Denny Zimmerman Looks Back
on his New Britain Roots
The 1971 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the
Official Indianapolis Motor
|By Brian Danko, Staff Writer
The New Britain Herald & Bristol Press
Photos Courtesy of Tom
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
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
“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 ½ 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
Zimmerman and his wife both retired about the same time and now they
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