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GREASE! Hosted By:  Cemetery Jim

May 11th, 2006

For this month's column we have something a little different.

Part one of a three part series on one of the pioneers of Modified racing in this area, and a track champion multi feature winner and double Hall of Fame inductee - Steve Elias. One thing that makes this column different is that this is an autobiography, written by Steve himself. So... from the man himself, in his own words, here is the Steve Elias Story.


By Steve Elias

Most people start when they are 18 or 19. I never got interested until I was 24 and had two children. I started watching the stock cars at Yellow Jacket Speedway in 1949. The track was located at G and Erie Streets in Philadelphia. It was a fifth of a mile asphalt track. Some of the drivers who were running at that time are in the hall of fame today. Just to name a few: AL KELLER, BOBBIE CARTWRIGHT, PAPPY HOUGH, FRANKIE SCHNEIDER, JOHNNY CABRAL, WALLY CAMPBELL, TOMMIE COATES. I know I have missed many others, but after all it's been over 50 years ago and my memory isn't what it used to be.

The following year I decided that it was now or never. A friend named HAROLD MITCHELL and I started building a racecar. We bought a '37 Ford coupe, stripped the inside of it, took it to a welding shop and had roll bars put in it for a total cost of $12, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. We bought some GENERAL JUMBO wheels and tires, had the center cut out of the wheels and had ‘37 Ford centers welded in. We got hold of an old seat out of an airplane and a safety belt. I took the motor out of the ‘37 Ford I was driving on the road, took the heads off and took them to CAMDEN COUNTY VOC. SCHOOL and had them shaved to give the engine more compression. We took the car to a body shop where another friend of mine volunteered to paint the car at no charge. The color is a little hard to describe. He used what he called shelf paint; it's a mixture of whatever paint is in small quantities in cans on the shelf. It was sort of brown with a yellowish tint. We numbered the car 03. Now we were ready. The year was 1950, although I don't remember the exact month. We had some idea as to what we needed to make the car handle on the track. We had three guys stand on the left rear bumper and we chained the frame to the axle to keep the rear end from coming around. I was the designated driver and I was as ready as I'd ever be.

They gave me the outside pole in the heat race. One minor note I should make at this time is that I had a strictly stock engine except for the shaved heads. Every one else had modified engines.

With a lit cigar in my mouth to bite down on I went out on the track taking our warm up laps and we lined up in are starting positions. The flagman, whose name was BILL NELSON was left handed. Well you talk about being sneaky. He pointed his right finger at me and I thought "what am I doing wrong?". Next thing I know, he whips out his left hand with the green flag and every body takes off but me and I end up looking back into a pack of cars heading for me. Luck was with me. Nobody ran into me. I was put in the back of the pack for the restart, which suited me fine. The race was stared again. After a few laps, I ended up on the outside rail with damage to the front end. I was unable to restart. We worked on the car to get it ready for the consolation race, which I started near the rear of the pack. I think I finished in last place, but I didn't care just as long as I finished. I did not qualify for the feature race so our evening was over. After some soul searching, I decided to look for another racetrack to run where I would be a little more competitive. I found one down in Delaware just north of DOVER and about 2 miles west of PIERSONS CORNER. We used to flat tow - that's towing with a hitch on the front of the racecar. It was about 70 miles one-way. We would cross the river on the PENNSVILLE FERRY. Sometimes when the tide was high the 39 Chevy tow car would have trouble getting up the ramp. We would start the stock car up and push the tow car on to the ferry. After crossing we would travel on down RT.13 to our destination. It was a half-mile track located on a farm. Most of the cars were in the same class as me. There were three or four that could go quite a bit faster. I won a few heat races and finished up as high as third in the feature. I had quite a few thrills at this track - like my first roll over. Not much damage to the car just a little to my pride. It really wasn't all my fault. The track was so dusty sometimes that you couldn't see down the straightaway. You would have to judge where the turn started. If I were running pretty fast, I would count "1-2-3-turn". That usually worked pretty well except the time that I rolled over. Somebody had spun in the corner and I couldn't see him. I hit him and that's when I went over. I learned quite a bit that first year. I acquired some driving experience and I found out that it doesn't pay to own a car even with a partner because it's just too expensive unless one of you has a lot of money, which neither of us did. That was my first year of racing with many more to come. At least I made enough money to pay for my cigars that I continued to smoke when I drove the rest of my racing career.


 YEAR NO.2 - 1951

I took the motor out of the racecar and put it my streetcar during the winter. So when spring came, I decided to try driving for somebody else. I went to ATCO SPEEDWAY. It was a third of a mile dirt and wide enough to run two abreast in the corners and not too dusty. My first ride was for a guy named NED STANTON in car no.01. It wasn't too fast but it was steady. We would take it to other tracks once in awhile: fifth of a mile asphalt at HIGHTSTOWN, N.J.; third of a mile dirt at ARNY'S MOUNT, N.J.; we even took it to famous five turn track called ALCYON SPEEDWAY way out of our class, but at least we could say we were there. The money at that time was not the greatest - $5 to win a heat and $25 to win a feature. One night up at HIGHTSTOWN, they were giving away flashlights, lunch buckets, and other things in place of cash. JIMMY DE’NATALE owned the ATCO track. He also owned the bar that was out at the road at the entrance to the track. When the races were over, you had to go to the bar for the payoff. By the time you got your money, you had most likely spent that amount already. In other circles outside of racing, JIMMY had another name - "JIMMY THE BRUTE". Now I'm not saying he was part of the mob, but there were rumors and nobody had balls enough to come out and ask him point blank. He was fair with me and that's all you can ask from anybody. Back to racing. This was the year that JACK MC LAUGHLIN started racing. He was running a '34 Ford coupe at ATCO. I don't know if he was running any place else at the time or not. He died in 1964 due to injuries he received in a crash at NAZARETH SPEEDWAY in the number "83" which was owned by his brother in law "BUD OLSEN" who was also a race driver.

I didn't set the world on fire that year, but I was gaining experience, which I needed if I was going to get any further in this business. I drove several other cars when mine was broken down and didn't do too bad. I was finishing a lot more races, and crashing less. It wasn't a great year, but it could have been a lot worse.


YEAR NO.3 - 1952

During the winter I started looking for another ride. I talked to several car owners and I finally hooked up with MIKE FANNELLI from BLACKWOOD, N.J. The car was pretty much strictly stock except for a ground cam. We started running at PLEASANTVILLE SPEEDWAY, which was just before you get into ATLANTIC CITY. We started off slow at first, but we were finishing most of the races. One night we were in the third heat. Every body was out on the track except us. They started the parade lap and we were trying desperately to get the car started. We got it going just as they took the green flag. Out of the pits I came, pedal too the metal. The pit steward hollered "your too late", but I kept going. I was a straightaway behind. I kept the hammer down and gradually caught car after car. Starting the tenth lap of a ten-lap race I only had one car to pass. I passed him going into the third turn and took the lead and the checkered flag. I went on to win the feature that night and the announcer gave me the nickname of "CINDERELLA BOY" which stuck with me throughout the rest of the year. The announcer's name was BILL GREGORY. He was a newscaster for KYW in PHILADELPHIA. I won three more features in the NO.50, but it wasn't enough. I wanted more. I wanted to run with the big boys at ALCYON SPEEDWAY. We took the NO.50 to ALCYON, but it just wasn't enough car to compete with the cars and drivers there. Our car developed a problem in the warm ups that could not be repaired at the track. I started walking around the pits hoping I could pick up another ride. There was a new car in the pits - NO.11 owned by FRANK GILMORE from MT. EPHRIAM. I talked to him and he said he would give me a try. The car was what they call sportsman. That was anything you could hide with one carburetor. I qualified in the heat race I finished third. In the feature race there were quite a lot of restarts caused by accidents, which I got accused of starting. I have to confess I started one of them. I went into the corner a little too fast underneath the NO.2 owned by LUCKY JORDAN and pushed him into the boards. I think I finished seventh which was good for my first time in a strange car. I didn't mean to hit the other car. The problem was I did not realize how fast I was going. The car I was driving had exhaust pipes that went the length of the car and came out at the rear. Most others had the exhaust coming out the side. It was a lot quieter that way and it gave me the feeling that I wasn't going that fast. I would come down in the corner and wonder why everybody was slowing down. I made a few enemies that night. When they took the car home, its color was black with a white NO. 11 on it. When they brought it back the following week, it was yellow and was numbered 111. We started off with a fresh slate.

The sanctioning body at ALCYON was "EASTERN STOCK CAR RACING ASSOCIATION". They also had PLEASANTVILLE SPEEDWAY. They had point championships at each track, plus the overall club championship. That was a combination of points from both tracks.

We would race at ALCYON on Friday night and race at PLEASANTVILLE on Saturday night. On Friday nights, we were running real well - winning heats finishing in the top ten in the features races. One night we really had it going. I got out in to the lead in the early laps and was going away. I had a straightaway lead on the pack except for one car, the NO.1 driven by "JOHNNY CARP" and built by the "BEACH BROTHERS" from WOODBURY. He was winning most of the features at the time. He was steadily gaining on me as I took the crossed flags, which meant I was half way home. I checked the mirror coming down the strait. I didn't see the NO. 1. As I moved up to the wall to go down into the first turn, I heard a scraping sound. I looked to the right and I saw the hood of the NO. 1. We touched and I was cocked a little sideways. I hit the corner of the steps that go through the wall up to the stands. He hit my right front wheel and both of us went end over end down the straightway. When the cars finally came to a stop, they said you could hear a pin drop. Everybody thought we were

both dead. Lucky for us we were both very much alive. We had aches and pains and I had a cut on my left eyebrow that required eight stitches which also included a trip to the hospital.

Meanwhile at PLEASANTVILLE SPEEDWAY I was doing great. One night I didn't have a ride and DAVE WATSON asked me if I would drive the car he normally drove, the No. 56 belonging to a guy named ELMER from GRENLOCH, N.J. DAVE was having problems handling in the corners and he wanted to stay down in the corner and watch me go around. I got around the corners just fine. In fact, I won the feature race. Two weeks after that we brought the 111 down and won the next six feature races. The promoter at P'VILLE was ROCKY DENATALE. At the LABOR DAY night race, ROCKY came down in the pits and told us that he needed every buck he could get his hands on to keep his lease at the track and he asked us if we would run for just trophies. I turned to the car owner and said it was up to him. He said O.K. While I was out in the warm-ups, I broke a center bolt in the rear spring. They worked on the car all through the three heats and the consolation race, so we didn't get a chance to qualify. The handicapper said we could start last in the feature. I worked my way up through the pack and won the feature. When they had the trophy presentation, a bunch of car owners and drivers stated screaming. They were saying that I didn't qualify and should not have been in the feature. The owner got the trophy so I don't know what they were crying about. The only thing I got was my name in the paper saying that I had won the feature under protest. I used to get booed every week. The fans didn't like to see the same guy win every week. I had a fine year. I won the track championship and I also won the Eastern club championship for having the most total points for both tracks - Alcyon and Pleasantville. At the end of the year banquet, along with my championship trophy, I received the most improved driver of the year trophy for Alcyon.


Year No. 4 - 1953

I felt pretty good starting this year. I had won my first championship and I was going to be driving a modified - the 011 for GRAHAME DENHAM. FRANK had sold the 111 at the end of the season. During the winter GRAHAME had decided to build a car. He had a crop dusting service that he ran out of WOODBURY AIRPORT. We had used one of the hangers the year before when working on the 111, that's how GRAHAME got interested. The car would be ready for the first race at ALCYON. PLEASANTVILLE was due to open two weeks earlier. I went down to the opening race without a car and thought I might be able to pick up a ride. ROMEO GELSI had his No. 44 there - it was a sportsman. This car, in later years, became famous but we'll get to that later on. ROMEO said I could drive his car. I think I won the heat or ran second. That was 50 years ago and sometimes it's hard to remember the minor things that happened. Not to put down his car, but greater things were to happen to me that day. The second heat was over and two guys came up to me and asked me if I would try their car out in the third heat. The car was NO.160. Things went my way and I won the heat race going away. Before the feature, they came over again and said that if I would drive the car in the feature WALTON STOWMAN would give me $20 no matter where I finished. In those days, $20 was a lot of money. WALTON was their sponsor and he had a few bucks. He was the owner of STOWMAN'S SHIPYARD in HIESLERVILLE, N.J. That's where the car was built. He was a nice guy; not because he had money, but by the way he talked to you, not down to you. I asked ROMEO if he would mind if I drove the 160. He said no. He would drive the car himself, which he had planned to do before I had asked him to drive it. I started the race near the rear of the pack and started passing cars on every lap. When this car went down the chute, you could hear it above all other cars on the track. I was in the lead in less than 10 laps and I rolled on to win the feature. I had won the last six features in 1952 and the first one in 1953 - that gave me seven in a row which gave me the record tied by only one other driver over the years, the great "AL TASNADY". I agreed to drive the car the following week.


All week I was looking forward to driving the 160 again. I got to the track early so I could get a warm up. The car ran great in the warm-ups. I won my heat and started near the rear for the feature, but I had company back there. AL TASNADY was there with LUCKY JORDAN'S duce. Both of us worked are way up through the pack. I took the lead and TAS caught me and passed me. Then I passed him and we swapped the lead back and forth through out the remainder of the race. I was leading on the last lap. I was coming out of the forth turn with TAS right on my bumper. A lap car was ahead of me. I decided to go under him and TAS went to the outside. The lap car came down to the inside and blocked me off and TAS won the feature. I was disappointed, but I really enjoyed the race. The crowd went wild. It was a good clean race. Neither one of us banged each other around and we both laughed about the race afterwards.  

    The following week, ALCYON opened and I was in a sweat. I didn't know what to do. The 011 and the 160 were at the track. I wanted to drive both cars but that was impossible and I was committed to the 011. I didn't want to go back on my word, so I told the owners of the 160 I wouldn't be able to drive their car. The 011 was running three carburetors, which was normal for the times. Some had the two carb set up but most had three. I won my heat, so that put me near the back of the pack for the feature. And there along with me was AL TASNADY. It was a great race with AL winning and I finished second. AL dominated through the first half of the season. I wasn't doing bad, finishing in the top five every week. AL was leading in points, but I wasn't too far back in second place.

Click Here for Steve Elias' "My Life in Racing" - Part 2


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