The 51-year history of racing at the Big E

Racing was featured on the exposition grounds from 1917 to 1968

WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass (WWLP) – West Springfield was home to modified auto racing for about half of the Big E’s “Century of Greatness.”

Racing was featured on the exposition grounds from 1917 to 1968, with two interruptions: the “Hurricane of 1938″ and several years in the forties during World War Two.

The Big E Midway’s carnival rides, games of chance, and concessions occupy the space that used to be home to the Eastern States Exposition’s race track. Cars raced around a half-mile track behind the Big E Coliseum for 51 years. It opened as a dirt track in 1917.

Fred Ciavola, the Big E’s resident racing historian, told 22News: “They used to race horses on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And there’d be big wheel cars on Friday and Saturday. You couldn’t race on Sunday because of the Blue Laws.”

Fred Ciavola’s exhibit in the Young Building has an extensive collection of photographs, such as the trophy from the track’s last race, the first official racing program from October 13th, 1917, and the restored Modified Race Car Number 43 driven by 1966 200-lap, 100-mile race winner, Billy Greco.

It turned out to be a race for Richard Belmonte to complete the restoration. “He started in the springtime and he worked all summer long. And he finished it about two weeks ago, just in time for the fair. And he did a marvelous job,” said Ciavola.

Fred Ciavola said the Hurricane of 1938 blew the canopy off the grandstand, and it was never replaced.
When thousands of spectators filled the grandstand to capacity, non-paying race-fans watched from the dike across the way.

The track was paved in 1948, and that was the end of horse-racing there.

Ciavola said: “It was wide enough to get maybe 12 cars side-by-side all the way around the track. It was fairly flat, but because it was so wide, it was beautiful. Racing cars could pass inside and outside.”

While there hasn’t been any racing there in 48 years, you can see that, once the rides and concessions leave, the race track is still there.

The racing came to an end in 1968, when management decided to move the rides onto the track and use that property during the entire run of the fair, not just on the weekends. Rides occupied the midway in 1969, and they’ve been growing ever since.

If you don’t get to visit Fred’s “Century of Greatness” racing exhibit during the Big E’s Centennial Celebration, you’re out of luck. Much of the memorabilia will be returned to its owners, but you may still get a chance to see Billy Greco’s winning car Modified Race Car Number 43 when they take it on tour.