By Andy Jankowiak Edited By Leximarie Healy Photos:J J Lane
Buffalo New York (March 6th 2019) : Our story starts on a Wednesday, four days after the biggest win of my career. I was on a delivery, sitting at a red light. It was very cold. The restaurant I work for was one of the few businesses to open that day; due to wind chill factors reaching deep into the negative twenties and poor visibility due to blowing snow. There was a travel ban, so I didn’t have much traffic to contend with that morning. I was the lone soul on the road. Just me and my thoughts. I pondered the past weekend and all that we accomplished. I thought about how special that race is to me. The Gamblers Classic. The one I’ve wanted to win, for years. As I pondered I felt a chill run up my spine and the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Everyone always asks if it has “sunk in yet” after a big win. I suppose those moments are just too large to process when you’re still living in them. It’s like trying to look at the whole earth while you’re still standing on it. It was that morning that it all finally hit me. The dream had became a reality. We really did do it, we won The Gamblers Classic.
Okay now back up; lets hit the rewind button. I have a story to tell you and this will not be a short one. Grab a beverage and hunker down for a bit. It would be easier to stretch this story into a book, rather shorten it into a quick overview. There is beauty in the details; I could do the story no justice if I spared you any of the finer aspects. This story was destined to be an epic from the very beginning.
Our story picks up where our last story ends. I’m driving home from the Allentown race and the wheels are turning in my head. I have a broken engine and it needs to be fixed before the upcoming Atlantic City race. I do not know the severity of the damage and my engine builder lives just outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I find myself on the phone with my engine builder, Sparky Grape and we are going over scenarios on how we can proceed, none of which are sounding very appealing. Shipping is dangerous because of the time constraints. We were on a very tight time schedule. The engine generally goes back and forth on a pallet via a shipping company that handles larger products, mainly engines. Shipping never felt like an option because I could not make myself feel certain we would have the engine back, on time. The idea of leaving my Atlantic City fate in the hands of a shipping company never sat right with me. I knew myself well enough that I was never going to settle for a “maybe” scenario. So cross that off; option two was to have him ship the parts, and let me fix it via conference call. We would video chat so he could watch me, while he talked me through it. A quick inspection at the shop eliminated that idea though. Once I pulled the pan the damage was severe enough that it was going to require a professional spending some time on it. Option three was to have a local engine guy such as BFG or Pippard do the work, but it was difficult to tell exactly how much damage had been done and while I have incredible respect for the local guys here, Sparky is the guy that built the engine and he knows it best. He’s my engine builder, and taking it somewhere else wouldn’t be right either. This leaves us with option four; just drive the thing to Texas. Now on the surface, this may seem like the silliest option, but hear me out. I am guaranteed to have the engine back in time and I am guaranteed to have it fixed by the guy that knows it best. This felt like the option that gave me the best chance to have everything right before Atlantic City. Once I came to that realization, it was really no brainer. I only get one chance every year to win The Gamblers Classic; I wasn’t going to cut corners.
So it was decided, I was going to Texas. The only thing left to do was to hash out the many details. This would be a costly venture so I needed to make the most of my time. First off, the engine would travel to Texas in my Aveo. This would save on gas. Next I called my friend, Adam Bainbridge and asked if we would split the driving. He agreed; so now we could take turns driving and sleeping. This would save me from having to stop when I needed rest. I squeezed in a side trip to North Carolina to pick up a Gale Force machine that I had originally planned on shipping. This move would save me a hefty shipping bill. It only added four hours to the trip. I would also be able to return a small favor to Trey Hoddick, by bringing back one of his engines when we came back. We were saving him some shipping expenses. The plan…as we’re calling it…was for me to take two days off from work. We would leave Sunday night at 10:00pm, after I worked my Sunday shift. I’m off on Mondays, I would take off Tuesday and Wednesday. I plan on being back in town; to work Thursday morning. We would stop in North Carolina first to get the machine, then drive straight to Texas. We planned to arrive there late Monday; then stay with Sparky that night. We would spend the day there Tuesday while he fixed the engine; and headed home around dinner time, once everything was buttoned up. It would be forty six hours of driving, round trip. On a voyage that would take us through sixteen states, since the stop in North Carolina would bring us down a different way. Mind you, this was the plan.
So here’s how it actually went down.
Before anything could happen, first we had to make sure everything was going to fit! I don’t think the engineers at Chevy had shipping in mind when they drew up the Aveo plans, if you catch my drift. I got my tape measure out and got to the task of figuring out how to fit two engines, a spring load machine, two spare tires, a tool box and of course a bounty of delicious snacks. I was confident we could fit the Gale Force machine sideways across the back; if we took the seats out as well as the door skins, but just to be safe, Adam made a cardboard replica of the machine based off of specs that Cale Gale sent to us. It was tight but it would work. The next step was to make the car road worthy. This meant new wheel bearings. It took half a day to take care of that. After the car was ready it was game on. I worked all day Sunday, so Adam would drive first. We packed up our snacks. The adventure was on.
I would like to paint myself as this man on a mission for the sake of telling a good story. I would really do anything to win this race. The truth is less interesting. The truth is; I really thought this was the right way to do this. I spend more time thinking about how I lost races then thinking about how I won them. I was not a boy on a mission to win this race, I was just trying not to do anything to lose it. Not yet. The wins are great but the loses linger, and more so when you aren’t sure you gave it your full effort. As I watched my garage door close behind us that night, the reality of taking a $500 car on a cross country trip switched from day dream to reality. I never had a second doubt about what we were doing. I knew we were doing the right thing.
While I had made peace with my plan, the same was not true for everyone else. Believe it or not some people around me actually thought this plan was quite stupid. Six hours into the trip, I woke up and found that we were broke down in the middle of a traffic lane. For a moment I thought to myself that maybe I should have listened. It was raining and we were sitting at a light on route 19 in West Virginia. For my readers that don’t travel much, this is the stretch you don’t want any trouble on. It is enforced heavily by police. It was 4:00am and the right front wheel was locked up, naturally there was a Trooper sitting 50 feet away. Adam realized that the wheel was only locking up when we tried to roll forward, but it would spin in reverse. So we backed down and over to the apron. Of course this odd behavior attracted the attention of our new friend, and the lights went up.
I jumped to attention and got out to examine the situation. It was the brake caliper, it fell off. I must have forgotten to tighten the bolts after I changed the wheel bearing. Before I could have a second thought another officer joined the party, so we had lights flashing on both sides of the car now. We needed to get this rolling before a tow truck showed up. By the grace of good luck I just happened to have the correct bolts in the car in our emergency kit. The only two bolts I brought were left over from a ball joint change and they were the right thread, just a hair too long. I pleaded with the officers for a moment to fix the problem. Luckily, we found two very nice officers. I wasn’t in any hurry to wear on their patience though. I did the talking while Adam worked. My instructions to Adam were just get them started so we can get out of here. The officers asked for our licenses. I had forgotten my wallet but Adam was driving so it wasn’t a huge deal. We passed them his license and they went back to their cars. I thought everything was going smoothly; that was until Adam mentioned he may have collected a few out of state tickets he hadn’t paid over the years. Wonderful, I thought to myself. Apparently West Virginia was not on his travel ban list because they did not have any issues with us. We thanked them and rolled on to the next gas station and fixed her up using a washer off the midget engine. Disaster averted, onward with the adventure.
Things went fairly smoothly after that. North Carolina basically went as I planned, I drove from there to Louisiana with stops along the way to check out Talladega and Mississippi river. Adam took the controls back for the last three hours. I woke up to another issue, a flat tire. Just short of our destination. But after the first roadside adventure this one felt all to easy. We handled it efficiently and continued. We arrived at Sparky’s around 4:00am Tuesday morning with a big day ahead of us.
I woke up to help Sparky in the shop while Adam rested up for the trip home. It quickly became clear that the damage was more than we thought. By lunch time I was already calling back home to tell work I would be gone one day longer than expected. We had to have some parts over nighted so we would be Sparky’s guests for an extra day. In the mean time, Sparky was nice enough to do a little sight seeing with me. We went to Dealey plaza and visited the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository building. For those of you that aren’t aware of the significance of this site I will explain. Dealey Plaza was the location where JFK was assassinated in 1963 and the sixth floor of the School Book Depository building was where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot…or so they say anyway if you ask Sparky. It was pretty surreal to stand in the spot that Oswald stood on that day. Between that trip and me being able to stop and check out the Mississippi River on the way down I was certainly taking in the sites. We were making the best of a bad situation, spending time with friends. I think its safe to say this was becoming my favorite engine failure ever.
The next morning Sparky woke up at 6:00am and we worked on that engine until 1:00am the next day; in order to get it done. By “we”, of course I mean he worked on it while Adam and I mostly spectated. Assembly was completed around 10:00 or 11:00, then it was time to run it on the dyno. It was cool to witness that in person. We finished on the dyno around one and we loaded my freshly tuned up engine into my Aveo. After difficult work days, our invasion of the Grape household was over. We thanked Sparky and Diane for their Texas size hospitality, snapped a quick selfie and we hit the road.
The trip home went smoothly. We smoked another wheel bearing but that’s normal for my paper plate, throw away car. We made it home Friday morning with five days left before we had to leave for the race.
We had to work quickly but we had to make everything right too. I went to work on getting it running first, then worked on setup stuff that incorporated my new spring load machine. As always it took every minute we had but by the time Wednesday came we were ready to go contend for a win.
First up was practice day on Thursday. We started out hot, in the second session we turned a 7.9 second lap and we were the only car to go under 8 seconds all weekend. The track would slow down after that; we had to change our setup a little to adjust to the evolving track conditions. Luckily, I had a pair of new crew members this weekend. Richard and Clifford Bunn answered a request for extra help I made on social media. With their help we were making changes fast and using every practice session effectively. We tried a number of different combinations. I picked a new one that I liked the most and we basically tuned on that setup the next day.
Next was Friday, the qualifying day. The way Friday at Atlantic City works is as follows. Everyone time trials. The top twenty eight cars are inverted into four qualifying races. So basically if you set fast time you start seventh in a qualifier,1 and if you time twenty eighth you start on the pole. Eight cars can make Saturdays race though these qualifiers. These eight cars will also make up the first eight starting spots on the grid for the race. If you want to win, your odds are significantly better if you are one of these eight drivers. Each qualifying race winner will take one spot in the top eight, then the final four spots will be made up of the four drivers that have the most points scored from their qualifier finish and their time trial lap. Got all that? Its not as confusing as it sounds. The key is to have a good time trial lap to fall back on. A top five in time and a top five in a qualifier will usually be enough to lock you into the top eight.
I was in the third race and after watching the first two I had a decent idea of where I had to be to get a top 8 spot. I found my way to third and I knew that was enough, but I am a racer and I could see the lead within my grasp. I wasn’t looking to make any trouble for myself but I was lucky to have a couple of good racers in front of me that would give me room to race. In the final five laps of the qualifier we were able to advance from third to first and grab the win. We had made the top eight and we had a little tire money for tomorrows race.
The win felt great. Its always special to hold the flag on the floor at Boardwalk Hall. We enjoyed it, but the focus switched to the big race the next day pretty quickly. the top eight and we had a little tire money for tomorrows race.
The win felt great. Its always special to hold the flag on the floor at Boardwalk Hall. We enjoyed it, but the focus switched to the big race the next day pretty quickly. The next night was Saturday and The Gamblers Classic trophy was in the house. We had some brake issues Friday so I made some light adjustments to the brakes and went out for the warm up session that morning. The car felt great. We were second or third on the speed chart. To my surprise they announced an additional practice. I am always trying to find new speed so I thought of what I could try. I came up with an idea and switched a shock. This session caught me off guard but I can usually dream up something to try. As we sat in line I had a yawn, I was tired. I started to ask myself why we were going out. I was happy with the car in the last session and it felt like I was just throwing mud at the wall now. I gave it some thought, then I gave Uncle Jake a look and said “screw it, we’re good”. I told the guys to pull us out of line and we went back to the pit instead of taking the extra practice. It was time to get ready the race.
Before all that I was ready for a break first. My step daughter Lexi was with me all weekend so I took some time to hang out with her. We walked the beach a little then went back to the hotel to relax for a bit. I dozed off, only to be awoken all to quickly a half hour later by Lexi. She was more interested in going to Johnny Rockets then seeing me get a long nap. I needed to be back for the redraw in an hour, so it was time to roll I suppose. I wasn’t real sure who was going to draw for me. I had pondered this question all day. There was a lot riding on that draw. We were fast but I knew I would have trouble if I started behind a couple of the guys that also had a top eight spot. When I woke up from that nap I felt pretty certain who the right choice was. I asked Lexi if she could draw me the pole, she said “yeah”.
We got some food then headed back for fan fest. Fan fest is a pre race event on the track where the fans come down and see the cars. This is also where the redraw takes place. Once the time came, Lexi said she was nervous and unsure if she wanted to make the big pick. I assured her that no matter what she picked it would be ok, but apparently that wasn’t the issue. She wasn’t nervous about holding the fate of my weekend in her hands. However she was very nervous about being on the jumbo tron when she picked… ugh. Kids right? I told her it was her call. In the end she was confident that she was the right person for the task… regardless of her deeply misplaced concerns. I stood back and crossed my fingers. Literally. I did. She pulled three and quickly turned to me to see if she did good or not. I gave her a smile and a thumbs up. “we can win this thing from third” I told her. The pole position was drawn by three time Gamblers winner Anthony Sesely. After all the build up and all the trials the story was finally starting to take shape. Third was good but I was starting behind one of the guys I was worried about. I had been denied by the 16 before, I followed him across the line the night he won his third Gamblers. If I wanted to hold that trophy I had my work cut out for me.
The seemingly never ending trials of the Gamblers Classic weekend left one last preliminary event before the big show, a five lap dash race between the top eight. This event takes place after the heats and shortly before the main event. Based on the redraw, I was starting third. However we finished would be how we lined up for the race so I wanted to move up. I got to second on the start and after a quick yellow I would be lined up on the outside pole. We went green and the top line was working for me. I held my own but the 16 wasn’t going to go away without a fight. I thought I had made the pass with two to go but Anthony surprised me by driving in deep on the bottom and we made contact that allowed him to pull back even with me. We went under the white flag side by side and I could see my goal in sight. At this point, I made a mistake. I thought my best move was to hold him tight and pinch him off from the top. When I did this he clipped the tire and his car went air borne and shoved me out, way out. The 16 straightened out and took off while I scrambled to get across the line and hold second.
Now we had a half hour to get all my tires ready, and the car fueled. I grind the tires so I had a moment to collect my thoughts. I knew I had missed an opportunity. The right move was to run the top and make him try to come up the track and hit me; or just try to beat him up there. My decision to play defense most likely cost me a pole shot. I was very upset with myself. I had to suck it up though, I had another chance on the next start and it wouldn’t be wise to dwell right now.
I finished the tires, did the driver introductions and after what seemed like an eternity the command was given to start your engines. I knew I had to get the top spot quick before my goal slipped away. We started outside pole at Allentown and after getting shoved out early we fell all the way back to sixth. I wanted to control my fate and the best way to do that is from the lead. If I could just pass one more car I really liked my odds of winning this race.
They dropped the green and I got a great start. We took the lead down the back stretch and I moved down going into three. We had the lead. Then…the caution came out. Since we didn’t get a lap in, my pass didn’t count. The second start didn’t go as well. In fact, we did just about everything but crash before we got to the line. It was all I had to not catch the Jersey barriers, taking the lead would have to wait. Luckily we were able to fend off a challenge from third and we dropped into second. It was time to go to work.
Ok stop. Time out. Take a break. Fighters return to your corners, lets talk about this. This isn’t fair because you all know how the story ends. My reality at this point isn’t of an epic story about a kid that drove to Texas with an engine and came home to win the biggest race of his life. I can name you ten thousand things that can go wrong in an indoor race, and I’d be lucky if I could control ten of them. We did everything but wreck on that start and it was no joke. My left rear wheel was bent, after the race when I looked at it I couldn’t believe it was holding air. We hadn’t even made it to the line for the start; and I was half tore up. Safe to say I wasn’t in the car practicing my interview at this point. I’ve lost this race before. So many ways I have lost this race. I was mad now. I sailed off into the next corner and gave my opponent a shot then stalked him down the next strip and lined up for another. Then I thought about Allentown. I seen a little piece of tape that Aunt Sue taped onto my dash. “patience”. Earlier in the day I watched Anthony in warm ups, his car always got tight on a long run. I needed to wait.
On lap 6 his nose shoved out and I was there waiting to make the pass underneath. We had the lead. The fight was just beginning though. It wasn’t long before I was joined by another competitor I was worried about. Ryan Flores quickly made his way to second and he was looking for one more. By halfway the pressure was on. My brakes were fading and I was having trouble getting into the corners like I wanted. I wasn’t holding him up but I couldn’t get away either. Any slip up or mistake on my end would be fatal. I needed to be flawless.
Just as the heat was on we had a red flag, which was good because I could cool my brakes off. I still had my nerves. I told my mom before I left that if I could just get the lead I knew I would hold it, and I sure as hell didn’t wish to prove myself a liar. As I sat in the car and pondered my situation a welcomed voice greeted me from above. It was Lexi. She climbed down to the first row of bleacher seating which sits about ten feet above the track. Basically, she was right over my head. My little peanut, I thought to myself. What a perfect way to calm my nerves. I looked up and quickly noticed she was not her lackadaisical self. Lexi is as cool as a cucumber most of the time but she looked very on edge. Her eyes were full of awareness, her hands twitched and fiddled about as she looked down at me to see if I shared her level of concern. Oh lovely I thought, she is in worse shape than me. Instead of her working on my nerves I had to work on calming her down! I don’t remember what we said but I remember one line. I told her not to worry, we got this. I found my confidence in reassuring her and I think we eased each others distress by the end of our engagement. Lexi used her two hands to form two halves of a heart and then joined them together and gestured in my direction. We were going to be just fine. I spotted Uncle Jake on the infield and used some of our hand signals to ask how much pressure I had coming behind me. He wouldn’t tell me I had a big gap but his signals and his demeanor told me what I needed to know. It was mine to lose and he thought I was going to be just fine.
Just don’t mess up. Don’t lose this thing, I thought to myself. I was the only one in the building that knew of my intentions to donate half of the winnings to the Tidaback family, if I was to be so fortunate that night. Once I had the thought earlier in the day I never had a second one. I knew it was the right thing to do. I wanted to do that for them, and as we went back to green that was just one more reason on top of another thousand that I did not want to lose this race. I have wanted to win this one for as long as I can remember. The history of the venue and midget racing there just speaks to me. I wanted to be a part of that history. More then anything else in racing, I wanted to be a Gamblers Classic winner. If I could just be perfect for 20 more laps, there wouldn’t be a soul on this earth that could ever take that accomplishment away from me for the rest of my life.
Whew. Heavy right? Anyway. I drove my ass off like I have never driven before. I drove that car so hard that my back hurt until Wednesday, mostly just from being so rigid and tense while I was driving. We don’t have mirrors in those cars so I never let up. I always believed he was an inch off my bumper. I am proud to say I never made a mistake but as it turned out he jumped my wheel on the first lap after the restart and that gave me a sizable gap. The racing angels didn’t see the need to trouble me with any more restarts. We maintained a half straight lead through the closing laps and onto the checkered flag. I never had one thought about winning that I can remember until I got the two to go. That was the first time I thought to myself that we might win this. And….well. I guess you know the rest.
The hardest part about my love for this race was my fear that I might never have a chance to win it. I felt we had been so close before and the thought of being lost in the history of this event has haunted me. I have had so many dreams about this race. Most of my racing dreams take place at Boardwalk Hall. Both good and bad. I have dreamt of wins only to be wake up disappointed more times then I could ever count. I always dream about the Gamblers Classic. On Friday night, the night before the race I had a dream that felt all too real. I dreamt that we didn’t get the win. We had lost and it was time for that long drive home. I woke up in a panic. Once I settled myself down I assured myself it was still Saturday morning. I still had my chance. It was a fright that stayed with me all day. It wasn’t the first time I had this dream, I had the exact same one the night before that too. All too vivid. All too real.
I woke up late Sunday morning. The hotel attendant was knocking on the door, apparently we over slept.. I took in my surroundings as my mind slowly drifted into consciences. On the TV stand stood silver cup with a checkered flag stuffed in the top. The black marble base held a golden plaque with black cursive letters and an inscription “Gamblers Classic Winner”. Finally.