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

It was natural for him to embrace the Nassau Coliseum show. His new driver was Sonny Sanders, a native of New York City who’d wheeled midgets for years and was a pal of East Coast doodlebug doyens Tony Romit, Tony Bonadies and Len Duncan. 

At one point around this time, Petraitis was running five cars, both full midgets and TQs, out of his shop. 

Petraitis’ son, Jon, recalls that the Nassau Coliseum race may have been the Edmunds car’s first outing since it was seriously damaged in an SMRC crash at New York’s Orange County Fair Speedway with Tommy White in the seat. 

With a self-built Chevy II engine between the frame tubes, Petraitis towed the Honker II to the coliseum, likely the oldest race car in the building. A probable close second was Pete Pernisiglio’s car, the onetime O’Hara “Checkerboard Special” out of the Midwest, now powered by a Mazda Wankel-cycle rotary engine and driven by Harry Weed, of Amityville, who counted Sanders as a mentor as his own driving career had begun the previous decade. 

“When everyone else was spending big money on valvetrain components, Pete had a junkyard and he went out into it and he took rocker arms off a Studebaker to put in the Chevy II head,” Weed recalled. “And Sonny Sanders, whether it was to Flemington or wherever they went with it, he was real quick in the Honker and won a lot of races with it. They were a phenomenal team.”

In Uniondale, problems began almost immediately. The track was so slick that the midgets had to be rolled out of the building to be push-started, before crews slathered cola syrup on the concrete to create some grip. 

“My father was smart enough to use different tires than anybody else,” Jon Petraitis recalled. “He used street tires on the midget, just regular 12- or 13-inch tires. Nokie Fornoro was running Mike Scrivani’s car. They had run the Silverdome the night before and he finished second with it, on slicks So my father offered Scrivani tires to put on Nokie’s car and he didn’t want them. And Sonny ran circles around him. 

“Our car was slow,” Jon Petraitis declared. “Everybody else was slower.”

Midgets race on the floor of the Nassau Coliseum in February of 1983. (Petraitis Family Collection)
Midgets race on the floor of the Nassau Coliseum in February of 1983. (Petraitis Family Collection)

The March 5, 1983, issue of National Speed Sport News lists Cicconi’s brother Guy, Sanders and Johnny Coy Sr., who switched to dirt tires for the feature, as heat winners. 

In the 50-lap finale, Sanders came from the back twice after tangles, one with Weed’s Mazda-powered car, to take the win over Guy Cicconi and Fornoro, who now remembers the race as the merciful end to an exhausting weekend. 

After a scoring dispute, Weed was placed seventh. When one of the Coy kids fell out of the stands, event announcer Bob Marlow yelled the starter’s name over the arena PA, leading him to instantly wave the red flag despite not actually seeing the mishap. 

“It was a dud. The place was empty. The arena was too small for midgets. It did not take rubber and was not conducive to good racing,” Marlow remembered. “During the heat races, a driver named Duke Pavlick crashed into the folded-up basketball seats just behind the makeshift guardrail, doing a lot of damage to the seats.” 

Marlow recalls being stiffed out of his announcing fee. Jon Petraitis says his father dug $500 out of his pocket to cover Sanders’ winning purse when Levy couldn’t ante up.

The Honker II may be  the last tangible memory of the Nassau Coliseum outing. Sanders, who died some years ago in Florida, drove it under both Brenn and Petraitis ownership, flipping the car at Williams Grove Speedway. 

Others who raced it included Indianapolis 500 veteran Jerry Karl, Dick Tobias and Bing Metz, who famously launched it into the seats at J.F.K. Stadium in Philadelphia, longtime home of the Army-Navy Game, during the fabled venue’s lone midget race. 

Bethlehem, Pa., collector and historian Dennis Tretter located the Honker II on Craigslist after it had been sitting for more than 20 years, identifying it by its two external weight jackers for the torsion rear and spring front. Today, it’s restored to its post-1968 Brenn livery, sans roll cage.

“Do you take it back to the Tattersall car, because you have a much larger audience with USAC, or a Brenn car, since Ken is from the Northeast and is a friend of mine?” Tretter asked rhetorically. “It’s a tribute to Bert Brooks, who lost his life in the car. So I decided to take it back to that era.”

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