By Paul V. Palange
Did you know that the first oval track car race in the United States was held at the Cranston Stadium in 1896? I didn’t. Not until I visited with Ric Mariscal, a curator of the ProNyne Motorsports Museum.
In addition, I had no idea Mariscal operated the Motorsports Museum in a three-story building at 8 Cleveland St. in Pawtucket with R. A. Silvia. Mariscal is 67, and Silvia is 78 – a couple of senior citizens that have compiled trailer loads of information, memorabilia and artifacts out of fondness for auto racing and respect and admiration for its participants.
“Most people spend two hours here and just scratch the surface,” Mariscal said; and he’s not exaggerating one bit.
Each floor of the 7,400 square foot facility is packed with items, including trophies, plaques, artwork, photographs, models, magazines, newspapers, event programs and cars. Mariscal is the “motor man,” concentrating on the vehicles; and Silvia is the “paper man,” focusing on the photo albums, articles and other printed memorabilia.
According to Mariscal, the building was an abandoned warehouse for the former Albert Jenkins Co., and the structure was also owned at one time by Larry Sayco, the Yo-Yo King of the 1950s. ProNyne, a 501(C) 3 nonprofit organization, purchased the 120-year-old building in 2003, and prevented it from falling apart.
Several of the most well-known race cars in New England are on display. Among them are two of Len Boehler’s modified vehicles – Ole Blue and the white Vega – and Sonny Koszela’s No. 15 Pinto and his infamous Woodchopper Special.
Mariscal can rattle off what drivers used for parts on their modified cars: “This is a ’57 Chevy chassis. They added an engine with an automatic transmission. The seat is all hand-formed steel,” he said about one vehicle.
Asked about the danger of driving some of the modifieds, Mariscal said, “These guys were braver than I will ever be. I don’t know how they did it. These guys were the greatest.”
He remembers when “every garage and every back yard had race cars in them” as well as when he built and raced cars. He won some races and had dreams of making it big on the track. “I wanted to be the next Richard Petty, but it was the preservation of the sport that changed my mind,” Mariscal said.
The hundreds of trophies in the museum were earned by accomplished drivers such as Bugs Steven, Dave Humphrey and Mike Stefanik. Stefanik, who was born in Massachusetts and lives in Coventry, is a former professional stock car racing driver. Most of his career consisted of competing in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Whelen Modified Tour, but he also made appearances in the Busch Grand National and the Craftsman Truck series. A seven-time champion in the modified series, Stefanik was named the second greatest NASCAR modified driver of all-time in 2003, and he won two Busch North series championships. The nine crowns tie him with Richie Evans for most championships in NASCAR history.
There is a Mike Stefanik movie room in the museum, which means “everything that’s ever been broadcast” about the racer is there, according to Mariscal.
Much of the memorabilia in the museum has been donated, Mariscal said, explaining that people in the New England motorsports world know the ProNyne conservators will preserve donated materials for the public’s enjoyment and education.
Mariscal, a 14-year Johnston Department of Public Works employee, and Silvia, a retired manufacturing planner and engineer, accept donations to keep ProNyne open. For $25, people can become museum members and receive a newsletter, membership card and a 25 percent gift shop discount. Checks should be payable to ProNyne Motorsports, and mailed to P.O. Box 1492, Pawtucket, R.I., 02862.
Mariscal and Silvia want to relocate the museum to a more attractive and accessible site, and Mariscal said former Fire Station 1 on West Avenue in Pawtucket would be an excellent location.
“It’s an historical building,” he said, referring to the station. “It’s perfect for what we’re doing. We could put a wing there about firefighters’ history, too.”
“We are passionate about what we do because we love it,” Mariscal said. That passion helped Mariscal earn a nomination into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame. He will be inducted with seven other nominees at a ceremony scheduled for Nov. 10 in Windsor, Conn. For more information, go to www.near1.org.
To schedule a tour of ProNyne, call (401) 447-4202 or (401) 739-0039. While you’re there, tell Mariscal and Silvia that you hope they cross the finish line with their plans and dreams for the museum.