. The North Street area was wooded, so folks pretty much
left Blackie be. He had no licenses, no permits, no
insurance. In the mid-fifties, however, he became just a
little too rambunctious. He started crashing cars out on the
highway. Lots of them. Finally the police suggested that
either he go to Norwood Arena, the local stock car bull
ring, to get some testosterone out of his system or they'd
come down on him.
Blackie had a bumpy stint at
Norwood in the Mad Merry-Go-Round division, whacko,
bone-crushing ramp racing. He won his fair share, all at the
helm of hulking '37 #94 Plymouth sedans, crashed from every
conceivable angle. But in 1960, when NASCAR brought a new,
up-town image to the Arena with the thundering Modifieds, it
wasn't Blackie's bag.
Blackie didnít last long
when NASCAR came to Norwood with rules and
up-town trophy girls. (RA Silvia Collection)
By this time a committed racer, Blackie began the long
commute north to the Merrimack Valley and New Hampshire, to
the Pines and Hudson Speedways, and the Manchester
Motordrome. It was Oscar Ridlon's URDC circuit, and
"Cannonball" Ridlon was a showman. He loved the old time
carney scene - brash, wild, basic entertainment. And he
loved Al Crockett.
Blackie had become a true racing
showman in his own right, even before he reached the pit
gate. Hall of Fame racer Pete Fiandaca recalls the first
time he ever saw him. "I was going to Hudson in the early
sixties over by the Tyngsboro Bridge. Along comes this unit
with a clapped-out Plymouth race car. It was quite a sight,
especially since the race car was doing the towing."
Once in the pits, the scene with Blackie was no different.
Richard Naphen, a son-in-law and former NEMA racer who
worked with Crockett for years, recalls a night at the
Pines. The #94 was sick, sputtering, and Al said to Richard,
"We ain't about to tow a hundred miles and not race." They
turned the car over, right there on the spot. Blackie took
off the oil pan and cut the connecting rod in the bad
cylinder with a torch, pulled out the piston, and went out
and ran on five cylinders. The whole night, as usual, he
never stopped to remove his Cromwell helmet.
the asphalt, Blackie was Oscar's delight. The sky-high
Plymouth sedans were either upside down or in the winner's
circle. Blackie was 43 when he won the Pines Bomber point
chase in 1962 and finished up second at Hudson, but he drove
like a hyperactive teenager. One time he flipped mightily
coming off the fourth turn for the checker at the Pines. He
jumped out of the overturned, steamy pile and ran across the
finish line on foot.
Given the sketchy construction
of Crockett's coaches, it seems miraculous that he was never
badly banged up. The #94s in those seasons never had a new
part, never even had anything better than the stock bench
seat. Blackie's most serious injury came when he fell off a
donkey in a specialty race at Groveland. He jumped right
back on, paying little heed to his broken ribs.
1967, as kind of a last hurrah, Blackie actually bought a
race car, a former Brice Haskell #213 owned by the late
"Nasty Neil" Murray. Blackie put in a barking hemi,
uncharacteristically rebuilt with good pistons and a cam. He
was lightning fast. As Nasty said at the time, "It was
function junction. He was the man making it happen."
As the A-frame cars began to change the complexion of racing
in the very late 1960s, Blackie, now in his fifties, was
turning the bomber driving over to Al Jr., one of his four
children. He was still a welcome presence at Oscar's,
though, frequently running spectator and figure-eight
contests. Daughter Irene smiles about the day the family
stopped at the chicken farm next to Hudson, a place they
often camped. Blackie picked up 30 dozen eggs and put them
in the backseat of their '65 Mustang convertible. He never
stopped to take them out for the spectator race, and they
sure didn't stop him from winning.
In the 1970s, Al's
days as an outrider began to catch up to him. He became
sick, and then sicker. He entered a number of rehabilitation
centers with his illness never completely understood or
diagnosed. Finally, on June 10, 1980, he passed away. The
cause given was lung cancer.
By the 1980s, the days
of the old-time bombers and rugged individualists like Al
Crockett were gone but not yet forgotten. Anne-Marie Naphen,
one of Blackie's six grandchildren, recalls the service. "We
had to use the largest funeral home in Randolph and close it
down just for him. Getting in was a two-hour wait. Everyone
|Thatís just AlÖ
(Coastal 181 Collection)
* Most of this article originally
appeared in Thom Ring's Shorttrack Magazine in
© 2015 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181
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