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Reunion celebrates Riverside Park Speedway memories

by The Republican Sports Desk

Friday February 27, 2009, 9:36 PM

By JASON REMILLARD jremillard@repub.com WEST SPRINGFIELD - If walking through a time warp were possible, it would probably be similar to the scene Friday at the Eastern States Exposition grounds. More than 30 drivers from the 52-year history of Riverside Park Speedway gathered for a reunion as part of the third annual Speedway Expo, held this year in the Mallary Complex.

Numerous old cars, or replicas thereof, that ran on the Agawam track were on display, and visitors were greeted by the signage that once welcomed fans to the speedway. One could almost smell the racing fuel and hear the Thunderbolt roller coaster in the distance. "It's just great to see, it's overwhelming," said Bob Polverari, of West Springfield, a five-time track champion in the Modified division. "The memories of Riverside Park will go on forever. This is our way to show that we all were close. It's great to get together again." Rollie Jacobs, the track announcer for nearly 40 years, presented Polverari with a piece of the start-finish line, to commemorate Polverari winning the final Riverside race Oct. 17, 1999. Of the drivers seated along "Autograph Alley," Polverari was one of the most popular - just as he was during a career that extended well into his 60s. Fans of all ages, including children who were just a glimmer in their parents' eyes in the fall of 1999, sought the signatures of these favorites of yesteryear. From old-timers like 1950s star Moon Burgess to latter-day stars like Chris Kopec, of Ware, pretty much all but the earliest years of Riverside drivers were present. Even the drivers became autograph hounds. Ed Flemke Jr. passed one of his old checkered flags down the row for Burgess and others to sign. "I'm seeing a lot of people I haven't seen since the place closed," said Kopec, the 1994 Modified champion. "It's kind of cool to be with all these guys, the ones who came before us." The speedway, which started out as a 1/5-mile flat track in 1948 and became a ΒΌ-mile banked track in the 1970s, posed challenges for even the most grizzled of veterans. Many of those who mastered it went on to bigger things, though they probably didn't realize it at the time. Jimmy Spencer, the Bodine brothers (Geoffrey and Brett) and Steve Park went on to race in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Park, who has a weekend off from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, was in attendance and reflected on those character-building moments at "The Park." "I know when I first started running there that it's such a tricky place that every time I went up there (from Long Island) I thought, 'Man, this place is so hard, I'm never gonna be able to win here,'" Park said. "It was such a huge accomplishment when we were able to get the car dialed in and get me dialed in to win our first race there." It wasn't just about the drivers' memories, though. Many Expo attendees came with their own mementos of their beloved speedway. Mike Gentile, of Wilbraham, for example, had several yellowed photos in a frame of 1951 track champion Benny Germano, of Agawam, whose car Gentile's father owned at one point. "That was the place to go on Saturday night," Gentile said. "It was like going to church. We'd watch the Lone Ranger, have a steak sandwich at my house and then we'd go to the races to watch Benny Germano." There are countless people with stories like Gentile's, and this event was as much about them as it was about the drivers. "Probably the biggest thing I remember, even more than some of the races we won, was the fans," Polverari said. "They were the greatest fans of any racetrack I've ever run."

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