Hundreds of mourners stretched two blocks down Broad Street from the funeral home for hours Monday for the wake of hometown guy and Connecticut racing legend Ted Christopher.
Christopher, 59, died Sept. 16 in a private plane crash in North Branford enroute to a race in Riverhead, N.Y. The crash also killed the pilot, Charles Dundas, a resident of New York and Florida and a friend of Christopher's.
NASCAR racers were expected to attend the wake and funeral which will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Matthew Church in Bristol's Forestville section.
By nightfall, there were still long lines of people waiting to get into the Bailey Funeral Home. Floodlights supplied by the town lit the area and police remained on duty to direct traffic. Police Chief Matthew Catania, who was there all afternoon through dusk, said officers would remain at the scene until the wake ended. It was supposed to end at 8 p.m., but continued past that time.
Most of the mourners Monday afternoon were town folks, friends of Christopher — a popular 1976 Plainville High School graduate — and people who knew him from his transmission repair business. Town officials who had worked with Christopher's widow, Quinn Christopher, also attended. She served on the town council until January, when she stepped down to move into the dream home Ted Christopher built for them in neighboring Southington.
"Our hearts are broken for her," Kathy Pugliese, the town council chair said as she left the wake. She glanced at the line of people clogging the sidewalk for two blocks, patiently waiting in the hot sun to get inside the funeral home.
"It's a real tribute to a man who was on top of his career," she said. "This will be a long two days for the family."
Ted Christopher's race car was parked in the Bailey Funeral Home lot. Many mourners wore pins and other mementos with the number "13," Christopher's racing number.
One person with a No. 13 pin was Zunilda "Zee" Rocco of Berlin. She was there because her twins, Keith and Jeff, became interested in racing in their mid-teens. Christopher, himself a twin who started his racing career with his brother Michael, took the Rocco twins on and taught them about cars.
Jeff went on to work in Christopher's Plainville transmission shop while Keith joined the No. 13 pit crew, learned racing and eventually became a racer, competing at times against his mentor, Rocco said.
"Ted was a wonderful guy. He and my husband raced years ago in the 1970s. He was a terrific man," she said. "What a sad thing."
As she talked, Rocco tried to eat a rapidly-melting vanilla ice cream cone. Christopher loved ice cream, "had it after every race," Rocco said. The Christopher family had two ice cream trucks parked on Broad Street to give free ice cream to mourners, a gift to people who came to pay their respects.
Town public works crews also handed out cold bottled water to people lining the sidewalks in the 90-degree afternoon heat.
The wake was the first job of this type that Connecticut Ice Cream co-owner said he ever had. He said his truck had about 1000 ice cream treats to give away free to people. This truck offered maple walnut - Ted's favorite - as one of its choices.
"The family hired us. We're glad to help," he said from inside the truck, readying for the expected rush of heat-frazzled mourners. "Story is the man really liked ice cream, from what we were told."
One of the memorials for Christopher that mourners passed was a tribute racing scene painted on one side of a massive shoring box – a large metal frame that gets lowered into a construction trench to prevent earth walls from collapsing.
The scene was painted by workers at J.V. III Construction of Rocky Hill. Owner John Vasel III was a friend of Christopher's, a sponsor of his racing team and one of the steady clients of Christopher's transmission repair shop.
"My husband was very good friends with Ted," Susan Vasel, company vice president, said. "We wanted to do something to honor Ted. He was a good man."
Christopher, who began his short track racing career in 1983, was the all-time winningest driver at Stafford Motor Speedway and Thompson Speedway. He was also the third winningest driver all-time on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, where he won the 2008 series championship. He was also the 2001 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series National Champion.
Christopher was a nine-time SK Modified division champion at Stafford Speedway. He had six victories in the division at Stafford this year, with his last coming on Sept. 8. He finished fourth in his final event at Stafford on Sept. 15. He was traveling to Riverhead Raceway in Riverhead, N.Y. to compete in a Whelen Modified Tour event when he was killed.
Christopher's career racing resume included racing in everything from NASCAR's highest level Monster Energy Cup Series to one of the world's most prestigious Sports Car events, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
Mike O'Sullivan, Christopher's pit crew boss and a friend of the racer for 15 years, said outside the funeral home that he has lost "my boss, my best friend who was like an uncle to my kids."
He said Christopher was everybody's friend "until he buckled into the car and put on the helmet. Then he was nobody's friend. If he was competing against someone he helped start in racing, Ted would say he'd given the guy 'a half-inch.' And it was up to that racer to use that if he could."