Posters declare time of wonderful Wallard

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Ads from the past: Cindy Pollard, left, and her husband, Jack Pollard, hold a poster made to promote car races at the Altamont fairgrounds. They have donated three posters with various early 20th century dates to the Village of Altamont Archives and Museum, one of which will be on display at the Farmhouse Museum during the Altamont Fair.

ALTAMONT — With the wave of a flag, slender racecars roared. On narrow wheels, their lightweight, castor-oil engines blasted down a half-mile clay track at the Altamont fairgrounds, spewing dust clouds and mud behind them around the bend.

“They couldn’t accelerate on the curves, but, when they got just so far on the curves, you would hear the exhaust blast again,” Everett Rau, 94, said, recalling his view from the grandstand as a teenager in the 1930s. “And, when they got past the grandstand again, they were pumping like crazy on this little reciprocating pump, which built up the fuel pressure for them.”

Dirt racing was a main draw at the village fairgrounds throughout the summer months in the first half of the 20th Century. The cars with no mufflers could be heard for miles.

Marijo Dougherty, curator of the village archives and museum, has displayed an auto-racing poster for the upcoming Fair Week, as well as reproduced pictures of Lee Wallard, a famed dirt track racer who won the 1951 Indianapolis 500, setting a new speed record and breaking four hours on the 500-mile course for the first time. Wallard, who honed his racing skills at the fairgrounds, grew up in Schenectady and eventually settled in Altamont.

Just a few days after he won first place in Indianapolis, Wallard was racing a borrowed car in Reading, Penn.

“A defective carburetor sprayed highly flammable alcohol over the car interior, and over him,” Dr. H.F. Benjamin, an Altamont doctor from 1950 to 1980, wrote in a memoir kept by the village archives. “He drove until he could come to a place where he thought he would not endanger spectators, at which time the car burst into flames and his clothing caught fire.”

Wallard continued to drive, but did not race competitively, badly scarred by third-degree burns. He retired to St. Petersburg, Fla. and died in 1963, according to his obituary.

Car racing is still the largest spectator sport in the country, Dougherty noted on Monday, but fairgoers today won’t see its presence as they once did.

The bright red- and blue-lettered poster, displayed for fair week, is considered ephemera, material that presents some of the greatest challenges for preservation.

“These are made to be hung out and thrown away,” said Dougherty, looking into the glass display in the Farmhouse Museum. She guessed the posters were made from a type of strong rag paper. She lined their folds with binding tape, as she does for newspapers.

With the large corner display of the Farmhouse Museum, Dougherty said she had the opportunity to show such a broad poster, which she cannot do in the village space. She hopes to draw recognition for the importance of the village archives. 

Some posters were first uncovered as the linoleum flooring was being removed from a house on Main Street more than two decades ago. “It’s ironic, because that’s what preserved it,” Dougherty said.

The family was renovating their home and called Cindy Pollard, who had been the Farmhouse Museum superintendent and used to gather locals’ stories. Fair promoters exchanged passes for the posters. 

Estel Van Auken, the previous owner of the house, gave posters to Pollard years before that, three of which she donated to the archives recently as she was “weeding out” her collection of historic items from the last century.

She and her husband, Jack, sat in their Home Front Café, where the walls and tables are covered with World War II-era newspaper clippings, photographs, and clothing. The Pollards assumed the racing posters were under the floor as insulation. Orrin Packard, known as “Packy,” Mr. Pollard said, lived at Van Auken’s house. Packard sold refreshments on the fairgrounds and on the corner of Thatcher Drive.

One of Wallard’s relatives, Cindy Pollard said, gave her Wallard’s pea coat and cap from when he was in the Navy. Pollard donated the items to the Saratoga Military Museum.

Jack Pollard was a boy in the 1930s, he said, when he first met Wallard, who worked with his father driving snowplows for the Rotterdam Highway Department.

“He never raced the high-class cars,” Pollard said of Wallard. “In fact, he won Indianapolis on a dirt-track car, which wasn’t supposed to be able to win the race, but he outlasted all the other cars.”

Benjamin wrote of the early racing days, when the raceway was like a bull-fighting arena for the village, the drivers were risk-taking celebrities, and speed was the primary aim.

Cindy Pollard was among a group of volunteers interviewing local residents to preserve village history when she met Benjamin. His stories were so interesting, she said, but he was uncomfortable being recorded. So Pollard encouraged him to write his stories down, which became the memoirs now in the archives.

“What Wallard did was to alter ‘the groove’ or the line that cars tend to adhere to, in making their way around the surface,” Benjamin wrote. “He stayed close to the outside wall on the straightaway and drove farther into the turns before actually turning down the incline toward the center of the raceway. Thus, he maintained a greater overall rate of speed throughout…”