Dr. Joe Machnik on stock car racing: “It was the greatest, most fun, exciting adrenalin kick experience of my life.” (Photo courtesy of Joe Machnik)
By Michael Lewis
For 10-year-old Joe Machnik, it was love at first sight.
In 1953, his father took him to the New London-Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut and Machnik became mesmerized with stock car racing as he was about soccer.
But unlike his involvement with the beautiful game, it took Machnik decades before he got an opportunity to pursue one of his sporting loves.
Dr. Joe – yes, he has a doctorate — has done it all in a stellar soccer career.
Assistant national team coach.
Soccer camp owner and pioneer.
FIFA match commissioner.
TV officiating guru.
Machnik, who will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Annual General Meeting in Orlando Saturday night, might have had his most exhilarating moments in stock car racing. He raced from 1989-1994.
“It was the greatest, most fun, exciting adrenalin kick experience of my life,” he said.
The Brooklyn-born Machnik was introduced to stock cars, when his family visited distant relatives who had a farm in Old Lyme, Conn. in 1932 He said his father thought it would be “cool” to visit because he had grown up in the city. On one Saturday night, the Machniks watched races at Waterford, which opened two years prior.
“I just fell in love with it,” Machnik said in a recent interview. So, he and his father visited tracks in and around New York City, including Dexter Park on the Queens-Brooklyn border, Long Island (Freeport and Islip), Roosevelt Field (New Jersey) and even the Polo Grounds (Manhattan), which was turned into a stock car racing track for three summers after the Mets left in 1964.
“I never missed one,” he added. “When I grew up and was a little bit financially secure and my children were safe, I decided I needed to try this because it was always something I always wanted to do.”
So, in 1989 Machnik pursued his dream in a new racing level that was called Strictly Stocks, which was an entry-level low-cost division. He bought a car and made a deal with a local service station that would service the vehicle.
Needless to say, the learning curve was steep. Machnik was 46 at the time and most of his competitors were in their 20s.
“I was racing against kids who started on go kart racing when they were three-, five-, six-years,” he said. “The first year we really struggled. The second year we got a little better. We learned some of the secrets. Each year the car and crew [improved]. Racing is a combination of four things. It’s car, driver, crew and pocket book. I was the driver and chief financial officer.”
At the time, Machnik was an assistant to U.S. national team head coach Bob Gansler as their side qualified Italia ’90, its first World Cup appearance in 40 years. The night before the team’s final World Cup warm-up match against Partizan Belgrade at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn., May 29, 1990, Machnik brought the majority of the squad to Waterford.
“They got onto the track. They got introduced to the crowd and they got a kick out of it and we still won the game the next day, 1-0,” he said.
By their third year, Machnik and company had become competitive, winning the track’s Sportsman of the Year.
“I joke that sportsman of the year is given to the driver who spends the most money and accomplishes the least,” Machnik said with a chuckle.
He also won a time trial June 6, 1992. “We all were pumped up that we did so well,” he said. “I didn’t win the race that day, I was third or fourth, but winning the race was another story. It takes a lot of courage. You’ve got to make moves and take risks that you maybe 21-year-old takes them, but 50-year-olds don’t.”
But that glory did not last long. The next day, Machnik and his crew ventured to Thompson Speedway in northeast Connecticut, which was a larger track (5/8’s of a mile) than Waterford (3/8’s).
“The straightway is much longer, the speeds are greater, and you had to make the adjustments to the track because the rules were different,” Machnik said.
Adjustments such as adding 200 lbs. to the car and changing the transmission.
Machnik qualified for the 25-lap feature but started in the back because he was not a regular at the track.
“I was making good progress when I didn’t stay down low enough, got caught in the middle, got touched, went sideways into the wall and did five and half rollovers,” he said.
Now, that had to be pretty harrowing.
“When it’s happening, you say to yourself, ‘Oh crap.’ You just don’t know how it’s going to end,” Machnik said. “The cars have roll bars and fortunately I was strapped in very well. I did get a concussion, mostly from hitting my hit on the nearest roll bar but that’s the roll bar that protects the roof of the car from caving in. The strap marks on my chest, they were very pronounced, almost like bruises from the being strapped in so tight and rolling like that.”
An ambulance was called onto the track for Machnik, who turned out to be OK.
However, he didn’t race again for six to eight weeks.
Quite appropriately, Machnik’s car number was 46, which was his age when he started.
“I was 46-years-old when I started and all my lucky numbers, 1, 11, 13, all my number were taken,” he said. “I picked 46.”
Rewards in that division certainly were not monetary because the winner of the night’s feature would pocket $300. Machnik said a typical night at the track would cost between $400-$500, when adding in entry and crew fees, gas and sometimes two tires.
“Fees cost money and handling costs even more money, so you could blow an engine and it would cost you $2,500 to replace it,” he added. “That was a long time ago. That was an expensive hobby. It cost probably about $20,000 back then. I didn’t really have any sponsors. The No. 1 Soccer Camp was the principle sponsor. You weren’t doing it for money.”
On hot summer nights, Machnik and other drivers would lose as much as 10 pounds while driving.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “You’re wearing a fire suit and fire-proof underwear and socks, shoes and you’re in a helmet. They’d say, ‘Ok, get ready. Your division gets to race,’ but there’s another race going. You’re in a car and you’re waiting to get on the track. Sometimes something happens on the track while and you could wait 10, 15, 20 minutes. Sometimes if there’s a really bad thing the ambulance gets involved. It’s possible they have to wait for another ambulance before they can restart. It happened more than once. So, you’d be in the car sweating like crazy. I drank lots of water, lots of club soda. I’d come home 7 to 10 lbs. lighter.
“The big drivers, the NASCAR drivers that you see Sunday on TV, hey hydrate while they’re driving. Their races last for hours.”
Strictly stock races were much shorter than other divisions. To qualify for a feature, drivers needed to race in heats, which would last eight or 10 laps for three or four preliminary runs.
“That’s not very far,” Machnik said. “You’re looking at a third-of-a-mile track. You’re looking at the most three miles. So, you’ve got to get to the front early because only the first five cars qualify to get into the feature.”
Features would last at least 20 laps, a minimum of about seven miles. Machnik once attempted a 100-lap race at Thompson Speedway, but his car’s transmission blew out.
Any type of car racing brings the possibility of accidents.
“You would never say that you were scared, so to speak,” Machnik said. “There was a reason why you were sweating beyond just the heat. There was big adrenalin. Just picture yourself driving 70-80 miles an hour down a straightway into a turn and you’re two inches from the car in front of you and the car next to you you’re scraping the side.”
While the Machnik family spent many a Saturday and even Saturday at the track, their interest waned after Dr. Joe’s 1992 accident.
His wife Barbara “wasn’t crazy about it, but she tolerated it,” he said.
“After a year or two, she didn’t want to spend the entire day on Saturday at the track. It actually took all weekend because on Friday night you’d be at the garage putting last-minute changes and preparations to the car, adjusting this and adjusting that. Saturday you’d be all day at the track,” he added. “And on Sunday you would go back to the garage to assess the damage. So, it became a real weekend, took time away from your family.”
Machnik admitted he would love to race again, but he realizes he has limitations at the age of 75.
“It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done,” he said. “I dream about going back to the track and doing it again or even being a car loader, where if I couldn’t drive I would support some young kid driving.”
He lives in South Carolina and the nearest track is 90 miles away in Myrtle Beach.
“I just can’t do it,” he said. “I have too much else going on. If I was 46 years old again …”
A lot of stuff going on, indeed.
Machnik still has his No. 1 Soccer Camps.
He is FOX Sports’ Soccer rules analyst.
And then there is this dinner in Orlando Saturday night where Dr. Joe will be honored for his accomplishments in another sport in which he has made a lasting impact.