Carmen Perigo Jr. had circled this date on his calendar since the dead of winter. Now the feeling was one of disappointment. He had signed in for his first USAC race at Grandview Speedway only to see the night come to an end with a crash in the semi. There was only one thing left to do. He was going to repair his race car, dust himself off and head to Lincoln for round two of the 2016 Eastern Storm mini-series. There was no time to moan or get discouraged, and even if there was, that’s not the Perigo way.
Since his maiden voyage five years ago, a host of USAC regulars have come to understand that while he may be one of the most personable men in the pit area Perigo will fight you fair and square for every inch of real estate. He has no choice to do otherwise because when you peek a bit behind the curtain you understand that grit is endemic to his family’s character.
The Perigo family involvement in racing begins with Carmen’s grandfather. Carmel Perigo was born in 1923 to Angelo and Sebastina Perigo in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. His parents, as well as an older brother and sister, had immigrated to the United States from Italy, and while the couple would welcome five more children to the table, Carmel had the distinction of being the first of the siblings born in this country. When America entered World War II the family made their affinity to their new land clear as all five Perigo boys served in the conflict. Carmel’s time in the United States Army ended abruptly. He was stationed on a ship closing in on one of the beaches of Normandy and there was comfort as smaller craft and minesweepers were clearing a pathway to shore. Suddenly things went very wrong.
The boat struck an undetected mine and in the tumult that followed Carmel was shot straight to the sky. When he landed he was wedged tightly against a pillar or cabinet of some sort, the specific details are lost to history, but he quickly surmised that he had a serious injury to his hip and leg. In a moment of terror he realized he was unable to move. The boat was aflame and there was no time to dally. Luckily a shipmate saw his friend’s plight and took quick action. As some men pried Carmel lose, they informed him that they had no choice but to toss him overboard. The good news is that the ship had moved close to land and with help of others the stricken Perigo made it to safety.
Reflecting the best practice of the time, he was placed in a body cast that extended from his chin to his toes. He would walk with a limp for the rest of his life, but he was forever thankful to have survived, and appropriately so, was awarded the Purple Heart.
With the war over, Carmel would eventually settle in Stoystown, Pennsylvania, a tiny burg about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburg. It was steel country, and sadly Angelo Perigo would lose his life in a mine. Despite this tragedy, Carmel would follow in his father’s footsteps first working underground, then owning his own coal truck, and eventually latching on with Bethlehem Steel, where he worked until his retirement. That wasn’t all he did. Sometime right after he returned from the war, he got the itch to go racing. His career would extend from 1946 or 1947 to the mid-1960s. If there was a high point it came in 1957 when he was the Jennerstown Speedway champion in the Hardtop Division featuring cars powered by six-cylinder engines or flathead Fords. However, it can be argued that his greatest contribution to the sport came outside of his race car.
Remembering this heady time, Carmen Perigo Sr. notes, “There was a war in racing among the sprint cars, the cars we called bugs, and modifieds. They were all racing together, and it wasn’t fair, so they started a new organization called Penn Western Racing Association. They didn’t allow fuel injection, and you couldn’t bring in a sprint car or big body cars.” Future National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Jean Lynch was deeply involved in the development of this organization, as was local racing legend Blackie Watt.
Carmen Perigo Sr. remembers these days as a wide-eyed kid and fondly recalls tagging along for some of the early functions. “They used to have meetings at a place called the Washington Furnace Inn in Laughlinton,” he says. “It was great. People like Ed Lynch and all the big modified stars were there. When you sat in the stands, they were these big stars but here you could see them. It was like hey, they’re real people.” While Carmel would still get behind the wheel, he served as an officer for PWRA, and notably found frequent work as a flagman. One day Jean Lynch got Carmel on the phone and said they desperately needed his help. It seems a new track named Lernerville Speedway was set to open and they needed someone to flag the race. Jean Lynch provided directions, and thus when the first night of racing was in the books Carmel Perigo had the distinction of being the first man to flag a race at Don Martin’s new facility.
Spurred on by watching his father, Carmen Sr. was anxious to give racing a try as well. It turns out that he had an accomplice in his best friend Carl Walker. The boys began plotting to build their own car, but in the back of their mind they knew that things well out of their control could conspire to thwart their plans. Carmen Sr. graduated from high school in 1967, a time when it was difficult to ignore the specter of the Viet Nam war. Like many of his generation he knew that a draft notice could arrive at any moment, so he thought it might be best to be a bit proactive. In conversations with Walker, it was decided that a wise course of action would be to enlist in the Army Reserve. It would be a six-year commitment, but it meant they could remain at home and pursue their interest in racing.
Then in September the draft notices arrived, and they learned they were due to check in at Pittsburgh, then ship out to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Two weeks before they were to depart both men were accepted in the Reserve. Then when it came time to sign on the bottom-line Carl had a change of heart. Carmen Sr. has always felt that a girlfriend convinced his friend that it was more prudent to just do a two-year hitch and be done with it. When the day came for his friend to depart, Carmen dutifully drove him to Pittsburgh. When Carl boarded the plane it proved to be a final goodbye. Two months later Walker was killed in battle. Nearly five and a half decades later the memory still moves Perigo to tears. Carmen Sr. honored his personal commitment and more. In all, he spent 28 years in the Army Reserve and retired as a First Sargent.