Western New York boasts a loud, proud history of auto racing.
In 1908, the Buffalo-made Thomas Flyer won a sensational round-the-world race from New York to Paris. You can marvel at a Thomas Flyer at the Pierce-Arrow Museum, dedicated to an even nobler Buffalo car. In the 1950s, America’s love affair with the automobile brought us a host of racetracks including Lancaster Speedway, Ransomville Speedway and Hamburg Speedway.
And the mighty Holland Speedway.
Known as “Thunder in the Hills,” this NASCAR track is still owned by the Bennett family, who built it in 1960. There’s action there every Saturday through Sept. 10.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
You drive to the speedway through rolling farmland. Cross Cazenovia Creek, cruise through the hamlet of Holland, and you’ll find yourself in as pretty a countryside as you’ll find anywhere. From the speedway’s grandstands, you’ll see those high hills, a stunning deep green along the horizon.
Rest assured, the bucolic peace will soon be shattered. Bring earplugs. This is the loudest 100 Things stop so far next to Mohawk Place.
First came the Hornets, snarling and roaring. Next came the Midgets, tiny jalopy-like vehicles introduced to the United States in the 1930s.
Scott Pierson of Arcade races Go-Karts with one of the Midget drivers.
“They’re crazy fast. You’ll love them,” he promised.
Auto races, you learn, aren’t all about horsepower. Skill and strategy come into play. Is the driver going too fast for where he is on the track? Does he leave himself open for other drivers to pass him?
The races culminated in the Pro Chargers. Like the Hornets and Midgets, they were led onto the track by the pace car, so called because it sets the pace. It looks a parade, the pace car in front, the race cars behind it. When the pace car exits, the race is on.
In a thrilling twist, two of us from The News got to ride in the pace car. We were joined by Jeanine Mallaber, whose husband, Jim, was driving one of the cars behind us.
She was loving the ride as much as we were. “I said, ‘I don’t want to ride in the race. I want to ride in the pace car.’ ”
Pace car driver Sande Tedesco, a legend at 72, cracked jokes, sped up as he pulled off the track, and startled us by confessing, as we lurched around, that a race car might rear-end us.
“Sometimes they give me a little tap,” he smiled.
Happily, that didn’t happen. This Saturday, we heard, was relatively peaceful. The previous week had seen tons of crashes. Tedesco blamed the full moon.
Every week is unpredictable. So said fan Lynn Easton, snacking on the speedway’s famous fries with her husband and their two small fry.
Asked what drew her to the track, she didn’t hesitate.
“The adrenaline rush,” she declared.
She added: “My kids kept telling me it was going to rain. I said, ‘Don’t do this to me on race day.’ ”
Racing is fun for families. Poignantly, though, Tedesco said times are changing.
“The car countdown is way down,” he said.
He grew up on the track. “Our Saturday night used to be coming here, or to the roller rink. But kids now, they don’t want to go to the races. They want to stay home and play video games.”
That’s a pity.
Nothing screams summer louder than spotting, from the Thruway, cars lined up to race at the Lancaster Speedway. Or heading, on a Saturday night, to Thunder in the Hills. Breathe it all in. The country air. The heat of engines and asphalt. The simple choice of Busch or Bud.
The pine trees on the horizon grow dramatic as darkness falls. At night’s end, the winners take their bows. They thank their wives and pose for pictures with their children and grandchildren. Applauding, you feel a glow.
Such sweet thunder, to lift a line from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Long may it rumble.