Recording the history of racing at the Altamont fairgrounds

— From Paul Malecki

A lovely day for a drive: Jeri May from Schenectady competes in a race at the Altamont fairgrounds in the mid- to late-1930s.

ALTAMONT — About a year ago, Paul Malecki was clicking his way across the internet when he came to a photograph of a car “drifting through the corner of some speedway,” as he described it. Thinking that the photograph was taken in California or some other hip locale, Malecki was surprised to learn that he was looking at Altamont in 1938.

Until the mid-1950s, Malecki said, the Altamont fairgrounds had hosted “Big Car” racing. The pages of The Enterprise, from the 1920s through the 1950s carried news of the races at the fairgrounds with drivers like “Wild Bill” Albertson, a winner of three races at the 1928 fair, and Speed McFee, Tommy Hinnershitz, and Mark Light who competed in a 1953 race on July Fourth.

“Lee Wallard’s Altamont Fair Grounds auto races will be the oly AAA big car speed events in the east on Saturday afternoon, July 4,” said the front-page Altamont Enterprise story.

“Wallard himself appeared determined to go through with his proposed match against Hinnershitz … ,” the story continued. “The Altamont promoter who sustained near-death burns only four days after his Indianapolis victory has not sat in a regulation race car since then. He was injured in the same car which Light will drive here on July 4th.”

Wallard, who was born in Schenectady and buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland, had won the Indianapolis 500 in 1951. “Hardly any cars finished,” Malecki said, and Wallard’s car lost its brakes and broke its rear shock-absorber mounting.

Distinguishing itself from the other competition cars of the time — the Midget (a tiny car) and the Champ (think, the Indy 500) — the Big car, Malecki said, was built on the frame of a Ford Model T with the customized engine of a Ford Model B. The open-wheel Big car is the precursor for today’s modern Sprint car, known for the distinctive wing affixed to the top of the car.   

“A lot of people are interested in the cars or the drivers, but nobody was really talking about the history of one facility — in other words, Altamont,” he said.

And so, Malecki, a bit of a polymath, has set about to record the history of open-wheel racing at the Altamont fairgrounds. He is early in the research process; just last week, he received approval from the Altamont Board of Trustees to access the village archives.

“I’ve always been active in sports cars,” Malecki said. He had been an official at the Watkins Glen International Speedway, in Watkins Glen in Schuyler County, the finger Lakes region of New York. In addition, he said, he’s been the editor of several local automobile club newsletters.

Malecki, 78, holds a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate in adult education, and a law degree from Albany Law School, which he earned when he was 58 years old.  

“I was going to get a doctorate in computer science,” Malecki said. “And I read a letter from an attorney one day and I said, ‘Well, you know, I know I can write paragraphs in the English language better than this guy and I knew more about education law. So, I decided to take a law degree rather than get a degree in computer science.”

After earning his juris doctorate, Malecki said, he worked for the New York State Senate Education Committee.

“I tell people my chronological age is 78; my physical age is 57; and my attitude age is 16 and not advancing one bit,” he quipped.

Racing

“If you wanted to see live sports in the ’30s, you were kind of limited to baseball, auto racing, or whatever you can see at the county fair,” Malecki said.

Around this time, he said, the Altamont fairgrounds would hold races on Memorial Day weekend, around July 4, and the last day of the fair.

In those days, racing in the United States was sanctioned by the American Automobile Association, the same AAA that, today, will tow your car if it breaks down.

“If you wanted to hold a race that would attract a lot of drivers, big-time drivers, and wanted to run it in a sort of professional manner,” Malecki said, a race promoter would have to pay AAA to get the race sanctioned, which acted as a guard against “so-called outlaw promoters,” who had a reputation for taking the money and splitting town, leaving drivers without a payday.  

To be a sanctioned race, a promoter would pay AAA a $50 fee and another $35 for an official observer to come to the race.

Drivers, at least the big names, Malecki said, could earn anywhere from $25 to $75 for showing up. If a driver won a featured race, he could win $100 or maybe even $200, depending on the size of the paying attendees. For context, according to Malecki, teachers would earn about $1,200 annually in the 1930s.

Some drivers who came to Altamont to race, Malecki said, would stay in the homes of local residents.

Racing at the Altamont fairgrounds “more or less came to an end in 1955,” Malecki said. That year, in Le Mans, France, a major crash killed 83 people.

AAA got out of the business of racing and stopped sanctioning races.

The year between 1955 and 1956 became a pivotal moment in Big car racing history. In this period, Malecki said, “You saw the creation United States Auto Club; they were the ones who then took over the sanction for Indianapolis 500 and some of the other big races.” Coupled with the rise of NASCAR and the AAA decision to get out of racing all helped lead to the decline of Big car open-wheel racing.

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