The Spa Road Runners

WRITTEN BY JOHN R. GREENWOOD
The Spa Road Runners

Photo taken at the Saratoga Springs Police Station March 1955 Saratoga Springs Police Sergent Jack Stevens is the man on the far right in the cardigan, white shirt and tie. I believe this was the day they received their official NHRA Charter. It required a police officials signature. (From left to right, top to bottom) Fourth Row— Jerry Ellsworth, Ed Stevens, Ken Shrader, Earl Clark, Ron Strader, unknown, Chuck Hodgson. Third Row— Bill Braim, Cliff Stevens, Roy Carr, Bill Rohling, Jim Coleman, Jim Davis, John Potter, Burt Bryant. Second Row— Royal Dyer, Irving Weiss, Jim Carr, Bill Dubee, Sergeant Jack Stevens. Bottom Row Barbara Pace, Veronica Stevens, Helen Bryant 


Nothing excites a history sleuth more than uncovering an old story that's been buried under layers of forgotten memories. This is one of those stories. My instincts tell me that once word gets around, its branches will continue to bear fruit deep into 2021. 

In the early 1950s, a group of employees was gathered around the garage of the old Quevic Vichy Plant on Excelsior Spring Avenue when they decided to form a hot rod club. According to one of the club’s founding members, Ed Stevens, this is when the "Spa Road Runners" hot rod club was born. The club would continue to meet in that Quevic garage for a decade.

This story found the light of day thanks to Ed Stevens. I've known Ed since 1974 when I worked for him at the old Saratoga Dairy on Excelsior Ave. I visited him at his Maple Avenue home in August 2020 to discuss an unrelated history project. We were sitting at his kitchen table when he handed me a group photo of the Spa Road Runners. He asked if I'd ever heard of them? My eyes widened as I told him that I had not. I then assured him I wouldn't be leaving his house until I did. 

Ed went on to name all but one of the men and women in that car club photo. Along with Ed and his wife Veronica, there were familiar names like Jerry Ellsworth, Jim Coleman, Helen Bryant, Ron Strader, and Bill Rohling. These were the young faces of people I would come to know or do business with later in my own life. There was a lot of Saratoga history here. Names like Bill Braim, John Potter, Chuck Hodgson, Royal Dyer, and Jim Davis. There were other members Ed mentioned who weren't in the photo. Many of those names were familiar too; Art Wadsworth, Fred Bunnell, and Roy Carr. I even found that former Saratoga County Sheriff Jim Bowen had been a Spa Road Runner. I knew right then I'd struck a vein of story-gold. 

Ed said they started the club because hot rodding was thriving in California and had begun to take hold on the East Coast. It seemed like the perfect time to add Saratoga Springs to the list. Many local hot rodders worked at the Quevic Plant, so it's not surprising the club's roots took hold there. Ed stressed that Plant Manager John Weber's support was instrumental in the club's success. 

Although Ed couldn't confirm the group photo's date, Saratogian articles led me to believe it was March of 1955. That's the month the club received their National Hot Rod Association Charter. For a club to be registered, they needed the local police department's support and a police sergeant's signature or higher. Saratoga Springs Police Sergeant Jack Stevens is the man on the far right with the white shirt and tie. Ed and I believe the photo was taken at the police station on Lake Avenue. 

National Hot Rod Association patch that graced the front of the jackets. Notice motto, “Dedicated To Safety” 
Spa Road Runners Plaque
Original Spa Road Runner jacket
Ed Stevens holding up his cousin Cliff Steven’s original Spa Road Runner jacket.

As I peeled back the layers of hot rod clubs of the period, I was surprised to learn how much of their time was spent teaching safe driving and maintaining a safe vehicle. Their mission was to educate the general public and promote a more positive image of the clubs. My research found that many local businesses supported the club. One of them was Bigsbee Motors (current Wendy's location). They once donated a film projector so the Road Runners could show safety films. The films had names like Screw-Driver, Screw-Joys, and A Day in Court. Other business sponsors of the club gave credibility to their mission. Names like Manle Auto Supply, Walton's Sport Shop, Globe Supply, and Western Auto came up time after time. 

This is an excerpt from a 1955 Saratogian editorial page. It was written by club president Burt Bryant. It explains the Spa Road Runners’ mission best: 

 

I am writing in reference to your editorial of Monday, March 31 entitled "Rehearsal for Death." We, the Spa Road Runners, a true hot rod club, disagree with your East Side resident who claims those drag racers on Lake Avenue and Washington Street are hot rodders. As a matter of fact, we believe most of this trouble on the streets is being caused by guys or girls who were not able to keep up a hot rodder's high standards of safety and therefore removed from the club by the club court.

A true hot rodder is a member of the National Hot Rod Association and their motto is "Dedicated to Safety." We hot rodders call these crazy drivers "shot rodders, squirrels or yo-yo drivers.” Call these crazy drivers anything but a hot rodder. If people would only stop and realize that a hot rodder is enjoying a sport much the same as any other except he applies it to cars and their usage. 

 

Hot rod clubs were beginning to take root in surrounding communities too. I found ads for several club sponsored Road Rallies, Car Shows, and Reliability Runs. All these events required participants to pass a stringent safety inspection. 

I smiled every time I encountered another hot rod club name. There were about two dozen clubs in Eastern NY in 1955. Here are a few of them: 

Spa Road Runners
Tri-County Rodders
Amsterdam Mis-Fires
Night Prowlers (Hudson Falls) 
Cohoes Go-Devils
Adirondack Drifters 
Schenectady Gear Snappers
Tri-City Flywheelers (Albany)
Round Lake Piston Snappers
Dragon
Wheels (Menands)

Ron Strader’s First Place Son-Zet Trophy
Ron Strader’s First Place Son-Zet Trophy
Ron Strader’s 1941 Lincoln Continental
Ron Strader’s 1941 Lincoln Continental
Saratogian Ad
Saratogian Ad
Ron Strader’s Spa Road Runner Collection
Ron Strader’s Spa Road Runner Collection

I was fortunate to speak with other members of the Spa Road Runners. I called my old friend Jim Coleman in Florida. I contacted Ron Strader, who lives just around the corner. He graciously invited me to his home to talk about the club and his 1941 Lincoln Continental. The Lincoln's lineage included Bob Lee (Wishing Well) and Thurlow Woodcock (Alpine Sport Shop). He also had the second original Road Runner's jacket and plaque I would uncover in my journey. Along with photos of his 1941 Lincoln and Thurlow Woodcock's rare1936 Cord, there was another unexpected surprise; a two-foot-tall hot rod trophy. Although the faceplate was worn and barely legible, this is what was engraved on it: 

Spa 
Road Runners
Son-Zet 
October 1956 
First Place

I asked Ron what Son-Zet stood for? He told me if a member was involved in setting up a rally course or reliability run, they weren't allowed to compete in that event. He said Road Runners, Roy Carr and Bob Zetterstrom were responsible for organizing this particular event. The club combined Roy's nickname "Sonny," the "Zet," from Zetterstrom, and named the rally after both of them. 

Ron's eyes gleamed as he told me story after story about the Road Runners and their cars. His love for that era came through in his voice. It was a common thread with each member I spoke with. I wish I could share them all here. 

Did I mention that Ron Strader taught me how to ski at the now extinct Darrow's Rope Tow on Locust Grove Road in Greenfield over 55 years ago? 

Did I mention why I love local history?! 

I want to thank the members of the Spa Road Runners I spoke with. Some of their recollections may not be 100% accurate. It was, in fact, over 60 years ago. If you have
"Spa Road Runner" history to share, I'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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