By Greg Wehner
If Don Howe’s car could talk, it would have quite a story to tell. The Whelen modified race car and Mr. Howe were a winning team when they joined forces on the local racing circuit more than 30 years ago, taking the modified series championship in 1984 at Riverhead Raceway, and winning the top honor at a track in Islip that year as well.
Mr. Howe, a 65-year-old Water Mill resident, had success with the car for more than a decade, racing—and winning—all over Long Island. The car was restored recently and is now on display at Buzz Chew Chevrolet on County Road 39 in Southampton Village, where it will remain for the next month.
“One night at the track last summer, Brian [Chew] asked if I would be interested in putting the car in the showroom,” Mr. Howe said, and he agreed to part ways with it for part of the winter.
Mr. Chew said the car has been on display since November and should be in the showroom until the end of February.
“Don’s a local person that everyone around here knows,” Mr. Chew said. “We waited to display the car in the winter so all of the locals could come into the showroom and look at it.”
For anyone who is familiar with Long Island racing history, Mr. Howe’s car is a must-see.
Long Island was always a breeding ground for racers of all types—drag racers, stock cars and more. Mr. Howe got his start racing oval tracks in the 1970s in places like Riverhead, Westhampton, Islip and Freeport, winning a number of championships at the height of his racing career. Mr. Howe said it wasn’t uncommon for him to race four times a week.
Westhampton was mostly known for the dragstrip, but the dragstrip, according to Mr. Howe, was inside the Westhampton oval. “It was a track within a track,” he said.
In 1971, Mr. Howe won the figure eight championship at Riverhead Raceway, on its “world famous” figure eight tracks. During those races, cars would drive around the track in a figure eight, sometimes crashing into each other when the paths of the track crossed.
“It really helped with the timing and patience,” Mr. Howe said.
In 1972, he moved into the modified series. Modified vehicles look like a cross between an open-wheel Indy car and a stock car. Between the front and back wheels is a bar that allows the vehicles to bump into each other without flipping, though it didn’t always prevent it.
“Isn’t that what they say? Rubbin’ is racin?” Mr. Howe said.
After winning a championship in the figure eights and racing in the modified series for a year, Mr. Howe won his first modified championship at Riverhead Raceway in 1973. He continued racing as he worked as a mechanic and helped out around a shop owned by Carl Zeh.
In 1984, Mr. Zeh purchased the modified car that is on display at Buzz Chew, and that year won the dual championships. Nine years later, he started racing for Gershow Recycling Motorsports, winning back-to-back-to-back championships in 1993, 1994 and 1995. He said he also would have won in 1994, but he missed first place by 12 points. Still, to win three championships in a row was rare.
“Those were some good times,” Mr. Howe said. “I look back on it now and see what we really accomplished, and it was a pretty tough feat. The crew was excellent back then,” he added.
Despite his age, Mr. Howe isn’t ready to give up racing. He competed in the Long Island Vintage Auto Racing Series, which kicked off last year. The series features a number of old cars, whose owners race for the win. The series consisted of five races last year, spread throughout the summertime season.
Once again, Mr. Howe relied on the car that brought him so much success, restoring it completely to get it raceable. The paint scheme and the Corwith’s sponsor logo were all matched to photos from 1984. The only difference is that the engine is not original.
“[The car] had been through some tough times,” Mr. Howe said. “I had a lot of work to do on the car … and it brought back a lot of memories.”