By RON SZCZERBA
FONDA, NY – After suffering the second rain out of the young 2017 racing season last Saturday, the “Track of Champions” Fonda Speedway will be back in action on Saturday, May 13 as Demitraszek Enterprises will present a regular show in all divisions with the first heat race of the evening scheduled to get the green flag at 7:00 p.m.
Highlighting the Mother’s Day weekend racing program will be a tribute to Rene Charland along with the Dick Schoonover tribute that was to be held last Saturday before the rain out. Charland and Schoonover are both members of the Fonda Speedway Hall of Fame with inductions back in 1988 and 2016 respectively.
They are both NYSSCA Hall of Fame members as well as Charland was inducted back in 1989 while Schoonover was inducted back in 2005. Charland is also a member of the New England Auto Racing (NEAR) Hall of Fame and was inducted by Bruce Cohen in the inaugural class of the NEAR organization Hall of Fame back in 1998.
On Saturday, August 6, the evening that Schoonover was inducted into the Fonda Speedway Hall of Fame, pro stock competitor Tom Denton honored Schoonover by re-numbering his car to Schoonover’s number which was 26A. Re-numbering the car as Denton did may have brought him some good luck as well as Denton won his first career feature event in the pro stock division at Fonda on that night. More about Schoonover can be found in a press release sent out last week.
According to the book FONDA! there is a section titled Rene Charland: A Champ and a Scamp, which states that Massachusetts native Rene Charland was a pillar in Fonda Speedway history. But he came to the “Track of Champions” by a circuitous route. After conquering the obscure dirt bullrings of his home state, Vermont, and New Hampshire early in his career, Charland took his act on the road as a member of the famed “Eastern Bandits”.
The bandits were a confederation of New Englanders like Red Foote, Ed Flemke, and Pete Hamilton who traveled up and down the East Coast as a group, racing as many nights a week as humanly possible, descending upon any track that was open, and appropriating the lion’s share of the purse money from the locals.
As a Bandit, Rene raced nearly 100 times a season. This prolific grind made him an annual lock for the NASCAR National Sportsman Point Championship four years running in 1962-1965 and earned him the lifelong nickname “The Champ”. Point chasing occasionally brought Rene to Fonda, his first win there coming on 6/13/1964 at age 36. But he fell in love with the place, became a regular, and eventually moved permanently to the Fonda area.
Rene has a total of 18 feature victories at Fonda, the final one coming on 5/24/1975, currently placing him 20th on the all-time win list, and he was crowned the track champion at Fonda once during his career back in 1970. After retirement as a driver, car owner Charland fielded competitive rides for Nick and Don Ronca. But Rene Charland was more than a successful racer; he was the court jester, a prankster extraordinaire.
Bruce Cohen, a Charland confidant who inducted “The Champ” into the NEAR Hall of Fame, contributed the following piece in the book FONDA! chronicling Fonda’s clown prince.
“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 an unsuspecting victim, or to deftly throw a rubber snake at an official with reptile-phobia. And sometimes the snake wasn’t rubber.”
“Rene’s most famous Fonda car was the Fred Rosner built, Dick Czepiel owned, and John Lopardo wrenched #888. It had a black vinyl roof, considered fashionable in the late 60’s. But Rene had an ulterior motive, He was the master of jumping restarts in turn three. The mound on the infield there, obscured all but his car’s entirely dark top. The black roof blended into the night sky, making his re-current restart cheating difficult to detect. Rene’s defense: “Hey, I was running against superstars like Corey (Pete), the Shoe (Kenny Shoemaker), Louie (Lazzaro), and Billy Wimble. I had to do something.”
“After three straight wins by the #888 in 1967, Fonda chief steward Ralph Outekirk caught into Charland’s chicanery, and ordered Charland to paint the numbers 888 on the roof. Outkirk’s excuse: it was for scoring purposes. The following week, Rene made it four straight-his roof still entirely black. Outekirk charged into Rene’s pit space yelling. “Dammit Rene. I told you to paint numbers on that roof.”
With a twinkle in his eye and a chew on his ever-present cigar, Charland retorted, “I did what you told me to Ralph. Look over here.” Sure enough, Rene had hired a sign painter to paint “888” in black gloss enamel on the black vinyl roof. Now Outekirk was really steaming. “But Ralph, you never told me what color to use,” Rene said.
The following week the car had white roof numbers. And Rene won again, passing Bill Wimble on the last lap, a hundred yards from the finish. Rene’s take: “Bill Wimble just committed Hari Kari, and Ralph Outekirk is about to join him.”
Charland ended up winning five straight features at Fonda in 1967 from 7/22 through 8/12, three of them being 100-lap events. His win total that year at Fonda was seven.
That is just an excerpt about Charland from the book FONDA! but there is so much more throughout the book about not only Rene, but Schoonover and many other drivers as well who made Fonda the historic track that it is and also made it known as the “Track of Champions.” The book has been re-printed in its entirety and is available at www.coastal181.com
Also please check out the Fonda Speedway Museum which is open on every race night in one of the buildings on the Montgomery County Fairgrounds property. Dave, Jackie, and Jessica Lape along with their staff members have done a great job recreating the history of the “Track of Champions” in the museum so be sure to check stop and say hi to them.
As always more information about the Fonda Speedway, which is one of the most historic locations in Montgomery County, can be found on their new and improved website www.newfondaspeedway.com