PHOTO: Paul Bellefeuille and the pioneers of Northeastern Speedway reveal the historical plaque which will memorialize the importance speedway forever. (T.J. Ingerson/VMM photo)

–by T.J. Ingerson

WATERFORD — Many people did not know that a race track use to exist in the little town of Waterford, Vermont just a few short years ago. Even less knew of how important this race track was to the history of Vermont auto racing.

Northeastern Speedway opened in 1959 and ran for eight years, but the race track, and accompanying organization, paved the way for many future tracks, including Thunder Road, Catamount, Bear Ridge, and Riverside Speedway.

The track sat dormant after its closing in 1966, and became missing on route 18, halfway between St. Johnsbury and Littleton, N.H. Trees and other natural vegetation took over the property, and the track became “there used to be a track somewhere back there.”

For the 50th anniversary of Northeastern Speedway, however, Paul and Lise Bellefeuille led a reclamation project of the track and property. A celebration was held on the cleared out land that featured many former drivers and their cars, officials, and fans.

“I am not sure we would be able to enjoy what we do if it wasn’t for this speedway,” said multi-time Thunder Road champion and current Lieutenant Governor of Vermont Phil Scott. “As a racer, I can’t thank those enough, especially (the pioneers), who first strapped on a helmet, or grabbed a wrench, and did whatever you could to allow me to do what I’m doing today, and that’s racing at Thunder Road. Without (them), I’m not sure Thunder Road would have even survived. I owe a lot to racing, in terms of my political career. I’m not sure I would have been elected Senator from Washington County or Lieutenant Governor. My roots are racing. I owe a lot to those (pioneers) that have allowed me to enjoy that aspect of my life.”

On Friday, June 15, Northeastern Speedway has its place firmly cemented into Vermont history, as the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation placed a historical marker on the speedway grounds, remembering the importance of Northeastern Speedway to all of Vermont auto racing.

“We are here today because of the dreams of a young boy, who wanted the excitement he felt watching the cars growing up, who reclaimed the land,” the first Northeastern Racing Association president Charlie Ely said of Paul Bellefeuille. “Still in his heart, he has succeeded, not only fulfilling the dream, but bringing back all the exciting memories for all of us still living. Thank you Paul and Lise for this day. It will bless us for the rest of our lives.”

Ely was joined by some of Northeastern Speedway’s pioneers, including Johnny Gammell, Glen Andrews, Pete Racine, and Harold Hannaford.

“Unbelievable. This is just unbelievable,” the 1959 champion Gammell said. “What a dream this has been to bring this track back. I was here in the 90s, and you could not see from one end of the track to the other. There was so much vegetation. What a great job Paul has done to bring this back to life again. It’s unbelievable.”

Andrews, Racine, and Hannaford were able to tell memorable stories about Northeastern Speedway. Hannaford also explained how Northeastern Speedway was different from every other track he had raced at before, highlighting the importance of the track for the racing we know today.

“Other tracks I went to, normally they would hold your pay back a week,” Hannaford explained. “And when you went back, there would be different people running it, and you didn’t get any pay. This is the first place I came to, and I said ‘they pay you, and you get a trophy, and they got a point system.’ I couldn’t believe it.

“I had raced for years and got nothing, except a hell of a lot of fun. I made a lot of friends in this state if I hadn’t started racing here.”

Vermont legends and Thunder Road founder Ken Squier also remembered the importance of Northeastern Speedway’s place in Vermont racing history.

“When I first met John Gammell, he came down to Malletts Bay with Charlie Ely’s car, and all he could talk about was the fact they were going to build this race track,” Squier said. “John was so dedicated to the idea of having a track here. Of all the cars that came to Burlington, the one that always looked the best and the crew that always looked the best was Ely and Gammell. They really had a sense of mind of what racing needed to be. Not only did (Gammell) participate as a competitor — and a darn good one –, but he was a pretty darn good organizer, as well. And they got this track built. When it opened, it meant so much to the racing community here.

“When we became ready to get a track built in Barre, the place we turned to was this track and their organization — the people that got racing really organized. It wouldn’t have been there without the Northeast Racing Association that was so well organized and they stepped in like they were around for a hundred years. They organized good races, and did the handicapping and kept the points, and all those things that made it work. Coming back here brings me back a long, long time.”

Paul Bellefeuille, who dedicated over a year to clear the property and bring back Northeastern Speedway, wanted a place that his childhood heroes could come back to.

“All of you (pioneers) that came here today, you are all pilgrims,” said Bellefeuille. “You were the first to build a purpose built speedway in Vermont, the first to put together a sanctioning body that came here and ran this track and then went to Thunder Road and governed the rules there also. This is for you guys to come and enjoy this. The state of Vermont has given us this beautiful plaque, and I would like all of you to read it, the words are special.”

Ely explained it the best for what Northeastern Speedway meant for those involved.

“It’s meant so much for so many people,” said Ely. “I had the honor to be the president of Northeastern Speedway. My personal opinion is the person of the head of anything is only as good as the people who surround and support him. We did this all together. And we should stand proud, each and every one of us. This really was a dream.”