'Stock car racing in the '50s' includes Canandaigua, Naples tracks and author is coming to both towns to talk

The old joke is that auto racing got its start five minutes after the second car was built.

No matter your thought on that sentiment, there is no debating the passion area fans have for auto racing. Thunder from dirt ovals can be heard and even felt on regular weekends through the summer season, and Ford Easton is a man who is out to document and preserve the history of it.

Easton, 76 and a native of Friendship, Allegany County, was not alone in growing up as a fan of racing. His work behind the scenes to gather former drivers from Cuba Lake Raceway in Allegany County for reunions led to his book, “Stock Car Racing in the ‘50s” and he’ll be visiting area locations to talk racing and sign copies of his book. 

Easton will visit 18 libraries in northern Pennsylvania, Western New York and the Southern Tier. On Thursday, he’ll be at the library in Naples from 3 to 5 p.m. then at Canandaigua’s Wood Library from 7 to 8 p.m. On Aug. 10, he’ll be at the library in Palmyra from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

For Easton, the inspiration for the book is twofold.

“There are a lot of folks my age that remember the era,” said Easton, a Florida retiree who said the book has sold 2,400 copies, including several in Europe. “And the younger people have heard stories. They want to know what it was like in that era.”

The book is a treasure trove of history, both visual and cognitive. There are plenty of pictures to jog the memory of those who were there and spark the imagination of those who wish they were. Easton also has profiles of drivers, tracks and track officials covering 48 different tracks from the region. 

The 230-page book also serves as a tribute.

“In those days, the drivers meant a lot to me and they directed my life as a teen,” said Easton, a graduate of Alfred Tech (now Alfred State) with a degree in rural engineering. “I needed to do some sort of payback … We were all motorheads back then and I could sit with my back to the road and I could tell you what kind of car was coming down the road just by the sound of it.”

To be sure, racing then and racing now are two different worlds. And today, fans are well aware of the dirt oval at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. The history there dates to the 1953 Memorial Day opening of the track, but racing had been around in some form since the 1920s. 

The “Land of Legends” was a playground for drivers like Dutch Hoag, Elmer Musclow, Bill Rafter and Pete Corey. Engine builder Jess Haelen from Rochester was one of the most respected power plant engineers in the area and his work was on display regularly in cars that his brother raced in Canandaigua, including a 12-cylinder Lincoln Zephyr.

The Canandaigua track remains a solid draw to this day, regularly filling the grandstands on Saturday nights during the DIRT season.

An absolute gem in the book is the history of Naples Speedway. The fact that Naples even had a track is a surprise for many, but the half-mile loop was located at the end of East Avenue on the fairgrounds and is where the legendary Hoag launched his career. Stocks were raced for just three years, starting in 1949 when promoter Don Cleveland paid each car $10 to race. Bob Schwingle and the Clawson brothers were regulars in the field.

But racing came to an end at the conclusion of the 1951 season when noise, dust and traffic from the Sunday afternoon races tested the patience of residents. Blue laws, which limited the sale of alcohol on Sunday, also factored in to the end of racing in Naples.

“The word on Naples is that it was one of the fastest tracks in Western New York,” Easton said of the soil mixture of sand and clay that speed demons adored. 

The book has 12 pages of photos from Naples, including looks at the hill-side grandstand. Fans in Naples used the natural lay of the land for a great view of racing at one of the speedway’s turns.

Beyond Canandaigua and Naples, tracks in Hemlock and Palmyra also are profiled. Racing at the Palmyra Fairgrounds was at its peak in the 1940s until Windy Wilcox and some friends built a track on farmland near Route 31. The track opened on Memorial Day in 1950 and lasted until Labor Day in 1955.

Easton makes no bones about this book being a labor of love. The fruit of his work is a compilation of a golden era of pioneers and innovation. 

When you get your copy, just make sure you get it on a day you’ve got plenty of free time to enjoy it. You’ll need it.

To order a copy, send a check or money order to Ford Easton, 5200 28th Street North, No. 651, St. Petersburg, FL, 33714. Books are $15 and shipping costs are $4 (1 book), $6 (two) and $8 (three to 10).