Eastern Bandits Went South, Took The Money And Ran
By Pete Zanardi
Ending up on his roof was, racing-wise, the best thing that happened to Dennis Zimmerman. A tangle at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass., with New England Modified legend Eddie Flemke actually resulted in Zimmerman going to the hospital.
“It was not Eddie’s fault, but for some reason he felt he owed me,” says Zimmerman, who spent four or five years with Flemke, including the Eastern Bandit days. Although brief, it was a major chapter for New England racing in general and for Zimmerman, the 1971 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year.
The Eastern Bandits — Flemke and Zimmerman were later joined by Rene Charland and Red Foote — preyed on Southern competition for three years. “They had big motors but, thanks to Eddie, we had lighter cars with superior handling,” recalls Zimmerman.
NASCAR coming to Norwood, Mass., in 1960 brought New England into the national scene and Flemke, with Zimmerman in tow, took advantage. There was more money in the South, always a motivator for Flemke.
It all came together, Zimmerman recalls, on a weekend in 1961 when Flemke won back-to-back 100 lappers at Islip Speedway on New York’s Long Island and at New Jersey’s Old Bridge Stadium. “Somebody from Southside Speedway in Richmond, Va., was there and Eddie got a deal from them,” Zimmerman continues. “He took me along.”
Working out of a garage owned by open-cockpit standout Bert Brooks in New Britain, Conn., Flemke and Zimmerman settled into a Thursday through Sunday routine — Fort Dix, N.J.; Southside; Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Va.; Marlboro, Md.; and Old Bridge, the latter two Sunday afternoon and evening, respectively.
It was, Zimmerman points out, a perfect situation for Flemke. “First of all, that’s where the money was,” he says. “And they were short tracks where Eddie, a genius when it came to set up, excelled.”
Right from the start the Bandits, especially Flemke, settled in at Southside. Flemke was scoring everywhere, including Fredericksburg (Va.) Fairgrounds. Flemke won back-to-back Tobacco Bowls (New Year’s Eve or Day events) at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. In 1962, he had 17 wins at Manassas alone. Eleven came in succession. He won the Fort Dix title in 1963, capturing seven features.
Charland, who was collecting national sportsman titles, Foote, especially apt in distance races, and Zimmerman were winning as well.
Truth is it was a short-lived thing. Zimmerman, who actually remained in Virginia for a couple of years, leaves no doubt why.
“I really should be mad at Eddie because he gave it all away,” Zimmerman says. “Considering the caliber of the competition, they would have caught up soon enough, but Eddie actually helped them.”
The Bandits era over, Flemke moved to a new chapter, winning in New England and New York State and becoming a mentor to 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton and nine-time national modified champion Richie Evans.