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GREASE! Hosted By:  Cemetery Jim


The Albert Einstein of Modifieds - Part 1


An interview with Sherrie Dornberger, Sonny's Daughter

by Cemetery Jim       November 6th, 2004  (First of a 3 part series)


True genius is a very diversified thing. Some geniuses are single minded, they are true geniuses in their Field, such as physics, or chemistry, yet seemingly clueless in anything else. Sonny Dornberger was one of those rare geniuses who were , like Thomas Jefferson, a genius in anything he turned his phenomenal mind to.

I first met Sonny about 1960, and he built my race car and my engine for me in the mid 60s. I had the pleasure of watching Sonny do things that were somewhere between unbelievable and impossible as easily as you or I would add 2 and 2. When my car was there, Sonny was building for Stan Plosky, Jackie Hamilton, etc. etc. The apron and garage were always filled with race cars, and Walt Kinsley, who drove the 325 car at Vineland lived next door and somehow most of the Fla. drivers wound up at Sonny's and Walt's so Bobby Allen, who later became a legend in outlaw Sprints was staying at sonny's and he, his wife and crew were sleeping in Sonny's living room, next door at Kinsley's were Gil Hearn, Pee Wee Griffin, and Bobby Brack. It looked like Gasoline alley at Indy. Sonny worked on all those cars.

I started off by remarking on how many cars Sonny either built or built the engines for back in the 60s, and asked Sherrie what came to her mind when she thought back to those days.

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From Sherrie Dornberger:  "Well (at age 6) I remember Dad had a black pick up truck with bucket seats, and they would put a little step stool between the seats with some pillows on it so that I could get to the races, so I just knew that every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, I would be at the races someplace. There wasn't enough room for my brother, who was 11 years older than me, so he rode in the back and when we got to the track he would have to lay down and snap the tarp over him, and I had to say I was 4, and I would say, but dad, I'm 6, and he would say you have to start paying at 6, so you say you're 4, and I would say, but what about Skippy in the my mother had to would have to keep me busy when we got to the gate so I wouldn't say anything. I remember when we went to Daytona, we drove straight through in 21 hours and there was no stopping for anything. You went to the bathroom before you left, and you went went when we got to Daytona, and that was it."

"One time I'll never forget... we were going to Nazareth Speedway, (The old 1/2 mile), and my Dad would always go the back way through Bethlehem and all that, because this lady used to sunbath topless out there, so my dad would go around the bend looking out the side watching this lady, and my Mom would be telling him to keep his eyes on the road...well we come around the curve and all of a sudden the stock car is passing us. It came unhooked, and we couldn't see it because we had two 55 gallon drums of fuel in the back. Well it went down and hit a telephone pole, so my Dad had to go down to a pay phone and he got a friend of Otto Harwi's who had a tow truck to come get it and take it to the track cause the tongue was bent and you couldn't hook it back up to the pick up truck, but he was so upset because he had to pay $150.00 to replace that utility pole, way back then, and he had to win like 2 races to make that much, cause they didn't pay much back then."

" But he used to run sportsman because they ran together and if you finished 3rd and first sportsman you made more money than if you won with a modified. and I just remember that when we went to Alcyon, they called me the Alcyon Baby, and every week, ( promoter's wife), Helen Vail would have a hot dog waiting for me , and I was so proud carrying my little hot dog, Now, anybody who knew my mother, knew she cursed a blue streak, and this one week, I'm climbing to the top of the stands with my little hot dog, and when you're little it's hard to climb those steps, and I get to the top and I have a roll and mustard but the hot dog was gone, and I said to my mother Son -of-a-bitch, somebody stole my hot dog."

"At Nazareth, when the pits were behind the 4th turn, my mom and I would sit in the stands where she could see the pits in case Dad got into a fight, which happened a lot. Well I remember this one time, my Dad got into a fight trying to protect Jackie McLaughlin. So my Dad grabbed one of those 4 sided lug wrenches, and went over and hit the guy with it, then put Jackie in the back of the truck under the tarp and smuggled him out."

"I remember when I was a kid, I used to have autograph books filled with driver's autographs, but my Dad wouldn't let me ask for signatures at the garage. He said when they came to the garage, they came for his services, for business, and I wasn't allowed to ask for autographs, or pictures or anything there. So, I'd stand at the door, and even at 4 or 5 years old I knew how good looking Jackie McLaughlin was, and he would come in and I'd tell my mom he was there, but I'd have to wait till Friday Saturday or Sunday nights to get their autographs at the race track. But my Dad he never complained, you know, I used to have a crush on Freddie Adams, when I was a little was a little girl, and he even gave me a bunny one time that I named Freddie. We'd go to the races with our car, or Dad would be working on somebody Else's car like Stan Ploski, or Pee Wee Griffin, or Rags Carter, or somebody , and I'd ask my dad well how did Freddie do, or where'd Freddie come in, and he never complained, w
hen I look back on it now, I don't know why he didn't hit me with a wrench or something." But, he knew I liked Freddie, so he didn't seem to mind. And we'd go in the pits and he'd take me around to get autographs, and I didn't know he didn't like some of these people... but we'd be walking around and I'd say Oh I want to get so and so's autograph, and he'd say, ah gees Sherrie, do we have to do that tonight? but he'd take me."

"I remember Pete Ambrosia, Budd Olsen, Walt Olsen, Rags Carter, Pee Wee Griffin, Al Tasnady, Leon Manchester coming to the house all the time, Dad built for Carl Harz 88h 410 sprint car, Jay Stong's 35 car, The Rio Brothers, Frank Cozze when Ploski and Tasnady drove it, Frankie Kerr, Bobby Allen, and of course in the 70s and 80s when he built the 99 and had Billy Osmun, Meme Desantis, and , and Billy Pauch He loved Meme Desantis like a son."

Then there was the really bad accident when they were getting the 99 ready for Syracuse for Billy Pauch,

" I was in bed, I had worked all day and then gone to nursing school, I had worked all day and I heard this loud explosion

This guy named Slick who worked with my Dad was standing outside throwing up, and said not to go in the garage, my dad was dead, I went in and Billy Pauch and my dad had been working on the car, my dad had been standing over a split rim tire, putting air in it getting ready for the Syracuse race, and and the rim blew apart. It blew him out of his sneakers, they were next to the tire, but he was blown across the garage. he came down on an engine that was just finished and the rods out the top of the carburetor cut his arm, a bolt caught him under the nose and lifted his nose off, and all the way down his face, and he wouldn't let me call an ambulance he insisted I drive him to the hospital.the bolt had nicked his carotid artery, and so I had to hold pressure on that, I called the emergency room and my best friend was the head of the ER and I told her we were coming. Well she couldn't believe it when we walked in...him with his broken back, broken arm, a broken nose, 150 stitches on hisnose, 150 stitches in his arm."

"So, my dad is laying on the table being stitched up, and at some point the doctor said, Mr. Dornberger, I have to take a break, my back is killing me from leaning over... My dad grabbed him by the collar and said, 'you son of a bitch, you think your back hurts, you should be laying on this table, you just keep stitching !'   He ended up breaking 8 ribs, broke his back broke his arm broke his nose and had well over 500 stitches, besides the 150 in his nose, and the 150 in his arm, his stomach was punctured in a number of places and had to be stitched. but, believe it or not, the car was ready for Syracuse."

"My mom doped him up for a couple days with perkaset because he signed himself out of the hospital, then Billy Pauch came down with a couple friends and my dad sat in the garage and told them what to do, and they got the car ready."

(To be continued)


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09/06/04 Todd Lewis:  Terrific Piece  Jim and Sherrie,
09/06/04  Ralph Richards Thanks for taking the time to give us some racing history. I look forward to the next installment. I know all across South Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania there are people with similar experiences with other drivers, owners and mechanics.

PLEASE, PLEASE, write them down and share them with us. We do care and we are interested in your part of racing history. I know I remember going by Sonny's on Delsea Drive on the orange Wood bus and seeing the different stock cars parked all over the lot. I would get to Alcyon that night and see the same cars compete against each other. Oh, the memories!
Ralph J. Richards, Jr.

07.17.12 Jack Burroughs

Wow, That's the kind of history that is never told anywhere else, I think that I've seen almost everyone in that story one time or other.




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