50 Greatest Modified Drivers – Rene Charland 1928-2013
Rene Charland was a two-time Sportsman Champion at Stafford, taking titles in 1961 and 1962. Charland also drove on the asphalt in the late 1960’s in a coupe owned by Bob Johnson. In a career that started in 1947 and lasted for 37 years, Charland won close to 250 races on both dirt and asphalt. In addition to his two Stafford titles, he won four NASCAR National Sportsman Championships from 1962 to 1965 earning him the nickname “The Champ.” He was also a four time Canadian Champion and won track championships at Norwood, Millers Falls, Keene, New Hampshire, Brattleboro, Vermont, Islip, Mannassas, Virginia, Fort Dix (New Egypt and Old Bridge, New Jersey).
A World War II Marine Veteran, Charland got his start at Riverside Park and in his own words said, “It took me three years to win my first heat.” Always a full time racer, Charland ran everywhere and by the late 1950’s was a consistent winner on both dirt and asphalt. He joined NASCAR in 1960 and ran with Eddie Flemke as part of the Eastern Bandits. Starting in 1962 he became a serious contender. He won 21 of the 78 races he entered from Canada to Florida. In 1963 he won 21 of 73 events, plus he finished second 14 times. In 1964 he ran in 96 events, winning 13 and in 1965 he won 13 out of 70 events. Charland was going for title No. 5 in 1966 until a devastating fire almost cost him his life at Malta, New York in May. If not for Eddie Flemke pulling him out, he would have burned alive. Although out of action for several weeks following the accident, Charland mastered a strong comeback and finished a strong third in the final Sportsman Standing behind Don MacTavish and Bill Slater. In 1967, Charland called Fonda home and at one point won five in a a row. From then on he concentrated on the dirt ovals in New York with he exception of running a few selected shows on asphalt.
If Joe Withal was the “clown prince” of Grand National-Winston Cup racing, Rene Charland was his equivalent in the northeast. He loved to aggravate his competition with snakes and water pistols and wouldn’t think twice of giving the track announcer a “goose” or taking a hot dog out of someone’s hand, taking a bite and throwing it down. That’s Rene! Near the end of his career when wins were few and far between, someone called him a “has-been”. Quick on the trigger to respond with a classic quote he answered, “I’d rather be a has-been than a never-was!”
Charland, who at one time was a cowboy in Wild West shows and promoted Gene Autry and Roy Rogers , was inducted into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.
By: Phil Smith