Before this summer, Greg Gilbert thought he was the only one who returns to the former Catamount Stadium site, pausing to remember the good old days at the racetrack.
But once he got involved in planning the Milton Historical Society’s History of Racing in Milton exhibit, he realized he wasn’t alone in his meditations.
“The contours are still there,” Gilbert said of the Catamount Industrial Park that stands in the track’s place. “I have a picture of it in the glovebox, so I can pop the glovebox, and I’m there.”
Gilbert was one of more than 100 people who attended the School St. museum’s opening reception last Wednesday, May 3, all with their own stories about Catamount and the Milton Speedway dragstrip.
Built in 1965, the one-third mile Catamount track closed in 1987; the dragstrip is said to have closed in the 1970s. But in their heyday, the venues were central to Milton’s motor culture, one that continues today with the town’s numerous car dealerships and auto shops.
Last week, the exhibit drew more people than historical society president Allison Belisle has ever seen, proving the racing bug is alive and well.
Perhaps the biggest stars in attendance were hometown heroes Harmon “Beaver” Dragon and his brother, Bobby, both of whom drew sizeable crowds at the races.
Catamount historian and retired Milton teacher William Ladabouche recalled the vicious rivalry between the Dragons and Quebecois racer Jean-Paul Cabana, the latter whom won the track’s first and last races, an appropriate bookending for Catamount’s bittersweet tale.
Decked out in a checked flag motif, the exhibit was curated with help from a Vermont Humanities Council grant, which helped hire Suzy Zaner, the preparator of exhibits at the Shelburne Museum.
It features artifacts from Beaver Dragon’s own collection, including the front bumper from the car he crashed in 1987 – a relic Milton’s John Sharrow kept for his son for years.
That day, Dragon rolled his car seven times, got out safely and hopped into a backup car. He qualified and finished in third place.
“It was nothing to it,” Dragon said.
Sharrow recalled, “You could hear a pin drop in that whole place.”
Other displays include trophies, driving suits, window nets, a stadium program, trading cards and even a piece of the asphalt track, salvaged from industrial park owner GBIC’s demolition after it acquired the land.
As racing seemed to decline, the track owners sold it to GBIC, which decided not to renew Catamount’s five-year lease. Ladabouche recalled with a laugh that one of the park’s present-day tenants used to mock racing fans’ fascination with the sport.
The society began curating the exhibit after Belisle was invited to a historical racing Facebook group, started by mechanic and towing operator George McRae, who raced alongside the Dragons, men McRae called his heroes.
When Belisle left for work, the group had just three members; when she got home 12 hours later, it was up to 170. She knew she’d caught onto something, which was evident last week when attendees swapped anecdotes like soldiers do war stories.
Many simply said racing is in their blood. Jim Payea’s father-in-law raced, and his son, Scott, has won 11 ACT Late Model contests. His 7-year-old grandson already has the itch, Payea said, and they plan to let him race go-karts at Barre’s Thunder Road as soon as he’s able.
Historical society co-chairman Bill Kaigle said racing was a family affair for fans, too. His best memories with his father were at Catamount Stadium, where a young Kaigle cheered for Beaver Dragon.
“I was a kid in love with race cars,” Kaigle said, admiring Ladabouche’s old drawings of the Catamount cars, part of the display. “Beaver’s black [No.] 7 car was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.”
Back in the day, Dragon said, the drivers and their mechanics built their chariots out of scrap from the local junkyard.
“They worked fine,” he said. “Today you can’t do that. You gotta buy every part that comes out, and it costs a lot of money.”
Belisle said that’s why celebrating this history is so special – the Milton racers and their cars were truly one of a kind.
The rules were different then, too, Dragon recalled, noting the several times he cheated to win a race. As Dragon tells it, that was the norm, even among NASCAR pros.
“We cheated like hell,” he said, smiling. “You had to.”
Dragon recalled obtaining a vial of ether that a buddy working for the local rock quarry used in dynamite for blasting. The dose made fire spit out of the tailpipe – and spelled a win for Dragon in Plattsburgh.
Dragon got his start at age 15 at the now-defunct Malletts Bay Speedway in Colchester. He won his first race and carried his confidence to a track in Northfield, where he vowed to beat the regulars. He didn’t, crashing his car into a bank and into the river, but that never dissuaded him. At Catamount, he got extra practice since his boss at the local Texaco, John Bourgeois, fixed the track fences on off-days.
Catamount was an all-star track of its time, Dragon said.
Ladabouche, the Catamount historian, agreed. He moved to Milton for a teaching job mainly to be near the track, starting out spectating in the grandstands but slowly moving closer to the action as he got to know the big names.
As such, Ladabouche made enough connections to later pen a comprehensive history of the stadium, all published on his website, catamountstadium.com. The track was so ingrained in Milton’s culture, Ladabouche said, that his students would draw the drivers into their Easter scene illustrations.
“It was very much a sense of our community,” he said. “That’s who we were.”
It was too difficult for Ladabouche to watch Catamount be torn up, but like Gilbert, he still returns to the site and sits, just for a minute, to remember what it was.
Gilbert said even though Catamount is 30 years gone, the togetherness it inspired isn’t.
“That’s one of the thing that’s so cool about this project,” he said. “It’s not something that happened and was over. It’s a living history. It lives in me, it lives in my kids.
“It continues on,” he said. “It’s not something we did; it’s something you were.”
Milton’s History of Racing celebration continues this summer with Bill Ladabouche’s “History of Catamount Stadium” presentation at the historical society museum on June 7 at 7 p.m. and a panel discussion at the Eagles Club on August 2 at 6 p.m. A summer barbecue is TBD.