From the 1950s until the final checkered flag waved at the end of the 1981 season, the Danbury Racearena was one of the most unique and successful weekly tracks in the country.
Located near the New York state line, the third-mile paved oval at the Danbury (Conn.) Fairgrounds played to some of the largest crowds and paid the largest weekly purse in the Northeast, always operating under the iron hand of the Southern New York Racing Ass’n.
Only SNYRA members could race, and it was said that the lobbying for a SNYRA car number, indicating acceptance into the club, was as intense as that for a taxi medallion in Manhattan. The insular club mentality kept the flathead Ford V-8 as the standard powerplant at Danbury until 1973, nearly a decade after the flatheads had disappeared elsewhere. Yet, that same mentality meant that the Saturday night stars stayed at the Racearena throughout their careers, packing the covered grandstands with partisan fans who kept the gate receipts and purses high.
Among the icons of the Racearena, only the name LaJoie, carried by five-time Danbury champion and all-time leading feature winner Don and his son Randy, who went on to win two NASCAR Busch Series championships, ventured outside the home area.
“It was a full contact sport,” remembered Randy LaJoie. “You could go as fast on the outside as you could on the inside.”
The rewards fueled the intensity. “The club raced for 40 percent of the gate. My dad would win a 25-lap feature and take home $4,000,” he added.
The fans were as much a part of the Danbury scene as the drivers. LaJoie recalled, “The grandstand was sectioned off. You had a LaJoie section, you had a Chick Stockwell section, you had a Fred Foshay section and a Rit Patchen section. The Foshay fans didn’t like LaJoie. The LaJoie fans didn’t like Stockwell, and so on. Everybody sat in the same seats every week. When the whistle blew at five o’clock to open the stands, people ran to their seats.”
The beginning of the end of the Racearena came when property owner John Leahy died in 1975 without leaving specific instructions for the fairgrounds in his will. His estate sold it to developers in 1979 and the last race was run Oct. 12, 1981. Like the Reading Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, it is now the site of a shopping mall.
As for the demise of his home track, LaJoie has mixed emotions. “On the one hand, I was sad to see it go,” he remarked, “but if it was still running today, I probably would still be there.”
Keeping the Danbury legend alive are an annual reunion every August, attended by as many as 2,000 people.