Drivers young and old race at the Lebanon Valley Speedway


NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- Recently, a dragster flipped at the end of the strip, taking a turn too tight. The cage inside the vehicle protected the driver.

When a track worker approached the 2001 KCX asking if the driver was OK, the only response was a barked, "Flip me over."

A week or so ago, another driver held onto the wheel for what seemed like agonizing minutes when a throttle stuck and propelled the car into flat-out racing mode zig-zagging down the track. The throttle unstuck somewhere past the quarter mile marker.

Shaken but OK, the driver raced again.

What seems remarkable about both these incidents is that the drivers are 9-year-old girls.

"We’ve been coming here since she was three months old. She loves racing," said Pete Diamond of Kingston, N.Y., who with his wife Tracy, support and transport their daughter Cassie to Lebanon Valley Speedway and other tracks. "We didn’t know if she was going to stick with it, so we didn’t buy her a new car. We bought this one used."

When asked if he had any concerns for her safety, whizzing down the track at close to 80 mph., Diamond said, "She’s safer in this than your everyday vehicle."

"She rolled her car two months ago. She walked away. She’s got a roll bar and a cage to protect her," Diamond said.

No stranger to danger, Diamond raced a truck at the drags until two weeks ago, when it exploded.

Samantha Groncki of Rotterdam, N.Y., is another 9-year old dragster, whose parents haul her vehicle to the track, set up and awning, put the family puppy in a chair and spend the day.

"A couple of weeks ago, her throttle stuck," said Shanon Groncki, Samatha’s mother. "She made it to the end without hitting anyone. She has a kill switch, but she was so frightened, she just held onto the wheel and kept it going straight."

When asked if the incident didn’t cause them to pause, the mother sighed and said "She loves it."

Like Cassie, Samantha has spent her short life hanging around her father’s garage watching him work on vehicles. Samantha’s father, Mathew, used to race a 1967 Mustang and she absorbed every detail. Both girls are naturals at the speedway, which in the past mostly drew farm boys and construction guys who grew up around tools.

More typical of Speedway denizens is Al Pecarello of Copake, N.Y., who grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and races super pro.

"When I was an infant, my first three words were Mommy, Daddy and Buick," said Pecarello, who’s had the same pit man Ray Heydet since the two were teenagers. Heydet is blindhand a superb mechanic, as well as friend, according to Pecarello, who said drag racing saved him after the premature death of his son a few years ago.

Unlike other forms of racing in circles or figure eights, drag racing is done on a quarter mile strip, usually asphalt but can be dirt.

Traditionally, track length is one quarter mile, although some tracks bigger than Lebanon Speedway have shortened their tracks by 300 feet to avoid the end of track explosions that were occurring when vehicles were pushed beyond their limits at the end of races. (Junior drag racers, ages eight to 17 years, race one-eighth of a mile.)

Today’s dragsters use fuel ranging from gasoline, alcohol, methanol and nitro. Strong odors of grape and banana hang over the starting line, where revved engines emit smoke redolent of additives.

Drivers are divided into pro and super pro by whether they use foot pedals to accelerate at the starting line or push buttons. Drivers in both classes are weather bugs, with barometers, displaying temperature and humidity, as both factors affect how fuel is used by vehicles.

On the outside, the Pecarello’s auto simply looks like a 1964 Nova. However, it’s highly modified. A 540 cubic inch, 510-horsepower engine drives it, and computerized weather gear figure prominently where a street car would have its driver side rear view mirror.

Bobby Brennan of Hillsdale, N.Y., used to be more typical of the dragsters converging on Lebanon Speedway. Growing up on his family’s 250-acre farm, he learned to grease and drive every kind of vehicle. He started coming to the track at age 15. His mother drove up from Hillsdale and sat in the truck knitting while Bobby wandered the pit.

At age 16, he bought his first car, a 1969 Plymouth Fury, a former police car. While that was fast, it wasn’t fast enough.

Next, he bought a 1939 Chevrolet and installed a Hemi motor. Selling that vehicle after its first season, he raced a 1969 Bel Air for years. Now he drag races with a 1966 Dodge Coronet station wagon.

He still uses a barometer that spends the winter hanging on his kitchen wall. He does all the math in his head.

"My best car ever went down the track and picked up a tenth of a second just because the air changed," said Brennan, now in his 60s.

With end of day purses under $2,000, nobody is in it for the money. Perhaps what dragsters do get out of it is the opportunity to bond with other mechanically inclined folks who have a real strong grasp of numbers.

"I raced twice today," Cassie said. "My best time was 1272. I have to keep it under 1299."

If you go ...

What: Lebanon Valley Speedway

Were: Route 20, New Lebanon, N.Y.

When: Saturday, Prostock Finale -- Gate opens 5 p.m., racing starts 6 p.m.

Admission: Grandstand -- $10 for adults and $2 for children, $16 for tower or roof seating



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