Features on the class of 2019 at the Dirt Hall of Fame at Weedsport Speedway.
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: JoAnne Chadwick has dirt in her blood
Editors' note: Today's article is the latest in a series of profiles of the 2019 inductees submitted by the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in Weedsport:
Former Orange County Fair Speedway general manager and co-promoter JoAnne Chadwick of Garrison will be recognized as the recipient of the annual Outstanding Woman in Racing Award during the 2019 Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The Thursday, July 25 event will be held at the Hall of Fame Museum located on the Weedsport Speedway complex. Chadwick and several others will be honored before family and friends for the many contributions they have made to the sport of dirt racing.
As a teenager, Chadwick had casually attended the nearby Middletown track with her friends, never imagining that, years later, she would be running the place.
But that's what happens when your cousin is DIRT Motorsports founder Glenn Donnelly. In 1983, the DIRT organization took over operations at Orange County. From his perch at DIRT HQ in Weedsport, Donnelly knew he needed someone on the ground in Middletown; a person he could trust who would report back to him.
His cousin, JoAnne, checked all the boxes: She was local. She was family. She was hard-working and reliable.
"I couldn’t have asked for a better person to fill that slot," Donnelly stated. "Through JoAnne, I knew everything that was going on there. And everything was documented."
Initially, JoAnne and her husband Gary — both teachers by trade — were called on to assume responsibility for production and sales of the weekly speedway program book. Gary did the writing while his wife handled the layouts, advertising, sales and distribution, and coordinated with the printer. From 1983 through 2006, no matter what was going on in their personal lives, JoAnne got the program out. For every single show: In 23 years, JoAnne never missed a deadline.
"She was very well organized, a real straight shooter," said George Caruso Jr., who ran the printing firm Speedway Press. "She was just what Glenn needed down there: A calming influence who kept the waters flat."
And diligently reported back to DIRT headquarters.
When Donnelly sent Robin Manus down to Middletown as acting general manager, JoAnne was installed in the track office, to handle all paperwork and keep the books. She worked with Manus, then incoming GM Will Cagle, before taking a brief maternity leave in 1987.
By that time, Chadwick had also been tapped to work alongside DIRT comptroller Howard Commander in the "back room" at Syracuse, counting money and coordinating bookkeeping each year during Super DIRT Week.
"The only race I missed was 1987. After that, Glenn told me, 'You can never have another baby! With you gone, everything was off!’" JoAnne laughed.
Commander reinforced Donnelly’s vote of confidence. "Millions of dollars would go through our hands, and we usually balanced out within a $50-$500 range for the whole week," Howie detailed. "No one was as accurate as JoAnne. Ever. She double-checked me."
Meanwhile, back at Middletown, Chadwick’s role kept expanding. By 2000, she was managing the track’s day-to-day operations, supervising employees, selling sponsorships, scheduling, paying vendors and keeping the accounts — all while juggling her jobs as a preschool director and piano instructor.
In 2001, JoAnne was elevated to general manager.
It was a turbulent time to assume the mantle, as DIRT’s lease on the OCFS facility was up for renewal. There were rumors the aging speedway would be sold for commercial development. "We really didn’t know what was going to happen with the track. And really, how sensible is it to pour money into a rented place and not know if you will have it next year?" Chadwick said at the time. "I tried to do as much as I could with what we had to work with. But it was definitely tough."
DIRT’s lease did get extended; but then in 2004, Donnelly divested the whole DIRT shebang, selling to what is now World Racing Group.
For 2005, under the new DIRTcar, Chadwick was named OCFS co-promoter along with longtime Donnelly corporal Cory Reed. JoAnne continued to hold down the fort in the front office, while Cory traveled down the Thruway to race-direct on Saturdays.
For JoAnne, it just wasn’t the same with her cousin Glenn gone. She handed in her resignation in August of the 2006 season — finalizing the smallest details for the year-end Eastern States program before she left, in true JoAnne fashion.
"I felt like it was a family business — working with my cousin, my husband, our kids, Brett and Brooke," Chadwick reminisced. "Glenn was very supportive. But it was an education by fire."
Ultimately, she likened race track management to war zone survival.
"You have to constantly plan ahead because you never know what’s going to happen. The water truck breaks down, the generator goes. You get everything done and then it rains at 4:30. But I’ve never done anything at less than 100 percent in my life! So I threw myself into it," JoAnne pronounced. “You're in an impossible situation, under impossible conditions. And you get it done."
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: Promoter Fried helped change the sport
Editors' note: Today's article is the latest in a series of profiles of the 2019 inductees submitted by the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in Weedsport:
The late Pennsy race promoter Jerry Fried will be the recipient of the 2019 Leonard J. Sammons Jr. Award for Outstanding Contributions to Auto Racing, to be bestowed during the 28th annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, scheduled for Thursday, July 25, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway.
A native of the Bronx, Fried’s first business venture was in ballroom dancing, a nationwide craze after World War II. After a deal to build a new ballroom went sour, Fried became disillusioned with New York City life.
He abruptly moved west, to Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where he crossed paths with a fellow New Yorker who had been buying up regional real estate — including the fairgrounds and speedway in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, which was in bankruptcy.
Fried was able to persuade the bankruptcy court to rent the track to him on terms so favorable that any improvements he made to the property were deducted from his lease payments.
Fried was a rookie promoter in 1953, with no background at all in auto racing. But from operating ballrooms, he knew how to publicize popular entertainment — how different could it be? — and put Nazareth Speedway on solid ground.
Physical improvements were made to the property, including the installation of a lighting system, and in Fried’s third year at the helm, Nazareth switched to Sundays, which became race night until the track closed.
Over the years, Fried put his own mark on rules and regulations — and radically changed the sport, at every turn.
In 1956, Fried made his drivers happy and his fellow promoters irate: He offered his drivers a guaranteed purse, instead of the customary percentage of the gate revenue. Within a year, guaranteed purses were adopted by Fried’s rivals.
Fried was a proponent of safety, taking action after Hall of Fame driver Jackie McLaughlin was killed at Nazareth in 1964. Shaken by the death, Fried mandated that braced headrests be installed on all cars. In this, Fried was decades ahead of his time in understanding the critical need for driver containment.
Fried’s proactive view of rule formulation was seen years later when, in an attempt to cut competitor costs for the 1982 season, Fried entered into an agreement with Towel City Retreads to become the exclusive provider of race tires for Nazareth.
The tires were initially offered at $85 a piece, a fraction of the price of Goodyears or Hoosiers which were competing in a wholly unregulated race tire market.
Drivers and media members chided Fried about "putting retreads on our cars." But he stood his ground. Farsightedly, Fried created the track tire concept, and with it a reliable revenue stream for speedways that is now standard in the industry.
On the grandstand side, Fried instituted a generous rain check directive: Any rain check could be redeemed at full face value for any subsequent race. It was as good as cash.
He stood up for the fans in other ways, too. A champion of sportsmanship and personal decorum, Fried dressed, carried himself, and spoke like a business executive. And he expected his drivers to respect his fans.
When an enraged Gary Balough gave fans "the finger" after an on-track incident in 1974, Fried was so distressed by the display of vulgarity that he suspended Balough until he publicly apologized to the crowd.
Balough held a grudge for years but fans had another reaction: They praised Fried for upholding civility by not tolerating unsavory behavior.
By the 1960s, Jerry Fried branched out his speedway operations.
He negotiated a long-term lease to operate stock car racing at Dorney Park Speedway. Under Fried, racing thrived on the tiny fifth-mile asphalt oval, nestled in the middle of an amusement park, for the next quarter of a century.
By any reckoning, Fried’s grandest plan was to build a lit mile-and-an-eighth dirt track next to the half-mile. It was, and still is, the only dirt track ever built for auto racing that was longer than one mile.
On Oct. 15, 1966, Nazareth National opened with a good crowd and lots of fanfare. Most other events were successful as well — some 50 in all, under Jerry’s direction -- but the high cost of borrowing the money to fund Nazareth National’s construction eventually consumed Fried.
In 1971, Fried planned an ambitious season, divided between his two Nazareth tracks. His timing could not have been worse.
The upstart Tri-State Driver & Car Owner Association formed in 1971, leased Harmony Speedway, just across the Delaware River from Nazareth, and ran weekly races. Tri-State folded after two years but not until shaking local Modified racing to its core. No tracks suffered more than Nazareth and Nazareth National. After Tri-State, the small track limped along but National was all done for Fried. Several years later, the track was briefly reopened under the promotership of Fried’s nemesis, Reading’s Lindy Vicari.
The '80s were tough times. Nazareth needed capital investment -- in clay, in fences, in grandstands, in concessions and in parking lots. On top of that, Fried had lost Dorney Park, which had been sold to a publicly traded amusement park conglomerate.
This was a mortal blow for Fried. Devastated from the Nazareth National reversal, now ousted from Dorney Park, he faced the prospect of chugging along with an aging facility. It proved to be too much.
He gave up Nazareth in 1987. The track ran through 1988, with the Cozze family propping it up, at which time redevelopment plans were announced for the property.
The last race at Nazareth was run on Labor Day 1988. The next day, razing of the grandstands began.
A haunting image was taken of grandstand dismantlers at work removing the steel and wood as Fried, arms folded, looked on. Eleven months later, Jerry Fried died.
Fried’s vision and showmanship allowed him to manage three wholly different race tracks, two of which he owned, for three and a half decades. He was a champion for safer racing, less expensive racing, and for courtesy, even generosity to his tracks’ fans.
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: Conkey was a fearless car-building innovator
Editors' note: Today's article is the latest in a series of profiles of the 2019 inductees submitted by the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in Weedsport:
For his contributions as a car builder in the 1970s and '80s, the late Howard Conkey will be honored with the distinguished Mechanic/Engineering Award during the 2019 Hall of Fame ceremonies, to be held on Thursday, July 25, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway.
A fearless innovator, Conkey was into anything on four wheels. Exotic street cars, roadsters, dirt Modifieds, Supermods, paved track pieces — if he could find a way to make anything faster, Howard was hooked. Even before his Show Car Engineering shingle went up in 1969, Conkey was cooking up speed secrets and starting to turn the sport on its ear.
"When I was a kid — maybe 8 or 9 years old — Howard had a little workshop within walking distance of my house in Waterloo. He let me hang around there, even though I was probably more of a pest than anything," Hall of Fame driver Mike McLaughlin remembered. "I worked for him all through high school. He taught me how to weld, how to fabricate. Howard was a very innovative guy. He wasn’t afraid to go outside the box."
As far back as the mid '60s, Conkey began playing with chassis offsets, the idea first applied on a hot rod driven by Hall of Famer John McArdell that won track championships at Waterloo and Weedsport. Howard’s experiments in suspension theory gained more ground in 1971, when he built a radically offset dirt Mod for Chuck Ciprich — a '37 Chevy coupe christened "Old Yeller” — that won 10 in a row.
"It was the first really offset car, especially on dirt," Ciprich recollected. "It had an L88 big-block Chevy that was set on the left and I sat on the right. It was pretty fast," Chuck modestly acknowledged.
Never satisfied with the status quo, Conkey continued to tinker with offsets, engine setbacks, suspension points, wheel widths and chassis geometry. Along with Pennsy’s Tobias Speed Shop, Show Car began turning out tube frame cars, essentially moving dirt Mod fabrication out of the scrapyards and into the space age.
The Show Car brand had moderate success in Modified racing. And then, along came Alan Johnson.
Johnson had Chuck Ciprich in mind when he re-engineered an old Show Car chassis for the 1980 season, offsetting the car at least six inches and trying some unorthodox tricks with spring weights.
The resulting piece was a rocket ship, winning 20 times that year. The following winter, Maynard Troyer used that car, with Johnson’s basic ideas, as a template for his Mud Buss, sparking a revolution.
But Alan Johnson and Howard Conkey were kindred spirits, both conjuring specters of quark-level speed, neither content with the conventional. So after two years in the groundbreaking Troyer — and 60 feature victories — Alan traded it in for an untried Show Car design in 1983 and proceeded to kill the competition: 28 feature wins, the Mr. DIRT and Super Series crowns, the Florida swing, three track titles, and his first Schaefer 200 at Syracuse.
“It's the best car I ever had," Alan recently affirmed. "I believe it was the first dirt Mod that ever made $250,000 in a year."
Johnson’s outsize success should have paid off for Show Car with piles of sales receipts. But that’s not exactly how it worked out.
"You could buy the baseline chassis, but you couldn’t buy Alan’s chassis,” Conkey's stepson and fabricator Tony Burgos explained. "The deal was that we couldn’t sell you what Alan had."
But it really didn’t matter, because building the exact same car, over and over, was not what Howard Conkey was about.
"He just couldn’t do 'cookie-cutter,’" Burgos conceded. "It wasn’t in his DNA."
That was apparent in 1984, the year after Alan’s Show Car blew up Syracuse. Conkey came back, not with the proven winner, but with an out-of-the-box brainstorm, completely closed up and streamlined, with the engine placed farther forward and to the left. Sure, it set fast time for the week after the tin was reconfigured, shattering Gary Balough’s 1980 track record. But the big problem was: Alan couldn’t drive it.
"The principle we tried was called turbo thrust," said Conkey afterward. “We'd always been fast in the corners but seemed to be bogging down the straights, so we figured we’d relieve the car of all those nasty pressures. Went with a real low hood, a real open car.
"The problem was, I forgot about Alan," Conkey admitted. "If we could’ve driven the car by radio control, I think it would’ve worked. But the air was pulling Alan around so much down the straights, he couldn’t drive it."
Conkey, the anointed "mad scientist" of Modified racing, continued to walk the cutting edge throughout the '80s, cross-engineering data from Mods and Supers, constantly coming up with one novel concept after another. He was the first local builder to install a CNC machine, producing parts for Show Car and others. While Pat Ward and Tony Burgos were the ones in the shop, turning out complete cars and chassis, Howard was at his drawing board, dreaming up a new way to go fast.
"He had a mind that never quit," Burgos said.
A brief alignment with Dave Lape, constructing Champ Cars, lasted a single year: Conkey’s business model did not embrace mass production. It just didn’t hold his interest.
In 1989, a fire decimated the speed shop. No one was hurt, but Show Car lost two of its buildings and a third suffered considerable damage. During the extensive rebuilding process, Howard was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1993, at age 54.
Alan Johnson recalled Conkey’s contributions to the sport.
"In the heyday of the Oswego Classic, probably in the early '70s, I think all but one of the cars in the field that year were his," Johnson marveled. "Those were the big offset cars. Howard then incorporated those ideas into the dirt stuff."
According to Alan, it was a great time to be in racing, when the rules were still wide open and creativity was not only condoned but encouraged. A risk-taker like Howard Conkey was right in his element.
"He wasn’t one to sit on anything. He was always trying to improve," Johnson stated. "He was open to trying it all."
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: 'Lucky' Jordan was a dominant car owner
The late Lester “Lucky" Jordan, who fielded winning iron for some of the top talent of the 1950s and '60s, will be honored with the 2019 Gene DeWitt Car Owner Award when the 28th annual Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are held on July 25 at the Hall of Fame and Museum on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway.
A North Carolina native who never lost his Southern twang, Jordan came North in the late 1940s, settling in South Jersey and eventually establishing a garage in Riverton. From that unassuming shop, Lucky used his hands and his head to construct some wicked-quick stock cars — attracting future Hall of Famers to drive for him, when most were still compiling their credentials.
South Jersey’s "Big Three” — Al Tasnady, Budd Olsen and Jackie McLaughlin — all raced for Jordan. And for good reason: Because this car builder was putting together pieces that were not pretty, but purposefully potent.
"The cars were always raggedy looking, always hand-lettered," Budd Olsen’s son Doug remembered. "But they were always fast."
Jordan started messing around with rudimentary race cars at Philly’s Yellow Jacket Speedway in '49. It got serious in 1953, with a '37 Ford sedan bought from Frankie Schneider (Lucky kept the #2) and Al Tasnady at the wheel. At long-gone New Jersey tracks like Alcyon, Atco, Pleasantville and Morristown, and Hatfield and Municipal Stadium in PA, Jordan began collecting trophies like candy with Tas driving, winning six of the first eight features at Alcyon right off the bat and going on to take eight of 12 features and the title at NASCAR-sanctioned Dover, New Jersey, in '54, the track’s final year.
Jordan’s rotating star driver roster of Tasnady, Olsen and McLaughlin kept racking them up throughout the decade. But a young Will Cagle, fresh out of Florida, was waiting in the wings.
In the spring of 1959, Cagle showed up on Lucky’s doorstep toting his wife, his son and a Sprinter, angling for access onto the Northeast stock car scene. Jordan hired Cagle to work for a dollar an hour on customers' street cars, as well as the race cars.
Tas was driving Jordan’s Deuce at the time, but they had a slow start to the season, and after a rough night at Alcyon, Al abruptly gave his two weeks' notice. Lucky turned around and fired him on the spot.
Driving home from the track together, Cagle lobbied Lucky for a shot.
"Well, Junior," Jordan considered, using the nickname he had bestowed on Will, “you've got two weeks. And I’m going to treat you just like a camshaft: If you’re good, you stay in the car. If you’re not, you go back on the shelf. No hard feelings."
Cagle ran the Deuce for the next two years.
"Lucky didn’t spend a ton of money, but he got everything he could out of what he had," Cagle related. "And he was always up for trying something new."
That was evident in 1961, when Cagle came back North to pinch-hit for an absent Jackie McLaughlin. The car was so loose, the back end kept coming around. So Will suggested putting a wing on the car, to create downforce and “stick" it.
It was an unheard-of thing to do to a stock car but Jordan agreed to try it, welding together some wishbone arms from an old Ford rear-end to make the stanchions supporting the back of the wing.
"Junior, are you religious?" Lucky asked. "If you are, you better pray this thing works. Because if it doesn’t, I’m gonna kick your ass!"
Cagle whipped off a couple of top-five finishes in the winged Deuce, before McLaughlin returned to the seat. "Jackie went out and damn near lapped the field at Flemington," Will chuckled. "The next week, Bob Tighe, the NASCAR inspector, said, 'Get it off!’"
But the ingenious Jordan knew ways of getting around the rules. One such trick was hiding fuel injection nozzles in each port of the cylinder heads, ultimately bypassing the carburetor. More innovation involved the addition of a supercharger. "Jackie told me you’d have to shut it off at the starter’s stand — and you’d still be in too deep!" Cagle recalled.
The 1962 season saw the Deuce sporting painted flames — and McLaughlin burning up the tracks. Racing at Georgetown (Delaware) on Fridays, Flemington (New Jersey) on Saturdays and Nazareth (Pennsylvania) on Sundays, Jackie and Jordan won 29 times that year, going 10 for 12 in the month of June, 13 for 15 in July, and frequently sweeping the weekend. The team also took Flemington’s NASCAR Modified championship.
Bob Pickell was the next to pick up the Jordan reins in 1964, running to 19 victories in a two-year span. Rags Carter and Dick Havens also drove the Deuce.
In 1968, Lucky transitioned into retirement: He sold out his stable of stock cars to Hall of Fame owner Dick Cozze, staying on to wrench for the Cozze crew for another couple of years. After moving back to his native North Carolina, Lucky Jordan passed away in 1991, at age 69.
"Lucky ... (Paul) Deasey ... (Sonny) Dornberger ... Busty Luzzo ... (Harold) Cope. They owned the cars to beat at the time," Cagle ticked off the names. "Those were the cars everyone wanted to drive."
He reminisced about the connection between their two families, the camaraderie that transcended the race tracks, the kids playing together, the hot dog lunches, the wives driving to events in Liz Jordan’s Cadillac limousine.
"Lucky was a good friend, a good owner. I learned a lot from him, too," Cagle said of the man who gave him his first win-worthy Northern ride. "He certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame."
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: World War II vet Ray Brown was a dominant driver
The late Ray Brown, a pioneering Modified driver in the 1950s and later a standout ARDC Midget racer, will be honored as a 2019 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 25, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in Weedsport.
Returning to his home near White Plains, following his service in World War II, Brown started out racing stock cars — junkyard-refugee jalopies that required manhandling and mechanical ingenuity to make them fast.
Ray Brown had both those attributes, as a driver and as a mechanic, and achieved success early on. Doug Post, whose father Harold worked with Ray at the local Sears, Roebuck & Co. auto center in the post-war 1940s, can recall it all. After Post’s dad died in 1950, Brown took young Doug on the road with the race team — so he had a singular front-row vantage point for all of those victory-lane celebrations.
And there were many: At long-gone New York tracks like Empire Raceway in Menands; Freeport, Long Island; Rhinebeck, Peekskill, Arlington and others. Candlelight Stadium in Connecticut. Nazareth Raceway in Pennsylvania. Morristown, New Jersey, and particularly Old Bridge Stadium, where Brown aced the track’s inaugural race in 1953, was crowned the track’s first champion, and won 15 events in a scant two years.
In New England, Ray was the 1950 champion at Riverside Park, in Agawam, Massachusetts, and had success with Harvey Tattersall’s United Stock Car Racing Club. When the American Racing Drivers Club (known for sanctioning Midget racing) instituted a stock car class in 1953, Ray Brown took the title.
But it was at the Orange County Fair Speedway in nearby Middletown that Brown cemented his lasting legacy.
From July 4, 1951 to August 1, 1959 — a span of only nine years— Brown recorded 43 Modified victories on the Middletown hard clay, claimed three Mod championship titles in 1952, '53 and '57, and finished runner-up in points in two other seasons. Sixty years later, Ray still sits solidly in sixth on Orange County’s all-time Modified win list.
"He owned the place," was Doug Post’s remark about Brown’s mastery of Middletown.
There was no question that Brown liked the big tracks. In 1958, he won Orange County’s Langhorne qualifier and headed to Pennsylvania for the mile speedway’s notorious National Open for Sportsman Modifieds. Although he’d never before seen the treacherous track, Ray went out and set fast time at Langhorne, seizing the pole, and was leading the big event when a fan belt disengaged, causing his car to overheat. He still hung on to finish sixth, behind winner and Hall of Fame driver Jim Delaney.
Always a thrill-seeker, Brown wasn’t content to settle down in stock cars as his status quo. Following the 1959 season, Ray sold off everything to sign on as a Midget racer with ARDC. His first ARDC Midget win came on August 27, 1960 in Danbury, CT, where he led club stars Russ Klar and Len Duncan to the flag. His second Midget win came only a few days later at Vermont’s Essex Junction Fair.
Between 1960 and 1967, Brown won 27 Midget features, including seven at Middletown, placing him at 50 victories overall at the "House of Power."
Echoing Post’s earlier comment about Ray’s command of OCFS, nationally celebrated Midget car owner Ken Brenn has a keen recollection of a 1967 ARDC meet.
"Because he was so good in the stock cars at Middletown, Ray Brown was almost unbeatable at that track when he ran with ARDC. The only time we ever beat Ray was when we had Jimmy Caruthers, from California, in the car," Brenn recounted. "Ray had us covered but Jimmy kept dogging him and dogging him. He tried everything! Finally pulled it off with a daring last lap pass. Jimmy really worked for that one! Yeah, Ray Brown was pretty much untouchable at Middletown."
Among the cars of Ray’s ARDC career was the Darrell-Villa #83, one of the top rides throughout its long club history, driven by many of the greats of the era. Brown went toe-to-toe with all of them, winning at Williams Grove and Old Bridge, in addition to his home track. He even took a crack at the USAC Champ Cars.
Brown’s final win occurred on June 10, 1967, at Middletown. Later that year, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that seriously mangled one of his legs — and, in that instant, his career was over. Ray’s daughter, Carole, remembered the traumatic aftermath. "It broke his heart to have to give up racing," she admitted.
Brown’s son, Ray Jr., wondered if perhaps that was the way it was destined to be. "I don’t know if he would have liked racing in the '70s and '80s, after the roll cages came in. My dad was all about the danger of the open cockpit," Ray Jr. reasoned. "I think that was the lure for many drivers back then."
Doug Post repeated that premise. "Ray never took any stupid chances. But he liked to live on the edge," he conceded.
After racing, Ray Brown continued to operate his longtime service station in Elmsford, NY, before retiring to Florida. He passed away in 1989, at age 65.
Ray Jr. reflected on his father’s place in racing history.
"What is remarkable about my dad’s accomplishments is that he did what he did in a very short time span, compared to the drivers listed ahead of him in all-time wins," Brown Jr. observed. "If he had five decades or more of racing like many other well-known drivers, I am sure he would have been at the very top."
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: 'Flyin' O'Brien' captured four series titles
The “Flyin’ O’Brien," Pat O’Brien Jr. from Kingston, Ontario, has been selected as a 2019 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 25, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway.
Although Pat O’Brien Sr. was a long-time driver and winner at the old Watertown and Kingston speedways, among others, it was never really a given that his son and namesake would follow him into the seat of a dirt Modified.
"By the time I was 9 or 10 years old, dad was pretty much out of racing," Pat related. Senior had hung up his helmet to focus on raising a family and building a business, Pat’s Radiator Shop.
"To be honest, I was really too young to actually recall my dad in competition. But I would still go to the races, usually sitting in the stands with family, and eventually, as I got older, I would go with friends,” O'Brien said.
Kingston Speedway closed in 1976 when Pat was 12, so in later years he and his buddies would frequent Brockville, Can-Am and Cornwall speedways. In 1985, at the age of 20, he decided it was time to try his hand at piloting a Modified.
Donnie Carlyle, brother of Hall of Fame driver Doug "The Ox" Carlyle, was his mentor, showing him the way to win. "He helped me build my first car and went with me to all the races,” O'Brien stated. "It was Donnie’s philosophy that the only way you got good was through seat time — so for those first couple of years, we raced four nights a week.
"Me and the guys were probably about as close to being full-time as you can be, without actually being full-time," Pat admitted. "We would race at night, get home in the wee hours of the morning, shower, get some sleep and go to work, and repeat that cycle all week long, week in and week out, during that first season."
It took Pat more than two years to garner that first win. It came on May 2, 1987, the season opener at Can-Am.
"That was an unbelievable thrill," Pat proclaimed. His first career win wasn’t his last that year: O’Brien went on to score four more victories before season’s end, a second win at Can-Am, two at Brockville and one at Cornwall.
O’Brien’s success on the North Country tracks caught the eye of Hall of Fame car owner Sheldon Legue. And after Legue and driver Doug Carlyle decided to part ways for 1988, Pat got the call.
"I got to know Sheldon from following the [358 DIRT] series," Pat recounted. "We would often be parked close to one another in the pits."
The Legue ride was a sought-after seat, but the car owner liked what he saw in O’Brien.
"I liked his personality. He was good with people, presented himself well and was showing some promise as a driver in being able to find victory lane," Sheldon said at the time. "He was a clean driver and usually brought the car home in one piece."
Upon Carlyle’s departure, O’Brien called Legue, asking to be considered for the ride. When the two met, "I could see the hunger in his eyes," Sheldon remembered then.
And, prophetically, 1988 was a magical year for the new team. By the end of the season, O’Brien and Legue had clicked for 16 wins, track championships at Cornwall and Can-Am, and the all-important Mr. DIRT 358 tour title, racing against high-profile heavyweights like Brett Hearn and Bob McCreadie.
Between 1988 and 1993, the Legue-O’Brien pairing won a total of 66 feature events, eight track championships and a benchmark three Mr. DIRT 358 series titles.
In 1994, Legue cut back his racing involvement to spend more time with his family, and O’Brien returned to being an owner/driver. Pat also started a family with wife Christina, and daughters Shannon and Sarah came along in 1996 and 1998.
"I was fortunate in that, even with a young family, the race car pretty much supported itself," Pat said. But in 2000 — even with 10 wins and a track championship at Can-Am — O'Brien found himself struggling financially to keep the operation going. "So I elected to do what my father did, and that was to step away and sell everything," he conceded.
In the fall of 2000, en route to bringing his race motor to builder Pat Morrison for sale, O’Brien made a fateful visit to John Wight, who had just purchased Can-Am Speedway.
"He saw the engine in the back of my truck and wanted to know if I was taking it to get freshened. When I told him I was going to sell it, John couldn’t believe it. Here, he had just purchased Can-Am — and his track champion was getting out!" Pat detailed.
O’Brien sat out 2001 and 2002, but still went to the races to help out his brother Danny. And John Wight and Pat kept in touch.
"In 2003, with John’s help, I was able to return to racing," Pat acknowledged. Competing primarily at Can-Am in 2003 and '04, O’Brien settled right back into his winning groove, taking down two big-block victories in the Gypsum team #6, along with the 2004 Can-Am track championship.
In 2005, Pat was as prolific as he’d been in the late '80s and early '90s, scoring a dozen wins in both big- and small-block Mods at Can-Am, Brockville and Cornwall, and claiming track titles at Can-Am and Brockville. It was his 10th championship at Can-Am, where he is the winningest driver in the track’s history.
Quietly retiring at the end of 2016, Pat O’Brien amassed more than 185 wins at seven speedways in two countries, four Mr. DIRT 358 series titles and 22 track championships in a sterling career that spanned 31 years.
But more importantly, O’Brien earned the respect and admiration of his racing rivals.
Hall of Fame driver Marcel Lafrance and his son, Edelweiss and Cornwall champ Stephane, both chased Pat O’Brien at various points in their racing careers.
"In the late '80s, it was between Pat and my dad a lot. In the early 2000s, it was Pat, his brother Danny and me," said Stephane, who used to pit beside Pat at Brockville. "I won a lot myself, but Pat was THE GUY! Even at the end of a race you were winning by a mile, if you backed down at all, he’d take you.
"Pat was everything you would want in a race car driver," the younger Lafrance summarized. "He put on a good show for the fans. He was never dirty. And he never made mistakes."
Dirt Hall of Fame profile: Danny Johnson boasts nearly 600 victories
Editors' note: Today's article is the start of a series of profiles of the 2019 inductees submitted by the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame in Weedsport:
On Thursday, July 25, Modified sensation Danny Johnson will join racing’s elite as he is officially inducted into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. The 28th annual induction ceremonies will be held in the Hall of Fame Museum located on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
The second-generation driver is extremely appreciative of the celebration.
"Certainly this is huge for me — it’s a great honor to be included in this induction," said the 59 year-old Johnson, who resides in Phelps. “It's been 40 years I’ve been racing now, and I guess I’ve done something right along the way to end up here."
One of the winningest drivers on the circuit today, Johnson has racked up 593 victories in the past four decades for 40 different car owners, which is a challenge in itself. The guy can drive a race car — one that he’s familiar with or one that he’s never seen before; one that’s hooked up perfectly or a car so ill-handling that he needs to carry it across the finish line. And Danny’s done it at 55 different speedways in 13 states and two Canadian provinces — a feat unmatched by any other driver in the modern era.
"I was born into it, I didn’t really know anything else," Johnson said of his adventurous career. "My dad (Milt) raced, my brother (Alan) raced, and I was 18 years old and I needed to do something with my life, something to stay out of trouble. I had the opportunity — with my parents' help — to put some sponsors together and get a race car," he related.
His first checker was at nearby Canandaigua Speedway in 1979.
"The first win was so cool! I was racing with Will Cagle at the time. He tried to get me on the bottom and I kind of closed the door on him and went off to win. Cagle was always the guy to beat so that felt good, real good."
The future superstar’s role model was his older brother, Alan, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. The Johnson brothers occupy two of the top three spots on DIRTcar’s all-time Modified win list.
"On DIRT, (my idol) would have been my brother," Johnson revealed. "I used to go to the races with him, I would help work on his car and I wanted to do what he was doing. And I wanted to be good at it! That was the competitive side of me, always coming through."
The pair traveled up and down the highways, looking for the next race show. Both going their own ways eventually, and both becoming legends in the auto racing arena.
"When (DIRT promoter) Glenn Donnelly had all those tracks, we were racing a lot. If you didn’t make some money one night, you would most likely make some money on one of the other nights, so it kept you going," Johnson said.
He followed Donnelly’s Super DIRT Series, ride-hopping much of the time in order to maintain a full schedule. Johnson had huge success, and a steady gig from 1992-98, with Ray Bramall’s Freightliner Express team.
In those seven years, Ray and Danny won 92 times, starting with a DIRT Asphalt Series event at PA International Speedway in the spring of 1992 and ending with a Super DIRT Series race at Weedsport in September 1998. In between, the Freightliner team took both the SDS and Mr. DIRT Mod series titles in '92 and '97; Mr. DIRT 358 and 358 series championships in 1996; point titles at Orange County, Ransomville and Rolling Wheels; three of Danny’s six Eastern States 200 victories; two Eastern States small-block races; the 1994 Syracuse 358 event; and — the mother of them all — the 1997 Super DIRT Week 300. It was Ray’s third time winning that big one on the NYS Fairgrounds mile, and Danny’s first of two.
Bramall, who’s had no less than Brett Hearn in his seat, summed up Johnson as a racer who "had more natural ability than anyone I’ve ever seen."
All told, Johnson has four overall Mr. DIRT Modified titles, three Super DIRT Series trophies, five Modified championships at Rolling Wheels, four at Canandaigua, two at Weedsport, three on the Florida tour, and 89 Super DIRT Series victories. On the 358 side of the ledger, Johnson’s scored four Mr. DIRT 358 and three series titles, championships at Ransomville, Orange County and Weedsport, and 56 358 Modified Series wins. His pair of SDW Mod triumphs came in 1997 and 2006.
"I was fortunate to have been involved with a lot of good people over the years," Johnson said. “I've made good money at it [racing] but I also spent a lot of money on it, too. I’ve seen every part of it."
And as Johnson became one of the most feared drivers out there, controversy often followed him, mostly due to his aggressive driving style.
"Somebody wrote something about me the other day and it wasn’t the nicest," admitted Johnson, who acquired the nickname “Danimal" before settling down some to become known as "The Doctor."
"I didn’t ever go out and try to crash people. Sometimes things happened while we were racing, but that was just racing. We were all out there trying to make a living at it," he reasoned.
Throughout his career, Johnson always had guidance from his late father Milt, a former racer and successful engine builder. The elder Johnson’s B&M Speed Shop in Rochester, NY, supplied the power to such high-profile racers as Richie Evans, Jerry Cook and Merv Treichler. In 2013, Milt posthumously received Hall of Fame honors for his contributions as a mechanic. As Danny ages, his resemblance to his dad is uncanny.
"I saw a picture of me the other day and I couldn’t believe how much I looked like him," Johnson reflected on his father. "I think I’m a lot like him — there’s no doubt that he rubbed off on me. As I get older, I wish I would have paid more attention and spent more time with him."
Johnson also respected what he learned from car-building mastermind Maynard Troyer, who passed away last year.
"I don’t know if we had a close relationship, but I spent a lot of time racing his cars," said Johnson. "And in 1983, I started working for him, and that went on for quite a while. I learned a lot from Maynard. I recently had a dream about him! It was pretty cool seeing him again."
Like most, Johnson can’t believe how fast time has gone. But he’s really enjoyed the ride along the way — the good, the bad and the ugly.
"There has been a lot of success, a lot of hard work and a lot of time! But I feel very fortunate that I didn’t get hurt over the years doing it," Johnson said, remembering a long-ago incident where a broken driveshaft severely damaged Will Cagle’s leg. "Look at Cagle! I was driving the same car he was driving — that could have been me! But I’ve been fortunate and I am so thankful for that."
Johnson is a dad to seven children — do they realize their pop’s accomplishments?
"To them, I’m just dad," chuckled Johnson who has one son (Daniel) already racing. "There would be more racers in the family if there was more money." The son has raced on and off for a couple of years. "He makes his own deals and does his own thing," Danny informed. "I think his desire is as strong as mine was when I was his age. He works really hard for me at the race tracks and has put in his time, so I hope it works out for him."
As for dad — he’s not stepping down anytime soon. He’s still wishing for more seat time.
"We don’t race that much anymore, not like we used to,” Johnson lamented. "There aren’t enough shows anymore so it’s hard to make a living at it."
And he admits the competition is greater.
As his career begins to wind down, "The wins seem to come few and far between now. But they still feel really good," Johnson bottom-lined.
Despite having reached the Hall of Fame career milestone, he’s not done yet. Danny is still actively looking for that next ride and next race.
"I will probably stop when I can’t get in the car anymore or when I don’t have someone that wants me in their car," laughed Johnson. "I don’t feel any different than I did 20 years ago. I may not be as fast or as spunky as I was, but I’m fortunate. You just can’t plan the future — it is what it is and that’s pretty much how I’ve been doing it my whole life. I do things day to day. And today’s not over yet."