Sport: Auto Racing
Born: May 22, 1915
Died: October 11, 1993
Town: New Brunswick
Joseph J. Barzda was born May 22, 1915 in New Brunswick to Joseph and Petroneli Barzda, Lithuanian immigrants who ran a tavern in town. He was one of four brothers. For three decades, Joe’s name was synonymous with auto racing in New Jersey. After graduating from St. Peter’s High School, Joe set his sights on learning everything there was to know about race cars and started winning local events in 1934 at the age of 19. He joined the midget racing circuit in 1937, competing on dirt tracks from Virginia and Massachusetts. Joe also dabbled in stock-car racing, which was a very different animal. After winning a 1938 race at Breakneck Speedway in Pennsylvania, he crashed through a fence and totaled his vehicle. He mostly stuck to midgets after that.
Following a stint in the military during WWII, Joe returned to midget racing, which took a great leap forward in the postwar years in terms of equipment, technology and competition. He often raced five or six nights a week. Joe’s brother Eddie, like him a skilled mechanic, ran his pit crew. In 1949, Joe won his one and only track championship, in Staten Island.
Trophies didn’t much interest him, however. Although he won his share of races, he was more interested in finishing in one piece and collecting paychecks. He rarely finished out of the money. That same year, 1949, Joe was anointed president of the American Race Driver Club, the leading midget racing organization. Joe was easy to spot at the track. He wore white head-to-toe and often sported a signature necktie.
During the 1950s, as Offenhauser engines became state-of-the-art, Joe coaxed remarkable power out of Ford and Chevy engines and often beat his Offy-driving rivals. This was considered a great feat among racing fans. Joe was a living legend in the Lincoln Gardens section of his hometown and involved friends and family in his business over the years. He had a devoted following in New Jersey and was a big enough draw that he was featured in special match races at other events, such as county fairs and motorcycle races. Like many drivers of that era, Joe dreamed of racing at the fabled Brickyard. He tried to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 in 1951, 1952 and 1953 in a pre-war Maserati without any luck.
In a 1959 race at Williams Grove Speedway, Joe’s throttle stuck in a turn and he locked wheels with Van Johnson. Both cars flipped over. Johnson was killed and Joe was injured. The crash effectively ended his career in his mid-40s. As his racing days drew to a close, Joe focused on the business end of the sport. He and his brother Jim opened the California Speed & Sport Shop in New Brunswick and built some of the best cars in the business. Among his drivers were Jiggs Peters, also from Central NJ. In 1966, Joe entered a car in the Indy 500, driven by Red Reigel, but did not qualify.