On late spring evenings, when people living north of Fonda begin hearing the old familiar sounds of droning, high-performance engines assaulting their ear drums from the valley below, they know Fonda Speedway's racing season has returned. Probably few area residents remember an earlier motor raceway that predated the Fonda track's 1952 conversion from sedate trotting races to stock cars.
The West Perth Speedway came first. It began hosting auto races in 1949. It was the brain child of Francis Willett, whose father Ed "Pop" Willett ran a service station with considerable acreage behind it. Located on County Road 107 just west of the intersection with McQueen Road, Willett's race course began as a typical dirt track, bulldozed into existence by Francis and his friends, just to race informally behind his father's station. Out front, "Pop" dispensed gas and serviced Perth residents' cars and tractors, his being the only garage on 107 between Johnstown and what is now the Route 107/30 intersection.
Perth Councilman Walt Kowalczyk remembers "Pop" fondly.
A racing scene at the former West Perth Speedway.
Photo courtesy of Peter Betz
"We were just kids with our first cars - $50 jalopies. Pop let us fix them in the garage and taught us how. We'd ask him how much a part was, and he'd always say, 'two dollars,' but we knew it was more. He was a good egg."
Broadalbin resident Jim Magielda grew up next to Willett's and contributed photographs for this article, but neither his memory nor any newspaper article pinpoints exactly when the track opened. One article suggests racing began there during 1949 but gives few details. For whatever reason, the track was dormant during 1950. Then, during late winter 1951, Francis Willett and some fellow racing enthusiasts met in Pop's garage, formed an association and named the track officially the West Perth Speedway.
Major modifications were made during '51. The July 31, 1951, Leader Republican states, "It was necessary to widen the track from 45 to 96 feet. Another 1,000 gallons of oil will be spread on the turns. Cars are signed up from Troy, Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Fulton County."
I have my own memories of the Willett's noisy enterprise because the back of their track adjoined the back acreage of my uncle's farm. On warm summer afternoons, I'd hear the baritone rumblings of those powerful, smog-spewing engines beckoning me to visit them. Sometimes, I'd accept their invitation and hike back through the woods, hiding behind the Willett track's high-banked far turn to watch the show for free. However, this wasn't a parent-approved activity, and I was usually found out, betrayed by the brownish track dust that infiltrated my clothes and hair.
Francis Willett also had his troubles: New York state's "Blue Laws" back then prevented holding almost any money-making event on Sunday except church. When Francis announced he would hold Sunday races during the 1951 season, the town of Perth fought it, adopting a town law on May 23 "prohibiting Sunday racing and imposing a $200.00 fee for each day's card."
This local law was quickly struck down by state Supreme Court Judge Imre, who ruled the $200 fee per race was unreasonable. Willett waited all summer before testing the local authorities again, but on Sept. 23, the Leader Republican reported, "Justice of the Peace Bert Pooler, Perth, ordered a $5.00 fine for Francis Willett, owner of the West Perth Speedway, for operating stock car races on Sunday in violation of the Blue Laws. Approximately 200 people were present at the races."
Interestingly, the paper noted the sheriff was detained from arriving at the track by other business until the day's races were concluded.
When in early 1952 the state Legislature, tired of continued "blue law" litigation, ruled that New York state's Blue Laws were "enforceable only at community discretion," Perth officials apparently declined enforcing them. In fact, Jim Magielda remembers Willett being allowed to use the town's road grader to smooth the track between races.
Now free to schedule Sunday afternoon racing, Willett revved up activities, renamed his track the Tri-County Raceway and hired two popular local drivers as managers.
The Schenectady Gazette of May 17, 1952, announced, "The first Sunday racing program since the ban was lifted is scheduled for May 25th. Thirty racing enthusiasts from Amsterdam and nearby communities have formed a group to sponsor the events. Some of the area's best-known drivers will be on the first program which will be in charge of John Havel and Stan Bellinger."
The end came after the 1952 season when Fonda Fairgrounds' management abandoned horse racing and initiated its own speedway activities. Fonda's track offered advantages over Willett's: The location was more convenient, the bleachers seated more fans, plus there was more parking and food vending space. Francis Willett tried competing by lighting his track and offering "Saturday twilight races," hoping that if he improved it, "they" would still come, but they didn't.
Between Fonda's advantages and competition from another short-lived track on Route 30, racing at Willett's Tri-County Raceway ceased.
"Pop" Willett died about then, after which Francis, according to Jim Magielda - who waved him goodbye - trailered his own stock car behind his Buick and headed for California, where he raced successfully. Today, a small trailer park nestles where fledgling racer Pete Corey and other future racing legends once raised dust while developing their skills. The neighborhood has been considerably quieter since.
Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.