Contributed by Justin St. Louis
Diverse group of eight to be inducted in November
SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. – The New England Auto Racers (NEAR) Hall of Fame has announced that it will induct eight new members into its Class of 2017 – the 20th year for the region’s most prestigious honor roll. A wide-ranging group of drivers, car owners and builders, one crew chief, and one multi-faceted contributor will join the NEAR Hall of Fame, raising the total to 225 members enshrined.
Steve Bird, Ben Dodge Jr., Tom Dunn, Russ Wood, Bobby Gahan, Gardiner Leavitt, and racing brothers Jeff and Rick Fuller will be formally inducted into the NEAR Hall of Fame on Sunday, November 12, at Maneely’s Banquet Hall in South Windsor, Connecticut. For more information including placing a ticket order, visit the official NEAR website at www.NEAR1.org.
A native of Salem, N.H., Bird made a lasting impression on the national NASCAR trail as an elite crew chief. After getting his start in the 1970s with barnstorming NEAR Hall of Fame driver Pete Fiandaca in the Modified ranks, Bird graduated to travel the coast-to-coast Winston Cup and Busch Series circuits for more than 20 years.
“Birdie” was a crew member for Ron Bouchard’s 1981 Cup win at Talladega, and then later as a crew chief he prepared winning cars for Busch drivers Steve Grissom, Kenny Wallace, and the late Robbie Moroso; Bird and Moroso won the championship together in 1989. Bird dominated in 1995-97 when he won three consecutive Busch titles and 12 races with BACE Motorsports drivers Johnny Benson Jr. and NEAR Hall of Famer Randy LaJoie.
Ben Dodge Jr. enters the NEAR Hall of Fame for his work as an announcer, race promoter, track manager, and media personality. Dodge got his start on the microphone at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass., in 1973 at age 19, and his voice quickly became well-known and respected. Dodge became more deeply involved at ‘The Park’ when he became the promoter in 1982 and held that position for 15 seasons; during that time, Dodge helped transform the speedway from a flat 1/5-mile oval into a racy, banked 1/4-mile under NASCAR sanction.
The Vernon, Conn., native was later a key player at Thompson (Conn.) Speedway in 1997-98 and again from 2005 to 2012, where he was the announcer and part of the management team. Dodge hit the television and radio airwaves, too, producing and anchoring 325 episodes of “Raceweek” on the New England Sports Network (NESN) starting in 1981, “NASCAR New England” in 2005-07, and hosting the syndicated “This Week In Racing” radio program from 1979-96. Dodge also owned a Modified team and collected a handful of victories.
Wrentham, Mass., native Tom Dunn was a prolific winner both in straight lines and on short tracks. He began drag racing in 1953 and at one point enjoyed an incredible five-year undefeated streak; his top victory came in an NHRA national event at Lebanon Valley (N.Y.) Dragway in 1964. Dunn went oval racing as a car owner in 1971, briefly running Late Models before switching to Modifieds and Pro-4 Mini-Modifieds.
Fielding the famous No. T-5 Pinto wagon, a who’s-who of Modified stars drove for Dunn including Richie Evans, Bugsy Stevens, George Summers, Ollie Silva, Mike Ordway, Bentley Warren, and others. Championships came with drivers Fred Schulz, Leo Cleary, and Jeff Fuller, and Cleary and Dave Lind won titles in Dunn’s Pro-4 cars. Dunn was also revered as a master engine builder, working with Modified, Mini-Modified, and Midget teams.
Russ Wood of Pelham, N.H., is a legend in Supermodified racing. During his time with the International Supermodified Association (ISMA), he collected 54 race victories – second on the series’ all-time list – and a record eight ISMA championships from 1991 through 2011.
Wood was the track champion at Star Speedway in 1988, 1989, and 2000, and at Lee USA in 1996; he missed the title at Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway in 1994 by just 12 points. His best season was in 1997 when he won 14 of his 28 total starts and never finished worse than fourth place, and among his total 111 career wins are a record eight Star Classics and four wins in Ohio’s Sandusky Classic.
Lee, N.H., native Bobby Gahan piled up incredible records as a weekly “Saturday night” racer on a tight budget. Following in the footsteps of his legendary father, Ernie, Bobby started racing in 1968 at age 19. Gahan is celebrated for his efficiency, longevity, and versatility, winning for nearly 40 years in open-wheel Modifieds and full-fender Late Models and Pro Stocks.
Gahan won a total of 13 track championships at Lee USA, Star Speedway, and Hudson International in his home state, as well as Maine’s Beech Ridge Motor Speedway; his three consecutive Modified titles at Beech Ridge came on dirt in 1985 and on asphalt in 1986 and ’87. Gahan was the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series New England Region champion in 1998 and won nearly 200 feature races during his career.
Gardiner Leavitt is perhaps the sentimental favorite in the Class of 2017. While not a frequent winner, “The Geezer From Kezar” – as in, Kezar Falls, Maine – has been a significant contributor and a favorite among fans and drivers alike since his 1951 debut behind the wheel. The expert chassis builder and parts dealer called Beech Ridge home and did manage to win several races including a 200-lapper.
Leavitt and his wife, June, hit the road in the 1970s and ran with NASCAR North and later the American-Canadian Tour until his retirement in 1988; his stat line includes a fourth-place finish in the 1979 point standings. After taking on the role of car owner, his familiar No. 1X cars carried Brad Leighton, Glenn Cusack, and Steve Knowlton, and won an ACT race at Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway with Kelly Moore aboard in 1989.
For the first time in NEAR history, two brothers will be included in the same Hall of Fame class, as Auburn, Mass., products Jeff and Rick Fuller will join the club. Jeff Fuller won the 1992 championship on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, and his 31 career wins rank him fifth on the all-time list, with victories at 10 tracks including Martinsville Speedway, Nazareth Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and Oxford Plains.
Jeff Fuller scored two major wins in full-size stock cars in 1996, earning a NASCAR Busch Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway in August and a Busch North Series win in the Thompson Speedway 300 the next month. Jeff drove Tom Dunn’s No. T-5 to the Westboro (Mass.) Speedway Modified championship in 1979 and 1981, and also won the 1982 Westboro Late Model title.
Rick Fuller owns 20 NASCAR Modified Tour victories (eighth all-time) and succeeded his older brother as the champion in 1993. Rick finished 17 of his 18 full-time seasons running the Tour inside the Top 10 and ranked third or better six times. He was voted the series’ Most Popular Driver in 2000.
Before his Tour years, Rick Fuller was a big winner in weekly competition, taking countless feature wins and Late Model titles at Westboro in 1980 and Thompson in 1982, as well as Modified titles at Thompson in 1984 and the New London-Waterford (Conn.) Speedbowl in 1985. Rick later won a NASCAR Busch North Series race at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway in 1998.
The NEAR Hall of Fame awards dinner will be held at Maneeley’s Banquet Hall in South Windsor, Conn., on Sunday, November 12. Still to be announced are Hall of Fame selections from the Veterans’ Committee and the winner of NEAR’s annual Mitchell-Ratta Media Award. For more information, visit www.NEAR1.org.