Stock car racing: Lape, beginning 49th season at Fonda, still passionate about racing
Remember these numbers: 49 and 99.
The first is significant; the second, not so much.
When Dave Lape pulls into the pits at Fonda Speedway Saturday
afternoon, when the Track of Champions kicks off its season with “Ice Jam,” it will mark Lape’s 49th year of racing at Fonda.
Think about that — 49 years. Not many things last for 49 years, especially if there’s an option to leave, like Lape has always had.
But he’s been there every year, and this year will be no different.
Then, there’s the 99. That’s the number of victories Lape has at Fonda Speedway. In fact, that’s the number he’s had for nearly eight years — his last win came in August 2004. But Lape makes it clear that the two numbers don’t really have anything in common. He’s not coming back for his 49th season just because win No. 100 is still out there somewhere.
“That’s not the reason I’m racing,” he said this week. “I still enjoy
being out there with these young kids. They love it, and I love it. I’ve got a bunch of young guys on my crew, if you add up their ages, they’re not as old as I am. They keep me going.”
Dave Lape is a dirt track icon. He was inducted into the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame last winter, and when you talk about Fonda Speedway. he’s in an elite group that inspires feelings of awe and reverence. If Don McLean had written “American Pie” about racing at Fonda Speedway instead of music, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost would have been Lou Lazzaro, Jack Johnson and Lape, in no particular order.
The problem with an “oldtimer” like Lape is that all of his best work is behind him. There was a time, in the 1970s, when Lape was one of the best drivers in the nation, not just the Northeast.
Where would one start in listing all his accomplishments? His success locally at Fonda and Albany-Saratoga? His Mr. DIRT championships, the first which came in 1977, before a lot of today’s drivers were even born? His success as a chassis builder and founder of Champ Car?
And what about all the stories, from the times he hung out at Bob Whitbeck’s garage in Canajoharie as a kid, to buying his first race car at the age of 16 for $50, and storing the car — which didn’t run — at Lee Millington’s garage in Palatine Bridge until the day when Millington just got rid of the hunk of junk.
But that kid from Canajoharie started driving Millington’s car during slow warmups at Fonda, and got hooked on racing.
What about the time in 1971, just six seasons into his racing career, when Lape was doing double duty, racing on the dirt at Fonda and the asphalt at both Albany-Saratoga Speedway and Utica-Rome, and midway through the season, found himself in the top 10 in the race for the NASCAR National Modified Championships? During the second half of the season, he started racing all over the Northeast and deep into the South, chasing points. and finished the season fifth in the national point chase.
He then had a decision to make. Stay at home, or follow in the footsteps of drivers like Pete Hamilton and Don MacTavish and head to the big stage.
“If I learned anything in 1971, it was that I didn’t want to be away from home,” said Lape in “Fonda,” a book co-authored by Lew Boyd and Andy Fusco, two of Lape’s lifelong and loyal friends. “Right then and there, I decided to spend the rest of my life in Canajoharie.”
Which brings us back to Fonda’s opener on Saturday, and Lape’s 49th season at the track.
He’s excited about the upcoming season because he’s put together a package which should get him win No. 100.
“We sold both our big blocks and bought a new JPM small block,” he said. “I’ve also got an engine from my old friend, Walt Markert, and that’s the one we’ll start the year with.
“We didn’t do very good last year. I knew what I had to have, but didn’t have the money to do it. But this is the best equipment I’ve had in a long time.”
And if Lape does get that milestone victory, don’t expect him to come up with an instant retirement speech in victory lane. He’s already got plans.
“Two more summers,” Lape said. “That will be 50 years. Then, I’m going to retire, and I’m not kidding.”
The Ridge will officially kick off the racing season tonight, with the modifieds running for $2,000 to win, and promoter Mike Romano has a handful of top-notch invaders coming in.
That list will include the Gypsum cars of Billy Decker and Pat Ward, Matt Sheppard, Stewart Friesen and Brian Weaver.
Hot laps begin at 7 p.m., with racing at 7:30.
Fonda Speedway begins its 61st season of racing with “Ice Jam” on Saturday afternoon. Modifieds will be running 40 laps, with $4,000 to win. Ronnie Johnson won the season opener last season, and went on to win the track championship.
In addition to racing, which begins at 4 p.m., the Fonda Futures Kids’ Club will be holding an Easter Egg hunt for children ages 12 and under.
Lebanon Valley has a practice session for all divisions on Saturday. The track will be open from 4-7 p.m. Grandstand admission is free.
Around the tracks
Danny Varin, the son of six-time Fonda Speedway champion Bobby Varin, already has a lead on his father in the win column for 2010. The younger Varin won last weekend’s Capital Region Sprint Agency feature at Black Rock Speedway.
Varin began racing with the CRSA last season, and picked up wins at Fonda and Utica-Rome. Sunday’s race was the first time the CRSA has raced at Black Rock.
The CSRA sprints will be at Fonda Speedway on April 21.