Robert Staebell eased slowly into retirement after 38 years with National Fuel, but behind the wheel of his torrid-red Dodge Charger, this grandfather is all about horsepower.
"Jordan tells me all the time that he blames me for his love of speed," said Staebell, 73, as he waited to race his 27-year-old grandson on opening night of Grudge Drags at Lancaster National Speedway.
The two have a healthy rivalry spawned by the smell of burning rubber, spent fuel and the promise of charbroiled Texas dogs waiting beyond the finish line.
"We started going to the speedway when I was still in college, but I couldn't afford to buy a real fast car," said Jordan Wimmer, Staebell's grandson. "So we went back and forth. I won about 50 percent of the time when he had his Pontiac GT, but then he got the Charger."
There is nothing formal about Wednesday's Grudge Drags at Lancaster speedway. Participants race whom they want as many times as they want for $5 a run. Lines of cars waiting to race stretch down the dirt road that leads to the track. The eighth-of-a-mile races are part of a formula that contributed to the resurgence of the 59-year-old speedway on Gunnville Road, said Timothy R. Packman, track president.
"Years ago they raced on Ohio Street," said Packman. "It was illegal as all heck. Lancaster is where the average person can pull in their Mustang, Civic or Firebird, line up and go down the strip for $5. The price has not changed in years."
There are between 700 and 850 short-track racing facilities in the United States, said Stewart Doty, editor of Racing Promotion Monthly, a trade newsletter in its 48th year of publication headquartered in Merrill, Wisc.
"It's not easy to determine how many short tracks are operating at a given time because they close and reopen, close and reopen. There's a certain lack of science and statistics in this grassroots industry," said Doty, 63. "The greatest number that operated 15 years ago was 1,100. In the great scheme of business, that's a pretty small industry."
America's short-track racing proliferated after World War II when "people began to have fun again," said Doty. "When the boys came home they continued a romance with the American automobile."
Packman has a long history with the short track that started years before he took the job as president. The grandson of a potato farmer in Newstead, Packman started at the speedway in 1980 flipping burgers at food stand.
"This was my first job ever, cooking in the concession stand," said Packman, 52, sitting at his office desk that overlooks the track, grandstand and midway.
Packman drove a blue 1969 Chevrolet Nova in his senior year at Clarence High School. After he graduated in 1982, he studied broadcast communications for more than a year at Florida Southern College until he realized what he really needed was to grow up.
"My focus was off. I had terrible grades," recalled Packman. "I joined the Navy and spent four years as a signalman. It taught me self-discipline, which I needed."
It wasn't until 1996 – after he graduated from SUNY Buffalo State College with a degree in broadcast communications – that Packman started turning the wheels on his professional career as a race track pit spotter for CBS Sports. He then spent 15 years working in a variety of communications jobs for NASCAR stars including Richard Childress, Casey Mears, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Packman was working for NASCAR.com when Earnhardt Sr. died on Feb. 18, 2001, during the Daytona 500. Packman recalled the exact date. "I still have my last interview I recorded of him," he said.
Packman comes from a family of racing enthusiasts. His father, stepfather and brothers all raced at Lancaster. His uncle works there now as a starter. In 2015, when Packman was offered the top job at Lancaster speedway, he was up for the challenge.
"Receipts were down, attendance was down, the car count was down. One of the first things we did was to put together a stock car rulebook," said Packman. "And over three seasons, we made more than $500,000 in improvements."
Packman, still at his desk, reached down to adjust the ice bag on his foot. Earlier that day, while helping unload a delivery of concessions, he dropped a flat of cola on it. He thinks a bone may be broken, but this is opening day and there is no time for a doctor's visit.
The lure of the oval
Some racing fans buy fast cars, but many who compete at Lancaster's short track build cars. It fulfills their need to be clever, smarter and faster.
"You might work two to three nights a week on your car," said David Kozlowski, 47, of Williamsville. "The sport will encompass you. Inches count when you're going fast on a closed track. You're touching and bumping and rubbing. That's the thrill of it all."
Kozlowski, who formerly raced an '83 Chevrolet Malibu, now drives an open-wheel stock car, the kind of vehicle you will never see on the open road. For one thing, it has no speedometer. With 20 cars traveling at the same speed, you don't need one, Kozlowski said.
But it takes more than drivers to get this show started.
Steven Rembecki is "a burnout guy," who sends his driver into the staging area to wait for the lights to shine green and start the drag race. Burnouts melt rubber, allowing tires to stick to the surface, enhancing traction and speed.
"I watch for a certain thing, the smoke to start rolling, not billowing, out the back of the tire," said Rembecki.
Daniel Gardinier, 61, works days in the parts department of a local dealership. Gardinier brings his '86 Chevrolet Chevette to the track to "play with it every once in a while," he said proudly. He's worked on cars since age 11, and is currently installing a Corvette engine in a 1952 Studebaker pickup.
The small-track industry draws its lifeblood from baby boomers like Gardinier, said Doty, the newsletter editor. The popularity of the sport peaked in the '80s and '90s, he said, when many boomers were in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
"As long as we have baby-boomers, small-tracks will survive," said Doty. "Since 2008, our bell curve was a little behind the general economy. We're a working-class sport, so when people are unemployed, the number of entrants and fans diminish. On top of that we have the graying of the boomer generation and the millennials' lack of interest in cars."
Snow and rain delayed the opening of Lancaster's speedway by more than two weeks this year, heightening the anticipation for fans and drivers including Staebell and his grandson.
"Back again this year," one of the security guards observed as Staebell and Wimmer inched their way along the long lines of cars waiting to race. Wimmer, a registered nurse at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, was late getting to the speedway, causing anxious moments for his grandfather.
At the first checkpoint, mandatory trunks checks were conducted for guns, knives and alcohol. Further down, liability waivers were signed, $5 bills collected. On this night, the majority of drivers who raced were in cars, but motorcycles, snowmobiles and mopeds are also allowed to compete.
As grandfather and grandson head for the staging area, Staebell yelled out: "Check out my taillights, Jordan. See if they're working."
Don't let his bravado fool you. Staebell really wants his grandson to win. That's why he gave him the gravel-filled burlap bags to place in the trunk above each rear wheel to increase traction. As added assurance, he also told his grandson to let some air out of his tires.
At the last second, Wimmer adds a burnout. Staebell does not. The black smoke means dollar bills in rubber, he said.
Seconds later Wimmer finished first.
His grandfather broke out in a smile.
"You got me," Staebell said. "In for another?"