When Lancaster National Speedway and Dragway opened its International Hot Rod Association weekly drag racing season Friday, all the familiar sounds of the sport were there, including the roar of the engines and the squealing of tires doing burnouts.
There was another sound, however, that was back after missing several seasons. It was the voice of veteran racing announcer Mike Paz.
The versastile Paz had been a pleasant, entertaining and knowledgeable race announcer before his life took a major turn on March 29, 2009, when he suffered a life-threatening stroke.
Down but not out, after a few years of intense therapy, Paz has returned to the microphone at Lancaster and other tracks. He returned to his regular weekly drag racing assignment on Friday at Lancaster for the first time since 2004.
His voice was sweet music to those veteran members of the local drag racing fraternity who hoped and prayed for his recovery. Paz got the opportunity to return to Lancaster when John Odoj left due to commitments outside of racing.
For Paz, his return is the best medicine he has received during his long road back.
“Seven years ago, on March 29, 2009, is when I first had my health issue,” said Paz. “It’s been tough, I’ve got to tell you. The thing I remember is how close to death I was. That’s the problem. But the biggest thing is how far back I’ve come back.”
Sitting in the officials tower Friday was Paz’s friend Michelle Hardaway, whom Paz made special mention of.
“There’s a woman sitting right over there that’s been with me though all of it,” said Paz. “She’s been there with me from the very first day I had my stroke and she’s been there ever since then.”
Paz has announced at various auto racing venues locally and nationally over the years, including Lancaster, Holland and Empire Dragway as well at Watkins Glen, Daytona International Speedway and many others. He has been on the mic handling drag racing, stock car and road racing assignments, making him one of the most well-rounded announcers in the sport. In addition to his Lancaster duties, he has a busy season ahead.
“I will announce the three spectator race events at Watkins Glen this season, including the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, the NASCAR weekend and the vintage weekend there, so I got all those lined up,” he said.
Paz is very humble about his valuable contributions to the sport. While an effective race announcer is vital to the success of a track’s race program, Paz says he is only a part of the overall presentation and should not be considered in the main spotlight.
“I really can’t take all the credit,” he said. “The fans aren’t here to see me or hear me. They’re here to watch the races. I’m lucky enough to watch the races for free. I’ve got the best seat in the house. One of the reasons I do this stuff is because I have fun.
“For me this is the best medication I could have. I laid on my back for so long wondering if I would ever do this again and it’s come back.”
Paz did make one miscalculation Friday. While it is true that he is not the main attraction, judging by all the well-wishers who stopped by the tower to shake his hand and welcome him back, it was clear that Paz underestimated his popularity and importance to Lancaster drag.
On Lancaster’s newly rebuilt and resurfaced all-concrete drag strip Friday, Grand Island’s Michael Mallare nearly had a double victory evening. After defeating Jamie Stoneman of Clarence in the Top 8 final, Mallare made it to the Top ET class final, losing to Churchville’s Thomas Fletcher, who is the son of 96-time National Hot Rod Association national event winner Dan Fletcher.
Mallare spoke about his night and the new dragstrip surface at Lancaster. The local drag racing jury has been deliberating about the new surface, with some drag racers sitting on the sideline taking a wait and see attitude. Mallare’s was among the 100 or so cars that came out Friday to race.
“It’s been 25 years since I raced and I came back into it last year,” said Mallare. “The track’s getting there. The more cars that go down the track and the more rubber that gets laid down will help. It’s coming around. It’s going to take some time. There are a couple little bumps and bruises out there but it will get corrected.
“The effort by the ownership here to bring this track back is fantastic. I’ve never seen the track in as good of shape as it is this year. They’re taking the proper steps to make it a great facility. I think it’s very positive.”
Rochester’s John Cira Jr. also had a noteworthy night, winning in the Street class over Lancaster’s Dan Kujawski before losing to defending Mod ET champion Dale Eckert of South Wales in that class final. Alan Fletcher was victorious in the Bikes/Sleds class.
During the program, Lancaster President Tim Packman spoke about the new surface, which also included repaving of portions of the stock car oval.
“The response from the stock car drivers last week after the stock car opener was phenomenal,” Packman said. “The turnout in the number of cars has been great. On the drag racing side we had our first test-and-tune session last Tuesday and we have more drivers coming out to join the points tonight. Some drivers are waiting and watching but we know we’ve had more drag racing guys sign up for points in the last week then we’ve had in the last month. That tells me that on both the oval and the drag side that the racers want to race here this year.”