The Bill Eldridge Story
By Lou Modestino
Original Publication: ~1960’s
The Northeastern Midget Association has jus t enjoyed one of its most successful seasons since the late 1950 ‘ s. NEMA has taken the lean years in stride and has perserved very well. It is now on the brink of popularity that could surpass the early days of the old AAA racing club that sanctioned Midget and big car races on the New England circuit.
Of the many great drivers in the NEMA organization, one individual has stood out among the rest over a period of many years – Bill Eldridge. Bill was born in Needham, Massachusetts and attended the local schools there. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the U.S. Navy and served for four years in the Southern Pacific theater of operations. Afterwards, he entered civilian life with the intention of becoming an airline pilot. He even obtained his pilot’s license at the Norwood Airport in 1948 on the G.I. Bill, but lack of finances forced him to abandon his idea of flying.
Then in 1949, Bill’s career in racing began after he went to the Thompson, Connecticut Speedway to watch the Bay State Midget Club boys wheel around the very quick 5/8 mile track. He was bitten by the bug right then and there. When he confided his desire to race to his big brother, Bob, older brothers being what they are stated flatly, “I really don’t think you can do it.” Spurred on by this remark, Bill, not one to be discouraged easily, went out and bought himself a helmet and began looking for a Midget ride. He said, “I felt that I had to prove I could do it – to myself and especially to my brother!”
Unfortunately, Bill had no success in locating a ride. He then heard about a Midget drivers’ racing school located at the old Medford Bowl just outside the Boston city limits. This school was the joint efforts of Ed Stone and Bud Tetreau, two of the early pioneers who helped to introduce Midget racing to the New England area. So Bill Joined. He recalled, “It cost me $10 a lesson. Each one was ten laps, and with a total of ten lessons, it cost me 100 bucks. But I was being taught by experts and the valuable lessons and practice I got was well worth it.” Some of Bill’s classmates were the late Stan Woods and Bob Hersey.
Through the school, Bill got his first ride in a Ford 60 Midget, owned by Frank Ventrul of Waltham, Massachusetts. Bill said, “I was fortunate to get a ride through the school, as car owners were, and still are, a hard bunch to please.”
At first, Dill did not enjoy much success with t he Midgets so he moved into the United Racing Club’s Modified Stock Racing Division for the 1952 and 1953 seasons. After running the stocks for two years and without gaining any self-satisfaction, he went back to Midgets. Looking back, Bill recalled, “The Stock Car circuit was really rough and tumble in those days. I raced in the Midgets just long enough to appreciate the much finer techniques of close, fast and smooth open cockpit racing. In the Midgets, you find less shoving, horsing, or what’s referred to as ‘rough riding.’ You pull that stuff in the Midgets, and it’s all over – for you or someone else.”
Ray Kelly of Pembroke, Massachusetts, a Midget owner and Club Official first noticed Bill in 1953. He said, “We had just formed NEMA after AAA withdrew from racing and the sport was at a low ebb. Bill was driving for Gibby Parminter of Framingham. Gibby was a real choosy car owner, as he had the only top equipment in the club. Something else too, we (NEMA) were running for nickels and dimes when you consider today’s purses, and we couldn’t afford bent-up equipment. A driver had to be good and bring home the equipment in good shape. Bill was smooth right from the start and is still that way now. It’s important, especially now with the stiffer competition almost to the point of dog-eat-dog.”
The fact that Eldridge won the NEMA championship that year is a remarkable feat. as this was his first year with the club on a permanent basis. In the next few years, Bill became one of the club’s top drivers. He took the champion titles in 1954, 1957 and again in 1958 .
“Bill could find a hole in the pack where others couldn’t,” is what John McCarthy, NEMA President, had to say about him. “The drivers that have this ability are the exceptional ones.”
In 1965, Bill thought he’d like to take a crack at Championship Car piloting. The car was a destroked Chevy Roadster owned by Dick Carman from Foxboro, Massachusetts. Dick had spent many years designing, building and running Modified Cut-Downs on the New England circuit. This car was his fondest creation, but all ended in disappointment for Eldridge time after time. The white Roadster failed to qualify over and over again at both the Langhorne and Trenton Speedways. The first time out, however, the car ran well at Trenton and came close to qualifying. But Eldridge was nosed out of last spot by .005 of a minute!
No doubt, this shattered Carman’s dream of running Championship Cars as well as Bill’s ideas of breaking into this circuit, for the time being at least. The year 1965 saw the rear engine Fords break through the Championship circuit. No other extreme technical change had shaken the Championship trail this much in two decades. It was now obvious that the Roadster was dead, at least on the paved tracks.
Maury Dumas, Flagman for NEMA, said “Most Open Cockpit drivers have the urge to run at Indianapolis. Eldridge has the desire, and if ever give n the opportunity to run a good piece of equipment, he could do as well as any driver. He’s got a lot of driver sense and has more ability to stay out of trouble than most drivers.”
Bill still doesn’t count the Indy idea out . He said, “My trip out there in ’65 gave me a little better feel of what’s going on. I went through the physical and passed the test with flying colors. If I get the opportunity, I will give it one heck of a try.”
Every Midget driver experiences his share of wrecks and mishaps during his racing career, and Bill is no exception. In 1957, Eldridge had a narrow escape at the Danbury Race Arena during the weekly ARDC Midget meets. Bill told of the incident, “It was a tough night for racing. We had a shower around 7 o’clock that night that broke the heat of the day. The races started at 8 o’clock and continued to run under threatening skies. The track was real slick and everyone was unable to make a move or try to pass. It happened on the first lap of the Consi. Al Pillion and Dick Brown tangled on the third turn. I went over someone’s wheel-I can’t remember who’s and headed airborne and sideways towards the fence at about 50 or 60 miles an hour. Fortunately, the roll bar hit the fence at the same time that my face did. I think the roll bar absorbed a lot of the shock, but I still managed to flip over and fractured my shoulder and a few ribs. Outside of that, I was pretty lucky!”
Chief Scorer, Ray Kelly, said “You know, as serious as Bill’s accident was, I still get a chuckle when I remember something that happened that night. Bill is rather tall for a Midget driver, and when they tried to get him into the ambulance to take him to the hospital, they couldn’t get his fee t inside to close the door. So, they had to rush to the hospital with his feet sticking out! ”
As most fans who are close to their favorite race driver can well attest, the only drivers who don’t have family problems are the bachelors. However, Bill’s case is an exception, His wife , the former Barbara Hoffey also from Needham, remarked that she attends most all the races that Bill competes in and takes most of their six children along. She told what it’s like to be a race drivers wife. “I had mixed emotions at first. When the children were young, I was rather bitter. But, over the years, I have become more accustomed to the idea. I knew Bill loved racing and couldn’t see having him torn between his wife and his sport. You must remember that every man must have a challenge, not matter what it is. It makes life worth living. So, I made up my mind to like it, and I became a fan.”
Race fans, at one time or another might have wondered about what it’s like to be a race driver. The answer probably is that you have to be the type of individual that Bill Eldridge is. No doubt, it takes a person who is in excellent physical and mental condition. Bill thinks his mental outlook has to do with his driving performance. He said, “Just as in any sport, your body and your mind must be conditioned to the particular thing that you are doing. In racing, you must have confidence in your ability and also in your equipment if you are ever going to be successful.”
“You know, sometimes I just know when he is going to win,” explains Barbara. “It’s just that I can see that he is in the best possible frame of mind and has complete confidence· in himself.”
An ardent race fan of Eldridge’s thins that Bill is most amiable. “I used to ask Bill a question about racing and he always gave me a very nice answer. You can’t say this for every driver, as it’s understandable that the tension and excitement during a race makes them edgey and most of the drivers don’t want to talk to anyone.”
Every Club has a Bill Eldridge. He doesn’t win every race, but that’s not really important. What is important is that fans go to the speedways to see these men pit minds, bodies and machines against each other. Bill is just one of the many veterans who will continue to run Open Cockpit. It’s the caliber of racing that, as of late, only a real die-hard race fan can appreciate. Not only does this form of racing give the hopeful driver the basic training for Sprint and Championship Cars, but it’s an opportunity for fans to see the jewels of American oval racing being cut.