B&M Speed Shop Honored With 2013 NE Modified Hall Of Fame Mechanic Award
by Tom Skibinski with special acknowledgement to Tom Hoppough
Spearheaded by its late co-owners Milt Johnson and Bruce Fleishman along with prominent partner Harry Derleth, noted engine-builder B&M Speed Shop has been named to receive the annual 'Mechanic of the Year Award' and will be formally honored during the 22nd Northeast Modified Hall of Fame induction and special award ceremonies scheduled for Tuesday, June 4 on the Cayuga County Fairgrounds in conjunction with the Super DIRTcar series show at neighboring Rolling Wheels Raceway Park the following day.
This special award was created in 1998 to recognize one of stock car racing's modern day heroes during a customary time of tribute to the legendary drivers in our sport. Although reaching the top of their field 40 years earlier, B&M's core trio will be rewarded for their outstanding contributions as premier engine-builders for some of the greatest Modified drivers on both dirt and asphalt tracks.
Fleishman died on July 26, 2011 at age 79 and Johnson passed away December 26, 2012 at 78 while 82 year-old Derleth remains active today serving as groundskeeper for the Monroe Community College rifle range situated across the road from his Rush, N.Y. residence. Garnering the coveted Canandaigua Speedland Sportsman points championship in 1961, Milt also raced competitively from 1956-63 with Bruce, employed earlier by Kodak Camera Works as a machinist, mirroring that time frame running in the headline Late Model and Sportsman divisions.
In the heyday of the1960s B&M grew very busy and both Bruce and Milt realized that their time was better spent making money rather than spending money. In that era they were not only building the engines at B&M but they were constructing their own race cars. And while many racers still opted to build their own engines in the early years, they would ultimately have the machine work done at B&M and then assemble it themselves or farm it out to a friend or another trusted source. Finding more success than most although following different formulas, Richie Evans usually took his engines from B&M as a package assembled by Derleth while Jerry Cook used to come to B&M for several days at a time and assemble his own engines that B&M had done the machine work on.
Bruce and Harry also combined efforts to build Bruce's cars while area USAC Sprint Car owner George Popplewell helped design some of Milt's most distinguished rides. After he stopped driving modifieds, Bruce became the flagger at Lancaster Speedway where he was severely injured in a much publicized accident when a car went airborne and hit the stand, leaving him dangling with a broken leg. While behind the wheel, Milt took a nasty flip at Canandaigua that hurt his neck, something that bothered him more than most would ever know and contributed to an early exit from the driver seat.
Originally established in the early 1950s by Bill Beaman (and a silent partner named Munnings, thus B&M), the once booming big-block builder of the 1960s and '70s quietly faded out of existence by the start of the new millennium. While working out of building owner Tompkins' machine shop on nearby Clay Road, Beaman built some of the first 'souped up flatheads' for legendary driver Dutch Hoag in 1952 before Johnson, a former gas station owner in Webster, N.Y., and Fleishman bought into the new Brighton-Henrietta Townline Road-based business in 1957. Derleth, a friend of and car builder for Fleishman beginning in the late 1950s while working at Oldsmobile dealer Fincher Motors in downtown Rochester, bought out Beaman in 1960 and remained a key figure until his departure in 1981 after helping the facility expand to its current 3,900 square-feet concrete structure.
Milt's youngest racing son Danny Johnson used a portion of the old B&M shop as his own car/parts garage for many years with the remaining portion leased out to various mechanics and body shop personnel for brief periods of time. Action Auto Parts was involved in negotiations for purchase during the last several years although the actual sale of the property is still pending with another possible yet unspecified buyer looming.
During the decades in between, B&M emerged as the preeminent engine-builder of its day for some of the most revered drivers ever too turn a wheel on both dirt and pavement. All-time all-stars like NASCAR Modified champions Richie Evans and Jerry Cook, New Englanders Ed Flemke, Fred DeSarro, Bugs Stevens and Ernie Gahan, Western New Yorkers Billy Rafter, Kenny Meahl, Ed Ortiz, Cam Gagliardi, Gary Iulg, Jim and Charlie Rudolph, and the Treichlers (Roger, Merv, Gordy), along with Lou Lazzaro, Sonny Seamon and Chuck Mahoney from the East, plus Rochester-area favorites Maynard Troyer, Lee Osborne, Tom Leeson, Bobby Merz, Sonny Barron, Dick Emerson, and of course Alan and Danny Johnson, all packed B&M power under the hood.
The unmatched level of supremacy was most evident in 1970 as eight of the Top-10 finishers at the hallmark 'Race of Champions' at Langhorne (Pa.) Int'l Speedway used a B&M engine including popular race winner Merv Treichler. The following autumn cousin Roger Treichler took the last checkered flag in Langhorne's RoC finale.
Even 1974 Winston Cup “Rookie of the Year” Earl Ross enjoyed success driving a car fielded by Junior Johnson (one of the first rent-a-rides), sponsored by Carlings Brewery and powered by a B&M Speed Shop engine. Ross won a Cup race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway that year and Milt cherished the fact that Carlings filled the Coke machine at the shop with plenty of Carling's Black Label beer which was Milt's beverage of choice at the time.
When it wasn't an actual B&M engine carrying their car to victory lane, many more drivers and owners had machine work (boring blocks, balancing rotating assemblies, head work, valve jobs, etc.) done by B&M before doing the assembly work themselves or by someone else. B&M decals were seen on the majority of cars on a given night at Lancaster Speedway and the name was painted on many more up and down the coast.
B&M engines were not only fast but durable, prices were reasonable and the shop offered a full line of service. B&M machined parts and gave them back or built an engine from scratch. When engine trouble developed at the races, teams often came right to the shop from the track. On occasion Milt even got out of bed (he lived in front of B&M for many years) to get the ball rolling for visiting teams. Many times engines were pulled, fixed and reinstalled in the parking lot or one of the bays at B&M. Nearly a dozen full-time employees ---close to 15 needed when a snowmobile engine-building contract was landed in the early 1970s--- that filled the B&M quarters in its prime made sure that every job got done in a timely fashion.
With a steady flow of business coming in from around the Northeast, Milt stayed in charge of all undertakings (billing, orders, parts inventory) in the office and dealt directly with every customer --- normally the racer himself. Bruce did some machine work but focused primarily on running the balancing machine for both racing engines and industrial work. Harry did some machining as well as most of the assemblies, including the majority for 9-time national champ Richie Evans. Others (Sonny Barron, Bob Gommel, Bill Campbell, Bill Lindner, Howard Pugsley, Dick Verrone, Jim Converse, Bob Conrow, etc.) performed various tasks at different times such as grinding crankshafts, porting heads, doing valve jobs and boring blocks.
Campbell currently operates his own speed shop, Campbell's mentor Sonny Barron builds engines for many Spencer Speedway competitors, Gommel became involved in Pa. sprint car racing and served as Lee Osborne's crew chief, and Lindner went on to establish a national speed record with his 'Gasoline Supercharged Coupe' while in college and working at B&M.
The 1970s were not only marked by years of measurable success for B&M, that same period in NE motorsports history ironically marked the eventual demise of the renowned speed factory situated on the south side of Rochester. The business began its slow decline as the decade wound down and Richie Evans made a trend-setting move to small-block engine power while Milt's own son Alan Johnson was quickly making headlines in the big-block ranks.
Beginning with flatheads, B&M had gone through the small-block stage and eventually solidified its reputation with big-blocks. A B&M big block would typically run a full season without a rebuild, therefore it was cost effective. When and if something went wrong things were taken care of in a timely manner and B&M was the cornerstone as it harbored racers serving racers. On asphalt, Milt had steered clear of high-dollar small-blocks utilizing exotic components due to the high initial building and maintenance costs yet admitted they “made race cars handle better so everybody started leaning toward them.” And on the dirt, when Alan started winning “the big drivers stopped coming back, I guess they thought we were giving him better stuff.”
And while high-tech engine builders began to surface around the region as motorsports manufacturing became more sophisticated, the lack of inventoried and expensive cutting-edge engine parts, upgraded dyno and any research & development program at B&M were sure signs of what was to come.
In Buffalo there was Jan-Cen and Gor-Den on the move and as time went on the likes of Drakes in Rochester, Tony Feil in N.J, Superior in Pa., John Burnett in N.J. and Hutter in Ohio had gained team support. John Clement built many engines for customers that raced at Lancaster where the machine work was done at B&M and Dave Nagel (not to be confused with Maynard Troyer's Nagle Ford owner) also did many assemblies in the Buffalo area (Roger Treichler, Sege Fidanza) before actually working right out of B&M for a number of years.
With the doors finally closed at B&M Speed Shop, all that remains now are a half-century of memories and a handful of story-tellers to keep them alive. Many will arrive to offer
“My dad took me to the track when I was just in kindergarten,” remembered Frank. “Dad was really into racing. He even had a car in the 1967 Daytona 500. When guys wanted just one car, dad had three. When they wanted one motor, dad had numerous motors. He was the real influence in my life to go racing.”
“My first open wheel car was one of Budd Olsen’s modifieds he had crashed hard in the first turn at Middletown after the throttle had stuck. My dad said, ‘If you want to go racing, there it is, fix it.’”
In 1976 a young sportsman driver from Wind Gap, Pennsylvania came north to try and qualify for the Schafer 100 at the New York State Fairgrounds. He had only been driving for two years, but he figured he was ready. He had first seen the mile oval in 1968, when his father brought him to the Labor Day Fair race.
His trip proved unsuccessful, as he failed to qualify for the 100-lapper. But after time trials on Saturday, his team ventured to the nearby Maple Grove Speedway in Waterloo, NY. There the best of the best were ready to show their wares on the odd shaped half mile in a 76 lap feature. It would be Frank Cozze’s first open wheel modified feature victory driving a Budd Olsen chassis.
“My dad told me I either had to race or work the family business,” Frank said. “We had Budd maintain the cars back then. All I had to do was turn up and drive them. In my family the business came first.”
Cozze returned south and picked up additional feature wins at both Reading and Flemington. He was now running as often as his money would take him. He added the half mile Nazareth Speedway to his growing list of feature wins. He had big shoes to fill, as his father had fielded modifieds for some of the best known driver in the tri-state region; Stan Ploski, Al Tasnady, Budd Olsen and Bob Pickell. Now Frank was the “shoe” in the Cozze 44’s.
“The one driver who helped me the most was Al (Tasnady). He was just one of many, but he really knew chassis work and was a really heady driver. He was years ahead of most during that era.”
Along the way Frank married his high school sweetheart Janice in 1978. He had been a high school basketball player at North Hunterdon High, but gave that all up to start racing at age 18. Janice would join Frank on the road, becoming an important asset to the Cozze Racing Team.
With Reading Speedway closing in 1979, Cozze moved his operations over to Flemington and Nazareth. He also began a “journeyman’s” life traveling north to Central New York again. He won at Rolling Wheels Raceway and Glen Donnelly convinced him to try his hand at running the Super DIRT Series. He returned the next year to win the series race at Canandaigua Speedway.
These journeys north included attempts at winning the biggest dirt modified race around, Super DIRT Week at the mile in Syracuse. He qualified for his first SDW race in 1977 and finished 27th. In 1978 he got the taste of the mile with a second place finish. He was now hooked. He would return yearly until 1982, when former promoter Vince Vicarri reopened the dirt mile at Nazareth and went head-to-head with Donnelly’s Syracuse race. Frank chose to stay close to home and try the Nazareth mile.
“Nazareth was just ten minutes from the house. We raced there the first year of the event,” related Frank. “There were other years we just did not have a ride for that event.”
After three years the Nazareth race failed to live up to expectations and Frank returned to Syracuse’s mile. In 1989, he came so close to winning. He was leading the race with Danny Johnson on his tail. Johnson tried to pass Cozze in the tight second turn, resulting in contact with just eight laps to go in the race. Danny’s older brother Alan, sailed by both to take the win. His 17th place finish would be a real disappointment for Cozze.
He would eventually earn 11 series victories, including a DIRT-Asphalt Challenge victory at Canada’s Cayuga International Speedway. It was during those asphalt races that Frank found success on the road. In seventeen starts he picked up five top fives and thirteen top tens. He only missed one race in the four years the series ran.
His racing took him to Canada more often, winning at Autodromes Granby, Drummond and Sorel. But it was at tracks near his home base that he excelled. He won the Flemington series race in 1980.
Changes were now in the wind for Frank. After picking up the track championship at Nazareth’s half mile track in 1984, that track was closing. The Cozze family actually took on the promotion duties at Nazareth when Jerry Fried initially left that final year. They said promotion was the toughest job they ever did.
Jerry just rented the property from a corporation that planned to open a mall on the land.. We knew we were only going to run the track for one year.”
“I was the track prep guy. I could would my job during the day, then go over to the track, turn on the lights and work there. It ended up being 18 hour days for my dad and brothers Rick and Lou.”
He moved his weekly racing to Orange County Fair Speedway were he picked up a sponsorship from CarQuest Auto Parts. There he won track titles in 1989 and 1990.
He finished off the 1989 season with a win in the Eastern States 200. What made his victory so impressive was he used a small block and drove the entire 200 laps without pitting. Fuel economy won him his biggest race to date.
It would be during his years at Orange County that Frank would add Brent Title to his team. Brent would eventually become the crew chief for the team starting in 2001. He would work with Frank for the next seven years, plus again in 2010.
As Frank was able to earn “home-track” bonus points towards the Mr. DIRT championship using Orange County as his home-track, he now settled into traveling to different modified races. He also used his small block knowledge to win the Victoria 200 at Fulton. He earned small block wins at both Albany-Saratoga and Devils Bowl in Vermont.
Frank added Bridgeport to his weekly wars. And in 1991, he added small block racing at East Windsor to his program. Frank would eventually win 20 races at that track before it too closed it’s doors.
Change was again to affect the Cozze team. Glen Donnelly sold his DIRT circuit to a group known as Boundless Racing. This turn changed the level playing field. Many tracks that were DIRT members left the fold and began running their own rules. Orange County became an on again, off again member. Frank decided to move his weekly racing to New Egypt, New Jersey.
There he would earn 26 feature wins and track titles in 2003 and 2005. He continued to try winning at Syracuse each October. He seemed to be getting closer. In 2003, he finished third. The next year he again got a top ten, with a sixth place finish. Two disappointing years followed with 20th and 27th place finishes. Then came 2008!
During practice he seemed to be in the normal Frank Cozze groove. He finished 10th in his triple twenty qualifier, making the starting field. But during that qualifier his team noticed he was getting super gas mileage. The team double checked the results on Saturday morning and decided to try a new race strategy.
They would pit early (on lap 71) and then go the distance (129 laps) without pitting a second time. As the race progressed Frank found himself in front. Thanks to a number of yellow flags, he was able to make the distance and finally win at Syracuse.
His son Frank Jr. became an active modified driver. In 2009, Frank Jr. won his first feature in just his fourth start, winning at New Egypt. Both Frank and his son share the same workshop, but each does their own thing to prepare for New Egypt weekly.
"I always wanted to run a sprint car and at 55, I either made the move now or I didn't do it at all. I probably waited way too long," he said. "I was getting tired of the modified stuff. I like the modifieds, don't get me wrong. I think the racing is a lot better, but, I really got tired of the rules. I understand you have to have rules, but, 10 years ago, you could race anywhere and anything at any track on any night and you can't do that no more. To go anywhere to race a modified now, you have call ahead to make sure you car is legal."
He took his family sprint car racing in 2011. His first season was a learning expeirence. He started 10 times and never made the top ten. In 2012, he started thirty-three 410 sprint car events during the year, winning once at Port Royal and accumulating three top fives and ten top tens.
When Nazareth was a dirt track, Cozze would have a five-minute drive to the track. On Saturday nights, he towed a little more than an hour to Flemington, N.J. Now, with traffic, it's nearly three hours to get to Williams Grove on a Friday.
In 2013, Frank was offered the ride in the Norm Hansell # 357 modified racing at both Grandview and Big Diamond. He opted to return to the modified ranks. As he enteres his fourth decade of wheeling a modified, maybe there one or more big wins in Frank’s future.
Frank and Janice have four children: Andy, Craig, Lauren and Frank Jr. Lauren was actually on her dad's pit crew at New Egypt when he won both championships. She's really
sharp and knows her stuff! Frank Jr. hasn't been racing the last two seasons; however, Andy's name pops up in the Sportsman results at Big Diamond Speedway. Somehow the Cozze name will remain in short track racing throughout the Northeast.