by Larry Floersch
“I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.”
Those lyrics by Bruce Springsteen from his song “Racing in the Street” are lost on many people. Only real car nuts know what fuelie heads and a Hurst shifter are. If you are one of those people, a true “gearhead,” then a visit to the Vermont History Center in Barre definitely is in order. But you don’t have to know a downdraft carburetor from a disc brake to find the center’s exhibit on the history of auto racing in Vermont well worth your time.
The exhibit, Anything for Speed: Automobile Racing in Vermont, opened in April and highlights the race tracks, drivers, promoters, and mechanics who have gained fame in the pursuit of speed in the Green Mountain State over the past 100 years.
There have never been superspeedways like Daytona or Talladega in Vermont, or even nearby. The nearest track hosting NASCAR races is the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. But who knew that at various times there were more than 30 active short tracks in Vermont? In the central area alone were the East Montpelier Speedway, Dog River Speedway (Northfield), Morrisville Speedway, East Corinth Speedway, Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford), and, of course, “The nation’s site of excitement,” Thunder Road in Barre.
And Vermont hosts more than short-track racing. It has also been home to numerous hill climbs. The annual Mount Equinox Hill Climb, for example, is one of oldest and longest running events of its kind for its length. Only the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado is older. Rally car racing has also been popular in the state.
Many Vermont drivers have attained national prominence, starting in 1903 with Horatio Nelson Jackson, a physician from Burlington, who on a $50 bet first drove an automobile across the U.S. from coast to coast to prove that it could be done. More recently, Kevin Lepage of Shelburne went from racing locally to become a regular on the NASCAR circuit.
The exhibit also emphasizes that, just as in Europe (the Schumacher brothers in Formula 1) and on the national scene (the Pettys, Waltrips, and Andrettis in NASCAR and Indy car racing), racing in Vermont is often a family affair: the Laquerres of East Montpelier, the Dragons of Milton, the Stockwells of Braintree, and the Elmses of Bradford. And, of course, Vermont’s current governor, Phil Scott, is almost certainly the only of his peers who competes in late model stock car racing—and wins.
On display in the exhibit are tools, a flathead V-8 racing engine, pieces of racecar bodywork that have become “detached” in furious competition, helmets (one of the first to employ a radio so the driver could communicate with his pit crew and spotters was developed in Vermont), and scale models of race cars past and present. The lobby features an actual open-wheeled Indy-style “midget” race car complete with Hoosier brand racing slicks. And if you feel the need for speed, there is a racing simulator in which you can try your hand at piloting a race car.
Anything for Speed runs through March 30, 2019, at The Vermont History Center (60 Washington St., Barre) and is open Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm. Admission: Adults, $7; students and seniors, $5; children under 6, free; families, $20 ($10 with coupon available on the Center’s website). vermonthistory.org/visit/vermont-history-center