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
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
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
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
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.
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