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The hidden dragstrip in Orange

Posted by George Kennedy  November 10, 2011 11:03 AM

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Old-Ford-Orange.jpg

(All photos: Leo Bonarrigo). Click photo for larger version.

It's been said that there is a hidden racetrack in every major city. I often thought Boston was left out of that equation, what with New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., and Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn. However, in the closing weeks of summer, I indeed found Boston’s secret track — and its a lot closer than you think.

Orange is a stop along Route 2, where many UMass-Amherst students make the turn to 202 South on their way back to campus. Orange is also the home of an airstrip that 60 years ago was the epicenter of hot-rodding in New England. In September, wrench-turners from around New England met to revive the original races at the “Orange Airfield Drag Reunion,” with more than 1,000 cars from the muscle and hot rod eras. Dragsters and high-powered machines from Deuce Coupes with flathead V-8s to GTOs and everything in between were represented for one special day.

Orange-Drag-Racing.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

Sure, it was only a sixth of a mile — barely a chance for some to get out of second gear — but it was history in motion. Many, like myself, are too young to see classic NHRA races of lore, or see a Yenko Camaro and a 429 Cobra duke it out on some back street. This was like “Field of Dreams” for gearheads.

The event got its start in the mid-1950s, when many car enthusiasts were turning old 1932 Ford roadsters into light, lean hot rods, said race organizer John Durfee.

“In 1954, several local hot rod groups got together and spoke with the airport about having races,” said Durfee. “They wanted a safe location for people to compete, so they wouldn't take to racing in the streets.”

At the far end of the Orange Airport was an unused runway extension. The airport agreed to let the groups use this dormant tarmac, and the first races were held that same year. The races grew in popularity, to the point where the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) held officially sanctioned races.

Bill Stevens, a TV host of classic car auctions, was in junior high at the time and remembers those first years vividly. “We would drive from Somerville, not even knowing if the races were on,” said Stevens. “We found out [about the races] by accident, and getting any news about the races was very sporadic.”

After getting coverage in Hot Rod magazine, the event continued to grow. Stephens stuck around and saw many a great battle,

“I remember a big race between Gus Ziudema in a 289 Shelby Cobra Dragonsnake against Fred Cain in a Plymouth Belvadere Hemi, called the Hurri-Cain,” he said.

Durfee, on the other hand, had lived in Orange for three decades with little knowledge of the races. “All I knew of the drags were records in a few books that crossed my path,” he said. “But it wasn't until I started asking around that I found out how big these races were.”

Chevy-Chevelle-SS-Orange.jpg

(All photos: Leo Bonarrigo). Click photo for larger version.

After putting together a car show in 2010, Durfee shopped around the idea of having live races. Many supporters came out of the woodwork, and Durfee spent the next year meeting with airport and town officials.

This year, event officials had to close off parking, and many walked from over a mile away just to get a look at this rarity. Every era of the original races was represented, battling it out 880 feet at a time. From the smell of burnt fuel, to the sounds of Beach Boys' songs, broken up by moments of thunderous horsepower, it was like being a part of history.

But soon enough, the Orange Reunion may be just that. The airport tarmac may be torn up within the year to make room for a possible solar farm, and Durfee isn’t sure the races can continue. Racers should consider themselves lucky to have had a run down the storied strip one last time. Few other abandoned tracks get such a sendoff.

George Kennedy is a senior writer at WheelsTV in Acton and can be reached at gkennedy@wheelstv.net.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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