The Szewczyk family has been a fixture in the drag racing program at Lancaster Speedway the past several years.
Through their "Headknocker"-named race cars, fans have come to enjoy the racing efforts of this close-knit and popular team. Brothers Dan, Rick and Ron Szewczyk have scored wins and thrilled the fans at the Gunnville Road track.
Like anyone involved in the sport, the Szewczyks know there are inherent risks associated with steering high-powered drag racing machinery down a strip at high speed.
Unfortunately, this risky reality struck this family hard at Lancaster Aug. 4 when Dan Szewczyk was involved in a scary and violent accident. The 62-year-old Lackawanna driver is currently recovering in the Erie County Medical Center from undisclosed multiple injuries. While he is generally improving, the road to complete recovery appears to be a challenging one.
Dan was driving the "Calamity Jane," a 1933 Willy's coup owned by Orchard Park's Mark Korzaniewski in the Supercharged AA/Gasser of America class at Lancaster as part of the track's annual Sunday Nostalgia Weekend.
At full song, "Calamity Jane's" engine produces between 1,000-1,200 horsepower.
In the first time trial session of the day, Dan crossed the finish line with a great run that was executed in 4.95 seconds at 138.95 mph. Then it went all wrong. Without warning the car went off onto the grass and soon began to barrel-roll, finally coming to rest in a brush line at the end of the track. The accident left Dan injured and on his way to the hospital. "Calamity Jane" was heavily damaged.
"Calamity Jane" had passed a recent NHRA safety certification inspection, and the roll cage held up well in the wreck. It was an example of how far drag racing safety has developed in the more recent times. Facts will show, that while accidents happen from time to time, Lancaster records indicate that the track has a solid safety record.
Korzaniewski, 60, described the violent turn of events.
"We staged the car as usual and then he launched the car," Korzaniewski said. "It was a beautiful run. It was a typical run for the car. He went down through the traps and as the car continued going down the shutdown area all of a sudden it veered to the left and that's all I saw of the car until I got down there on my golf cart and saw the debris field.
"The car was nowhere in sight. It flipped over the bushes. There was strewn debris everywhere for about 30 yards. When I got to the car it was upside down. From eyewitness reports, I was told that the car actually was flipping end-over end. It hit once on the nose, flipped up in the air and came down on the very rear of the car and bounced and that's went it went up and out over the bushes."
Szewczyk initially was knocked out but regained consciousness moments later. At present he has no recollection of the accident, according to Korzaniewski.
"The car is a total loss," Korzaniewski said.
Szewczyk last week underwent back surgery. When Szewczyk sat in a recliner this past Saturday, it was the first time he was out of his hospital bed since the accident.
Korzaniewski says the accident cannot erase the fun and special memories that he has had with Dan over many years.
"We actually got together as a team this year, but I've known Dan for quite a bit longer," Korzaniewski said. "We were having a great time and we were actually leading the points in the PDRA (Professional Drag Racing Association) and we were way ahead of the other guys.
"There is just a few more races to go this season and we were in good shape to perhaps win the championship. The Lancaster race was not a PDRA event but just a special date that we added to our schedule.
"I've been involved in drag racing since I was 18 years old," Korzaniewski said. "I plan on coming back, but first we've got to get Dan up and going with his recovery. Whether he ever drives again or not will be determined later. If not, I have a feeling he'll be running around the pit area turning the wrenches on race cars. It's in his blood.
"Dan just wants to extend heartfelt thanks for everybody who has been praying for him," Korzaniewski said. "He wants to tell people, ‘I'm getting better and don't worry.' There will be better days ahead.
"His family have been a loyal and big part of the drag racing scene for many years. They've also built cars for many people and help a lot of people out when those other people needed help."
A site to help the family defray medical expenses has been setup at facebook.com/donate.