Pioneer Driver and Builder Bob Rossell to Mod Hall of Fame
By Buffy Swanson
New Jersey ace Bob Rossell, a pioneer driver and builder of stock cars in the '60s and '70s, will be honored as a 2018 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 26 at the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame and Museum in Weedsport, NY. That Saturday, Weedsport Speedway will host its Super DIRTcar Series Hall of Fame 100.
Rossell began racing on the paved New Egypt Speedway quarter-mile in 1958, in an old Chevy coupe with an engine out of a junk pile. Working out of NES champion Howard “Stubby” Stevens' nearby Jacobstown garage, along with his good friend Gil Hearne, Bob was just getting going when the U.S. Air Force took him out of the scene for a year, in 1961.
When Rossell returned, he jumped back in with both feet — barnstorming up and down the Eastern seaboard, tagging along with the infamous "Eastern Bandits," holding his own with Ed Flemke, Dennis Zimmerman, Rene Charland, Red Foote and the like. In a typical week, the bunch would race Thursday at New Egypt, Friday at Virginia’s Southside Speedway, Old Dominion in Manassas on Saturday, Marlboro (MD) on Sunday afternoon, and back in New Jersey, at Old Bridge, on Sunday night.
Bob’s big scores include NASCAR’s 200-lap Battle of Bull Run at Old Dominion in 1963, Wall Stadium’s 300-lap Garden State Classic (which he won twice), Langhorne qualifiers at Flemington and Orange County Fair Speedway (passing Will Cagle for both those victories), five extra-distance special events at East Windsor (one a DIRT qualifier for Syracuse), and a 90-minute timed race on the 1-1/8 mile Nazareth National big track, where he beat the great Frankie Schneider on the last turn of the last lap. After dominating the 1963 New Yorker 400 at Utica-Rome, Bob’s win was protested by Lou Lazzaro, who alleged Rossell’s road buddy Rene Charland pushed him across the line when he ran out of gas at the finish. Many months later, NASCAR awarded the win to Lazzaro.
"I was six laps ahead when I ran out. And yeah, Rene pushed me," Bob acknowledged with a shrug. "But nobody finished that race."
Rossell was also a regular in the elite All-Star Racing League, from 1967-71. He was racing for a living and loving it.
But he was also a much sought-after car builder and fabricator, with top drivers like Will Cagle, Billy Osmun, Tommy Corellis, Bob Pickell, Pee Wee Griffin, Leon Manchester and Bob Toreky, among others, finding success in Rossell racers, with their signature square tubing. Cagle ran Rossell cars almost exclusively from 1965-72, arguably some of his best years racing in the Northeast, and was quick to give credit to Bob.
"With that square tubing, they were light but they were solid. They held up good," Cagle said. "Twice I got 'em upside down — and both times I walked away."
Although he did travel to Florida more than once to build cars for Cagle in the off-season, and constructed a quartet of frames for car owner Ken Brenn, Rossell did not typically build cars specifically for others.
"That was the key to the deal: Do what I wanted to do with them, and then sell ‘em," Bob explained his business model. "I had signs on all my cars: NOT FOR SALE. Then, when I was ready to sell them, I just taped over the word NOT."
It was a great existence until late July 1971, when Rossell was critically injured during an All-Star event at Lebanon Valley.
"We had been to Weedsport the night before. I had spun out and backed into the grader sitting in the infield," Bob recounted. At the Valley, the right-rear housing broke, the car stopped sideways on the backstretch and was hit by Gil Hearne, Bobby Malzahn and Merv Treichler. The impact drove Rossell’s right leg through the floorboard, pinning him inside the coupe for 40 minutes while rescue workers tried to free him.
"He had to be in terrible pain while we were trying to bend the metal away from his leg, yet he never whimpered or groaned or let on to anyone that he was suffering," said Kenny Shoemaker, one of the first drivers on the scene. “I've never seen anyone with more courage than Bob."
The initial assessment was that the mangled foot would have to be amputated. "I was lucky," Rossell considered. "The surgeon on call had just come back from Vietnam. He had dealt with a lot worse during his tour of duty, and this didn’t faze him."
Rossell was laid up in Albany Medical Center for 29 days. Lebanon’s "top cat" Tommy Corellis had become friendly with Bob, while running the All-Star League. At Tommy’s insistence, Bob’s wife Carol stayed with the Corellises the entire month; they gave her a car to get back and forth to the hospital, and "were wonderful to me," she said. Bob had just completed a new race car prior to the accident, and afterwards he all but gave Corellis that car.
"He had built the car for himself, but he wanted me to have it, for all I did for him when he was hurt," Tommy said. That was the famed Leto #50 that Corellis claims was one of the "most perfect" cars he ever drove. He ran it to two championships at Lebanon Valley. Walt Schwinning, in fact, used that same Rossell car as a template when he started his chassis fabrication business.
Tough and stubborn, Bob was back driving the following spring. By July, he was back in the winner’s circle. According to Cagle, the extensive injuries Rossell suffered at the Valley didn’t slow him down. "He still ran it wide open after he came back. He was always right there. He impressed me," Cagle marveled.
Although he did a handful of stints for car owners (and won one of his Garden State Classics in Dick Barney’s renowned red #14), "I never drove another car I was happy with," Bob firmly stated. "Other people’s cars didn’t feel good to me. They had to be mine."
The powerplants, however, were another story. "All the motors I ever ran were Stubby’s. I never had a store-bought motor," Rossell said of the 427 c.i.d. Chevys he raced. "Stubby Stevens was the most important guy in my racing career. I wouldn’t say I couldn’t have done it without him. But he was key."
Rossell never officially retired — "I put the car on the trailer after a rough night at East Windsor, and just never took it off." — but went on to a second career, building sulkies for Standardbred horses for more than a decade.
"Whatever I did, I always knew where I fit," Bob finally reflected on his life in racing. "I didn’t fit above the line, or below the line. I was right there."
He continued the thought. "Racing for a living wasn’t about winning. It was about keeping the car together and making money," Bob concluded. "I never got mad when I finished second or third. Because, on whatever night that was, that’s probably where I should’ve been."