By Kenny Bainbridge Jr.
Tony Jankowiak 1960-1990
The Rocket was a fan favorite everywhere he went. He was quite a character and could drive a racecar better than most with almost unlimited potential. He could do just about anything he put his mind to. His determination made up for the lack of financial backing he had. Early in his career, about 15 miles from Perry Speedway, Tonys car hauler broke down. With a race to be run, Tony and brother Jake unloaded the street stock and proceeded to the racetrack with their spare tools and parts on board. When they got into the town of Warsaw, with no cars in sight, Tony stopped at a red light at the main intersection. Jake asked " why did you stop?" Tony replied "because I dont want to get a ticket." His never say quit attitude and great sense of humor wouldn't allow a broken down hauler to keep him from racing that day.
In 1983, Tony purchased a Modified from his brother in law, Tommy Druar. With the help of Gene Emser, he quickly became one of the front runners in the Lancaster Modified division. NASCAR modified champion, Richie Evans took Tony under his wing. They were a lot alike in many ways. They knew what they wanted and did whatever it took to get it. They could party with the best of them and could still win races the next day. Tony wasn't afraid to travel. You could find him anywhere they were paying big money. From Pulaski Virginia to Pocono Pennsylvania, no track was too small or too far to travel to.
Tony experienced the sober side of motor sports in October 1985. Where his mentor, Richie Evans died at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia after he clinched his 9th NASCAR Modified tour championship. Tony did what he always did. He was a racer and went back out and raced as hard as ever.
In 1987, Tony battled Tommy Druar for the track championship at Lancaster National Speedway. Tommy edged out Tony for his first of 2 consecutive championships. Tony was still traveling and winning races up and down the East Coast.
Tony racing Tommy at Lancaster Speedway in 1988
On June 10th, 1989 Tony lost his brother in law in a racing accident at Lancaster Speedway. This was the second time in Tony's career where he had to face adversity. Tony was a friend of mine. I wasn't really ever close to him until things changed the next day. Tony was no where to be found. People were worried what this devastation would do to him. As he pulled in our driveway, we were all a little relieved. He came up to me and took me for a walk. I had not spoken to anyone about the emotions going on in my head. Tony knew. He had been there before with Richie. He said to me, "I know what you're thinking. You can't quit racing. Tommy wouldn't want it that way. He would want you to go to the track next week and do your best." He told me I would have a feeling inside me that I never have felt before. In time I would learn to feel that way every time I was on the racetrack. "Don't drive over your head and do the best that you can". At the end of the race, get out of the car and say; that was for you, Tommy. "That's what Tommy would want". I went out the next week and did just what he warned me about. I was too emotional and over aggressive. I was very disappointed in myself. I just tried too hard.
From that night on, Tony became a very important part of my life. He filled a void created when Tommy died. He was there to lend some driving tips or even help with any mechanical problems I encountered. He didn't have to, not really sure why he did either, just that he did. It meant a lot to me to have someone there to look up to.
At the end of that season, Tony got his break. All his hard work was about to pay off. He was asked to drive the Bill Potts- David Riggs #99 Modified tour car for the 1990 season. They started their partnership at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida for speed weeks. Tony showed that he was worthy of the first class ride. He won a couple races and won the championship. Tony was on his way.
A few races into the modified tour schedule, found Tony and the Potts machine at the Stafford Motor Speedway for their Spring Sizzler. During the race, they lost a cylinder in the motor while maintain his position on the lead lap. This made passing lap cars difficult. After racing a car that was a few laps down, Tony finally got a run on him coming down the front straight away. The cars touched and the #99 slammed the turn 1 wall head on. The racing world would be shocked again, 10 months after Tommy left us, and Tony was to join him in Heaven. Tony left behind his wife Debbie and Children Andy and Tommy.
Everyone including myself was devastated by this tragedy.. People asked me all week long if I was going to quit racing. I was quick to say no. It wasn't even an option for me. I know Tony never talked to Tommy about what he want from me, but I knew what Tony did. 1 week later, I went back to the track and did what Tony told me to do. I drove my best, I used my head and standing in victory lane I yelled "That was for you, Tony"
The following is a story written by Ken Hangaurer Jr that appeared in the Tonawanda news on May 2nd 1990
Local Driver Jankowiak will never be forgotten
By Ken Hangauer Jr
Bad news many times arrives with a late night phone call. The loss of Tony Jankowiak was blurted from a sports page headline. For the third time in 10 months the local auto racing fraternity mourned the loss of one of its own. Last June Tommy Druar was taken away, followed in September by Donnie Pratt. Just over a week ago, sorrow came flooding back when Tony J. was fatally injured while competing at the Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut.
For this writer, remembering Tony Jankowiak washes away the tears and brings a smile to my face. He really was a in a class all by himself. In the popular vernacular he was "a piece of work". On the racetrack "the Rocket" was a young talent with almost limitless potential. Off the track nobody enjoyed a party more. TJ didn't attend parties. He brought the party with him.
Remembering his career as a race car driver, certain words come to mind. Tenacity and dedication head the list. Tony did more with less money than anyone in recent memory. Once early in his career, his hauler broke down about 15 miles from Perry Speedway. Without the parts to fix his ailing hauler, an appearance at Perry Speedway seemed an impossible task at best. Impossible unless you were Tony Jankowiak. The racecar was unloaded, tools and spare tires crammed inside. With his brother Jake riding shotgun, he simply drove his racer the final 15 miles. There was a race to be run and a little thing like a broken down hauler wasnt going to stop the Tonawanda chauffeur.
Later in his career he decided to make an assault on the NASCAR Winston modified tour. Big dollars are the watchword on the tour. That didn't deter TJ as he once again gave it a yeoman effort. His racecar carried the poignant message across the tail section. " The modified tour on a wing and a prayer".
Finally, it appeared his struggles were coming to an end when at the end of the 1989 season he was selected to pilot the New Jersey based Bill Potts machine. The Potts machine seemed to be the missing ingredient to propel the 29-year-old racer to the top of the NASCAR modified heap. Now that dream has come to an end.
Modified pit areas will never be the same without Tony Jankowiaks ready smile and his wave to join him in a joke or the latest happening in his racing plans.
Recently, Tony and I were discussing my changing of auto racing venues a couple seasons ago. At the end of the conversation he remarked about the change by saying "you don't belong to them, you belong to us". Tony, Youll always belong to us, the racers. You were the part if this fraternity for too long to be forgotten. Rest in peace, Rocket. Rest in peace.
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