In May of 1961, muscle cars of all kinds invaded the quiet hamlet of Dover, New York. Hidden amongst the trees along the eastern border of New York, Dover seemed like an unlikely place for an invasion of this magnitude, as gearheads of every allegiance gathered for what was sure to be an epic occasion. The event was the opening of the Dover Drag Strip, a little slice of muscle car nirvana for gearheads from all over New England who yearned for a flat stretch of strip where they could run flat out against competitors in a legal setting.
In many ways, the Dover Drag Strip was a metaphor for the muscle car movement itself. At its peak, famous racers and amateurs alike, representing every major and minor, brand made their way to Dover. For 15 years Dover attracted racers like flies to honey, until, like many muscle cars, it became a neglected relic. In 1976 the drag strip was closed, and today it is nothing more than an overgrown field dotted with a few slabs of asphalt.
Yet the bonds and friendships forged at that two-lane blacktop survived the closing, and for over 20 years now former racers from the Dover Drag Strip have gathered for an annual reunion in the town of Dover. Led by Dean “Dino” Lawrence, who runs a website for Dover fans, these friends and family don’t just gather to reminisce anymore; they still have the burning desire to race in their hearts and the heavy lead feet that served them well back at Dover. Thus many of them made the long journey down to Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey for the second annual Dover Nostalgia Drag Races.
I attended this epic event to see for myself the power that nostalgia has in pulling together dozens of former (and many current) race car drivers and enthusiasts alike. What I didn’t expect to see there were the many die hard car guys still running the same cars they ran fifty years ago back at Dover. Older, grayer, though not always wiser, these drag racing aficionados came from as far away as Florida for a chance to catch up, settle old grudge matches, and reminisce about the days at Dover long past.
One of these die hards was Gerry Radacsi, who was there with his all-original 1955 Corvette. “I bought this car when I was 16,” he says. “Back then you needed to be 17 to sign for a car, so I had my brother sign for me. I bought it for $1,600 bucks and served on the tech crew at Dover while I raced my car there and at other drag strips. I had to leave it all behind when I was drafted into the service in 1963.” Gerry parked his Corvette in a cow barn, and then moved it to the basement of his house where it sat, unmolested, for many decades. Only recently did he dig it out. “It still has the original 283 motor, the same pistons and camshaft I put in all those years ago.” And it still flies down the drag strip too.
The two-day event did not just appeal to Dover veterans, however. There were a surprising number of younger faces, like Paul Maletsky, who was there with his replica 1955 Chevy Gasser. “I built it to be period correct,” he says. That includes the 396 engine, suspension, and even the seats, which were pilfered from an period-correct van. Another young whippersnapper was Kevin Bleakly, a self-professed Mustang fanatic who to date has owned “over 30 Mustangs.” The ride he brought to Island Dragway was a ’68 Mustang GT 350 clone powered by a souped-up 351 engine. With a Tremec TKO transmission, 4:56 gears with a full spool, and a full interior, Kevin was just happy to be there around so many veterans and legends.
The event was sponsored by M And M Speed, a shop based out of Flordia run by Rich Marchese and his wife. M And M specializes in GM G-body cars, like the 80’s El Camino and Chevy Malibu. They were there with their sponsored car, a ’41 Fiberglass Willys driven by Mikey McDermmott. Mikey is another Dover veteran, having worked at the timeslip booth at the end of the track for ten years. He came up from Flordia with the Marchese’s to be there for the race. “I traded my tool box for this car,” he says of the Willys, which was powered by a Chevy 406 with aluminum heads and backed by a TH350 trans.
It is perhaps even more amazing though that so many of these men (and their collectively patient wives) managed to hang on to their cars and memories from the Dover drag strip. It isn’t like they all had the forethought to hang on to these muscle cars, in the hopes that they some day might be worth a small fortune. Many of these men have tales of the car that “got away,” or selling their dragster for pennies on the dollar when the Arab oil embargo hit. Some of them just couldn’t bear to part with their rides though, squirreling them away for a day when again they would roar down a drag strip. It is a testament to the lasting effect the muscle car movement had (and still has) on an entire generation.
Not every car there was built to be easy on the eyes. Ron Booker, a New Jersey native, was there with his un-restored (and quite rusty) 1969 Nova. He was perhaps the craziest man at the track, running a 468 engine on 112 octane in whose only stopping power comes from the original drum brakes. “I have to use both feet to stop,” he says with an unconcerned laugh. Considering Island Dragway does not have an extensive runoff, every run was a risk for Ron, though he was just out to enjoy himself (and show up some much prettier cars).
The attendance of the event was impressive, drawing people from all over the East Coast as the veterans of Dover spread out over the years. There were just too many cars to cover and give their fair due like Rich DeLelle’s ’39 Chevy Sedan, which he drove all the way from Stamford, Connecticut, or Ray Vauer’s 2010 Transformer’s Edition Camaro with a Vortech supercharger (not a Dover original, though an impressive ride all the same). There was nothing sacred about any of these cars, and there were no trailer queens among them.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, over 130 cars (and a handful of trucks, old and new alike) lined up for a shot down the track. Saturday was a test and tune day, where everybody got a chance to dial their cars in and remedy any problems that might crop up. There was also a “gambler’s run,” where over 30 contestants each ponied up $20 each for a shot at taking home the whole pot. It wasn’t a contest of speed, however, but a contest of reaction times, where the quickest person off the line won. On Sunday was the “real” competition as everybody lined up to enter into the class that best fit their car.
The races itself were divided into classes that were never seen at Dover, as time has led to many advances in the automotive realm. There were classes for four and five-speed cars, as well as the standard competition, eliminator, and top speed runs. Those three classes were won by one car, Bill Masiello. Vinnie Lyons won the four-speed class for his Rye Ford Cobra Jet (the same car he won the class with in 1968).
It was astounding to watch so many old cars (and older drivers) take off down the track with the same enthusiasm they had decades ago. It makes one wonder, where will we, today’s up-and-coming gearheads, be 50 years from now? I know I will follow the example of Dover’s best and keep my passion for cars close to my heart, no matter how old me, or my car, get.