Born in 1968, I was way too young to be an original viewer of the Smothers Brothers variety show, but for some reason, Tom and Dick Smothers always fascinated me. Maybe it was because my mom and dad were fans, or maybe because even after their groundbreaking, highly controversial show was canceled, they were still a fixture on 1970s television. Whatever the reason, I had Smothers Brothers albums when I was a kid, and was flush with excitement when their show returned to television for a brief period in the 1980s.
Surprisingly, given his public persona as the “Lou Costello” of the team, it was Tommy that was the brains of the entire outfit, and the one who embroiled the team in national controversy with its irreverent humor, pokes at the government and obvious social consciousness. Dick, on the other hand, was along for the ride. His passion was racing, and his fame helped him compete at Sebring, and run a race team when drag racing was a seemingly national obsession.
There’s a new history of the show out now, written by David Edelstein, which I can’t wait to read. I heard him interviewed on Fresh Air recently, and it reignited my interest in the brothers, and the local connection here in Massachusetts, in the form of George Berejik.
George’s Berejik’s dad ran a relatively successful car dealership at the intersection of Great Plain Avenue and Route 128 in Needham, Massachusetts.
At the time, George was heavily involved in street racing. “I used to race all over the place,” he said. “Over the newly constructed 95 on Neponset Street, in and out of Dedham and West Roxbury and up to Art Johnson’s clam shack in Norwood on Route 1,” the stretch of road that would later become Massachusetts’ famed “Automile,” thanks to the convergence of the state’s largest car dealerships. “I used to street-race Oldsmobiles on my father’s dealer plate,” George said. His father became concerned about his son’s safety as well as the liability of George running around on the company tags. It was at about that time that Anthony learned about Lloyd “Woody” Woodland and Bobby Andresen.
Woodland and Andresen had been incredibly successful racing Oldsmobiles under the banner of Brainbeau Oldsmobile in Braintree, Massachusetts. In 1965 and 1966, the team was pounding the competition at Sanford (Maine) dragway, Connecticut Dragway, and even at the Indy Nationals. But the relationship had dissolved in the 1967 season and the team was looking for a new ride. Enter Anthony Berejik.
“He bought the team to keep me off the streets,” said George. In exchange for the illicit dealer plate, George was put in charge of the race team. “I never drove the car,” he said, “but I got so much pleasure out of running that team.” The Woodland and Andresen team would move up 128 to Needham and fly the flag of Berejik Olds for the next five years. “Bobby Andresen was the mechanic, and he was the real brains of the outfit,” says George. “Woody” Woodland drove the car and began to bring the same level of success to Berejik’s shop as he did to Brainbeau’s.
“Berejik Olds kept the prizes: engines, transmissions, wheels, rear ends, all the kind of things that they used to give away in those days to winning teams. Woody and Bobby got to keep any prize money that was awarded, plus we paid them a salary to race,” said George. In the 1968 season, the Berejik Olds team set the NHRA class record for D/Stock with an E.T. of 12.39 seconds.
The Smothers Brothers connection came in 1967: “We were racing at the Indy Nationals and we’d just gotten eliminated, so the team was just sort of hanging around spectating,” George said. “My father was walking around the pits and saw these two guys working on an Oldsmobile. He told them that he had a team of Olds guys just hanging around and he’d send them over if they wanted.” Anthony changed tires, Bobby Andresen did a bit of tuning and the rest of the team attended to the car. At the end of the day, their newfound acquaintances went home with a victory.
One of the Olds racers turned out to be Dick Smothers. In 1967, Tom and Dick Smothers had premiered The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. Within weeks, it trashed the competition and went on to become one of the defining pieces in the television medium. In two years, the show would be embroiled in controversy over censorship and the First Amendment. The Smothers Brothers were a counterculture sensation.
“A few weeks after the Indy Nationals, I got a phone call,” said George. “It was a representative of the Smothers Brothers, and he wanted us to come out to California to talk about racing. I was thinking ‘Is this guy for real?’ And then they offered us two first class plane tickets to California. In those days, they used to wheel the steps up to the plane instead of having a tunnel to walk through. Well, there at the end of the steps is a long, black limousine and a driver holding up a card with our name on it.”
It was the beginning of a whirlwind trip. “We arrive at this phenomenal hotel,” he remembered, “and we walk into this conference room. I was blown away. There’s Tom and Dick Smothers, Marvin Rifchin from M & H Tire right here in Watertown, Carl Scheifer (Scheifer Manufacturing made Rev-Loc clutches) and Goldie Hawn. We were in there with representatives from five of the top Olds racing teams in the country,” Berejik remembers.
The Smothers Brothers proposed that they sponsor the teams to race under their name for the 1969 season. They’d be paid a substantial sponsorship fee to do so. “We were gonna do it for free anyway, so how could I refuse?” George said. Along with tiny Berejik Olds, the Smothers Brothers fielded teams run by Oldsmobile dealers around the country, including King Olds, Chesrown Olds, Dewey-Griffin Olds, and Century Olds. The Smothers Brothers team also included “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Dwight Salisbury in Top Fuel.
“This was at a time when you could do stuff like that. Over a weekend at Epping New Hampshire’s New England Dragway, we’d have to buy gas, race fuel, food at the track, and dinner at Yoken’s on Route 1 in Hampton, New Hampshire. The whole deal used to cost us $75. For $75, you couldn’t buy the gas for the tow car today. An entire race weekend at a national race would cost us maybe $1,500. A small dealership couldn’t possibly afford to race at that level today.”
But that’s exactly what they did. Berejik Olds and the Woodland-Andresen team operated the D-Stock Cutlass flying the Smothers Brothers colors, a deep maroon with gold leaf lettering.
For the next three seasons, Berejik Olds went on to unheard-of success. It allowed George to open an Olds-specific speed shop across the street from his dad’s dealership. “We were the only Oldsmobile performance shop on the East Coast,” he says. The shop and the dealership benefited from the national exposure. “The brothers used to talk about muscle cars and racing on their show,” he recalled.
In all, the Smothers Brothers/Berejik Olds team lasted only three seasons. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled before the end of the ’69 season, amid controversy. The partnership lasted until 1970, when the Berejik Olds team took another class record, this time in F/Stock at 115.97 miles per hour.
The next few years were golden for George Berejik. High performance was king at Olds, and the dealership sold cars like they were going out of style. In a way, they were. 1983 was the high-water mark, when Oldsmobile sold over a million Cutlasses.
So what happened in the next 20 years, when Oldsmobile slowly lurched itself ashore like the Exxon Valdez? “Poor management, poor advertising, no promotion,” accused Berejik. “Olds won the drag racing championship for 13 consecutive years. In IRL, they won every single race but one. They did extremely well in NASCAR, too. But who knows that? Everyone thinks NASCAR was Ford, Chevy, Plymouth. Olds was right there. But when it came time to promote that, Olds had no idea what they were doing. By 1997, you could see the writing on the wall.”
Today, Berejik still owns the property on which the dealership once sat. The building where the speed shop was is now a Cingular Wireless store. The one indication of its once-proud heritage is a Shelby Series One sitting on the showroom floor. In its death throes, Olds was once again at a loss about how to mar
ket American muscle.
(Note: the interview with George Berejik originally appeared in the April, 2004 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.)