March 3, 2009
BERGGREN’S FIRST WIN
No question about it, the
guy is a piece of work. Dick Berggren, America’s favorite pit road
television commentator, Executive Editor of Speedway Illustrated
magazine, and photographer extraordinaire, has entertained us with
enthusiastic, insightful, and fact-based race reporting over the
last 40 years. He is as skilled as you can be in watching an event
and uncovering its real essence. He’s been a passionate public
pioneer of racing safety and a quiet contributor to more
down-on-their-luck racing people than we will ever know.
Bergie has carried a number of nicknames over the years. A favorite
among his close buddies is “the Rolaid Rocket.” He starts every day
from a launch pad, blasting through it all with energetic intensity
and a side dish of indigestion. As I write this Tearoff on a Monday,
he is wending his way back to Ipswich, Massachusetts, from the
spring NASCAR weekend in Las Vegas. With first light tomorrow
morning, he will be back in his magazine office burning up the word
processor. It will be only two days in the office before he is off
to Atlanta. And, if there is the remotest chance he can fit in a
visit to one of his beloved short tracks along the way, he’ll do
Some years back, another of his handles was “Doctor Dirt.” The
Doctor part comes in recognition of his Ph.D. in psychology from the
prestigious Tufts University outside of Boston. “Dirt” refers to his
own colorful exploits in the cockpit before television took him away
Bergie ran an early NASCAR late model division called “Tigers”
before graduating to dirt open wheel modifieds and sprinters in the
seventies. He competed widely in the Northeast and was particularly
successful in a sprint car on the oiled dirt of Beech Ridge Speedway
in Maine. His friends, though, will tell you that his very first win
was the most remarkable. It went down at the old Lakeville (MA)
Speedway near Providence, Rhode Island, and what a show it was.
Lakeville was a broken down, rock-strewn 5/8-mile dirt oval that ran
open competition races on Sunday afternoons. There were no rules, no
tech men – and you can imagine what happened. Everything came
through the gate, from former Holman and Moody Grand National cars
to New York/New Jersey dirt modifieds, to local street stocks.
In 1971 Bergie bought an ancient, clapped-out supermodified that had
run with Oscar Ridlon’s old URDC circuit in New Hampshire. It was
the kind of car that would hurt you just for the looking. He slapped
a motor in it – sort of – and was off to Lakeville. Total investment
had to be south of $1,000.
Qualifying was plain ridiculous.
Bergie’s “Spring Sizzler 80” rocked, sputtered, and squeaked so
outrageously that it attracted a crowd in the pits after the heat.
Good thing, because Bergie gave everyone a wrench. It was
overheating, so out came the radiator for fin cleaning. It was down
a cylinder, so it was timed, the valves adjusted, and spark plugs –
two maybe – were changed. Another group attached the coupler from
the crank to the driveshaft that was moaning noisily. A third team
took on the rear end, changing gears and welding up the shock mount
that had flapped in the breeze.
It looked like there was no way he could make the show, but after
two courtesy laps, the throng of volunteers played “Workin’ Woody”
and pushed him off. He fell in at the back of the field.
Amazingly, that scary little #80 picked up about two seconds, good
enough to be solidly mid-pack. Then, about halfway through, the
leaders started crashing, pitting, or dropping out, and Doctor Dirt
was suddenly in the hunt. And, wouldn’t you know, with two to go he
took the lead – and won it.
Nobody could quite believe what they had just seen. And at first, as
the decrepit #80 sat in Victory Lane, smoking and steaming, nobody
noticed that Dick Berggren wasn’t there. Just about when a search
party was being organized, he reappeared for the celebration. He had
jumped out of the car, run through the gate and raced down the
street to a pay phone to call his dad to tell him he’d won a
Bergie was very much in evidence for the rest of the evening. He
invited everyone in that formidable pit crew over to the adjoining
Golden Spur Restaurant for burgers and beer. And more beer.
He spent the whole purse.
© 2009 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181