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Larry Ott: Puglia family carries on at Lancaster drags

A  little over a year ago both Vic Puglia Jr., and Mike Puglia could have never imagined experiencing a night of IHRA drag racing competition at Lancaster National Speedway and Dragway that didn't include the companionship of the late Vic Puglia Sr. Unfortunately and for a very tragic reason, they've had to carry on without Puglia Sr.'s presence.

Puglia Sr., 65, died suddenly from a heart attack, July 16, 2016.

Puglia Sr., was the father of Puglia Jr., and the brother of Mike. The father-son pair were inseparable in racing and in life. Vic Jr., drove a very fast dragster that was maintained by his father who also served as his son's drag racing mentor. The team won two Lancaster Quick 16 titles together in 2010 and 2014.

Puglia Jr., 32, has driven dragsters but made a recent switch to drag bikes due to engine woes with the dragster. Mike is a longtime drag bike competitor.

Utilizing courage, determination and racing in memory of their fallen family member, Vic Jr., and Mike have discovered that mending a broken engine is nothing compared to trying to mend broken hearts. The family has carried on admirably and their comeback was sweetened quite a bit when Puglia Jr., won the Bikes/Sleds class eliminations two weeks ago at Lancaster aboard a very fast drag bike. The team is determined to stay on track.

"It's been a very difficult year and it's been like learning this all over again," Puglia Jr. said. "My father was my mentor, he was my best friend, my companion. We spent every day together. We enjoyed every day together. So the first time I got back in the dragster and hit the loud pedal and he wasn't by my side, it was starting all over again. It really was. Last year, the day before we were suppose to go to a race, my dad said he didn't feel good and it led to the worst circumstances you could have imagined.

"After his death I took about a month off and I was hurting. I was really upset. But once I put myself together I knew what he wanted and what I wanted. I got back out there."

Puglia Jr. had been campaigning his dragster until recent engine problems surfaced. His uncle, Mike came to the rescue offering his nephew a drag racing alternative, drag bikes. At least for now Puglia Jr., is racing on two wheels instead of four. He is part of Mike's two-bike team. Puglia Jr., was able to win at Lancaster two weeks ago.

"We've come back out and my Uncle Mike is my new crew chief," Puglia Jr., said. "He's been most willing, and he loves this stuff. I'm out here now on two wheels. On July 3 of this year at Lebanon Valley at the NHRA divisional we hurt the motor again in the dragster. We broke the block in half so my uncle said why don't you try to run the bike? I said alright.

"So he gave me a crash course and he basically said, squeeze the throttle, hang on and don't hit the ground. That's what I've been rolling with. I never rode a drag bike before. The biggest difference from the dragster is that it's almost like driving a Pro Stock car. You have to hit your shift points and stay focused. You have to balance, line yourself up straight, stay in the groove. It's all different. I was used to being in the center of the groove. Now I'm in the left groove. If I bite asphalt here on the bike it's less forgiving. I'm having a blast and I couldn't be more grateful to my uncle for giving me this opportunity."

At Lancaster  last Friday, Mike was also busy tuning up his own drag bike for the night's competition.

"Vic's (Jr.) a racer," Mike said. "If you're a racer you can ride anything if it's set up right. He's done very well. I've been racing since the early 70's."

Mike says that his late brother might be very nervous if he gazed down from above and saw his son on a drag bike.

"He'd have to change his underwear after one of his son's bike runs," Mike laughed.

WALL OF FAME MEMBERS SMILING

On Aug. 5., Lancaster held its third annual drag racing "Wall of Fame" induction.

"We just inducted our third class last week," said Rob Kozak the founder of the Wall of Fame. "I started it in 2015 basically because of my dad. I started coming here the year I was born in 1971. My dad was running Comp Eliminator. Basically when I was a kid this was like my home away from home. A lot of people around Western New York know a lot of famous stick and ball sports type heroes and we have a lot of people here in Western New York that have accomplished a lot through auto racing whether it's drag racing or stock car racing. So it was just a way for me to honor my childhood and my childhood heroes here at Lancaster."

Placed in this year's class was safety and tow truck operator John Drysdale and drivers Donny "D.J." Raiser, Joe Schmitz and Paul Zgoda. Zgoda was at Lancaster Friday, serving as crew chief for the family run Alcohol Funny Car now driven by his son,  Chris. Paul drove various drag class cars during his 51-year career that included Alcohol Funny Cars.

"I'm still doing everything I've done for the last 51 years except driving," Zgoda, 70, said. "You get old and some of your stuff don't work too good anymore. I think I hit almost every track on the East Coast during my career. I retired two years ago as a driver. I still have my racing license. I'm teaching my son now. I still got work to do."

Schmitz, 70, was also at Lancaster Friday.

"My career lasted over 30 some years between racing and my speed shop," Schmitz said. "I loved it. I ran a lot of different tracks. Not only did I put in a lot of time as a racer going down the drag strip here but I had my speed shop and I also sponsored cars, not only in drag racing but in stock cars too. I love drag and stock car racing. I'm a motor-head at heart."

Inducted in 2015 were: Mike Mercurio, Rich Deney, Jim Zakia, Jim Oddy, Jim Janis and Frank Brown. Comprising the 2016 class were: Alex Friesen, Gary Westfall, Marc Schifferle and Fred Hahn.

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