|This article was published in the Gater racing news in February of 2013
Chemung Speedrome: the Early Years
By Bob Johnson
All race fans have one thing in common. We all had an initial spark that led to our love of the sport.
Whether it was going off to the races to watch a relative drive, having a neighbor who had a stock car
parked in the driveway or merely making a visit to the local track, there was a catalyst which ignited
My match was lit in 1968 when I was all of seven years old. My mother, God bless her, decided we
should all go to the races. For whatever reason, she chose to make the trip down past Elmira to the
old Chemung Speedrome. I don’t remember much about that night except that I was glued to my
seat. I didn’t want to miss one minute of the action. This was when it was still a clay track. It was
dirty, it was loud and I was loving it!
BEFORE THERE WAS a race track there was an orchard and a cornfield…
It was by sheer coincidence that the track came to fruition in the first place. Eli Bodine, Sr. was in
Ithaca having his car repaired. The mechanic working on it asked him if he liked stock car racing.
Mr. Bodine’s reply was that he did indeed. This led to a conversation about racing. The mechanic,
Karl Beilou, brought up the fact that the local racers from the Finger Lakes racing club had become
disenchanted with the track they were running at. The possibility of building a track on the Bodine
farm was discussed. Bodine jokingly agreed to the request not thinking it would ever come to pass.
The next day was Saturday. Much to Bodine’s surprise, members of the racing club came calling on
the farm. This group consisted of Rolf Holcomb, Hank Clark, Bill Perkins, Bucky Dew, Percy Brown
and “Dad” Young. Young holds the distinction of being responsible for naming the track the
Chemung Speed Drome (later changed to Speedrome).
The property contained a spot that held an orchard and a cornfield. It was surrounded on one side
by banking creating a natural amphitheater. With the help of the gentlemen from the racing club, Eli
Sr. and Eli Jr. (Junie) started laying out the racecourse. Stones were used to mark the inside line of
the track and then a tractor was driven around to tamp it down.
By Monday work had commenced in earnest. Bulldozing began and the cornfield and orchard were
razed. The banking was cut into creating what would become the front stretch. A mechanical grader
was brought in to finish the job whipping the track into shape. The men were well on their way in
building a ¼ -mile bullring.
The Bodines were a resourceful bunch. With help from Harry Carlyle, they utilized lumber taken
from the local woods to create seating, light poles and fencing. The lighting fixtures were obtained
second hand and an army surplus electrical generator that had been used in reserve on the farm
supplied the necessary power to run the operation.
Chemung Speedrome came roaring to life on May 5th, 1951. With a crowd officials estimated at
3,000 people, the big winner that first night was Earl Zimdahl. The first night of racing also brought
the first big dust-up. Harry “Flipper” Carlyle took a wild roll resulting in his car catching fire. At this
point in time a barn still stood in the infield. This obscured the view and led to anxious moments
before it was learned that Carlyle was a-okay (the barn was subsequently removed shortly after). With
a bang, racing had found a welcome home in southern Chemung County.
Those first races were run and sponsored by the Finger Lakes Stock Car Racing Association. Initially
the track was very dusty as they were running on a pure dirt surface. It took some time to figure out
how to properly treat the track. The Bodines came up with a salt and calcium preparation which
would help to maintain the moisture in the racing surface.
It costs a lot of money to maintain a speedway. It’s true now and it was true then. Of course, the
amounts back then seem insignificant in comparison to today’s costs. Take for example the year
1956. The expenditure for track prep before the season even started was $700. To bulldoze the track
cost an additional $300. Twenty-two tons of calcium was used at $47 a ton. There was also ten tons
of salt laid down, at $8.50 a ton. I know that $2,119 doesn’t seem like a lot of money today but
$2,450 would purchase a very nicely equipped ’56 Bel-Air complete with the 255 H.P. Corvette motor.
TRIAL BY FIRE…
From the get-go the track had its work cut out for them as there was a glut of new and established
tracks in the area. Venues sprang up like ragweed in the early to mid- fifties. Within an hour drive
they were competing with places like Shangri-La, Naples, South Lansing, Drive-In Speedway and the
Troy Fairgrounds. It didn’t get any easier as other tracks in Big Flats, Bath, Ovid and Addison sprang
Regardless to whatever tracks came onto the scene, Chemung would host a virtual who’s who of
racing talent. Some of those drivers included Jackie Baldwin, Jackie Soper, Bucky Dew, Art
“Chubby” Chandler, Cal “Swivel” Lane, “Flyin” Bryan Osgood and of course, Earl Bodine.
Most tracks had very short lives. It wasn’t unusual for a track to close the shutters after a season or
two. This is one of the things that made Chemung unusual… longevity. That being said, the track
went through its share of ups and downs.
One of the biggest upheavals came during the summer of 1957 as the track was rocked with turmoil.
A fight had been smoldering with the sanctioning body, the Atlantic Stock Car Racing Association.
As is usually the case, the crux came over a minor incident. A red-lighted race caused the
Speedrome and the Atlantic to fall into a terrible war of words.
Both sides used the media in an attempt to sway public opinion further fueling the fire. When the
dust settled both sides worked their problems out and finished the ’57 season but the damage was
done. The end result was the formation of the Chemung Racing Association which took over
sanctioning for 1958. In addition, Jackie Markos Racing Associates took over track promotion.
Problem solved (for the short term at least).
There were many incarnations of the speedway. In 1958 the track was expanded from the ¼-mile
configuration to a 1/3-mile. The banking was increased in 1963. New concrete grandstands graced
the property in 1964. Finally, in August of 1969, the biggest change of all came to pass. After years of
talk, Chemung became a paved speed-plant. The asphalt was laid down in a lightning quick four
days. On August 8th, 1969, a new era of racing was born.
THE SECOND COMING…
With the paving of Chemung came a different brand of racing. Gone was the rough and tumble world
of the dirt track. The open wheeled cut-down modifieds ( or” bugs” as they were affectionately called)
were gone. In their place came full-fendered late models. The pavement would lead to faster wheel to
wheel action. That first night on the new surface found Herbie Green shaving 1.1 seconds off the old
lap record and making the trip around the 1/3-mile in 17.1 seconds.
New names emerged and new stars were born of this era. These were arguably some of the best
drivers to turn a wheel at Chemung. Guys like Green, Tommy Gush, Mike Casterline, Billy Griffin
and Bob Frisbie had left their mark at one point or another. A couple of the Bodine boys got their
start on the Chemung oval. And lest we forget a fellow by the name of Kent who had started to set the
Many would consider this to be the golden age of racing at Chemung. It would be hard to argue this
point. For ten years the speedway would host an incredible brand of bullring action. Tight tracks
lead to tight racing. Shaped like an egg, Chemung would prove to be a hard track for a lot of guys to
figure out. The oval put a premium on good setup. It lent itself to intense wheel to wheel action.
All GOOD THINGS must come to an end…
The mid-seventies would find the track starting on a downward spiral. Uncertainty had come to grip
the track. An article by Joe Amentler in 1976 had eluded to Junie Bodine looking for others to take
over track management. It was at this point that Dewey Telesca stepped in to try his hand at
Telesca had moxy and the mind-set that he would do whatever it took to make the track succeed.
With the help of Tom Holleran and Fred Quail, different things were tried to drum up business. One
thing Telesca did was convince top-notch drivers from Western New York to come east to race. This
was accomplished by offering “tow” money to drivers like Art Clark, Gail Barber and Doug Hewitt.
The year 1977 would find Geoff Bodine making a homecoming appearance. Dick O’Brien, the
promoter from Oswego Speedway, had rented the track to run the “Fall Fling”. A record number of
sixty-one modifieds had descended on the speedway that cold November day. Driving the Dick
Armstrong #1 from the back of the pack, Bodine was able to pick his way through the field on his way
to a popular victory.
Emblazened with the success of that fall race, Telesca brought the NASCAR modifieds back in 1978.
He switched racing to Saturday nights placing the track in head to head competition with Shangri-
La. Both tracks suffered in both car counts and attendance.
Stock car racing returned as the main staple in 1979, albeit with just street-stocks and mini-stocks.
Telesca explored another avenue to drum up interest at the track. A one-fifth mile dirt track was
built in the infield to host motorcycle racing. Advertising was geared towards the bikes as a way to
bolster gate revenue.
Telesca had poured his heart and soul into the track. Try as he might the embers were dying out
rather quickly. The decision was made to pull the plug and with that came the end of racing at the
There were many factors coming together to spell doom for the speedway. It boils down to these two.
First and foremost was that the country was in the midst of a major recession. The economy had
been sputtering along for quite some time. Much like what we face today, people just didn’t have
The second was that by the time Dewey Telesca had closed the gates the Bodines had moved on to
New England. Geoff was driving for Nu-Style Racing and Eli Jr. had procured a job with the team. In
the end they just didn’t have reason to come back.
Of course, this was not to be the end of the speedrome. A gentleman by the name of Bob Stapleton
would eventually purchase the property. Much like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the speedway
would come back to life.
1) Eli Bodine Jr. presents the hardware to race winner Cal Lane (L.O. Duncan photo) Welty collection
2) Herb Green in the #88 Mercury Comet (L.O. Duncan photo) Nichols collection
3) Hall of Famer George Kent in what would become very familiar territory (L.O. Duncan photo)
4) Earl Bodine in the famous #188 "Bug". (L.O. Duncan photo) Welty collection
|This article was published in the Gater on October 16, 2012
WOMEN of the ATLANTIC
By BOB JOHNSON
“A women’s place is in the home”
It’s sad to say, in our age of enlightenment, that there was a time in American society when this was
the accepted norm. This was the golden-age of mid-fifties America with Eisenhower in the White
House. We were all about baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. It was a time of the single
income family where mom, much like June Cleaver, stayed home, raised the kids and had supper
waiting on the table. A mothers place was in the home and most certainly not at the racetrack ripping
There were, of course, exceptions to this rule. As early as the 1920’s prominent female auto racer
Jaon Lacoste was racing in Europe. In the late forties Sara Christian had become the first female
driver in NASCAR. There had always been a small presence. By small I mean miniscule. Women
driving in powder puffs was fairly common in the late forties and early fifties. Promoters had utilized
this “novelty act” as an added attraction for quite some time. What made the Southern Tier based
Atlantic Women’s Racing Association unique was the fact that the ladies had organized. Women had
been racing at the Chemung Speedrome in New York and the Towanda VFW Speedway in
Pennsylvania vying for spring, mid-season and season ending championships. They wanted more.
In late 1956 plans were put into motion to establish a club, in the words of Ethel Bennett, “with the
hopes of promoting more and better powder-puff races in 1957”.
The club would be open to any and all females who drove or had the desire to drive.
Organizational meetings were held and officials elected. Initially these were Ethel Bennett
(President), Doris Georgia (Vice-President), Darlene Simpson (secretary) and Eris Welty (treasurer).
The club was established in 1957 with 28 original members.
It was a club in every sense of the word with the women congregating to swap stories and recipes.
Meetings were held every third Tuesday of each month. Typically this would consist of refreshments,
a business update and a rousing game of shuffle-board. The winner walked away with a delicious box
of chocolates. I distinctly remember seeing something about them taking a bus trip together to visit
New York City as way to bond even more. As a money maker, the women put together a very
handsome program booklet which they would sell at the racetracks. This enabled the ladies to
purchase beautiful scarlet and white satin jackets for “all the members in good standing”.
The clubs ranks were swelled with spouses and relatives of familiar male racers sharing names like
Buchanan, Soper, Benjamin and Blanchard. I’m sure that for some it was a lark, but some of the
women were down right serious. It was pointed out to me that many of these women were much like
the men, very passionate about the sport. Candy Dolin, whose mother Esther Bierney raced, shared
this with me. “As a kid I can remember very clearly these ‘powder puff‘ events were pretty rough and
tumble and raced with extreme seriousness. I can recall listening to the adults discussing a couple
serious on-track grudge situations that developed between mother and a couple other ladies.” The
chrome horn was used with a vengeance.
At this time no one was more serious than Nettie Ellis. A lovely, petite 30 year old mother who looked
all the world like a school teacher, Nettie was the yardstick by which all others would be measured.
Dubbed the “Queen of Chemung Speedrome”, she had been racing since 1951. At the wheel of
Maynard Bodine’s potent #88, Ellis was almost un-stoppable. Ellis had once been erroneously placed
in the scratch position in a powder-puff championship. The winner, Ethel Bennett, ran away with the
race from the pole. Ellis, having to claw her way through the field, had come up short. Not at all happy
about the outcome, she was quoted as saying, “let’s see how she (Bennett) does from the back”.
Amazingly, the first season of the A.W.R.A. found Delores Blanchard of Elmira taking the
championship in a huge upset over two cagey veterans and fan favorites, Bennett and Ellis.
The year 1958 came with great expectations for the club. The new year brought new officials with
Ethel Buchanan elected President and 1957 season champion Delores Blanchard taking over Vice-
Presidential duties. Once again they would be racing at Chemung and Towanda. Unfortunately 1958
turned out to be a tumultuous year in racing for the Southern Tier. The Atlantic Stock Car Racing
Association had a falling out with the local race tracks. Having lost their sanction at Chemung the
previous year, 1958 found them losing the sanction for racing at Towanda and Glider City Sports
The women of the A.W.R.A., who had tried to disassociate themselves from the mess, were instead,
swept into the fray. They ended the season under the umbrella of the Penn-York Racing Association.
This was the new Towanda club. The awards banquet ended the season was for the Penn-York
Atlantic Women’s Racing Association. Just like that the Atlantic Women’s Racing Association was no
Subsequent organizations were formed, most notably the Penn-York and Chemung clubs. They just
weren’t as far reaching and ambitious as the original. It would have been interesting to see how the
club would have progressed without the turmoil. Like most great ideas, the notion of organized
women’s racing was a little ahead of it’s time. One thing is for sure. These women were not tied to a
AWRA 1: Nettie Ellis holds the checkered flag as Chemung Speedrome Flagman Bob Fuller shows her
a trophy she has won. (from the Elmira Sportsman Herald. Aug.,1956)
AWRA 2: Women of the A.W.R.A. (seated left to right) Ethel Bennett; Doris Georgia; Eris Welty.
(standing left to right) Eloise Foster; Ethel Buchanan; Barbara Bennett (from the Elmira Sportsman
Herald. Jan., 1957)