By Ken Paulsen
George Barber is a racing legend. While he was never a driver, his immaculately prepared stock cars topped the competition in the New England area during the early 1950’s and again in the early 1960s. So dominant were his cars that on one occasion he was invited NOT to come back to a track in order to allow other drivers a chance to win.
It was 1948 when George, at age 36, built the first of many jalopies at his auto supply shop in Bradford, Vermont. George chose his car number to be the same as his phone number – “46”. Bradford was a lot smaller back in the “good old days”. With one exception when he used a ’32 Ford coupe, George built only 1933/34 Ford coupes. Finding the cars was not a problem. He had a junkyard next to his business with acres of candidates for his next machine. He enlisted the services of Stub Piper to pilot the first ’34 Ford coupe around dirt ovals in Vermont and New Hampshire. Stub was still in high school when he started driving for George and needed a note from his mother to get into the tracks.
Success did not come immediately for the Barber-Piper combination. The very first night out the car wound up on its side at a track in Boltonville, VT. Eventually, things did get turned around and the photos below show Stub with the 1951 Vermont State Championship trophy won at Colchester, VT. Total winnings for that effort was $182.
It was fairly common after the days racing that a protest would be lodged against the Barber car for being illegal. The cylinder head would be removed in order to take the necessary measurements by the track technical inspector who would then calculate the displacement. If your car passed, a check covering your winnings was sent in a couple of days. One August night at the track in Claremont, NH, inspectors worked until 4:30am trying to locate any illegal gimmicks that could account for the car’s speed. None were found that night or any other night. It was the expert mechanical preparation combined with top-notch drivers that provided the dominance.
Piper married in September 1951 and decided to retire from his short career as a driver. In need of a chauffer, George asked Roy “Pappy” Forsythe to take over the driving at the start of the 1952 season. This relationship lasted into 1964. It would solidify the mastery Barber cars had over the others throughout the northeast. When the 46 car showed up in the pits, the other drivers started to look at the payout for second place. On October 19, 1953, Pappy would win the 35-lap New England dirt track championship at Stafford Springs, Connecticut, against a 30 car field. They had already captured the New Hampshire championship.
George put his racing interests on hold during the mid to late 1950s. A growing family, a business to run and the long drives over less than ideal roads all contributed to his decision. In 1958 he moved his business location from the corner of routes 5 and 25 in Bradford to Fairground Road on the north side of town where it has been ever since.
In 1960 a new quarter mile asphalt track called Thunder Road opened in Barre, Vermont and, being a relatively short drive from Bradford, George decided to make this one of his weekly stops as he rejuvenated his racing interests. His jalopy quickly became the car to beat. The first outing at Thunder road produced a new track record. Pappy won the Points Championship that year in a runaway. By the Labor Day race, he had 236 points while second and third place drivers had 125 and 112 points respectively.
For the 1962 season, a second car, numbered 47, was added to the team with Leland Ingerson in the driver’s seat. Lee was one of a trio of racing brothers out of North Haverhill, New Hampshire. A second asphalt track, Northeastern Speedway, opened near St. Johnsbury in 1959 making for two nights of racing each week.
The crews were kept busy keeping both cars in top shape, but their efforts paid off. Lee captured the Thunder road points title in both 1962 and 1963. The season points trophy was supposed to be a traveling cup that would reside with the winner for the next year. It would be “retired” only if someone could take it home three consecutive years. Little did the TR promoter, Ken Squier, know how quickly that would happen. It traveled directly to George’s garage office after three seasons.
Pappy and Lee continued to be the drivers for the 1963 season taking wins in most of their outings. And they were doing this in flathead Fords against the modified class of cars. One of George’s convictions was to always use the flathead engine without any exhaust manifolds. Evidently, that was a good decision. Toward the end of the season, Pappy who was now 50 decided to hang up his helmet. Larry Granger took his place for the Labor Day race and continued in the 46 for the rest of the season.
Barber’s last year of fielding the popular yellow and red team cars would be 1964. Victories still came his way but the weekly energy drain was finally getting to him. At the end of the season he sold both cars at Thunder Road for a total of $1000.
The coupes also were not destined to be a division after the 1964 season. Coupe bodied modifieds were still running but the pure flathead jalopies could no longer compete. It may have been Thunder Road’s association with NASCAR and their ban against open top cars that led to the demise of the coupes, or some other reason, but 1965 opened with no place for the old time coupes to run. This situation was totally unacceptable to Barber. He started searching the local Vermont and New Hampshire landscape for a place to build a track.
As one might imagine, plans for building an auto racetrack met with stiff resistance just about everywhere he turned. Town selectmen were concerned about the noise that would be generated and a host of other racing “evils”. Finally in 1967, his local village agreed to allow the venture to proceed by granting him a permit to build on a remote hillside outside of Bradford. To finance the project, Barber had to borrow against his home equity.
George had already taken measurements at a couple of other tracks to know how much land would be needed. Construction started in 1967. Martin Excavating provided the bulldozers to start carving into the hillside. Trees had to be cut. Footings for the bleachers had to be put in place. Some days required working into the evening hours to get everything done that was required. Frequently they could hear the sounds of the local bear population shuffling through the nearby trees as they worked. Thus, the name of the speedway became “Bear Ridge”.
The speedway was completed midway into the 1968 racing season. On opening day, forty-two flathead coupes showed up to do battle. Winning the feature that day was Merlin Bean who would also become the season champion. Once again, the flathead coupes had a regular place to run. Barber would continue to run the speedway through the 1973 season and then he retired from all aspects of racing for good.
He now had time to pursue his other automobile interest – restoring Model A Fords. He began restoring ‘A’s long before getting into racing and through the years he probably rebuilt several dozen of them. George passed on in 2008 at the age of 96.
To know George was to know an honest, unpretentious gentleman. The many engine teardowns only proved that he ran by the book. He was a credit to the racing community.