Racers - It's in Their Blood
by Scott  Pacich

Racers - It's in Their Blood

If I started talking about Pepsi and racing, what would come to your mind? Jeff Gordon? Now if I started talking about John Koszela and Ernie Gahan I'd bet there are a good number of you who would have no idea who they were. To understand what has made racing, especially NASCAR Winston Cup racing into what we have today, I want you to read not about today's superstar drivers, but those dogged old drivers. Those drivers who put the pedal to the metal and never looked back, and God help you if you got in their way. The drivers that traveled the highways and back roads of this country on no sleep, not eating properly, with make-shift pit crews who were really just friends and no sponsorship to speak of.

These were drivers were loved by their fans and their families, although their families might have found them pretty hard to live with. Why would I make that point you might ask? Don't ask me, ask the wives who scored for their husbands every single race or followed them to every single out-of-the-way hole-in-the-valley racetrack. Ask the kids who they took literally in hand, track-to-track, and who during races other than Daddy's race could be found foraging for 'gold' under the stands, but who usually only received a soda dumped on their heads. Their heads snapping up and bodies tensing as their father's name and race were announced, running to sit beside their mothers. Or ask the drivers about the times their racing families lived as gypsies sleeping on the ground, in the stock car, or back seats, just to follow Dad to the next track. Then ask them all about the fun they had. Ask about the cookouts, the parties to celebrate a big win and the general competitiveness of being in a racing family.

To say that these racecar drivers ate, drank and lived racing is certainly NO exaggeration. They were the frontiersmen and they drove across the country even though they were exhausted after immediately after competing in a one or two hundred lap race. Hot, sweaty and dirty they raced along the roads in trucks named Nellie, Nancy or Georgia to make the next race at the next racetrack hoping to get that next win and the all important points that went with it. No air-conditioning in their tow vehicles. No sponsors to defray the cost of this travel. No glitz with $300,000 towing rigs filled with spare parts or chrome on the racecar. Sleepless and hungry, they piled into their cars and trucks at the end of a night's racing and drove on to the next track. The were the guys who after crashing on a Friday night, would pull their car into the nearest friend's garage and work around the clock until they and their crew banged out enough damage to race the next day. Perhaps they would take out the short-block, and put in a new one. If they didn't have an engine to put in, they'd walk around the pits wheeling and dealing until they got one. Friends helped, family helped, fans offered to help and non-professional pit crews gave of their family time driving these drivers all across the country

Here's a little personal insight into one of those drivers.

In 1947 the racing career of a 21-year old took flight. A former GI, Ernie Gahan took a shot at racing at the Dover Speedway in New Hampshire. It was the start of a racing career that would span 29 years, and would see Ernie become one of the premier racecar drivers in the country and a true champion in many aspects of the word.  From the beginning, Ernie worked on improving his driving skills at different venues. By 1954 he had become a regular competitor at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in New Hampshire, and it there that he set an all-time win record and earned the fan's love and respect that would become Ernie's trademark for the rest of his career. In the 1957 and 1958 seasons Ernie made the move to more "big time" racing by joining NASCAR and running in two Daytona Beach races. Driving in one each year, he qualified towards the back of the pack in each race, but finished admirably in the top 25 each time. Once the Daytona races were done, Ernie went back north and returned to the Northeast modified wars, winning nine modified races each year as well as capturing another point championship at the Cheshire Fairgrounds.

1959 saw the beginning of a period of time that established Gahan as one of the Northeast's all-time best. Racing against some of the most potent driver's on the circuit, such as Steve Danish, Pete Corey and Bill Wimble he held his own, and more often than not came out on top. His success led to a partnership with legendary car owner John "Sonny" Koszela. Gahan would drive Koszela's potent number 15 Modified and a Grand National car as well. Ernie had made the next step, getting a chance to race in the Daytona 500 with that car in 1961. Bad luck plagued the effort, but Gahan teamed up with Bill Slater to race it again in the World 600 at Charlotte, where he finished the race. The remainder of 1961 saw Gahan pilot Koszela's modified to eight wins. Their partnership would survive through the 1965 season, at which point Ernie returned to driving his own cars.

During this time period, Ernie was dominating at the Stafford Springs Speedway, which was dirt at the time, but was never able to capture a point championship. Although he was a full-time racecar driver by now, he was not concentrated on running for points. He had a family, and he needed to make a living to support them. So, like all hardcore racers he went for the money and ignored points. But like many drivers who took that route, running many different tracks probably increased his driving skill, and besides, he loved it.

Through the next ten years or so, Ernie built a reputation as one of the region's best dirt track drivers. He was however, a versatile driver and enjoyed a great amount of success on asphalt surfaces too, although he made it well known that be preferred dirt. This was something that few of his contemporaries could claim, although Bill Wimble, Gene Bergin, Lou Lazzaro, Jerry Cook and Rene Charland were considered to be adept at racing on both
surfaces as well.

Through the 1960's, Ernie continued to experience great success in the modifieds. It was of course, capped off by his national modified championship in the 1966 season. It was a season in which he experienced the ups and downs that only a race driver can experience and recover from. He won his first race ever at Fonda, a 107-lap feature in which he executed a last lap pass to beat up and coming driver Jerry Cook. It was also the year in which he experienced his worst accident, that happening at Middletown when he took a heart stopping flip that resulted in a hospital stay. Overall in 1966, Ernie started 71 NASCAR Modified events. He won 15 times, finished second 11 times and accumulated 45 other top five finishes. He also finished second in Fonda's track championship, and fourth at both Stafford and Utica-Rome.

During the 1960's however, a single incident seemed to define Ernie's career.

It was 1963, and Ernie returned to Daytona. As he and Bill Wimble made their way into the track through the tunnel turn and into the infield there was a horrendous accident. Marvin Panch had hit the wall, and his car barrel-rolled for what must have seemed like a mile. The car caught fire as it came to rest. Ernie knew that going over the fence and on to the track was against the rules, but he also knew that if he didn't get to Panch quickly he would probably die. Fighting the heat on his hands and face from the fire, Gahan pried the door open about a foot, but was having difficulty getting Panch through. Tiny Lund then arrived on the scene with two others in a fire truck and that combination of people, the modified driver from the north, the Grand National driver and "some guy from Firestone" were able to pull Panch from the burning car. As they pulled Panch clear, and ran away from the burning car it exploded.

Ernie of course, was worried that he was not going to be allowed to race, because after all he had some pretty bad burns on his hands. But he did race, and achieved first place Sportsman honors in the Permatex race. Later, the heroes who saved Panch from almost certain death were awarded the Carnegie Medal to recognize their efforts.

It was in the late 1960's, 1968 to be precise that Ernie's career nearly came to an end one night while racing at the Norwood Arena. Ernie suffered a heart attack, and the doctors said that was it, he was never going to race again. Bucking all odds, and going directly against the advice of his doctors he returned to the driver's seat in 1969 after missing the rest of the 1968 season. In 1972, Ernie Gahan won his final feature at the Stafford Motor Speedway. Obviously the win came on the asphalt surface, not his beloved dirt, but it marked him as one of only two drivers to win there on dirt and asphalt, the other being Gene Bergin. His driving career ended halfway through the 1976 season at Star Speedway with a fourth place finish, a race in which his son Bobby, was also competing.

Yes, Ernie Gahan had racing in his blood. There were times during his racing days that it seemed that there were never fewer than 15-20 racing people in his home at any given time. No matter what time he returned from the races, he would rouse his daughter out of her bed to either make beds for others or make room for someone else's child in her bed. And of course, the drivers and their followers were major league partiers. The kind of living these drivers did is what we as race fans all 'dream' we would want to do. It was hard, but drivers like Ernie, Bill Wimble, Pete Corey and others loved it, relishing every little piece. Major league stock racing, NASCAR, was built by Bill France, Ken Squire and these down and dirty drivers. These guys raced weekly for what Richard Petty could earn in one race. They did not have the sponsors (nor did they want them); they did not get the glory (nor did they want it) they simply gave all they had.

 It is important that the fans and today's drivers learn about every bit of their racing history, their heritage. They need to know what it took to be a driver week-after-week, sometimes 5 or 6 days a week, giving up their families or any kind of 9-5 job, or 'normal' life, simply for the love of racing. They need to know about the fans, thousands at every race, not just special events. Standing, screaming, cheering these drivers on. They need to know about the look in a little boy or girl's eyes when they came to their favorite driver and that driver gave them his autograph. They need to know about the driver's focus. The focus speed and looks were not the biggest deal; it was who was the best driver and tight, tight, close competition when they got on the racetrack.  I could go on forever.

I hope this gives you a sense of what racing was, and should be like. I hope too it gives you some insight into where I'm coming from each week. Understanding where the roots of today's racing started, and how these racers have influenced their own sons, including Ernie's own son Bobby Gahan to follow in their footsteps. I hope to write about more of these pioneers in the future.

I'd like to give a very special thanks to my co-contributor for this effort. She's Jean Gahan, and she's Ernie's daughter. Thanks for a wonderful insight into your father, and wonderful thoughts about racing.

Scott Pacich
Area Auto Racing News
Under the Radar
(570) 820-1613

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Last Updated: January 26, 2009 10:46 PM