The sport of drag racing has a rich and respected place in auto racing history.
Jim Zakia of Niagara Falls is a living link bridging much of drag racing's past to its present. Zakia, 61, began drag racing 45 years ago and still finds time to climb behind the wheel on occasion today.
He will relive much of local drag racing's past when Lancaster Raceway Park showcases its biggest annual drag racing meet on Sunday -- the 11th annual Anderson Equipment Sunday Niagara Nostalgia Drags and Clutch Artist Car Show.
Zakia began his driving career in 1959 at the old airport runway in Dunkirk. From there he would, as he says, "live and breathe drag racing" for the next few decades.
"I had a Corvette that I had in 1959 and the engine, a 352-cubic-inch engine, was too powerful to run on the street," Zakia recalled. "That was a big engine back in those days. So I started taking the car to the drag strip and that's how I started."
Zakia later built a 1955 Chevy that he raced at Erie (Pa.), Cayuga (Ont.) and the now defunct Niagara (Ont.) Dragway. In 1965 he built a 1933 Willys car and from 1968 to 1972 campaigned a 1948 Anglia. In 1972 he built his 1972 Opel-GT with a Chrysler Hemi engine that he will race Sunday at Lancaster.
"Back then, you built your own cars and built your own parts," Zakia said. "If you happened to find something that made you faster than everyone else, you had something on the rest of the field until they built something better.
"Today, everybody buys the technology. You need cubic dollars to race now. These days, if you have a pile of money and know what you're doing, you can go fast. But it's so expensive and that limits the number of younger people who get involved."
According to Zakia, an entire drag car could be built in the 1960s and '70s for about $10,000 to $12,000. Now it costs $10,000 just for the transmission that Zakia uses when he drives in limited races for the Kurt Villani/Gui's Lumber Super Pro entry during the Friday night races at Lancaster.
"Back when I started racing, every drag car ran pump gas and it cost between 25 and 30 cents per gallon. Today we have to use special racing fuel which currently costs $8 a gallon."
For Zakia, drag racing has always been a hobby, one at which he became quite good. He has set a combination of 28 different NHRA/IHRA elapsed time and speed records and has won numerous races. He made the finals of two NHRA national events in the A-Gas class.
"The last record I set was in either 1989 or '90, when I drove in the B-Gas class on a quarter-mile strip and set the NHRA ET (elapsed time) and speed record on the same run. I made the run in 8.32 (seconds) at 166.40 mph. Of course, now these cars go over 170."
Zakia loves the nostalgic atmosphere of the Sunday Niagara event.
"I made every one of these events except one or two," said Zakia, the proprietor of Zakia Automotive. "It's special because a lot of people I raced against in the early years aren't racing anymore. There are some who I saw and raced against every week and the years go by and suddenly you realize that you haven't seen these people for many years except when we have these reunion and nostalgia type things. This event is more about the people and good memories than it is racing."
Gates open Sunday at 8 a.m. A wide variety of vintage drag cars will be on hand either racing or on display.
Al Billes became a thorn in the side of two local IHRA Pro Modified drivers over the weekend during the IHRA Motor City Nationals in Milan, Mich. Billes, of Barrie, Ont., defeated West Seneca's Fred Hahn in the first round and then beat Mike Janis of Lancaster in the finals.
Janis did not leave Milan empty-handed as he set the IHRA Pro Modified Milan track record for both elapsed time and speed. Janis drove the one-quarter Milan strip at 6.219 (seconds) at 228.85 in qualifying.
Dave Wollaber, who won a Modified feature at Lancaster earlier this year, added to his impressive resume by winning the TQ Midget main event Sunday afternoon at Wyoming County International Speedway.
Lake Erie Speedway will have an impressive group of NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers visit on Aug. 14 to meet the fans. Rookie sensation Kasey Kahne will be on hand along with veterans Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett and a fourth driver to be named next week. Call (814) 725-3303 for ticket information.
Retired drivers Bill Dominey, Sandy MacPherson and Ted Renshaw were inducted to the Merrittville Speedway Wall of Fame on Saturday.
Wednesday night's winners at Holland Speedway: Challengers, Mike McDonald; Stingers, Dan Nellist; Hornets, Dan Brew; Queen Bees, Ruth Booth.