LONDON: Remembering Bruno Brackey
VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — It’s easy to call just about anybody a “legend.”
This time I can say it for sure, as I was personally connected to Bruno Brackey.
When his family arrived at Ellis Island from Milan, Italy, the original name Bracchi was altered to Bracchy then was Brackey for racing purposes. As a young man, two great midget venues were in his Queens, N.Y. neighborhood — Cross Bay and Cedarhurst Speedways.
He was wounded in the Phillipines in WWII and like most young men got married and raised a family. He began to work for the U.S. Post Office where the first signs of his heavy feet were evident. The P.O used antiquated Model T trucks and he went through more than a few engines.
Stock-car racing came to Freeport Stadium in 1950. Bruno, 30, began racing there and at Dexter Park, where he was seriously injured in a crash. He became intrigued with Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, N.J. The races were televised live. Promoted by Ed Otto, it was the place to race on Saturday night. NASCAR’s Bob Sall used to padlock the gate after 80 cars signed in.
One problem. Bruno wanted to continue racing in N.Y., but NASCAR did not allow members to run non-sanctioned events. He became “Johnny Frank,” the names of his two brothers. He was sportsman champ in 1953-54 and third in 1955. He also beat the modifieds a few times.
It all ended in 1955. A rival turned him in to NASCAR and he was suspended from NASCAR. Roosevelt closed anyway as the Brooklyn Dodgers played some home games there in 1956-57.
Things changed at Freeport, too. Promoter Jake Kedenburg tossed out the All-State club and set up a three-night schedule. Sedans and modifieds ran Tuesdays and Friday with the non-Fords on Saturday. A driver could run five features a week. They raced for 40 percent of the gate and had a point fund.
Bruno built a dubious looking ’37 Ford sedan with whitewash painted No. 71 on it. He won the first five sedan features in 1956, the 50-lap title race and the point championship. He was second in modified tallies. On the last night of the season, he drove a non-Ford for the first time and won, becoming the first driver to win in all three divisions. He repeated this feat five of the next six years.
In 1957, he terrorized the sedan division. He won eight features in a row. In every one, he started 18th or farther back, a lot of work for 25 laps on a fifth-mile track.
But things went bad in July, after another driver put him in the wall, Bruno answered with his fists. Kedenburg suspended him for the rest of the sedan season and flagged him for a month for the other two. He took all his points away. He came back with a vengeance, winning three non-Ford features in a row. A feat never accomplished before or since.
For 1958, ole Betsy was back and he won big again. But the boo birds were greeting “The Merry Mailman.” He won the sedan title and just missed the non-Ford crown. In the sedan 50-lapper, his most ardent rival, Les Ley (Harry Dominick) put him and Betsy in the wall. Seasoned fans knew retaliation was coming.
On Freeport’s last big crowd show, the Saturday before Labor Day, Ley was leading Brackey in the non-Ford raced, but Bruno punted him and sneaked past for the victory. On the cool down lap, Ley sent him spinning and jumped on the roof of his car. The crowd loved it. Bruno ended the year by finishing ninth in the Langhorne Open.
1959 was a huge year for Brackey. Freeport ran one extra distance race a year because of its curfew. Due to a rainout, the sedan and non-Ford 50 lappers were held on consecutive nights. Bruno won both of them. He went on two win both point titles, both first time feats.
Jake Kedenburg died as the 1959 season ended. Jake had often taken Bruno aside and asked him not to win so much. He had been giving away heat and semi races and even a few features. The far less benevolent
Duke Donaldson took over the Freeport helm with Jake’s widow in 1960. Bruno struggled to defend his non-Ford title as Frank Ariano’s No. 82 was cranky. When Freeport ran its first 100 lap non-Ford race in August, Bruno was handicapped 11th due to so-so results. With the track’s biggest crowd on hand at almost 9,600, Bruno and the No. 82 were simpatico as he quickly took the lead and won over his teammate George Peters. It was Bruno’s largest Freeport payday.
Trying to again win a second title race, he was leading the 50-lap sedan race but a lapped car knocked him into the wall. He and Betsy won their fourth point crown. Bruno concentrated on winning the modified title. With his sedan teammate Jerry Caesar not driving in 1960, Jerry maintained and towed the modified in which Bruno was nosed out by Bill Spade, but the car was highest ranking in owner points.
With every sedan win, his engine was torn down by Freeport inspector Caspar Buttafuoco (yes, Joey’s father). Many swore Bruno was running a “hot” engine. It wasn’t true because he knew they were out to get him. His secret was in the handling of the car. No one went through Freeport’s pancake-flat corners like he did.
A change came to Brackey in 1961. He began racing TQ midgets. The very first night at the Teaneck (N.J.) Armory, he won heat and semi in Ed Lalik’s car. Other stock car drivers followed Jim Lacy and Bruno into TQ racing and with many ARDC midget drivers in the roster, the indoor series had a nice mix of talent.
Another new face was a skinny 22-year-old Mario Andretti.
Bruno was serious about the TQs, so his friends Jeannie and Pete Reimuller purchased Norm Smizer’s upright car. It was 11 years old but very stout. Bruno won the 100-lap championship race at Teaneck with it.
Old Betsy was ready for his sixth season in 1961. The old girl began to show her age and Bruno was bested for the point title by Eddie Brunnhoelzl, who matched Bruno’s 1959 feat by winning the modified crown, too. On the penultimate sedan show, his trusty No. 71 was badly torn up.
Trying to keep second in points, Bruno patched it up for the last night. The car was a dreadful mess with parts of the chassis dragging on the ground. Betsy had one more win as he won a stirring feature with a cockeyed car.
Rookie Manny DeSane felt bad as he caused the wreck that crushed Betsy.
He showed up in Bruno’s driveway with a showroom looking ’37 Ford sedan which he gave to Brackey.
Bruno went through his three garages of parts and turned it into a spanking new No. 71 without spending a dime. The original black paint was still shining. Bruno always ran black cars.
It took a few weeks for the new car to work in 1962, but in June Bruno earned the most satisfying of his many victories. On this Tuesday night, he won both heats for the sedan and the modifieds, the latter in Johnny Hertle’s No. 50. After the modified main, drivers quickly jumped into their sedans.
Bruno ran over to me and asked if anyone had ever won every race he entered in one night. I had kept the stats for Freeport and no one had won all the preliminaries and features on the same night. Bruno was on a mission.
In five laps, he was leading. Following him though was archrival Les Ley. Freeport had allowed OHV engines in late-model cars. Ley’s Thunderbird powered ’55 ford was chasing Bruno’s flathead. On the ninth lap, the hood blew up on Bruno’s car. Five-foot- five Bruno had to peer out of the driver’s window to see with Ley close behind, but Bruno hung on for the victory.
Ley and George Cousin won more races than Brackey in 1962, but Brackey earned his fifth Sedan title.
In 1963, Bruno missed some nights at Freeport, not seeking any titles. It was a fun year for me, I bought a couple of sedans, had Jerry Caesar drive them and Bruno had a teammate.
Bruno ran strongly in the three track indoor TQ series, finishing second to Jim Lacy in points. For 1964, he won an early season sedan feature but with Freeport allowing OHV engines in any car, Bruno retired his beloved flathead for a 312 Ford. He’d win 14 times that year. Saturdays he mostly raced at Weissglass Stadium in Staten Island, where he had run in his NASCAR days.
An indoor TQ championship highlighted 1965. Freeport was going downhill. Larry Mendelsohn had made Islip Speedway a success. In addition to many fans, drivers and owners headed East, too. Freeport had dropped its modified division due to lack of cars. Bruno sold his modified to Jim Shoffstall of Tremont, Pa. The new owner put a coupe body on it, added fuel injection and set it up to run dirt. Late that year, he put Bruno in it. Bruno had driven dirt mostly at Langhorne and at the Penn-Mar late-model division. In his second run, Bruno finished second to Will Cagle at a 100-lapper at Nazareth, Pa.
Shoffstall offered him the ride for 1966.
This was a big change for Bruno. Reading on Friday, Flemington on Saturday and Nazareth Sunday. Since he had to work, there were no sleepovers.
After writing race reports here for two years, I talked Chris Economaki into letting me write a weekly column. However, I had no car, no job and the guy I used to travel with was drafted into the army. Bruno offered to take me with him. I helped out with a lot of the driving.
Because of all the races I made, it got the new column off the ground. I made new friends and lots of doors were opened. It was a long tough year for Bruno. He did OK, but after all the years of winning he had to live through a lot of mid pack frustration.
Reading was the most difficult. It was the farthest away, a 300-mile round trip. He managed a fourth in a July 4 50-lapper. However, the Reading fans loved him. Many would be at our car after the races as they admired his personality. We always left there very late.
Bruno was concerned about Flemington. It was a NASCAR track. I went with him to their pre-season meeting. Bob Sall shook his hand and told him he was welcome back to NASCAR.
After that year, he decided to stay local. He purchased a car from Joe Racz to run at the new Nazareth National Speedway, a track he liked. He brought his sedan back to Freeport and the wins started again. Freeport called its one division modifieds, but they raced on street tires. This meant cheap and Bruno was happy with that.
He ran the TQ midget outdoors. One night at Pine Brook, N.J., he was spectacular, lapping the field in a 100 lapper, but the engine blew.
The next couple of years he stuck mostly to Freeport but ran a modified for Don Delisi. At Trenton, N.J., in 1969, Bruno was badly burned. It took months of painful therapy. At 50 years old, he wasn’t about to quit.
For many years there was no indoor TQ racing but in the ’70s they ran at Convention Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. He took his 20-year-old TQ and set fast time with it.
Despite being built in 1962, his trusty sedan kept winning at Freeport. Then in 1974 Bruno was hit with a big blow. Don Campi took over Freeport. He made it a quarter mile and ran NASCAR modifieds. The handwriting was on the wall for Bruno’s way of racing. Low-buck cars couldn’t compete. He sure tried, but winning was out of the question. Well, not entirely, he built a Chevelle for late-model competition and won with it.
The NASCAR effort only lasted three years. The late models now headlined and Bruno was back in front. He raced at Freeport until the track closed in 1983 and he was in his sixties. Never retiring, he raced a Legends car at New Egypt in the ’90s when he was in his 70s.
In addition to his success on the track, Bruno was known for his odd sense of humor and his practical jokes, which earned him the nickname, “Wacky.”
Once he rigged a high amperage coil to his tow car. He’d leave a beer can on the trunk and a poor unsuspecting dupe would get the shock of his life. On the way home from Weissglass one night, he stopped at an exclusive nightclub in Brooklyn pulling Betsy with an old Lincoln. He told the valet parker to “be careful, don’t scratch the paint.”
Known for his frugalness, Marty Himes laughs at the sight of Bruno in his kitchen getting three cups out of a single tea bag. One night at Freeport, I was changing tires for him and a huge strip of rubber came off the right-rear slick. I asked if he wanted to get another one. After questioning my sanity, he told me to put it on the car. Yes, he won the feature that night.
Bruno lived to be 91. Both of his parents made it to age 100. His last years were spent at old-timer events. He became ill in 2009 and his last year was difficult. He was being moved to a different hospital when he died in an ambulance.
Himes said, “He went out the way he wanted to. On wheels.”
Bruno Brackey left behind a huge legacy. He never won a lot of money, but his savvy had him show more profit than probably anyone else in racing. If you ever saw him race or got to know him, you’ll never forget him. RIP.