Rene Charland, whose career began and ended on dirt, with an amazing stint on asphalt in between, is a 1996 inductee into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame and and an initial inductee into the NEAR Hall of Fame.
The cigar chewing New Englander of French decent began his career in 1950 at age 21. Charland's no. 3 was a consistent winner on the dusty bullrings of Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, during the 1950's.
It wasn't until about 1960 that Charland began to gain national prominence as a member of the "Eastern Bandits."
The Bandits, as they called themselves, were a group of New England drivers that found the pickings were a little easier in the mid-southern states then back home in the Northeast. Members of this loose knit bunch included Charland, Denny Zimmerman, Ed Flemke, and Red Foote. They traveled together and spent much of the week at small blacktop tracks in the Virginia-Maryland area, as well as New York.
Racing as much as five times a week, the Bandits devastated the locals, often sweeping the top five and carrying the lions share of the prize money home to New England.
As an Eastern Bandit, Charland entered about 80 to 100 shows a year from 1961 through 1966. Because most of the tracks which he and the Eastern-Bandits invaded were NASCAR-sanctioned, Charland began accumulating valuable NASCAR sportsman-modified points.
In 1961 Charland finished fifth in the NASCAR national standings and announced that winning NASCAR's National Sportsman title in 1962 was his goal. Indeed, 1962 became his breakthrough season. He won 21 features that season and handily won the NASCAR title.
He repeated as NASCAR Sportsman National Champion in 1963, 1964 and 1965 and probably would have won the 1966 title too, but for being sidelined by injuries and burns sustained in a near fatal mid-season crash at Albany-Saratoga Speedway. Rene Credits Ed Flemke for saving him that day. Flemke, reached through the flames and pulled the 3-times bigger Charland from the burning car. That mishap is what Rene and racing history called the "French Barbecue." That René could joke about his own near-death experience only helped to build his legend.
In the early 1960's Charland's pursuit of NASCAR points took him to Fonda Speedway twice a year for double point races. He fell in love with the place. And when he stopped running for NASCAR points, Rene decided to make Fonda his adopted home. The results: Charland was Fonda's winningest driver in 1967 and the track champion in 1970. Rene is also a 3 -time Utica-Rome Speedway Champion, winning the title in 1961, 62 and 64.
Rene also won 4 races at the Riverside Park Speedway in his native Agawam, Mass. between 1954 and 1958, plus 2 races on the Stafford Motor Speedway dirt in 1962.
Charland's rebirth as a dirt tracker continued throughout the early 1970's. His upset victory in the 1974 Lebanon Valley 200 capped his illustrious career.
In all Charland won an
estimated 250 career features. He drove a variety of cars numbered 3, but he is
also remembered for successful stints in the Cziepel no. 888, Russ Betz no. 59
and Platt brothers no. 99.
Over the years Charland acquired a number of nicknames, but is best known as "The Champ", due to his string of NASCAR titles.
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