August 20, 2008
Man, did the winds of change ever blow in the sixties. No part of
American life was untouched.
In short track racing the times were especially colorful and
dynamic. There were race tracks everywhere, and everyone was
monkeying with the rules. Countrywide, the sport was transitioning
from the clunky jalopies of the fifties towards the more permanent
shape the cars took in the seventies.
In California, at venues like Ascot and Balboa Stadium, the square
tops of the
Southern California Jalopy Association gave way to the early
sprint cars of the California Racing Association. In the Southeast,
the mighty coupes of Ralph Earnhardt and Runt Harris were relegated
to a field behind the barn, replaced by A-frame cars, the early late
northern New England, the jalopies became so chopped and
channeled that they quite properly became known as the “cutdowns”.
These unruly little flyweights offered up great and gutsy racing at
asphalt quarter-miles like Westboro, Groveland, and West Peabody in
Massachusetts; Dover, Loudon, Hudson, and Lee in New Hampshire; and
Scarborough and Arundel, Maine. But it all lasted for only a brief
period of time.
Bob Cloutier’s #84 cutdown (above and center below) was prototypical
of its genre. The car was glued together right at the dawn of the
decade, before the widespread availability of specialty racing
parts. Like Reino Tulonen’s jalopy run in the mid-fifties (below,
left), Cloutier’s car still perched on a ’34 Ford frame, but it was
creatively – if a little awkwardly – reworked and shortened. The
cab, from a 1950 Ford pickup, was mounted on a conduit cage, along
with a cowl from an old Dodge truck found in the woods. The motor
was a highly polished Flathead with multiple carbs.
Those carburetors posed a curious challenge. As is often the case
with racing and beer drinking, one or two won’t be enough for long.
Especially as the overhead engines came into play, cutdown guys were
going with four carbs – and then six. Making a six-throat throttle
linkage work smoothly and reliably in racing conditions is quite a
feat for a backyard mechanic. The consequences of getting it wrong
could be quite severe: When a linkage stuck, it tended to be wide
For several seasons cutdown racing was haunted by horrific wrecks,
cars flying off the ends of straightaways, full throttle. It seemed
that all the early hot shoes experienced their sky rides – Bentley
Warren, Carl Tiberio, Archie Archambault, Jimmy Martel. It was not
always a survivable adventure. Hank Kiasim died in the woods off the
third turn at Hudson, Charlie Coffin at The Pines.
It wasn’t long before the technical complexion of the pit area had
changed again. Leading car builders had found that it was easier to
start from scratch – to design chassis using tubing rather than
cobbling something together with a rusted junkyard frame.
Additionally, the wide use of fuel injection and professionally
engineered mounts and linkages drastically improved reliability. As
the railed Tewksbury Auto Parts “Flying 5” with Smokey Boutwell at
the wheel shows clearly (below, right), cutdowns of the late sixties
were really early supermodifieds, ready to take on the steamroller
tires and honker motors of the seventies.
Anyone lucky enough to witness one of those New England cutdown
shows – especially at night – will attest to the excitement. The
sight of 24 guys in tee shirts wrestling these sparking, smoking,
ill-handling, but lightning fast hot rods can never be forgotten. It
will certainly never happen again, not with today’s issues of
insurance, litigation, and strict adherence to the rules.
Massachusetts’ Gavin Couper, a seasoned veteran of cutdown battles,
once quipped, “There was nuthin’ like it, but, I’ll tell you, you
could get hurt just lookin’ at one.”
© 2008 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181
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