Note: The following is a reprint of the Racing Around column published on May 4, 2000, following the death of longtime Fonda Speedway driver Lou Lazzaro. Fonda will host a tribute race in honor of Lazzaro on Saturday.
I did not grow up a Lou Lazzaro fan.
I admit, as a kid attending the races at Fonda Speedway during the late '60s and '70s, I was among the many people who sat in the stands cheering for almost any driver but Lazzaro.
It wasn't because he was a bad driver, in fact it was just the opposite - he was a winner.
I can still remember many of the debates my friends and I used to have in school on Monday morning about the previous Saturday's races. And more often than not it came down to a Lazzaro fan saying, "Yeah, but who won? Louie. End of story."
Covering the races at Fonda Speedway has given me a different perspective of the sport and the drivers.
Now it is me that is saying things like "[Brett] Hearn is very good. He reminds me of Lazzaro when he was in his prime."
I guess you have to step back and look at the whole picture to see what is there.
"Even Louie didn't realize how big of an icon he was to the sport," Fonda Speedway promoter Ric Lucia said. "If he had accomplished the stuff he did now, he would probably be a millionaire."
His peers realized how much Lazzaro meant to the racing community. In 1993 DIRT Motorsports waived its retirement rule and enshrined him in its Hall of Fame in Weedsport while still an active driver. He also is a member of the Fonda Speedway Hall of Fame.
Lazzaro was a link to the past for many race fans and drivers. He raced against and beat them all - Corey, Danish, Wimble in the early years at Fonda. Then the next generation came through.
The cars changed from coupes and sedans with full frames under them to tubular chassis with Gremlin, Vega or Pinto bodies.
Then came today's modifieds, which bear no resemblance to cars on the street. The cars and drivers changed but the result was still the same - Lazzaro in victory lane.
The more things changed the more they stayed the same. On May 15, 1999, at the age of 64, Lazzaro did it again. He picked up what would be his final victory at Fonda Speedway.
The smile on his face was the same in 1999 as it was in 1969. Only this time the fans were cheering for him. The beer and soda cans were raised in a toast to him instead of being tossed over the fence at him.
"In my eyes, Louie was a superstar in all aspects of the word," Lucia said. "When I was a little kid, I had brought a small car to the race track and wanted to present it to Louie. The track management took my brother and I across the track to give the car to him on victory square. Louie took the time to talk with us and gave us a ride in his car. I still have the picture at home from that night."
Lazzaro also was a guiding force for Lucia after he became promoter at the speedway.
"He told me after I started here that his commitment was to Fonda Speedway," Lucia said. "If he didn't like what I was doing, he told me."
Lazzaro also was a close friend of former speedway promoter Ralph Compani and his family.
"Louie was a good friend to by my brother Ronnie and I and to Seymour Hayes," Compani said. "He said when it was his time he wanted to go with a steering wheel in his hand at Fonda Speedway. I am happy for him that he was close to getting his wish. But I am sad because I have lost a close friend and the racing world has lost a true champion. In my mind, there will never be another number four at Fonda Speedway."
Saturday night the track is planning several tributes to Lazzaro throughout the program.
"It is going to be a long, tough night for a lot of people," Lucia said. "But it will be a chance for closure for many people and drivers. Fonda Speedway will go on, but it will not be the same without Lou there anymore. I am sure there will be stories of his triumphs here for years to come."
Tribute Race Saturday
Seth Gano won the modified feature that Saturday night. The modified drivers honored Lazzaro by running 29 laps of the 30 lap feature and pulled off the track to let Lazzaro's crew bring his car in front of the grandstand to the checkers and onto Victory Lane one more time.
This Saturday the "Track of Champions" will pay tribute to Lazzaro with a 44-lap, $4,444.44-to-win, 26-car modified feature. There will also be a "DASH 4 CASH" featuring former Fonda Track Champions that are still active. They are Jack Johnson, Dave Lape, Bobby Varin, Dave Camara, Matt DeLorenzo, and Jeff Trombley. One driver will be added to the field for the eight-lap, $444.44-to-win special by a fan vote.
The racing action will be the conclusion of a day-long celebration that starts at noon and runs to 4 p.m. with a meet and greet with drivers at Checkers Out Speedway in Johnstown. Racing at the facility will be $10 Saturday afternoon.
A raffle of racing items also will be held at Checkers Out to benefit the drivers in the featured Lou Lazzaro Tribute Race. Among items to be raffled off are Dave Camara stickers, an autographed John Scarborough quarter panel, an autographed C.D. Coville panel, a Lou Lazzaro victory trophy from the 1970s, a Metal Petals sculpture made of quarter-inch thick steel tube of an old Lazzaro No. 4.
Melissa Lazzaro and Matt Noles of Rainmaker Productions have been working with the track management to bring the special night together marking the 11th anniversary of Lazzaro's 113th and final feature win at Fonda Speedway.
Jim King will return to Fonda Speedway as the evening's announcer with Mike Mallett alongside. A vintage race car display presented by the Mid State Antique Stock Car Club and the Mid State Vintage Stock Car Club will be on the fairgrounds and will turn laps on the track during the program.
Last Sunday's inclement weather forced the postponement of the $10,000-to-win, $1,000-to-start Victoria 200 at Utica-Rome Speedway. The race has been rescheduled for May 31 as the second half of a Memorial Day Weekend special that also features the Empire Super Sprints and fireworks on May 30.