By Dan Shine
The Powder Puff Derby
Thanks to Jeanne Insalaco and Dolly Alfonso for their assistance in preparing this story-
Antonette “Dolly” Cambino was only nineteen years old, and her driver’s license was less than a year old when she first heard of the Powder Puff Derby, which was being held at Savin Rock’s Donovan Field. At the time, she was working as a secretary at Armstrong Rubber Company’s Research and Development Department.
This race was for women only, circling Donovan Field’s oval-shaped track, in race cars that had been modified to make them lightweight, yet rugged enough to withstand the rigors of oval track racing. Most cars had standard transmissions, and once underway, the cars were kept in second gear for the entire race. The race cars rolled on wide, treadless tires called “slicks” and did not have the luxuries of power steering or power brakes. The un-muffled exhaust pipes made a terrible roar when a group of cars were circling the track.
Dolly was the younger sister of local racing personality Johnny “King” Cambino; she had grown up around auto racing, and it didn’t take much of a push to get her into that first race. Says Dolly, “Johnny was quite a star at that time. I don’t remember if I wanted to race in the Powder Puff Derby or if it was his idea, but being young and foolish at the time, I wanted to do it. However, you were supposed to be twenty-one years old to race, so Johnny told race organizer Harvey Tattersall that I was. And that was that.
“The first car I drove only had first gear working. I guess they just wanted me to try racing and that was the only car available that they would let me drive. We were not given a chance to practice or take warm-up laps before the race, and I had no idea what I was doing. I sure had guts in those days—today I am afraid to drive on the highway. I went around the racetrack, not knowing what I was doing and moved out a little because the car in front of me was throwing up dirt and I couldn’t see very well. I don’t remember if I clipped her or what happened exactly, but her car flipped over and the race was stopped. I remember her husband running out like a madman, telling her how crazy she was and making sure she was alright.
“When the race continued, I guess I started going too fast for first gear and smoke started coming out of the engine. I kept going for a couple of laps as they started giving me the black flag and I finally saw it and went in to the infield.
“The second time I raced, I had a car with an automatic transmission, which was much easier to drive for me but unfortunately after a few laps on the back field, the gas pedal broke and I had to be towed in to the infield. These two races were the total of my Powder Puff Derby experiences. When I look back today, I can’t believe that I did all that.”
Today, Dolly Alfonso is retired and lives in West Haven with her memories.