By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s the longest name for a facility in local auto racing: Lancaster Speedway (or Dragway, depending on the night) @ New York International Raceway Park. Still, just say “Lancaster” to a local racing fan, and he or she will know what you are talking about. The facility celebrates 60 years of operation this season, and they are doing it with new ownership.
Mike Swinarski is part of the small group that bought the track. He is trying to give something back after a long career in auto racing. A recent visit to Lancaster showed some work had gone on at the facility, but the ownership group also is trying to walk before it runs. For example, dates for stock car racing are down from previous years. There’s no merchandise on sale – a bit of a shame for an anniversary year – and fans can’t buy a program or popcorn.
But at least the tradition at the track continues. One anonymous racer volunteered how happy he was that the group came along to buy Lancaster, and he urged everyone to have patience in the early going.
Swinarski sat down for an interview on a picnic table near the beer stand overlooking his new investment.
Buffalo Sports Page: What made you decide to own a race track?
Mike Swinarski: All I wanted to do is to make sure the place didn’t close up. That’s the main thing. I’m a drag racer, and I said, “I don’t want this place to close. I want to be able to race here.”
BSP: Sixty years is a lot of tradition.
MS: It is. I’ve been racing here probably for 40 years. At least 30 – it’s enough.
BSP: It’s one thing to dream about this sort of purchase, but it’s another to get it done. How did that work?
MS: I knew I could do it, but I’m 67 years old. I didn’t know if I should do it. I’m too old. Vito (Antonicelli, who with wife Sylvia are the other partners) talked me into it. He twisted my arm. We waited until the last minute (early May) before we finished it.
BSP: What’s the reaction around the track to the purchase?
MS: Everywhere I go people thank me for saving the track. All the racers have been really nice. I don’t know how many fans recognize me, but a lot of them know me.
BSP: When you walk through the doors, do you have some excitement and some dread?
MS: We’ve been working our asses off. It was a mess. It had some good features, but a lot of it was bad.
BSP: In that situation, did you make up a wish list of what needed to be done immediately and what could wait?
MS: You just look around and say, “What can we do first?”
BSP: So what have you been working on?
MS: We put new blacktop on the oval. That’s a big part of it. We sealed it, striped it. We put a lot of signs up, sold some advertising.
BSP: You’ve been to a lot of other tracks over the years. Have you talked with other owners about the business?
MS: Not yet. I have raced all over the country. I know a lot of owners, but I haven’t talked to many of them. I talked to one old friend in Ohio; this track will never be as good as that one.
BSP: What’s the future of this business? There have been closings of some tracks, and car counts have been down in some cases.
MS: You look around at the pits, just standing there, and everyone has gray hair. That makes me worried. That’s why we’ve done some things to get the kids interested. On Tuesday nights we have Junior Drag Racing. We have at least 20 every week. If they move up, it will save us a bit. Wednesday night we have Cruise Night, and there are a lot of people here. Hopefully they move up and start racing.
BSP: When Lancaster first started racing in 1959, it was in the middle of nowhere. Now it touches on the suburbs, with houses not far away. The people there no doubt have different priorities.
MS : They probably swear at us every night. Some of them like it, but some of them probably don’t. They’d rather be watching a soap opera on TV or something, and have to turn the sound up. I knew the guys that built this place – people like Art Clark and Jay Milligan. I bought my (garage) yard from Art.
BSP: So you really have two tasks – get the car counts up and get the fans in the building.
MS: Yes. For drag racing, when we get a good show in like Street Outlaws or Super Track Warriors, we’ll get a lot of fans. But on the other weeks, we don’t get a lot of people.
BSP: And as a new owner, you probably have learned the hard way about the problems that weather can cause.
MS: Oh yeah. (Recently) we had a Friday night that was just heartbreaking. The rain just kept coming down. I thought about buying this place about 21 years ago. That year, it rained almost every week. I said, “Well, I guess I’m not buying it.” It was too much of a gamble.
BSP: Do you consider this a long-term investment at this point?
MS: I don’t know. If I can get it saved a little bit and someone else wants to come in and work on it, that’s fine with me. I’m 67 and can’t do it forever. My wife tells me that the window’s closing.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)