Stewardship of the Fonda Speedway Museum is, for those involved, more of a calling than a hobby.
For Jackie Lape and her husband, Dave, of Canajoharie, that history goes back more than a half-century. Dave Lape is one of the legendary figures at the “Track of Champions,” with 99 victories and seven track championships over a 50-year career racing over the half-mile oval at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds track.
In 2016, a couple of years after Dave’s retirement from racing, the Lapes were drawn back to Fonda, helping to curate the speedway’s history by supervising a collection of memorabilia that dates back to the track’s earliest days of racing in the 1950s.
“We saw that nobody was really stepping up to keep the museum going,” Jackie Lape said. “We felt like, ‘Well, you know, we’ve been here on Saturdays forever. What’s a few more Saturdays?’ We decided to see what we could do to help maintain and build on what was already there.”
The roots of what the museum is now began years before, just across the Mohawk River at the Fultonville McDonald’s, which housed an impressive collection of speedway history.
Over the years, as stewardship of the museum — now located on the fairgrounds in a building provided by the Fonda Fair Board, with an impressive collection of vintage race gear stuck to the walls and literally hanging from the rafters — passed from one group of volunteers to another, much of that collection was lost.
Among the items that vanished into the ether was one of Dave Lape’s old race suits, donated by his wife.
When the Lapes came on board in 2016, they made it their mission to make sure no more of Fonda Speedway’s history was lost.
Over the last five years, not only has the history been preserved — it’s been added to.
“Once [Dave Lape] got involved and people found out he was sort of the curator of it,” museum president Matt Noles said, “stuff started coming out of the woodwork.”
From current and former drivers and their families, as well as generations of race fans, came a deluge of donations — racing suits, gloves, photos, trophies, boxes of old programs dating back 60 years, a 1950s racing helmet that survived both a crash and a fire, old race machines from Fonda icons like Ray Sitterly, Bruce Dostal, “Jumpin’” Jack Johnson and, not surprisingly, Dave Lape himself.
In a half-decade, the museum has gone from bare-bones to bursting at the seams.
“When we really started getting the museum going in about 2017, we had plenty of room in the building that the Fair Board so graciously provided for us to use,” Noles said. “Now, to be honest with you, we have stuff piled up in the closet. We’ve run out of room. We are packed.”
And so, as the museum prepares to honor Fonda Speedway’s 2021 Hall of Fame class on Saturday afternoon, plans are in the works to expand.
The endgame, Noles said, is to eventually build a new, larger museum facility on the speedway grounds, providing more space for both permanent and rotating exhibits while also providing better protection from both weather and fire than the current facility allows for.
Helping to shepherd that process is the museum’s legal counsel, Adam Fusco, through whose efforts the museum is on the cusp of becoming an official New York State not-for-profit organization, making it eligible to apply for grants from the state government.
For Fusco, passion for Fonda Speedway is in his blood. His late father, Andy Fusco literally wrote — well, co-wrote — the book on the “Track of Champions,” authoring “Fonda! An Illustrated and Documented History of the Legendary Fonda Speedway,” with Lew Boyd to commemorate the track’s 50th season back in 2002.
Adam Fusco “grew up around racetracks” and when his father — also an attorney — died in 2015, he took over his role as counsel for the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Stock Car Hall of Fame in Weedsport, before being brought on in a similar capacity in Fonda.
“It always makes me think that my dad would be pretty happy with what we’re doing,” Fusco said.
Adam Fusco’s work has earned him a spot on the podium for Saturday’s Hall of Fame ceremony, which starts at 3 p.m. to kick off two days of Fourth of July weekend racing. Drivers Phlan Hart, Russ Flint and David Towns, car owner Bill King and track contributor Chris Fain will be enshrined in the hall of fame, while Fusco has been named the fifth annual recipient of the Bruce Dostal Dedication to the Fonda Speedway Museum Award.
Adam Fusco is part of what Jackie Lape called a group of “next-generation race people” — a group that also includes her daughter, Jessica — that is helping to move the museum’s mission forward.
A new building — perhaps ready in time for the track’s 75th season in 2027, Noles said — would continue to secure that legacy.
It would also provide added security in case of damage from fire or flooding, the latter of which has caused significant damage at the fairgrounds twice in the last 15 years.
“We’re getting to the point where all of those things that we have gathered and people have trusted us with,” Jackie Lape said, “we can walk away at some point in the future knowing that collection will never come apart.”
Though the museum already has more memorabilia than it has room to display, there are a few special exhibits Noles said he’d love to be able to show to the public, even if the museum could only get their hands on them for a temporary basis.
Among those dream items would be a replica Steve Danish race car — “truly Fonda’s first superstar,” Noles said — or a replica Richard Petty car, as “The King” won the Fonda 200 when the NASCAR Grand National series visited Montgomery County in both 1967 and 1968.
“The driving force for us is the preservation of the history,” Noles said, “showing today’s fans who didn’t get to see the Coupes, the Gremlins, the transition from leaf springs and coils to torsion bars and whatnot. We’re trying to preserve that and showcase that for the fans to see where the sport was, where the sport came from and how we got to where we are.”
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