Rene Charland, the cigar-chompin’ Hall of Famer whose pranks were almost as legendary as his driving ability, died Monday after years of failing health. He was 84.
Although he won four straight NASCAR national sportsman championships in the early 1960s, Charland is probably best remembered for a fiery, near-fatal wreck at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in 1966. Once he recovered from his injuries, Charland began referring to the accident as “The French Barbecue,” further adding to his own legacy.
Born in Chicopee, Mass., Charland later settled in Agawam, Mass., and began racing at Riverside Speedway in 1949.
His familiar No. 3 was a frequent winner at the dirt bullrings in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
In the early 1960s, Charland began running with a group of racers known as the “Eastern Bandits.” The group included Eddie Flemke, Red Foote, Pete Hamilton and Denny Zimmerman. Rather than bang heads against each other, they decided to travel south, where they found a lot of success at the small asphalt tracks in Virginia and Maryland, running their lightweight chassis against the much heavier Southern-built cars.
By running in the south, Charland raced nearly 100 times a year, and accumulated enough points to finish fifth in the NASCAR national standings in 1961, During the following winter, he decided he would make a run at the national championship in 1962.
Not only did he win the national sportsman title in 1962, he repeated in 1963, ’64 and ’65, and probably would have won again in 1966, had it not been for the wreck at Albany-Saratoga. Despite missing the second half of the season while he recovered from his injuries, Charland still finished third in points that year.
Those titles earned Charland the nickname “The Champ,” which became used more than his real name.
Charland was also picking up points at Utica-Rome Speedway during the early 1960s, winning championships at that track in 1961, 1962 and 1964. Always a practical joker, Charland loved to tell everyone at Utica-Rome that he was promoter Joe Lesik’s brother-in-law, and thus would be favored with up-front starting positions and other favors.
Always wanting a shot at the big-time, Charland ran in a number of NASCAR Grand National races, including the Daytona 500 and Permatex 300. The gorgeous Studebaker he used in the Permatex 300 would later be retired, and wind up on top of the billboard outside Albany-Saratoga Speedway for many years.
Charland esentially gave up asphalt racing in 1967, when he began campaigning at Fonda Speedway, and won the modified point title at the Track of Champions in 1970. Four years later, he capped off his dirt career when he pulled off a huge upset at Lebanon Valley Speedway, winning the Lebanon 200.
Even after he stopped racing, Charland remained active locally, fielding cars for Nick and Don Ronca, and attempting to start his own racing museum.
Charland was known for his distinctive race cars, including his familiar Fred Rosner-built 3-Mass machines, which he drove during his glory days, the Czepiel 888 he drove at Fonda (which was also built by Rosner) and the Roehrig Brothers 99.
And don’t forget the pranks. For years, women were banned from the pits at Fonda. Once they were admitted, it became “goose” season for Charland. No female was safe when Charland was within arm’s length.
In the book “Fonda!” by Andy Fusco and Lew Boyd, Bruce Cohen, a close friend of Charland’s, recalled a story about Charland’s brashness.
Charland had won three straight races in the 888 in 1967, and was suspected of jumping the starts in turn three, The black roof on the car blended into the night sky, making it difficult to see from the scorer’s tower.
Pit steward Ralph Oudekirk told Charland to come back the following week with the numbers 888 painted on his roof.
The next week, Charland won his fourth straight race — with a black top. Oudekirk went into Charland’s pit and yelled, “Dammit, Rene. I told you to paint numbers on the roof.” Charland said, “I did what you told me to, Ralph. Take a look.”
When Oudekirk inspected the roof, he found that the numbers 888 had been painted in black gloss enamel on the black vinyl roof. When Oudekirk started to rant at Charland, he answered, “But Ralph, you never told me what color to use.”
Although no official records exist, it’s estimated that Charland won over 700 races during his career. He is a member of both the New York State Stock Car Association and DIRT Motorsports Halls of Fame.