May 27, 2013
 

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Denny Zimmerman Looks Back
on his New Britain Roots

The 1971 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year
Official Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photo

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

Photos Courtesy of Tom Ormsby
SpeedwayLineReport.com

How many people can be successful in life and say they never really had a job. Well, Denny Zimmerman can.

Zimmerman, who now resides in Suffield, will always be known as the 1971 Rookie of the Year, finishing 8th at the Indianapolis 500, but he got his start in racing as one of Eddie Flemke’s boys.

“Let me tell you, not only was he a mentor but he was like a second father to me. He taught me a lot about racing but he taught me even more about life,” Zimmerman said as he was driving out to Indianapolis for the 500 and the activities that go along with it.


Denny's roots began on the short tracks of New England like Riverside Park Speedway. Here he is pictured at Plainville Stadium. Photo By Frank Faust

When Zimmerman said he never really had a job, he meant one he dreaded getting up and going to. In the beginning, he was touring up and down the northeast with Flemke and a band of northern drivers known as the “Eastern Bandits.” They would run five or six nights a week, heading down south and swooping in and pocketing all the cash at the tracks.


Three of the Eastern Bandits at Islip Speedway in 1974. Denny to the left and Rene Charland and
Ed Flemke on the right.

“We would work on our cars in New Britain and we would head out to New Egypt Speedway in New Jersey, then race the following night in Richmond, Virginia, run at Manassas Speedway and then run at Marlboro Speedway in Maryland before racing that night in Old Bridge, New Jersey.”

“At some of the races, like at Old Bridge, we’d miss the heat races so we had to qualify in the consi to get into the feature. We were lucky as they knew we were coming so they would hold the consi’s for us,” Zimmerman said about his traveling days.

It was “those”days that gave Zimmerman a chance to move up to sprint cars and then get a shot at Indy.

“I got a lot of seat time at Indy practices. I passed my driver’s test but I wasn’t fast enough to make the 1969 race or the race in 1970. In 1971, I got a call from Frank Fiore, who owned an Indy car and he asked me to drive it. Frankie Delroy, who was from New Jersey, mentioned my name to Fiore and told him to give me a chance.”

Zimmerman qualified 28th in the 33 car starting field and finished 8th, running 189 of the 200 laps. “We lost a couple of laps in the pits and the car was a little off but we finished and got the Rookie of the Year. We earned over $27, 600. That was the most money I ever won,” he said.

In 1972, Zimmerman again qualified for the 500, starting in the 28th spot again but finished 16th.

Zimmerman said his career came to an end because of a lack of a suitable ride. “I had Firestone Tire helping me and then they got out of racing in 1972 and Goodyear Tire wasn’t interested in me. In 1973, I had no ride and in 1974, I was the first alternate. I missed the race by just a sliver.”

But Zimmerman had begun working on his life after racing by taking flying lessons.

“I had already learned how to fly and it was a lot safer than racing. I flew a lot of 727 and 747’s. I got a job as an airline pilot for Evergreen International Airlines and was with them for 5 ˝ years. I then got a job as a pilot for a cargo company flying freight all over the world. I then had to retire because of the maximum age for pilots.”

But Zimmerman wasn’t done just yet.


This car is enshrined in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Denny is the only Indy driver to have competed in the Soap Box Derby. This is the 1954 winning car.

“I got a job flying corporate jets all over the world. I would fly sports figures, movie stars and politicians. At one time, I was flying around the world once a month.”

Not bad for a person who didn’t consider racing a job and for that reason, flying, a job. He just enjoyed doing it.

In fact, flying is how he met his would be wife.

“She was an instructor at the flying school that I went to. We were married in 1974. She worked for years as a pilot for United Airlines before retiring because of health issues,” Zimmerman said about his wife, Ruth.

Zimmerman and his wife both retired about the same time and now they enjoy life.

A few years back, management at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway decided to bring back all of the living participants that raced in the Indy 500 and it was a smash hit.

“A couple years ago they started it and there were 269 drivers still alive and almost 200 showed up. They took a group picture of all of us. I’ll tell you, that is one of my most treasured possessions. I am looking forward to the Old Timers Barbeque this year,” the easy going Zimmerman said.

The records will show that Zimmerman competed in 15 Champ Car starts and the 1971 Indy 500 was his best finish, but he also had two 11th place finishes along the way, and this is when Indy car racing was the premier racing circuit in the country, and for that point, in the world.

Next week, our conversation with Denny Zimmerman will continue. He will discuss the current state of Indy car racing, and his new love, racing dirt midgets.

 

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.

 

Copyright © 2012-2013  Brian Danko & SpeedwayLineReport.com, New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.