The local dirt tracks haven’t even run their first races of the season, and Rocky Warner of Gloversville has already locked up the Comeback Driver of the Year award.
You might wonder how a driver coming off the most successful season of his career — a 29-win campaign that included a victory in the sportsman race at the “Finale at the Fairgrounds” at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse last October — could even by a candidate for Comeback Driver of the Year.
In mid-January, Warner, 34, was lying in a hospital bed at Albany Medical Center, following six hours of life-saving heart surgery. Last Sunday, he was standing in victory lane at Utica-Rome Speedway.
Not a lot was expected in the winter of 2015 when car owner Jake Spraker announced he had teamed up with Warner to run a 602 sportsman at the local tracks. Warner has shown promise in recent years, but that was at tracks like Glen Ridge Motorsports Park and Fonda Speedway, and Spraker wasn’t committing to anything other than a two-night-a-week schedule.
That lasted for about a month, until Warner got on an early hot streak and convinced Spraker to let him take the car to some of the sportsman series at tracks throughout New York. Spraker conceded, and off they went.
When it was done, the team had 29 victories, a slew of titles (both at individual tracks and several series), and that big win at Syracuse, even though Spraker and Warner were denied the opportunity to bask in the glory of a Syracuse victory. James Michael Friesen won the sportsman race, but two days later, his motor was found to be illegal, giving the victory to Warner, who had finished second.
Warner suffered an emotional setback in November, when his father Don died following a long illness, but in January, he was looking forward to banquets and personal apperances befitting of a champion.
But one morning in January, while in the shower, he felt what he called “excruciating” pain in his chest. When the pain didn’t subside, he went to Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, was quickly examined and sent right to Albany Med. Doctors found an aortic aneurysm, and Warner underwent six hours of surgery. Following the surgery, he was kept on a ventilator and sedated because of a collapsed lung.
“I had never had any chest pains, nothing,” said Warner earlier this week. “I had been playing football with my kids the day before, and we were going out for breakfast that morning after I showered. The doctors told me if I hadn’t gone right to the hospital, I probably wouldn’t have been alive by noon.”
In March, Warner made an appearance at a car show at the former Rotterdam Square Mall and pronounced himself ready to race.
He took a shakedown trip to Canandaigua Speedway for a two-night show last Friday and Saturday to get the car sorted out.
“I stunk on Friday,” he said. “The car was off and I finished sixth. We stayed up there Friday night and went to Troyer’s [Troyer’s Engineering, which build race car chassis] on Saturday, scaled the car and figured some things out. On Saturday night, I started 21st, got shuffled back to last, but then finished fifth, and I was super happy. Then everything went my way on Sunday.
“I’m still not 100 percent. I’d say about 80 or 85 percent. There’s no pain, but I’m still a little weak on my right side where they had to cut through the chest muscle.
“After the surgery, I was out of it for about a week, then I went home and didn’t leave the house for about a month, except for food. But everything seemed to go so fast, I didn’t really think about the operation much. I got so much support, calls, cards, on Facebook. My fiancée [Tami-Jean Mcloughlin] was there to help me out, and it really helped the time go faster.”
And beginning this weekend, Warner will be following a three-nights-of-racing routine, competing at Glen Ridge, Fonda and Utica-Rome. He’s especially interested in the lucrative point fund that has been established for sportsman drivers who are loyal to Glen Ridge and Fonda, which are both being run by Demitraszek Enterprises this season.
“You’d have to be a knucklehead not to go for that,” he laughed. “I think running some of the series races and going to different tracks last year made me a better driver, and we’re still going to travel some, but my main focus is going to be on Glen Ridge, Fonda and Utica-Rome on Sunday.”
And probably on enjoying life.
FRIESEN JOINS FIELD
Defending Fonda Speedway modified champion Stewart Friesen, who will be doing his Saturday night racing at Orange County Speedway in Middletown this season, will be spending his Friday nights at Albany-Saratoga in the Halmar International No. 44.
That decision gives Albany-Saratoga three future Hall of Famers — Brett Hearn, Ken Tremont Jr. and Friesen — as Friday night regulars. Hearn and Tremont are first and third, respectively, on the all-time Albany-Saratoga modified win list.
“Malta has a lot of competition and we’re looking to be as consistant as possible,” said Friesen in a release.
AROUND THE TRACKS
The green flag drops at all four area speedway this weekend, with Albany-Saratoga and Glen Ridge in action tonight, and Fonda and Lebanon Valley on Saturday.
The modifieds will be running for $3,000 to win tonight at Albany-Saratoga and on Saturday at Lebanon Valley.
If you’re heading to Fonda Saturday, don’t forget that they’ve changed the starting time to 7:30 p.m.
More than 125 drivers took part in last Sunday’s practice at Albany-Saratoga. The interesting part of the test-and-tune session was that sportsman driver Robert Bublak Jr. turned a faster lap (16.467 seconds) than Neil Stratton, who had the best modified time of 16.588. And there are fans who swear they can tell the difference between a car with a crate motor and a 358 modified.
A vicious accident last weekend at Canaidaigua has ended the racing career of a veteran Western New York driver. Charlie Donk, 54, suffered several fractures of his neck and back, a broken sternum and a separated shoulder. Through social media, his family announced he will retire from racing.
A handful of local drivers were at Utica-Rome Speedway last Sunday for the opening-night Twin 20s for modifieds. Ronnie Johnson, also racing for Spraker this season, finished sixth and seventh in the two features, while Danny
Varin was 10th in the first feature and second in the nightcap.