Winning driver Sonny Sanders and the Pete Petraitis Racing crew inside the Nassau Coliseum. (Pete Petraitis Collection)
Winning driver Sonny Sanders and the Pete Petraitis Racing crew inside the Nassau Coliseum. (Pete Petraitis Collection)

The Nassau Coliseum Caper

Two states. Two regions of the country. Two consecutive days. Two of the nation’s premier sporting venues. Two major indoor races for midgets, separated by a few hours of time, hundreds of miles of distance and since it was the middle of winter, a raging snowstorm. 

The second event had an outcome that was doubly historic, even if it proved to be a financial flop. Amid any number of organizational pratfalls, the sole race for midgets ever run in the Nassau Coliseum, in February 1983, ended up going to an unheralded veteran driving one of the most significant cars in midget racing history.

Nearly 40 years later, a lot of what went into the first Long Island Midget Club program inside the New York sports arena is lost to history, including a definitive account of how it all got started. Those who were involved can’t even agree on who the promoter was. The exact number of entrants remains unknown. 

The slickness of the track couldn’t be stifled. One kid, by many accounts the scion of a Long Island racing dynasty, tumbled out of the stands and onto the track during the feature, forcing a red flag. The event, therefore, had a strong chaos content. But it also was a day on which the old guys truly ruled supreme. 

To fully appreciate what took place in Uniondale, N.Y., one must first consider what went on the previous night. That was in Pontiac, Mich., where the short-lived World of Outlaw Midgets franchise put on a show inside the yawning Pontiac Silverdome, then home to the Detroit Lions. 

Tom Corcoran won the 75-lap feature over a field that included Ken Schrader and Tom Bigelow, plus members of the Cicconi and Fornoro clans, with Nokie Fornoro nearly swiping the Silverdome win from Corcoran on the white-flag lap. 

It’s not clear today whether the Nassau Coliseum organizers intentionally scheduled their event to piggyback off Pontiac, but at least a couple of competitors attempted the cross-country, overnight dash.

“I don’t remember how we did the night before, but I do remember driving all night in the motorhome, through really bad weather,” recalled Bob Cicconi, who records show was a DNF on Long Island. “We couldn’t pull over even though the windshield wipers were getting clogged up with slush and stuff, we just kept driving. I vividly remember how my dad was driving, he’d slide the seat back, put it on cruise control, slide out and I’d slide in while we kept rolling. We never stopped. It had to be eight to 12 hours to get there and this time it was even longer because of the weather.”

Again, according to the scant records that exist, Cicconi and Nokie Fornoro were the only two who attempted — successfully — to power more than 630 miles from Pontiac to Uniondale through both the snow and New York City traffic. They arrived at the arena the morning after a New York Islanders hockey game as coliseum crews removed the ice rink to expose the bare loop of concrete. 

By all accounts, the Long Island race was the brainchild of longtime fan Bob Levy and longtime midget owner Ray Plakstis, whose exact roles remain unclear today. 

Despite its sanction, the Nassau event mainly drew entrants from the Super Midget Racing Club and to a lesser extent, the American Racing Drivers Club. Among those entrants was a midget veteran from Huntington, N.Y., a little farther out on Long Island, named Pete Petraitis, who owned a race car that was decidedly old but very well known to midget enthusiasts who understood its background.

Before he owned it, Petraitis’ car was the Honker II, a product of the Autoresearch factory operated in Los Angeles by Don Edmunds, who built it in late 1966 for owner John Stroud using a combination of torsion bars at the rear of the car with a more traditional spring front, all wrapped in Edmunds’ space-frame chassis. 

Stroud installed midget legend Bob Tattersall in the car, sweeping 10 USAC features in 1967 and two more the following year before Stroud sold the car to famed New Jersey team owner Ken Brenn, whose key claim to midget fame by then was Rodger Ward’s improbable win in his earlier Kurtis in a 1959 Formula Libre meet at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.

Brenn put his favorite driver, ARDC star Bert Brooks, into the re-liveried Honker II. Running without a roll cage, Brooks crashed to his death in it at Hershey Stadium in early 1968, prompting Brenn to add a bolt-on cage before pulling its Offenhauser engine and selling the car to Petraitis, a fixture on the Long Island midget scene since the World War II years and strong SMRC supporter. 

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