Bob Doyle Museum

Return To The Road


Blazing Buddy Bardwell
By Ken Paulsen
Photos courtesy the Bardwell Collection

Racing has been in Buddy Bardwell’s blood for most of his life. He has run competitively in seven different decades and the last half-century with the same basic car. His is a unique story of the early days of stock car racing and of one man who chose a different path to the winner’s circle.

Bardwell’s first racing experience took place around 1940 when he was sixteen. He and close friend Bill Donovan hopped up a Ford Flathead V8 that they installed in a 1936 Ford Coupe. Rear end gears were changed, carburetors added and the engine was super tuned. It would do 80mph on the highway in second gear and that is where his racing started.

Challenge races would take place with others of his generation most of whom had six cylinder Chevrolets that would top out at 75mph in high gear. Winner was determined when a pass was made and held. Bardwell could not be beat. It created some interesting times for approaching traffic, all of which fortunately would veer out of the way. They knew they were pressing their luck when one of the oncoming cars was a local policeman.

When state police trooper Chester Hartwell was assigned to the district he vowed to put an end to the highway drag races. He was a fair man whose motto was if he couldn’t overhaul a car he was chasing, he would not arrest the driver later. After a year of trying he never did catch Bardwell who would swing off onto dirt back roads where the dust worked in his favor. Years later he stopped at Buddy’s shop. During a friendly talk of the old days Hartwell said, “I gave you both two years, and if you did not kill yourselves, then I was sure you would make it.”

Racing was halted for World War II. Bardwell and Donovan joined the Navy serving a total of 3 ½ years each mostly in the Pacific arena. A return home meant a return to racing but this time with all of the tracks sprouting up it was just the excitement they were looking to have.

Bardwell’s first race was at Brattleboro, VT in 1949 driving a 1934 Ford Coupe for Perley Fielders. The race car actually belonged to Fielder’s wife. After a qualifying heat accident, she did not want Bardwell to drive the car again. A heated discussion between the spouses ended with Bardwell buying the car for $20. A rebuilt junkyard engine put him back in business.

Bardwell’s first stock car in 1949.

Bardwell captures the mid season Championship at Brattleboro, VT in 1952

One addition was made which became a distinguishing feature of all future Bardwell cars. Pit crew member, Johnny Elmer, had a set of steer horns on the barn wall at his homestead. Buddy said, “Let’s put them on the car. The kids will like it.” They were bolted onto the roof and have been on ever since.

There was one time though when they did become detached. The roof metal was a little thin where the horns were attached. Weeks of track vibration caused the metal to tear where the horns were bolted. On a trip home from Brattleboro, the horn assembly fell off. Buddy spent two days along the highway between Chesterfield, NH and Brattleboro looking for the horns to no avail. A fellow traveling the same route had already picked the horns up off the highway and put them in the back of his pickup. He was at a local welding shop when a worker spotted them. He knew right away who they belonged to and asked if he could return them. The horns have been firmly attached to each car since then.

One time he was at a track and ordered by the pit steward to take them off. His feeling was that they were a potential hazard to others if they came off. A heated discussion followed. Buddy raced that night with the horns.

A new stock car was in order for the 1955 season. It was a three window ’34 Ford Coupe that is still with Buddy today. The familiar steer horns were transferred and one other addition was made. On the trunk, Buddy had a caricature of Bugs Bunny painted, again for the kid’s sake. His theory was if the kids started rooting for you and were on your side then the parents would also get on the bandwagon. It worked.

In a departure from traditional thought during that period, Bardwell installed a Ford straight six flathead rather than the venerable V8. With his setup, he could run an outside line around oval while the rest of the field hugged the corners. His racing weekends started on Thursday nights at Keene, NH, Fridays at Rhythm Inn in MA, Saturdays at Claremont, NH and Sundays in Brattleboro, VT. Many times he made a clean sweep taking the heat, semi and feature. At Claremont he won over $2100 for the season and survived nine tear downs while the competition tried to figure out his secrets.

Buddy and sons, Gary and Buddy Jr., after a 1956 win next to the same basic car he still races.

Bugs Bunny caricature got the kids support and the parents.

A special asphalt car was built to run Thunder Road in Barre, VT for the 1964 season. It was later converted to run dirt.

During those early years of racing, there was a young announcer at the Keene track named Kenley Squier. He could make any race sound exciting. A frequent trait of his was to attach nicknames to some of the drivers as he was announcing. “Blazing Buddy Bardwell” became part of his lexicon and it is a name that has stuck ever since.

A 1966 rules change at Keene and Claremont allowed the engine size to be increased from 260ci to 290ci giving the later model Mercury flatheads with their longer stroke a distinct advantage. Another change now allowed any combination of engine, body and frame. Clearly the Ford six was not going to be competitive.

Hudson six engine replaced Ford six for 1966.

Bardwell had always wanted to run a Hudson engine and that opportunity was now. The standard Hornet engine was 308ci. By choosing the smaller Hudson Wasp engine and boring .125 over he was able to keep it just under 290ci. Special pistons had to be made. Although it came with one single barrel carb, Bardwell installed two single barrel carbs. Technical inspectors knew the Ford engines that were so prevalent but were clueless when it came to the Hudson so Buddy could “experiment”. After running a few years with that configuration, he switched to a single four barrel carburetor. The engine only turned 4500 rpm which meant it stayed together longer. He never burned out a bearing.

Hornet engine is clearly visible in this 1987 pic at Lebanon Valley in New York.

It was, however, the Hornet engine that Bardwell wanted to put in his car but it would never pass a tear down. Post race inspections were getting expensive. To decrease that cost, tracks were starting to use a “puffing” machine in the early 1970’s. Basically it worked in this manner. The spark plug was removed and one end of the machine was screwed in its place. The valve lifters were disabled so that as the engine starter was bumped pressure would build up in the cylinder. The connected machine had a glass cylinder with a ball in it. The ball would rise in the cylinder until max pressure was achieved. The inspector read the marking on the glass cylinder corresponding to where the ball stopped and through a formula translated the reading to a cubic inch equivalent that generally was very close to the actual engine displacement.

It is probably not an unfair statement to say that almost every top car owner or mechanic at one point has chosen to creatively interpret the local track rules. It is a time-honored tradition that continues to be played out today even at the highest levels of competition. Or, to express it in laymen’s terms, “Best way to win is cheat.”

Buddy built a Hornet engine for the 1970 season. With the cubic inch limit still at 290, he used some of that creativity to reduce the size down from 308ci. In cylinder number one he put a sleeve and corresponding smaller piston. The other five cylinders remained at factory specs. Some of those who knew of the plan said he was going to experience balancing problems and it would never work. An automotive technologist disagreed and told Buddy that because of the firing order and compression build up he would not notice anything. He was right. Buddy thinks the final engine was somewhere around 289.9ci.

Thunder Road 1990. Track bumper stickers covering the body make it look like a much traveled piece of Tourister luggage.

When he was faced with an engine check, he removed the plug from cylinder one, the “puffing” machine was hooked up and the engine passed inspection. Some tracks had not made the investment in this new device. If a tear down was required, Bardwell unbolted the head and slid it back past cylinder one where the inspector could take his measurements and calculate the total displacement.

Over the years the Hornet engine has been modified as rules became more relaxed with the addition of the overhead valve powerplants coming out in the late 1940’s and then taking over in the 1950’s. Bardwell ordered a special crank from Los Angeles. He has also gone to a larger bore increasing the displacement to 375ci, larger valves, aluminum racing head and electronic ignition.

When the coupe era was phasing out, there were a few years where the opportunity to compete were slim. In 1981, the New England Antique Racers (NEAR) organization formed to promote fielding the old cars once again. Initially their rules allowed full competition racing, but as the inevitable accidents happened they were changed to choosing a designated winner and the exhibition racing conducted by many vintage clubs today. The desire for full racing competition never left Bardwell. He was able to locate other vintage clubs, primarily in New York State, who still promoted the wheel to wheel, petal to the metal racing that he loves.

The Hornet powered Ford at Syracuse, NY in 1995.

The old coupe has had its share of bent parts during its fifty years of racing. One of the most serious wrecks happened at Susquehanna, PA in 1996. It became part of a 10 car pileup. The rear end was torn off, frame was bent and some sheet metal was rearranged. It took two wreckers to load the heap onto the trailer. Back at his shop, Bardwell had to cut the engine out with a torch. After countless hours of work and a new section of frame, it was back on the track as good as ever.

This car has won numerous track championships in the United States and Canada throughout the years. It won the first Memorial Feature race in honor of Richie Evans at his home track of Utica-Rome Speedway. In October 2002 it was up against some of the former NASCAR greats at the Legends Rematch held in Spartanburg, SC. In over fifty years of racing it has competed at 87 different tracks.

Bardwell offers that this may be the only Hudson engine still running in oval track competition (not exhibition) in the world. He may be right. If his enthusiasm is any indication, Blazing Buddy Bardwell, the Hornet engine and ’34 Ford are a combination that still have a lot of years left.

A half century of racing for Buddy Bardwell and his 1934 Ford coupe.



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