Craig Murto: Remembering Ron Bouchard

Craig Murto

We lost a true racer last week when Ron Bouchard died of cancer at the age of 67. Though Bouchard is best remembered nationally for his upset win in the 1981 Talladega 500, fans who saw him race Modifieds and those lucky enough to meet him know that Bouchard was special.

Legend has it that Bouchard, a native of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, won his first ever race at the now-defunct Brookline Speedway in New Hampshire when he was 14. He allegedly lied about his age so he could fill in for a sick driver. Back then he had to be 16 to race.

In 1967 he won his first of five consecutive track titles at the quarter-mile Seekonk (Massachusetts) Speedway. He became the star and fan favorite at Stafford (Connecticut.) Motor Speedway, where he won track titles in 1973 and ’79,  competing against New England legends such as Bugsy Stevens, Fred Desarro, and Ed Flemke.

Flemke’s daughter, Paula, became Bouchard’s wife, and Bouchard sometimes sponsored the racing efforts of his brother-in-law Ed Flemke Jr., who was quoted on Jayski’s racing website as saying that Bouchard’s cancer was “a tough battle” he waged for many years and that he “fought the good fight.”

Bouchard fought the good fight behind the wheel of a racecar, and was known to be able to make outside passes where no other driver would venture. He was a natural racer, a natural talent, and won more than 400 Modified races up and down the East Coast. Not only did he win on tracks all over New England, he won in New Smyrna, Florida, Kingsport, Tennessee., and at Martinsville, Virginia.

In the ’70s he was the face of New England Modified racers in their rivalry against the New York invaders, such as Geoff Bodine.

In 1981 Bouchard replaced Harry Gant on the NASCAR Cup circuit behind the wheel of the No. 47 Race Hill Farms car of Jack Beebe, a car owner from Connecticut who also employed fellow New Englander Bob Johnson as crew chief. In only his 11th start, Bouchard pulled the upset Talladega victory when he drafted his unsponsored yellow-and-white machine to the low side of the side-by-side battle between Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip to win in a three-wide photo finish. Some still consider it the biggest upset in the Cup Series.

But it seemed that the Talladega curse took hold, as Bouchard, the 13th different winner in as many Talladega 500s, never won again in the Cup ranks. He did, however, win the Rookie-of-the-Year award, and won a couple memorable races in what is now the Xfinity Series. Ken Bourchard, Ron’s brother, became NASCAR’s top rookie in 1989; they remain the only brothers to share that honor.

One of Ron Bouchard’s Xfinity wins cam after battling Dale Earnhardt at Darlington. The senior Earnhardt became good friends with Bouchard, often visiting him in Massachusetts and vice versa.

The 1982 season was Bouchard’s best in Cup points, when he finished eighth. He competed full time through the 1985 season, when his sponsor at the time, Valvoline, insisted he leave Beebe’s team because Beebe threatened to sell and get out of the sport. The only ride available was the 98 owned by Mike Curb, and that didn’t last long. Bouchard finished his Cup career driving for Hoss Ellington, and by the time he wrapped his racing career up in 1987 he had 160 Cup starts, with 19 top fives and 60 top 10 finishes and three poles. That’s better than 37 percent in the top 10, and that’s not bad. It was always said that he could have driven for Junior Johnson, but didn’t want to have to leave New England. One can only wonder what could have been.

Bouchard became a car dealer after his racing career, and at the time of his death had six dealerships. Just a few months ago the Fitchburg store opened the Ron Bouchard Racing Museum.

“Ron Bouchard’s passion for racing was evident from his very early years in NASCAR,” read a NASCAR statement following Bouchard’s death. “Competition fueled Ron, whether racing Modifieds at short tracks across the Northeast or winning rookie-of-the-year honors in NASCAR’s premier series. He loved this sport, and made an indelible mark on it, one that won’t soon be forgotten.

“NASCAR extends its condolences to the friends and family of Ron Bouchard, a true racer.”

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.