Veteran Racers Dust Off The Rust

Denny Zimmerman kicks up dirt at Whip City Speedway in August. (John DaDalt Photo).
Denny Zimmerman kicks up dirt at Whip City Speedway in August. (John DaDalt Photo).

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published Sept. 21, 2010.

Jim McGuire first heard of Whip City Speedway at the Norwood Arena reunion.

“They race midgets there,” he was told, and a trip was arranged with old friends who live near the Westfield, Mass., fifth-mile dirt oval.

When McQuire, sitting in the grandstands, first heard Denny Zimmerman announced as the driver of Skip Matczak’s No. 3 Quad Four midget, he hardly took notice.

“Then they said Zimmerman was a candidate for rookie of the year,” McGuire continues, “and that would go along with his 1971 Indianapolis 500 rookie award. I just had to go out to the pits and see what was going on.”

It was indeed the 71-year-old Zimmerman in the second of two Matczak entries. McGuire soon found himself sitting in the car — a 35-year-old Ben Cook chassis Matczak purchased from the Heydenreich family.

“I explained there is a reason there is no name on the car,” Zimmerman told McGuire. “If there was a name, it would be ‘guest’ because that’s what it is, a guest car for old farts like me. It just so happens I’ve been driving it more than anybody else.”

Zimmerman, who had not driven since spinning out in a modified at Islip (N.Y.) Speedway in 1974, “showed no hesitation” when Matczak called him last year. “I obviously missed driving,” he says. “I really wondered about how much rust there was. I had not been on a dirt track since before Indianapolis. There still is some rust, but it’s coming back and it’s enjoyable as hell.”

McGuire, 68, watched Zimmerman, a resident of Suffield, Conn., finish a strong third. He also learned that Zimmerman would be at a reunion in Virginia on Labor Day Weekend. Was McGuire, who had not driven competitively since flipping a midget at Pocono in 1988 (“I started 18th and was running second when something broke”) interested in replacing him?

“It was a rhetorical, a silly question, really,” says Matczak.
It played perfectly into Matczak’s plan. After decades of competition in sprint cars, supermodifieds and Silver Crown cars, he’s racing in a division Don Douville brought to the track several years ago.

The guest car is part of Matczak’s intention of bringing attention to the low-cost division (full midgets powered by Quad Four Oldsmobile engines), to the track and to the sport’s history.

It was not lost on Fitchburg, Mass., native McGuire either.

“Denny and I were once great New England hopes, first me, then him,” says the 1963 URC champion whose Indianapolis hopes were dashed when he lost an arm in a USAC sprint-car show at New Bremen (Ohio) Speedway in 1964. It happened just days before McGuire was to take his Indy test in the Dean Lines car, a ride that eventually went to Mario Andretti. The story is part of racing folklore.

Zimmerman appreciates it as well.

“I don’t know how long I’ll do this,” he offered, “but it will be a great ending to my racing.”

It’s a far cry from 1974 when, after earning first-alternate status at Indy in ’74, he quit because “nobody was interested in me.”

Zimmerman, a one-time Connecticut Soapbox Derby champ who moved through modifieds (he was part of the legendary Eastern Bandits) and sprints (1966 URC Rookie of the Year) before finally making Indy, decided a career as a pilot made more sense.

After many miles on the treadmill, McGuire, 10 pounds lighter, showed up Sept. 4 with a 25-year-old suit (the helmet was just 2 years old). He also brought the “ball and socket” device that helped him win a number of post-accident TQ and ARDC shows. Instead of a “hook,” there is ball on the end of McGuire’s prostheses, which he inserts into one of several holes on a plate that is attached to the steering wheel. There is also a “knob” which allows him to flex his hand. Changes had to be made to the car as well — a bar had to be removed and the seat raised almost five inches.

Matczak’s other driver, point-leader Joe Krawiec, loves the drama. He finds the experience “of discussing racing topics over the generations invaluable.”

The weekly talks with Zimmerman are vital because “appreciating the history of the sport helps me as a driver.”

McGuire supplied some great advice when the team took on ARDC recently at Accord Speedway in New York.

Zimmerman is convinced Krawiec is loaded with potential. The trips to Accord, says Matczak, “get him experience that he is not going to get at Whip City.”

He won the night of McGuire’s visit.

Lack of time in the car and power steering (“not used to it”) were problems, but it was the dust that was most troublesome for McGuire. “I couldn’t see where I was going,” he explained. “The days of diving into clouds of dust and then yelling, ‘I made it through again,’ are over.”

It was, however, a rewarding night for the Bridgewater, N.J., resident. He’d welcome another shot.

Zimmerman, who was hardly impressive in his first ride last year either, understands.

“I love this and I am really enjoying myself,” he explains. He acknowledges he is definitely getting better racing against “kids who could easily be my grandchildren.” Indeed, “trying to come up to their level is part of the excitement.”

Don’t, however, expect him “to bet the farm on a move like I would have done 45 years ago.”

Dirt was never Zimmerman’s strength.

“I never was successful with my own cars,” he adds. “The only car I was ever successful in on dirt somebody else owned. Even now, if there is something making me uncomfortable I can’t tell Skip what to do. I can only tell him I’m not comfortable.”

He is not all that unique, claims Matczak, no doubt content with his role in the relationship.

The equipment is better, definitely safer. It is the first time Zimmerman has been in a caged car, so the side panel is new as well.

“We used to put cardboard or newspapers inside our uniform to soften the blow on getting hit in the arms by the dirt and rocks,” he recalled.

“What’s he talking about?” responded McQuire, detailing the bloody open-face helmet and a rag around your mouth days. “We used to take off our shirts and it looked like we had been hit by a shotgun.”

People who gather around the Matczak pit love that kind of talk.