Members of an old racing fraternity gathered this past Saturday night at a hockey game in Springfield, Massachusetts to share memories and pay homage to their home track which has long since passed.
Riverside Park Speedway was a short track like no other, a high-banked paved quarter-mile sitting in the middle of the Riverside Amusement Park in Agawam. The track was built as an attraction by then owner Edward Carroll in 1948, but little did he know it would attract the Northeast’s best in the many years to follow.
The track’s unique location would lead to its eventual demise following the sale of “The Park,” first to Premiere Parks in 1997, then Six Flags in 1998. Eventually, the decision was made to close the track after the 1999 racing season to open up more space for rides and attractions as the park became Six Flags New England.
But the legacy of “The Park” hasn’t been and will never be forgotten due to the passion of the many people that called the track home. Reunions have been staged over the years, including one that has become an annual tradition at Springfield Falcons (AHL) hockey games.
Each year, members of the local racing community gather just up the road from the former location of their beloved race track at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield. 2016 marked the third year of this reunion, but the first to be organized by local photojournalist Matt Wiernasz, who like many has deep roots with Riverside Park.
“This is my first time doing it. Rob Zanoli put it on for the first two years and this year they asked me to do it.” Wiernasz told Speed51.com powered by JEGS.
“It’s pretty cool. It brings back a lot of memories of Riverside. My dad announced there for many years and I would go watch the races for many years on Saturday nights. I got to run the scoreboard for the last two years when the Speedway was open and I was only 12 and 13 years old back then. I wish the Park was still here. It just wasn’t meant to be, but I’m glad we can do this tonight and bring back some old memories. All of us here have stories and that’s one of the things I love about Riverside was the stories and the people. The racing I miss, but it’s mostly the people I miss.”
Those same people – many of whom competed at “The Park” for multiple decades either as drivers, mechanics or owners – came out once again on a Saturday night to talk about the many stories from over the years.
One of the most successful car owners, who also had his garage across the street from Riverside Park, was Springfield native Mario Fiore. He visited the arena Saturday night to talk about his favorite memories, including how he got started at the track.
“I used to go as a kid,” Fiore said. “I’d sit in the front row as photographer and I made a lot of money with colored photos. I had a small fortune, bought a racecar and everything snowballed from there.”
Fiore would go on to create a dynasty with multiple drivers over the years, including Gary Colturi, Jerry Marquis, Rick Fuller, but the most notable being Riverside’s all-time wins leader Reggie Ruggiero. Fiore explained how he first hired Ruggiero after getting beat by “The Reg” in 1975 at Connecticut’s old Plainville Speedway.
Fiore enjoyed much success in the Modified world, but always loved coming home to Riverside.
“The people at the Park were really good to me, the Caroll family,” he explained. “We’d race at Martinsville (VA) in the afternoon and they’d send us a plane to fly back, so I had a great time at Riverside, a lot of fun.”
For Fiore, the reunions give him a chance to reconnect with many of the people he enjoyed spending time with over the years.
“I love seeing everybody. We used to see everybody every Saturday at Riverside. We don’t have that luxury anymore, so when we see someone it’s not that often anymore. I enjoy these reunions and I’m glad to see somebody putting in the effort.”
Riverside Park also had support from a number of sponsors over the years, with one of the most recognizable being Teddy Bear Pools out of Chicopee, Massachusetts. The owner of the business, Teddy Hebert, has many Riverside memories including getting “The Reg” back in Fiore’s No. 44 in the late 80’s.
“Mario needed a motor for a race. I had an extra motor, and they won the race with it,” Hebert said. “The following season I actually ended up getting Mario and Reggie back together and we had three great years together in ’87, ’88, and ’89.”
Hebert also believes that Riverside Park has an even more significant place in NASCAR history than most fans realize.
“When you think about how many NASCAR drivers that started there, it was tough and competitive. It was a great track, we’ll never have anything like it again.”
Although little evidence of Riverside Park Speedway remains on the original site, pieces of the track are finding a new lease on life. Bob Stromberg, the Speedway Sponsor Relations Representative, now works for NASCAR and had the story on the surviving parts of Riverside.
“All the stands were taken by Teddy Hebert and Stan Jablonski who owned Leveille’s Auto Recycling. All of those 6,200 seats were in Connecticut at Stan Jablonski’s property for years and they were finally sold to Monadnock Speedway, most of them are there,” said Stromberg.
“When I was at a track operator’s meeting five or six years ago in Daytona the track operators from the Delaware Speedway in Canada were talking about how expensive it is to put grandstands up and I said ‘I know a guy that has thousands of seats.’ We were all at the same meeting so I introduced him to Larry Cirillo from Monadnock and they sold some of the Riverside seats to Delaware.”
For those like Stromberg, Riverside Park was a fixture throughout most of their lifetime, starting out as young fans and then being there throughout most of their adult lives. Even all these years later, there is still a hole in the heart for many.
“It was difficult when the track closed, it’s still part of my life. I keep my boat across the river in Longmeadow and when I’m home I go down and watch rides where the Speedway was.”
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, LI, MA) – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Don & Lynn Sorel