1933 - 1959 “The Rock pile”
From Midgets to
First, a bit of background. Originally Roesch Memorial Stadium, named after Buffalo’s Mayor, Charles E. Roesch from 1930-34, was built over a 3 year period at the intersection of Best Street & Masten Ave. across the street from the 106th Armory, a federal work project during the Depression, under the guidance of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
In 1938 the name was changed to Civic Stadium and again to War Memorial Stadium in 1960 by Mayor Frank Sedita. After partial demolition of the old complex it was rebuilt for amateur sports and renamed the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion in 1997. Automobiles raced at Civic Stadium until 1959 before becoming home to the Buffalo Bills until they moved to Orchard Park in 1972, where they play NFL football today.
After World War 2, Midget racing was growing in popularity. For example, in 1948-the races were promoted by Ed Otto, later of NASCAR, under the supervision of the Race Committee, headed by Fred H. McLaren. The midget races were sponsored by The Buffalo Drum Corps of the American Legion, with A.C. Elberson as President, which was made up of over 50 prominent members from the Buffalo business community. The Corps sponsored races since 1947 and was established in 1927. Please remember that Civic Stadium, later War Memorial Stadium was just that, a war Memorial.
The evenings racing program consisted of 8 events; 3 qualifying heats, 2 semis’, 2 cons's and a 25 lap feature. The mighty midgets were suited to 1/4 mile ovals, both dirt and pavement, and competed at many stadiums all over the U.S. long before regular ovals were built for racing. In 1948, Midget Engine Spec's Harley Davidson or Indian Motorcycle engine chain drive as long as it was covered by a guard, Offenhauser (baby) & Ford v-8 -60.
The cars using motorcycle engines weighed less than 600 lbs. and developed 70-85 h.p. The Offy & Fords weighed 800lbs and developed 75-90 h.p. Most cars ran on high test fuel with a special alcohol base for cooling. Top midget drivers included the following; Art Cross-East Rutherford, N.J.; Al Keller Rochester,N.Y.; Eddie Lenz-Cheektowaga N.Y.; Mike Nazaruk-East Meadow N.Y.;Joe Russo- Lackawanna N.Y.;THE GREAT BILL SCHINDLER-Freeport N.Y.;(who was the famous 1-legged driver who was A.R.D.C. champion in 1947, driving the famed Caruso Offy midget to over 54 feature wins that year.)
The USAC organization did not start until 1955. Joe Russo, from Western New York, originally of Scranton Pa. was labeled the Grand pappy of auto racing at Civic Stadium. In 1931 he drove his first race in Big Cars, until 1937, against the nation's best including Wilbur Shaw & Lou Meyer. Both Indy 500 winners on multiple occasions. From 1938 on, Joe would drive midgets & jalopy-stockcars at Civic Stadium. During the 1950's the United Stockcar Racing Drivers Association hosted races on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with a later move to Sunday afternoons,
Admission for the races was $1.25 for Adults & 0.60 for children. You could have any seat in the grandstand as long as you did not sit in the first five rows for safety reasons. The most popular car was the 1937-39 Ford coupe, flathead Ford, however some drivers such as Joe Russo drove 1937 Hudson’s with a 51 Hudson Hornet engine. Once a year Civic stadium would host a New York State Championship for a 1/4 mile track, 50laps, including the 30 best drivers from all over N.Y. State & Canada.
To end the season in October of 1952, the 30 high point cars would race a 25 lap event for a $1,500.00 purse. Some of the top drivers were #65 Bobby Sund , #11 Larry Marx, #84 Lenny Justa, #119 Eddie Lenz, #8 Ben Lalomia, #99 Joe Russo, #9 Tony Occhino, #35 Hugh Darragh, #90 Gene Blair, and #47 Ken Warmington ALL of the Buffalo-Western New York Area. Canadian drivers who competed at Civic Stadium on a regular Basis included #6 Norm Schild of Ft. Erie; #44 Elmo Pring of Ridgeway, Ont.; #114 Howard Hearst of Ft.Erie, Ont.; #120 Dan Daniels of Kitchener, Ont.; and #187 Emerson Clemenhage.
Many of these drivers would go on to become regular competitors when Merrittville Speedway would open. The Feature Winner & Champion that year would be, #65 Bobby Sund of Buffalo N.Y. While both midgets & stock cars continued to race weekly at Civic Stadium, special touring events for full sized, new-style stockcars would be held. One such event was scheduled for Aug.15, 1953, called the Eastern Division Late Model Championship. Dewey Michaels was the promoter and Robert A. Smith was the Civic Stadium racing Director along with the S.A.F.E. (Society of Auto-sport Fellowship and Education) sanctioning body headed by President Charles Scharf. The automobiles had to be stock-showroom from 1949-1953. Many of the S.A.F.E. drivers hailed from the mid-west U.S. such as Stu Joyce, Indianapolis, Ind.-1953 Ford; Jack Harrison -1952 Ford; Pat Kirkwood, Ft.Worth Texas.-1953 Olds–National CHAMPION-1952; Marvin Panch -Richmond California (NASCAR); as well as many other Midwestern stars.
The race program consisted of 6 races scheduled with the feature starting 30 cars in a 100 lap event. Can you picture 30 full sized American stockcars racing for position on a 1/4 mile track! It must have been a race of endurance. The local competitors consisting of Joe Russo, Larry Marx, Lenny Justa, Ben Lalomia, Ken Warmington, brothers Billy & Bob Rafter, and Joe Sykes, all of the Buffalo -Western New York Area had new cars and the experience to handle the tight confines of Civic Stadium. When the checkered fell it was #11 Larry Marx- in a '51 Ford , then #84 Len Justa from Kenmore N.Y. with 3rd going to Rex Fordice in a '51 Ford from Indianapolis, Indiana.
The young Rafter brothers would place in the top 20. While auto racing in Southern Ontario flourished with the construction of 1/4 mile ovals such as Merrittville Speedway, racing would continue at Civic Stadium until 1959. As for drivers such as Bill Rafter they would go on to many Championships, with Bill becoming the 1964 Modified Champion at Merrittville Speedway. Drivers such as Cam Gagliardi and Chuck Boos would start their careers at Civic Stadium, before moving onto Merrittville in the late 1950's.
In its heyday, Civic Stadium would pack in over 12,000 people with a record 13,026 on hand for the Great Lakes Championship on July 4, 1953. According to Merrittville co-founder John Marino, the idea for Merrittville Speedway came while attending the races with Orville Kelley, who would go on to become Merrittville's first track Champion. Merrittville Speedway can trace it's roots to the glory days from 1948-53, at Civic Stadium, for planting the seed with John Marino and George Cullen for a Speedway in Southern Ontario, way back in 1951.
While the 1940’s were the era of midgets, the 1950's had to be the era of stockcars. During 1952-59 Civic Stadium hosted weekly stockcar races and even featured a NASCAR convertible race with the likes of Joe Weatherly. The real appeal were the jalopy and stockcar-sportsmen classes. As many as 80-90 cars would show up to race and many of the cars had to be pitted at the Masten Armory and driven down Jefferson Street to race, entering the stadium. Mid 50's stars included Roy Campbell, 1951 Champion Dick Hurd, 1957 & ‘58 NASCAR Champion Bill Rafter. Every year, racers such as Ted Hogan would travel from CNE Toronto to Civic Stadium and to Rochester to race, but the “whose who” of stock car racing would come to race at Civic Stadium once a year for the special Langhorn Pa. qualifier. Dick Hurd would win this event both in 1957 & ‘58.
For the regulars at Civic Stadium once you were setup to the track it was fun but taking a car setup for banked ovals was torture. You see, the track at Civic stadium was a 1/4 mile flat oval with a concrete wall all around the outside and rail road ties placed perpendicular in the infield to keep the cars off of the football field. Part of the success at this track according to Hurd, was a handling chassis and great brakes. He was the first to use a quick change rear end that gave his car extra acceleration off of the tight corners.
During Hurd's career the all time attendance record was set when 33,000 fans showed up on a special Buffalo Police Fun-O -Rama night in 1956. Dick Hurd would win the 50 lap feature that night. (Capacity was for 44,000 fans) In 1959 a young Bill Torrisi from North Tonawanda won the last race held at Civic Stadium, with Bobby Sund 2nd, Bill Rafter 3rd, and Larry Marx 4th.
The racers were very disappointed that Civic Stadium was closing and it was announced in the September 21, 1959 edition of the Buffalo Evening News that the city was tearing up the track to make a Ball diamond and football field for the Bisons & Bills. The Bill's hosted NFL Football games at the "Rock pile” until 1972.
Many a local driver mourned the demise of auto racing at the greatest local track, but Bill Torrisi, Chuck Boos, Bill Rafter, and Cam Gagliardi would all graduate to become champions at other ovals in the area such as Lancaster & Merrittville Speedway.
Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh