As I gunned my 1947 Ford sedan around the track at Freeport Municipal Stadium at nearly 50 mph, another car suddenly cut me off. In a haze of crunching metal and burning rubber, my car swerved, rolled over and came to rest on the driver's side. Protected by a steel cage and a harness with multiple straps, I was suddenly motionless -- and realized I was unhurt.
After I climbed out, the stadium announcer proclaimed to the crowd that "Duke Domjan," driver of Car A138, was OK. The crowd cheered.
This was in the late 1950s when I drove that sedan in the stock car races in Freeport. That era was part of auto racing's heyday on Long Island in the 20th Century, when the more than 40 tracks included Burr Raceway in Commack, Island Gardens in West Hempstead and National Speedway in Center Moriches. Now, sadly, only Riverhead Raceway remains.
Freeport Stadium opened in 1931 as a cinder track for motorcycles, then was paved for midget cars, stock cars and, in its death throes, demolition derbies. Racing ended in 1983 and the stadium was torn down. A B.J.'s Wholesale Club occupies the site today.
It was during the stock car era that "Duke Domjan" entered the picture.
I don't know where the name Duke originated. I was never called that by anybody other than the raceway announcers. Even the name "Bill" was painted on the side of my car.
My friends the Rossman brothers, in their 20s like me, wanted to compete in unmodified stock cars in the new novice class at Freeport. Bob and Dick Rossman were excellent mechanics and had a car to race, but were not anxious to get behind the wheel. They asked if I would drive the '47 Ford.
Why not? I was a college student then and had as much racing experience as the other novice drivers. Zero. But this lack of experience generated lots of action in races. And that was what the crowd wanted.
Driving was exciting. When the starter's green flag came down, engines roared, tires screeched and odors of exhaust and rubber filled the stadium. Top speed was perhaps 60 mph, but it felt like 90. Since there was no need to shift, the floor-mounted gearshift was locked into second gear via a hook on the dashboard. The sport was not without its risks. Two drivers died after separate incidents at Freeport in 1947.
The small track's straightaways were short. After coming out of one turn, you almost immediately entered the next. Cars skidded, spun out and crashed. The crowds loved it and so did I, although many a night I exited the track behind a tow truck.
My winnings were meager. Twenty dollars might have been my biggest prize. One night I won a semifinal race, and with the crowd still cheering after my victory lap, three burly stewards walked up to the car as I sat in it, and tipped it up to inspect the suspension. The Rossmans had modified the suspension to keep the car from leaning excessively in turns. It was a minor, but illegal, modification that was common -- and I admit I probably knew about it.
Once again my name came over the loudspeaker. I was disqualified.
As I drove off the track, boos and catcalls replaced the cheers. I had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But win, lose or be disqualified, it was a hoot!