NASCAR pioneer Ernie Gahan 'did it his way'
Thursday, Dec. 03, 2009
Colorful racing legend Ernest "Ernie" Gahan was laid to rest Wednesday, one week after he died at the age of 83 in Berwick, Maine.
Colorful and legendary were apt descriptions of the former Dover man who was an early NASCAR racing pioneer and one of the greatest drivers to come out of New England. He highlighted his 29-year racing career in 1966 by winning the NASCAR Modified Circuit National Championship and received the Carnegie Medal of Heroism for his role in saving fellow racer Marvin Panch from a fiery crash before the 1963 Daytona 500.
''He really made a big impact on racing," said his daughter, Jean Gahan. "He'd work on his car all night, no sleep, all by himself. He did it his way. Those were the old days. He helped to build racing to become what it is today."
A veteran of World War II, Gahan started racing at old Dover Speedway in 1947. Equally adept on dirt and asphalt, Gahan particularly liked the old dirt tracks, dominating at Dover and the Cheshire Fairgrounds, Stafford Springs, Conn.; and Fonda and Utica-Rome speedways in New York state. He became well known up and down the East Coast driving Car No. 50 with Stoney's Diner prominently displayed on the side. He built and operated Gahan's Garage of Madbury, and later in life after retiring from racing, he operated a construction business out of his Berwick, Maine, home. He has been inducted into four hall of fames, including the inaugural New England Antique Racers Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame.
''It wasn't as easy as it looked," Gahan said in 2007 about those early years. "It took me two years to win my first race; in the meantime I did a lot of crashing as I learned what would eventually become my trade."
Unlike today with all the big money and glitz and pit crews and sponsors, Gahan was for the most part a one-man team, particularly in the early years. He drove, fixed and transported the car, which was the way of the racing world in the 1950s and even into the 1960s.
''He was always down to earth," said Jean Gahan. "He never let it go to his head."
Gahan was that "hearty breed" of driver, having rolled over a concrete wall and out through the fence of the speedway in Middletown, N.Y. He stayed the night in a local hospital with three broken vertebrae in his neck. "I raced two nights later in Fonda with a neck brace and a new car," he said in 2008.
Gahan moved on to NASCAR in 1957 and raced there through the mid 1960s, making 11 starts from 1960 to 1966 in what is now know as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
''He went onto the big time," said Gilles Auger of Sanford, Maine, who raced briefly at the old Sanford Speedway in the early 1950s and had the chance to race and finish behind Gahan. "We locals faded away. I wasn't that good and didn't win any races. I went to the University of Maine and made a living."
Gahan's final career race came on June 6, 1976, at Star Speedway in Epping, not far from Dover where it had all begun some 29 years earlier. Running in the race, in which he was credited with a fourth-place finish, was Gahan's son, Bobby. Afterward, the two Gahans loaded up. For Ernie Gahan it was the last time. By the time he drove his last race he had amassed more than 300 career victories.
And the stories, my, Jean Gahan said she could talk all night. Like the time Gahan beat Richard Petty "somewhere in New Jersey" and waved to Petty as he passed him. Or when Petty saw Gahan predictably slaving over his car by himself in the pits and Petty said to his dad, "Go over and help Gahan."
Jean recounted a story when the Gahans were traveling back from a race late at night and the car was inching along toward a railway crossing. Ernie was dozing, his head was on the wheel as the car approached the crossing with a train coming and a wide-awake Jean looking on paralyzed in fear.
"Finally I reached over and gently nudged dad and he sat up and said, 'Oh Jesus Christ I saw that,' 15 feet from the red light," she laughed. "I must have peed my pants. He raced the race and then drove all night to the next track."
Jean recalled one of her dad's biggest competitor's Bill Wimble, who she described as a farmer with the same attitude as her dad, which was "I'm in it to win, not to place, to win."
During the 1960s, however, a single incident seemed to define Ernie's career and left a lasting impression on those who knew him.
It was 1963, and Gahan returned to Daytona, according to an online story written by Scott Pacich for thevintageracer.com. As he and Bill Wimble made their way into the track through the tunnel turn and into the infield there was a horrendous accident. Marvin Panch (the 1961 Daytona 500 winner) had hit the wall, and his car barrel-rolled for what must have seemed like a mile. The car caught fire as it came to rest. Ernie knew that going over the fence and on to the track was against the rules, but he also knew that if he didn't get to Panch quickly he would probably die. Fighting the heat on his hands and face from the fire, Gahan pried the door open about a foot, but was having difficulty getting Panch through. Tiny Lund then arrived on the scene with two others in a fire truck and that combination of people, the modified driver from the north, the Grand National driver and 'some guy from Firestone' were able to pull Panch from the burning car. As they pulled Panch clear, and ran away from the burning car it exploded.
Ernie, of course, recounted Pacich, was worried that he was not going to be allowed to race, because after all he had some pretty bad burns on his hands. But he did race, and achieved first place Sportsman honors in the Permatex race. Later, the heroes who saved Panch from almost certain death were awarded the Carnegie Medal to recognize their efforts.
That same year, Gahan pulled fellow racer Wimble from a burning wreck during a race in Syracuse, N.Y. Wimble said in 2008, "Now I rely on other testimony. I'm told that my head and upper body appeared through the side window, then fell back out of sight, then appeared again. Then I made it out onto the side of the car, jumped or fell off, and made it a few feet away, then falling completely into unconsciousness. Ernie Gahan got out of his car and pulled me away from the fire, quite an act of heroism on his part."
In 1966, his championship season, Gahan drove a 1936 Chevrolet Coupe to 15 wins in 71 races, but only led Ray Hendrick by 48 points heading into the finale in Atlanta, Ga. According to Jean, Gahan showed up for that race, the biggest one of the year, without a car, and had to borrow one, and an inferior one at that. Hendrick, however, got caught up in an early accident and Gahan, despite his inferior ride, crossed the finish line in 10th to take the crown.
''I remember those races," Jean Gahan said. "They'd go out there four abreast and put a show on for the crowd. They raced centimeters from each other and stay like that for 10 laps. Those crowds used to stand on their toes screaming. He was out to race and win and that was it. It was such a wonderful time."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.