HEDGER: The Long Look
BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — We were just entering the pit area at New York’s Lebanon Valley Speedway a few years ago when former driver and longtime modified owner Bob Devine began hollering at me from his trailer. Then in his early 80s, Devine was obviously wound tight about something.
“I was just thinking about Jocco’s obituary,” he said, waving his arms. “It was all f’d up! That really bothered me and when I go, I want you to write something about me so it gets done right.”
“Jocco,” for those too young to recognize the name, was Chauncey N. “Jocko” Maggiacomo, a great Northeastern short-track star and contemporary of Devine whose son, also nicknamed Jocco, ran a few NASCAR Winston Cup races through the 1980s. The senior Maggiacomo passed away in 1997, so Bob’s dissatisfaction had apparently festered until that particular Saturday night.
He never mentioned the obit again, not even when we were inducted into the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame together last January, an event that made him young again, at least for a day.
Last week, Devine, who was 85, got his final checkered flag after many seasons spent fighting health problems, all serious but none capable of keeping him home when the big- block modifieds fired up at the Valley.
“I’ve known him for 40 years but didn’t know him when he raced,” recalled fellow Connecticut driver Denny Soltis. “When I was about 16, I went to Plainville for a United ‘new car’ show and saw him race but it was many years before I actually met him.
“I started doing some machine work for him and got to know and appreciate him, then in later years about once a month he’d wander in, tell some war stories about racing, have lunch and then move along,” Soltis continued. “By then he was working with Alex Thomson, who is a great kid. I’m sure a lot of that came from Bob.
“He came up last summer when I was doing a flathead Ford for somebody and he showed me how to set the valves easily. He loved getting back into that stuff again. He never talked much about his own exploits but when he knew the end was getting near, he finally brought his old scrapbooks up to show me. I think he wanted me to understand just how good he’d been in his day before he went.”
Devine had started in midgets in 1948 while still a teenager after deciding that flying small airplanes wasn’t exciting enough. Soon he was into stock cars, racing five nights a week in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut while holding down full-time employment as a carpenter.
From the coupes he moved to Harvey Tattersall’s “new car” circuit, where he won two championships. He also hit NASCAR races when United was off.
We asked Bob once for his two greatest memories from the coupe days and he came up with about a dozen, shooting them out like a machine gun. But we finally settled on racing stock cars inside the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, with “great racing but smoke so thick you couldn’t see the other end of the track and people puking from the balconies because of the fumes,” and the trick ’37 Ford coupe he built and won about a dozen races with before selling the car to New Yorkers Cliff Wright and Donnie Zautner.
With Howie Westervelt in the seat, the car scored 17 wins, three seconds and a third in 21 races to earn the 1959 Lebanon Valley championship.
Devine could go on forever about how he cut the frame to shorten and lower the car, then sectioned the body to make it look stock. Westervelt’s accomplishments remained a point of pride with him despite the fact that only a few ever knew where the car came from.