June 3, 2013
 

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Zimmerman Discusses Current Racing Scene

The 1971 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year

By Brian Danko, Staff Writer
The New Britain Herald & Bristol Press

Photos Courtesy of Tom Ormsby
SpeedwayLineReport.com

This is the second part of a two-part series on Denny Zimmerman. The first part ran last week and can be read at http://briandanko.speedwaylinereport.com/Archives/MAY13/5-27-13.htm

As Denny Zimmerman, the 1971 Indy Rookie of the Year and I continued to talk, the very young looking 74 year old, we talked about various topics including the current state of Indy car racing.

“The problem is that Indy car racing doesn’t publicize American drivers and Americans have lost touch with Indy car racing. Indy car racing doesn’t promote Indy car racing.” Zimmerman said. “Indy car racing is really struggling right now and these street courses really aggravate me. You can’t pass, it nothing but a follow the leader race. Where you start is where you finish.”


Denny's car during the "Eastern Bandit" days when he, Ed Flemke, Sr., Rene Charland & Red Foote toured the Southern Modifed tracks. John Grady Photo

“Indy car racing should be on ovals but I have no problem throwing in a couple of road courses and to win the championship, they should have to run a dirt Indy car race. Another thing I would like to see them do is to get rid of the mirrors in the cars, which just promotes blocking.”

In Zimmerman’s days, the way of getting to Indy and into an Indy car ride, was earning your way up the ranks. Once drivers cut their teeth on the short tracks, then they would tackle the midget cars and then work their way up the Sprint cars, much like what Tony Stewart did before he moved over to NASCAR racing.

When asked what it was like driving with American legends such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unser Brothers, Denny said they were all fine to get along with.

“I remember one thing that Eddie Flemke told me about the other drivers. Remember, they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you or I do.” Meaning don’t be in awe of them.


The 74 year old zipping around with the USAC Dirt Midget Association midget.

While Zimmerman is another of the long line of guests who shows up at the Plainville Stadium Reunion, we mulled over the current state of racing and the cost associated with it.

“I have a couple of grand kids and they aren’t interested in racing and I am kind of glad. The cost today for any type of racing is out of control. You look at what people are spending now a days and nobody builds anything anymore.”
“I look at the NASCAR modified tour and what NASCAR has done to it. It is nothing more to NASCAR but an unwanted step child.” Zimmerman said, what many in local racers already know.

When Zimmerman was asked about Flemke as a racer and what he could have become if he wanted too, Denny quickly said, “Eddie was just as good as Petty or Foyt, any of these American drivers. That’s how good Eddie was as a driver, teacher and father.”

One of Flemke’s other ‘sons’ was Pete Hamilton who won the 1970 Daytona 500 driving a Richard Petty ‘Superbird’ Plymouth. Hamilton also captured both races that year at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama. Hamilton would retire the following year because of a neck injury.

Denny said, “You know Eddie wanted to be around here and be with his kids (Eddie, Jr. and daughter, Paula). He could have done it. If he wanted to move away but he wanted the kids to be with him.”

Eddie Junior learned so much from his father, that he currently owns, along with Reggie Ruggiero, Race Works, a race car fabrication shop in Berlin where he and Reggie build and maintain race cars.

“As good as a driver as Eddie, Sr. was Eddie, Jr. is that good as a fabricator. He is just so meticulous on his work.”
While many people who are nearing their mid 70’s, begin to slow down, not Zimmerman.

A few years back, he and friend, fellow New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer, Ray Miller got back into racing and they both love it.

“I can’t tell you how much fun it is. In fact, Ray Miller won the feature a few weeks ago. I think that may make him the oldest USAC (United States Auto Club) winner in the country. They are just so much fun and we just have fun running against the kids.”

When I asked Zimmerman if he stills gets his standard 40% of the winnings, he said, “Oh yeah, I still do. But 40% of nothing is still nothing.” Denny said laughing.

“I remember winning a race at the Thompson Speedway and it was one of the races where it was two events and the overall winner was your combined finishes. I didn’t win a race, but I came in second in the first one and third in the second one. I remember they handed me $1,000, which was the most money I ever had in my hands at one time.”


Denny in the URC Sprint Car.

When I asked Zimmerman if he stills gets his standard 40% of the winnings, he said, “Oh yeah, I still do. But 40% of nothing is still nothing.” Denny said laughing.

“I remember winning a race at the Thompson Speedway and it was one of the races where it was two events and the overall winner was your combined finishes. I didn’t win a race, but I came in second in the first one and third in the second one. I remember they handed me $1,000, which was the most money I ever had in my hands at one time.”

That would be until he jumped into the big time at Indy and earned the Rookie of the Year in the 500.

Denny Zimmerman and his wife live in Suffield, not far from his hometown of Glastonbury. I asked if his neighbors knew of his racing exploits and he said not really.

So if you attend the Plainville Stadium reunion and see someone, just minding their own business, strike up a conversation. You never know who it might be or what they may have accomplished.

 

Brian Danko has been covering Auto Racing for over 30 years for various magazines & and racing papers including Area Auto Racing News. His weekly column can be seen "In The Print Editions" of  The New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.

 

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