Start your engines

NILES – There aren’t many Pintos on the road these days, especially ones that go from zero to 110 mph in less than a quarter of a mile.

One place where that happens is at Quaker City Motorsport Park in Salem. That’s where Niles resident John Sweitzer will begin defense of his 2012 championship in the Street Sportsman Class of drag racers.

By day Sweitzer works for a steel company in Youngstown. On many evenings from May into the fall months, Sweitzer plays out a dream by crawling into his high-powered Pinto and waiting for the green light.

Sweitzer has been racing for about 20 years, but until last year he had never won a legitimate championship on any level. He’s still pinching himself a half year after claiming the sportsman class title.

“That’s meant a lot to me,” Sweitzer said. “It’s hard to win. I don’t know if I’ll win another one. I have mine forever.

“We were on a tear last year. We started the season as the points leader and it never ended. We came out of the gate like a bullet. We won the first two weeks and that catapulted me into the lead and we strung together more wins during the season.”

In addition to Sweitzer’s efforts last year, another Niles resident, 12-year-old Billy Lasure III, captured the Junior Dragster title racing go-karts.

Sweitzer’s biggest win was Quaker City’s “Ironman” championship. The Ironman is a last-man-standing competition awarded in each division.

“It’s a really prestigious trophy to win,” Sweitzer said. “I was able to seal the deal with that. It’s literally a dog fight.”

Sweitzer is proud of the fact that he competes in a division in which old-school foot-braking is used. There are no electronics or other new-age gadgets that make many cars literally computers on wheels.

“Foot-braking is an art form,” Sweitzer said. “A lot of guys are getting fed up with all the gadgets. We’re naturals. I’m as proud of the foot-braker as you’ll see anywhere. These guys and gals are the real deal. There are no gimmicks.”

There isn’t much money to be made at the level in which Sweitzer competes (the Street Sportsman class pays $350 to win). He’s thankful for the sponsors that have lined up over the years, including current sponsors Myers Automotive and Performance of Liberty, Trans-Gear of Hubbard, First Choice Community Credit Union of Niles and Pier Graphics of Hubbard.

The small payouts mean red ink on the balance sheet at the end of the year. That doesn’t matter much to Sweitzer. It’s a labor of love for half the year, which means spending considerable time away from his wife, Julie. Sweitzer races for his late parents, Harry and Jordy, and a deceased stepson, Pat.

“If you’re not willing to lose money, this isn’t the game to play,” he said. “You’re not going to get rich at this. At the end of the day it comes down to wins and losses. That’s what matters.”

Lasure follows in a long line of drag racers, including his father, Billy Jr. Young Billy can’t drive a full-sized dragster until he’s 16, which means he has to exhibit his growing skills behind the wheel of a go-kart.

Billy’s father thinks he’ll know more about his son’s potential after the coming season. Instead of competing in the 8-12 age division, the younger Lasure will move up to the 13-18 class.

“I think he’s set because I let him race with a new car once last year and he took runner-up in it,” the elder Lasure said.

Sweitzer and Lasure will begin defending their titles when the Quaker City season opens May 11. Sweitzer can’t wait to get started.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to defend it and not have a sophomore jinx,” Sweitzer said. “What happened last year is over. You’re only as good as your last race.”

The cliches all seem appropriate.