Triumph turned into tragedy Saturday night following the final asphalt race of the season at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Fair Haven, Vt.
Veteran modified driver Leon Gonyo of Chazy won the second of Twin 50s, but suffered what is being described as a medical emergency while taking a ceremonial victory lap. Coming out of turn four and heading to victory lane, Gonyo’s car suddenly veered and slammed into the frontstretch retaining wall. Despite efforts by the Devil’s Bowl safety team and Fair Haven Rescue Squad, which was on scene, the 63-year-old Gonyo couldn’t be revived.
Although no one plans to die, isn’t it ironic that Gonyo died with a checkered flag in his hand following the best season of his career? His win last Saturday was his fifth of the year at the Bowl, and seventh overall.
Gonyo was part of a group of close-knit modified drivers out of the Plattsburgh area, a band of brothers that included Hall of Famer Wes Moody, Dick Nephew and later Mike Perrotte.
Although Gonyo did most of his racing around Plattsburgh, he was a regular at Albany-Saratoga Speedway when the late C.J. Richards, founder of the Champlain Valley Racing Association, put together a three-track circuit that included Albany-Saratoga, Airborne Park in Plattsburgh and Devil’s Bowl in the mid-1980s.
Gonyo made Albany-Saratoga his Friday night home, driving the Egglefield Ford No. 2, and although he never won a race on the dirt surface at the Malta track, he did have three runner-up finishes — to Hector Stratton in 1986 and to both Perrotte and C.D. Coville in 1987.
He finally made his way to victory lane at Albany-Saratoga on Aug. 6, 2010, the first season that then-promoter Bruce Richards covered the dirt surface with asphalt.
Gonyo recorded his first career win at Devil’s Bowl in 1985, and the next season, picked up one of the biggest victories of his career, taking the checkered flag in the Yankee 200.
The soft-spoken Gonyo received the John Bruno Award in 2013. The award, named after the father of Devil’s Bowl owner Mike Bruno, honors people who have made significant contributions to short-track racing during their lifetime while meeting high standards of conduct and respect both on and off the track.
There was no question that Gonyo met all the criteria.
The world of short-track racing can do without a lot of the wheel-spinning hot heads, chronic complainers and serial rule-breakers who seem to be so prevelant these days, but the loss of a driver and gentleman like Leon Gonyo will be felt by everyone.
End of an era
When Fonda Speedway runs its final race of the season Saturday night, it will mark the end of an era at the Track of Champions.
A.J. Romano has already announced his retirement and his decision to move to North Carolina. So when Fonda opens its door for the 2016 season, it will mark the first time since 1963 that there won’t be a Romano competing at Fonda.
Although Joe Romano started fielding cars in 1957, his son Andy, who worked on the cars in those early days, didn’t get behind the wheel of his father’s car until 1963.
Andy’s two sons, Mike and A.J., both followed in their father’s footsteps, and at one time, all three were racing on Saturday nights.
There were a couple of seasons in the late 1990s when Mike and A.J. had disputes with former promoter Ralph Compani and began racing elsewhere. In 1994, Mike won the opening-night feature, but was disqualified for being light, a ruling that he didn’t agree with, so he began running at Drummondville in Canada on Saturday nights. Two years later, he was competing on the Fulton-Utica-Rome Outlaw circuit, and at about the same time, A.J. and car owner Skip Seymour were spending their Saturday nights at Canandaigua.
But as far as I can tell, at least one of the brothers ran at least one race during the 1994, 1995 and 1996 seasons before returning fulltime when Ric Lucia took over the track in 1997.
Fonda Speedway will end its season with two days of racing this weekend.
Tonight’s card will be highlighted by the Empire Super Sprints, “The Ultimate Underdog” race for modifieds and the finale of the King of DIRT sportsman series. Racing begins at 7.
Fonda will be holding a 100-lap Super DIRT Series race on Saturday, as well as the Hondo Classic for pro stocks. The Supet DIRT Series race will pay $6,000 to win. Racing will begin at 6 p.m.
Looking at tonight’s card, “The Ultimate Underdog” is for drivers who did not win a feature or finish in the top five in points at any track during the 2015 season. The 35-lap race will pay $2,000 to win, and $250 to take the green flag.
Around the tracks
Vince Quenneville Jr. won his first asphalt track championship at Devil’s Bowl last weekend, finishing first and second in the Twin 50s. Ron Proctor went into the night as the points leader, but his hopes were derailed when he was involved in a crash on lap five of the first feature and was credited with a 17th place finish. The last time Quenneville won the modified championship at the Bowl was 2003 when the track was run by the Richards family and had a clay surface.
Alton Palmer is recovering from a broken shoulder he suffered when he flipped his car during the modified feature at Fonda last Saturday.
Harry Shaffer won Friday night’s sportsman feature at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, then totaled his Fonda car on Saturday night. According to Fonda Speedway officials, Shaffer was in a lot of pain Sunday, but with no broken bones, after a multi-car pileup during the sportsman feature.
Fonda modified champion Stewart Friesen opted to compete in the Freedom 76, which paid $25,000 to win, at Grandview Speedway last Saturday rather than race at his home track. Friesen was running third when he got caught up in a wreck, officially finishing 24th.