by Matt O'Brien
Historically, the Hall of Fame honor has been bestowed on members who have retired from racing. However there have been a few exceptions and Doug is another one of those exceptions. This guy is never going to retire…at least I personally hope he never does. Like all the other Hall of Fame members before him, Doug has dedicated a great part of his life to this club. His family name has been synonymous with NEMA since the early 1970’s.
It all began in 1975 when he climbed into his father, Jim, and Uncle Paul's Falcon Powered, Kurtis at the young age of 18…and he has been turning laps behind the wheel ever since. If NEMA was to crown an “Iron Man”…Doug would be the one. There’s no doubt in my mind, no other driver in this club has crossed the finish line more than him. That first year, he impressed his fellow competitors enough to win the Youth Determination and Talent Award. The following year, he assembled some more great finishes, earning third place for car owner and family friend, Dave Scott.
In 1977, he teamed up with car owner Jim O’Brien to chauffer his new home built Falcon powered laydown, a car that Jim nicknamed "The Pink Panther". It did not take them long to find success together. Fourth race into the season, north of the border at Sanair Speedway in St. Pie Quebec, Doug out-ran ARDC regular Bob Cicconi to the finish line for his first feature win. Ever since that memorable day, Doug has been chasing his second feature victory finishing in the top 10….are you ready for this… over 150 times! Along the way, he has won numerous heat races, consis, and has finished in the top 5 over twenty times, including a number of races where he has come "oh so close”.
At Monadnock in 1983, driving Ray Prew’s Chevy II laydown, he battled with Drew Fornoro lap after lap and wheel to wheel for the second weekend in row. I was only 11 years old, but I remember it like it was yesterday. A few more laps, I swear Doug would have had him. Who could forget at Lee Speedway in 1988, driving Carl Kibbe’s badger, Doug was running away with the win until the Badger popped out of gear and he lost the lead to Jeff Horn. But Doug put fans on their feet, racing wheel to wheel with NEMA champions Lee Smith, and Bobby and Mike Seymour. Horn pulled away for the win, but Doug got the best of the rest, claiming the second spot. His 40th race season with NEMA in 2014, after waiting out the weather for over 24 hours on a late Sunday night at the Steel Palace, he turned heads driving his home built chassis to 4th for his best finish in nearly 15 years.
Over the past four decades, he has proven to be one of NEMA’s most versatile drivers, having driven rear engine midgets, laydowns, badgers and of course upright style midgets. Following the ban of the Badgers and laydowns in 1990, he rode his family’s badger into the sunset with a top ten finish in the Championship for a season that included 9 top ten finishes and a top 5. He was the last Badger in NEMA history to claim victorious with a heat win at Hudson and a Consi victory at Star. As a matter of fact, he was also the last driver to use an open faced helmet, hanging it up as late as 1994…and only because NEMA outlawed them. Today, he continues to field the only and truly "homebuilt" midgets in the Northeast.
His efforts, support, and dedication to this club have earned him most of all NEMA’s top awards, including the prestigious Johnny Thompson Memorial Award in 1999, Lifetime Membership in 2011, and the Jim O'Brien Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to Family and Racing in 2012 just to name a few. When presenting the award in honor of his Dad, Dennis O'Brien was quoted as saying "Doug is a true reflection of our Dad". Like Jim O'Brien, Doug and his family have been the heartbeat of NEMA since the early 1970’s when his Dad and Uncle, Jim and Paul, joined the NEMA scene and established themselves as the patriarchs of this legendary racing family.
Doug inherited his passion for racing from his father, Jim, and his Uncle Paul as a young kid when the brothers raced stock cars together at Westboro, Hudson, and Groveland. Jim Cleveland was a hard-working Billerica Mass native that served in the Korean War. He and his wife Louise raised Doug and his six brothers and sisters in a small cape with only a small detached garage. The Cleveland's weekends where spent packing up the motor home, travelling to various tracks across New England, and camping out at the races every week of the summer. Doug's brothers Freddy, Rich, Steve and Brian have all driven race cars. The latter of the two former NEMA drivers. Doug's cousin Mark Cleveland (Paul's son) also steered the family laydown in NEMA 1987-87 before losing his hard-fought battle with cancer. Following Jim Cleveland's unexpected passing in 2003, Doug took the reigns as the family leader and continued the family's legacy. After all these years, the Cleveland's support for this club is still a constant. On any given race night, you will find Doug's brother Freddy wrenching on the family machine, his wife Linda dedicating her time to help the club, his brother Steve serving as a trusted push truck driver, and a campfire in the corner of the track parking lot after the races surrounded by Doug's closest family and friends. Needless to say, racing for Doug will always be a family affair – without a doubt.
Doug personifies the club member and racer who has continued to build NEMA over the years. No matter how long the tow, how bent the car was from the week before, or if it has been raining for hours, the one constant at a NEMA event has been his trailer coming through that pit gate. He has been quoted as saying “I’d collect cans so I could afford to go midget racing”. This is just one small example of his unfailing dedication to the club even when the funds came hard. In addition to his efforts behind the wheel, he has supported the club as a car owner since 1987, a contest board member, and as an official. He wears his love for this club on his sleeve and considers all of us, his brothers and sisters. For him and his family, NEMA midget racing has been much more than a hobby, more than a passion … it has been … and continue to be … a way of life.
- The Chuck Daniel Memorial Award in 1990
- The Ray Roberts Memorial Award for character, sportsmanship and dedication in 2008
- The Lifetime Membership in 2011
- Mechanic of the year for he and his crew in 1998
- The Jim O’Brien Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to Family and Racing in 2012
- Associate Never Say Die Award in 2014
- Ralph Miller Memorial for Outstanding and Continuing Perseverance – twice
- And of course the prestigious Johnny Thompson Memorial Award in 1999.
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