October 31, 2012

Duo building vintage dirt car from scratch


---- — PLATTSBURGH — John “Jackie” Peterson cannot recapture his glory days, but he’s revisiting his racing origins.

The 89-year-old and his friend and fellow car enthusiast, Clement Couture, spent the past two years and about 1,000 hours tweaking a reproduction of Peterson’s 1947 Sprint-racing car.

“I had five different engines in it,” Peterson said of the first car.

These included a Ford Model A and six-cylinder Hudson motor.

“After the war (World War II) ended, there were a lot of old cars,” Peterson said. “These were the only cars around. Stock cars hadn’t started.”

He raced at 40 tracks over 16 years. These included tracks at Moffitt Park, Ticonderoga and Vermont.

“They were all dirt tracks,” Peterson said. “These were half-mile dirt cars, halfway between a midget and championship car.”

His brother, Roland, was an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. Post-World War II, he helped Peterson build the racers.

“He was pretty good at getting it to go faster,” he said.

Peterson traded a Sprint for a Diamond T truck to haul a stock car around. Saturday nights, he raced stock cars.

“I raced the first race at Airborne,” he said.

“NASCAR sanctioned local races in the old days,” Couture said.

Sundays, Peterson headed to the dirt tracks in Montreal.

“I raced all over Montreal, La Prairie. We raced Sunday nights at Richelieu Park, a horse-racing track,” Peterson said.

His celebrity includes four championship wins: 1950, in Vermont; 1956, at Airborne; and 1956 and 1957, at Fort Covington.

His most reliable pit crew was Dick Amell, a construction colleague.

In 1954, Peterson had his own car but blew out the engine. Dutcher Construction asked him to race their car when a driver was a no-show. It was a good deal for him because he got a job out of it as well the opportunity to race.

“They hired me to be a scraper. They were out of Queenstown, Md. They were putting in the runway at the airbase,” he said.

Couture, a vintage car-parts collector, and Peterson met two years ago through a mutual friend, Jerry Seymour.

This summer, they exhibited the last incarnation of the Sprint at Airborne Speedway.

The 1,200-pound car is disassembled for the installation of a Pinto motor.

The mustard-yellow car is made of disparate parts. Its frame is a 1929 Essex. The front end is from a Model A. The nose is from a 1935 Ford truck. The chrome grille came from a friend. The transmission and rear axle are from a Model A.

Peterson fabricated the rear section from sheet metal. The car’s fuel tank is from a tractor. Its seat is from a World War II fighter plane. The hood and cowl was a repurposed hot-water tank.

“The upholstery was done by my granddaughter,” Couture said. “She’s a seamstress. She painted that, Wynn Oil Special. They sponsored Jackie back in the old days.”

The car’s fuel pump is a bicycle’s hand pump. The steering is an amalgamation of parts from a ‘36 and a ‘55 Chevrolet.

The steering wheel is an old racer steering wheel that Couture had. The wheels, with flashy red spokes, are from a 1935 Ford.

The belly pan, 7 inches from the ground, is from the hood of a bulldozer.

Peterson said in time trials, the Sprints clocked 86 mph.

“But, we went a little bit faster,” he said.

What Couture and Peterson don’t have, they turn to friend Charlie Provost, who has a machine shop.

The goal is to finish the Sprint by Thanksgiving.

“Jackie was quite famous in the racing world,” Couture said. “In Montreal, they would pay him to show up because he was so well-known.”

Email Robin Caudell: