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WNY Auto Racing by Larry Ott: Hal Lawrence has done it all

In 1948, Hal Lawrence’s father took him to a Midget car race at Buffalo’s Civic Stadium. From that evening on, that boy developed a love of auto racing that has brned all these years later.

“On that day I was forever bitten and smitten by the racing bug,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence still is involved in local racing. The Grand Island resident the pace-car driver at Lancaster National Speedway and Dragway, and he will lead the field to the green flag in the 27th annual Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Tour Tommy Druar/Tony Jankowiak Memorial 110 on Saturday.

If there is an individual who has pretty much done it all in local motorsports, it’s Lawrence. He has been a driver, race official, car owner, sponsor, promoter, flagman, pace-car driver and television race spotter for CBS Sports.

He has worn many hats over the years and recalls a moment when he wore them all at the same time.

“When I was with the Can-Am TQ Midget Club in 1990, we did a 10-day race tour through Nova Scotia and other parts of Eastern Canada with 21 teams,” Lawrence said. “Due to a few different reasons some of our race officials couldn’t make the trip so I ended up being race director, announcer, handicapper and I also was the liaison between the club and the different tracks we went to.”

Lawrence began driving stock cars in 1954 at the age of 17. He won a heat race at both Cuba Lake and Akron that year before moving in 1955 to Civic Stadium, where he captured that season’s Jalopy point championship. He ended his driving days in 1959.

In 1964, Lawrence became a flagman at Lancaster. That led to an appointment as the chief flagger with the Can-Am group. From then until the late 1980’s Lawrence traveled with the Can-Am group as far north as Nova Scotia to as far south as Daytona. His long association with TQ Midget racing also saw him become a promoter for two years in the mid-1990s, teaming with Harry Macy and Emily Casey for the indoor TQ Midget races that took place inside the Niagara Falls Convention Center.

At his daytime job, Lawrence worked as the promotions director for the Courier-Express, and in the late 1970s he oversaw a special promotion.

“I arranged to have four Indy Car drivers come to Buffalo and visit local schools where they talked to the kids about safe driving and responsibility,” he said. “I brought those drivers to the FOAR Score meeting too. It was a very special event for me.”

Lawrence has been visible through the years as a flagman, a position that resulted in his two most special memories.

“I’ve flagged at a total of 30 tracks throughout the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “I remember about 1969 or so, the Astro Spiral stunt car came to Lancaster one night. I was on the flag stand that night with Bruce Fleischman.

“During the stock car race, during an incident one of the cars climbed up the ramp and hit the base of our flag stand. It shook the stand hard and I went up in the air but was able to land on my feet. Bruce got flipped upside down and was hanging from the flag stand by his legs. I reached down and grabbed him to keep him from falling onto the track below.

“That was the last time Bruce ever got back up into a flag stand but I’ve been climbing back into them ever since.”

That wasn’t the last near-miss for Lawrence.

“My other big memory was when I was flagging at Holland one night long ago, there was a scramble on the front stretch and the car driven by Danny Knoll Sr., eventually got launched into the air and came up to the flag stand and his car ripped the flags right out of my hand. I was OK but my flags were ruined.

“I went home and my wife Peggy made me a new set for the next week. She passed away in 1989 but I still have those flags and use them to this day in memory of her. She was a great gal.”

While rarely on the flag stand anymore, Lawrence did fill in for a night at Ransomville Speedway last season and earlier this season at Lancaster.

This season, Lawrence has added another responsibility to his career list − pace car driver for the Race of Champions.

While Lawrence has worked with numerous race promoters over the years, there are three he cites as being extra special to him: former Lancaster promoter Ed Serwacki, Holland co-founder/owner Ron Bennett and current ROC owner Joe Skotnicki.

“I worked for the rest but those three are the best,” he said.

Lawrence, who also is a charter fishing boat captain, summed up his long and involved career.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about my life and racing. I am so proud to have included auto racing as a big part of my life and I’m not about to give it up now.”

‘For sale’

The Bicknell and Williamson families, co-owners of Merrittville Speedway, announced that unless sold before next season, the Thorold, Ont., dirt track will not open in 2017. The track has been in operation for the last 65 years. The Bicknell/Williamson tandem has operated it for the 14.

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