By John Goralski
Nobody expected much out of Ronnie Wyckoff when he slipped into the lineup at the Riverside Park Triple Crown Finale in August of 1980. After all, the Southington driver was supposed to be retired. How could he expect to keep pace with such a storied group of drivers in their prime? How could a recently retired driver survive the obstacles, trials, and ordeals of a 125-lap race?
But Wyckoff’s fans knew that he was the one to beat. After all, Wyckoff made a career out of finishing races.
“Ronnie was never one to get into any controversy at all, so people liked him whether he was on the race track or off it,” said Southington racing fan Gary Danko, radio host of the Speedway Line Report on WATR. “He wasn’t one of those guys that we call ‘checkers’ or ‘wreckers.’ He was more of a consistent driver. He didn’t really win a lot, but he was always a top 5 or top 10 finishers. The most important thing is that you’d know, at least 95 percent of the time, he would bring the car in with all the tires on it.”
On that hot August night in 1980, it was enough to capture the checkered flag.
Bob Polverari, a proven champion, blew his tire on an opening lap and fell out of contention. Stan Greger caught a fender and lost two laps in the process. Ray Miller dropped out early with engine problems, and Reggie Ruggiero fell out of second place when his engine blew on the 70th lap. Kirby Montieth led early. Ron Rocco edged him by the midpoint until he was caught in an accident on lap 66.
Wyckoff just stayed the course. He dodged the wrecks. He wove his way through debris during each yellow flag. When he cross the finish after 125 laps, the checkered flag signaled Wyckoff’s seventh feature title at Riverside Park. Wyckoff won easily with a five-car lead over his nearest competitor.
Slow and steady wins the race, and that’s one reason why Wyckoff topped the list when the New England Antique Racers (NEAR) announced the 2014 Class of the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.
“This was a nice surprise. I raced a lot of tracks. I won some races, but I was never a champion,” said Wyckoff. “I finished in some pretty good spots at the end of the year, point-wise, but I wasn’t a champion at any track. This is really nice. There are a lot of people that weren’t champions, but they raced and enjoyed it. It’s a great honor.”
Wyckoff might not have won any point races, but he was always finishing at the front of the pack. He began his career in Florida but moved to Southington in the early 1960s, and over the next two decades, he left his mark on each of the region’s short tracks.
He dominated at the defunct Plainville Stadium during its heyday in the 1960s and 70s. He went on to score seven feature titles at Riverside Park Speedway, including three consecutive Riverside 500s in the 1970s.
He went on to compete at some of the top race tracks in New England, including Thompson, Waterford, Stafford, and Riverside Park and even had success at Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts.
“It’s well-deserved honor. He will be with some elite people in that hall of fame, and he deserves it,” said Danko. “I’ve known Ronnie when I was just a fan of auto racing, long before I got involved in the broadcast side or media side of racing. Ronnie was always a typical gentleman, whether he was on the racetrack or off the racetrack. He was a very smooth and patient driver. He never really got himself in a position where he was going to get himself into any real trouble on the track.”
It’s that ability to survive in a sport that’s known for wrecks and blown engines that earned Wyckoff a spot in the hall of fame. He topped the iniduction list, which includes drivers Deke Astle, Jime Martel, Mike Rowe, and Fred Schulz, along with drag racing innovator Bob Tasca, racing historian R.A. Silvia and builder/mechanic Dave Tourigny.
“He was one of the highest vote getters in this class, and he’s well-deserving,” said Al Fini, president of NEAR and hall of fame founder. “Any hall of fame recognizes the high achievers in the sport, whether it’s baseball or basketball or car racing, and Ron qualifies for that. He was a hell of a competitor.”
Wyckoff will be inducted in a ceremony at the NEAR 16th Hall of Fame banquet on Sunday, Nov. 16 at The Lodge at Maneeley’s in South Windsor. Banquet ticket information will be announced shortly and will be posted on the New England’s Antique Racers’ website (NEAR1.org) in the near future.
For Wyckoff’s fans, it’s about time.
“I did the best you could. I wasn’t a hammer guy, beating on other guys,” Wyckoff said. “I thought I was a fair guy. Sure, I got into accidents, but it was never on purpose. Let’s face it. When you came to the feature there were 20 or 24 drivers. Things happen. Sometimes, guys like to tap you. I wasn’t one of those guys that would go out and wreck people up.”
Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.