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March 20. 2013 10:12PM

NH speedway owner Charlie Elliott dead at 96

He built three new speedways with his own hands and refurbished three more. Some of the greatest drivers in auto racing history thrilled hundreds of thousands of fans on those race tracks, leaving decades of lasting memories.

New England Auto Racing Hall-of-Famer Charlie Elliott, died this week in his sleep at his home in Hernando, Fla. He was 96.

Self-educated, Elliott was known for his common-sense approach, vice-grip handshake, humor and work ethic. He began racing open-wheel, open-cockpit cars in 1936 on the old, dirt track of Newmarket Speedway and later became involved in midget-car racing.

He preferred working on cars to driving, though, and became a mechanic and expert welder. After working as a submarine welder at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard throughout World War II, he began operating race tracks and building race cars. He also built the first rear-engine race car ever to compete on an oval track.

Elliott's operation of race tracks began in the late 1940's, first in Sanford, Maine, and then at the former Dover Speedway from 1953 to 1965. He was the originator of the first Canadian-American challenge race in 1958, matching top New England drivers against Canadians he recruited from Montreal and Toronto.

No one built more speedways in New England than Charlie Elliott. His vision for new racing facilities coincided with the formation of the New England Super-Modified Racing Association in 1965. Teaming with Ken Smith and Russ Conway, he opened Star Speedway, a quarter-mile oval in Epping, in early August of 1967, just hours after the track paving had been completed.

Elliott didn't stop there. He always had a project in the works. Star Speedway became a nationally known short track, home of the annual September Classic race, which drew American and Canadian drivers from coast to coast.

Another Elliott developed in 1978 when he purchased the dilapidated Hudson Speedway. Using his own hands and grit, and with support from family and business partners Smith and Conway, he refurbished the track and returned it to life. Hudson flourished with successful events throughout the 1980s.

Yet Elliott looked for more, and in 1982 he purchased the old Lee Raceway triangle track. He completely redesigned the facility and built a new oval track on the site, and on July 4, 1984, Lee USA Speedway opened.

In 1988, Elliott again got the itch to build. After purchasing the Canaan Fairgrounds Speedway, he operated a bulldozer, grader and water truck in working to restore the track. He also built a banquet facility, rebuilt and purchased the former Benson Animal Farm merry-go-round for the grounds and donated a new Little League Baseball park on the grounds to the town.

To make Canaan Fairgrounds a multi-track facility, he built a new paved quarter-mile oval speedway, locating it a mere 800-feet from his dirt oval track. Next came a new motorcycle mountain-climb-competition trail, also in Canaan.

Legends raced on his tracks. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Daytona 500 champions Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, and Geoff Bodine, super-modified icons Ollie Silva, Bentley Warren, Don MacLaren, Nolan Swift and Jim Shampine - Elliott knew and hosted them all.

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