Thursday, December 17, 2009

Speed Demons of Hastings

Gus Wagner's goat cart with Ed Rohrbach at the reins, ca. 1910

By now you will have received your new Hastings Historian with the lead article by Bob Russell on the 1950s Hastings car club called the Driftin’ Shifters. The young mechanics in that club rebuilt and souped up old cars to race on the Dover Drag Strip in Wingdale, New York.

The racing spirit has a long history among Hastings residents of all ages. But while automobiles absorbed the attention of adults, kids had to take what they could get. At the turn of the century, the transportation of choice among the young racing set in Hastings was the goat cart.

In 1974 Albert Shaw Jr. described the sport of goat-cart racing in a letter to the Historical Society’s Gordon Smith. Albert Jr. was born in 1898 and his family lived on North Broadway, the stage for many hotly contested races between goat-cart owners John “Jack” Zinsser and Stanley Halle. Jack was the son of Col. Frederick G. Zinsser, owner of Zinsser Chemical Company, whose house once stood in Zinsser Park. Stanley was the nephew of the Sidenbergs, who lived on North Broadway near the Dobbs Ferry border. In their races, Albert Jr. observed a pattern – Jack always won when they were coming south and Stanley always won when they were going north. The goats, it seemed, were always willing to put on a little extra steam when heading in the direction of their own barn and feed bag.

Alfred Jr. was clearly a sporting young gentleman, following in the footsteps of his neighbors. According to an article in our files, Alfred Jr. won the local soapbox derby in 1908. This race was run on the grounds of Mackenzie School in Dobbs Ferry (now the site of Cabrini Nursing Home). Albert Jr. called his car “Isotta-Fraschini” after the make of the car that had won the popular Briarcliff Cup stock car race in Westchester that year. Our hero might not have been able to enter the race at all—he had broken both his spare wheels (they were express-wagon wheels made of wood)—but the chauffeur of another contestant lent him an extra wheel. The course ran steeply downhill along the border of Dobbs Ferry and Hastings and included at the end a hairpin turn onto Broadway that a later newspaper article described as “something of a killer-diller.” But Albert Jr. and his mechanic, a youngster from Ardsley named K.B. Conger, were clocked as the fastest and took home the prize against a field that included the fiercest competition from all the local villages.

Jack Zinsser in his pre-racing days, standing by the head of a goat cart ca. 1900; photograph lent for copying by Jack's son John A. Zinsser

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