For over 35 years, Brian Swartzlander has been besting the competition throughout western Pennsylvania. The seven time Lernerville Speedway champion has seen and done much throughout a career that has forged a place among the all time greats. And still, there's challenges ahead, things he'd still like to accomplish. Like a late model win for example, he's come as close as someone can in recent years. Or perhaps a Super DIRTcar series win, (he's been within a couple of breaks of winning one of those too).
His famous hauler will be gracing the pits at Lernerville in the coming weeks, and inside will be his iconic, red and black modified numbered 83 as he embarks on yet another season that will see him competing for another modified championship against a very stout field of cars.
|Pat Miller Photo|
2014 was an up and down season for Swartzlander who wound up with six feature victories, but was also bogged down with mechanical issues that took away his chance for the Lernerville modified championship. All things considered, it was still a season that many a driver would love to put on their resume.
"It was just kind of stuff that was out of our hands," Swartzlander said regarding his 2014 campaign. "We lost two rear ends in races were were leading actually. We had a couple of dnf's last year and you can't have that happen and win a championship. We kind of struggled at the beginning of the year, but it really felt like we were getting better each week towards to the end of the year and finished off strong with a win in the Stampede."
The modified field at Lernerville isn't particularly deep numbers wise in terms of total cars, but it's depth resides in the quality of cars in the top 10. And stacked top to bottom, the division has as many talented drivers towards the front of the fields as some tracks from more famous modified hotbeds. With the likes of Rex King Sr and Jr, Mat Williamson and others joining Jeremiah Shingledecker, Dave Murdick and Brad Rapp. The room for error has become increasingly slim over the recent years, and it's a testament to the quality of the field.
'They're all good cars," Swartzlander remarked. "You can take the top five or top eight or whatever and they're all pretty equal, and that's the case in the late models too. There's some really good cars there. It's not like years ago when some guys had homemade stuff out there, everybody's got professionally built everything more and more these days."
As we lamented the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins were having entirely too much difficulty making the NHL playoffs on a recent evening (both of us agreeing that they've got too much talent to be playing as lousy as they were), Swartzlander spoke of his heritage and history in racing as he talked about his grandfather, Neal and father Melvin as well as his uncle Dick, and the times he spent watching them race growing up.
"My biggest influences growing up were my dad and my grandfather. I grew up as an infant going to the races. My dad was my hero and I loved watching him race. I got to watch my grandfather a little bit, I was still really young then. He was ending his career as my dad was starting up. And of course Dick was winning a lot of races back then which was really neat. Then my dad got hurt really bad and had to quit. And after that I was a really big Lou Blaney fan, he was great to watch. It was a great era, you had Blackie Watt and Bob Wearing back then so I got to spend most of my youth watching those guys run.
So it came to be, that after watching three legendary family members take to the track, that Brian would embark on his journey in racing.
"The first race I ran was right after I got out of high school actually, I got a claimer, put it together and went to Lernerville. It was amazing to me and it's something I'll never forget. After all the years of watching my dad at various places, I kind of had this thing were I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got out there on the track. And when I first pulled out onto the surface I said to myself, "Whoa, this was nothing at all like I expected!" It was a just a whole different feel. It was hard to see and I had all these vibrations going on. As I got more experience, the action slowed down for me and it got easier."
As that happened, the getting easier part, Swartzlander worked diligently on making himself better to the tune of over 150 feature wins and 15 overall track titles in the modifieds. But in all that he's accomplished, there's still some things he'd like to tackle.
"I wouldn't mind running Orange County for Eastern States 200," Swartzlander said. "I've been there but I've never driven. It's almost a bit like Syracuse and it's a cinder-like track too, I've always wanted to do that one actually. I really enjoy going to Charlotte too. We'd like to do that again in 2015 depending on how the year goes of course. I'd really like to do more of the SDS tour races but they're so far away and it's hard to get the whole crew there and get the time off of work, it makes it really difficult.
One thing that I really would have liked to do in my career and I don't think it can happen now, would be to have followed the whole SDS tour. To go on the road and win one of those tour races would be really neat. I'd almost won a 358 tour race up in Woodhull years back driving for Billy Van Pelt and I got taken out by a local on the last lap, it was a Syracuse qualifier too."
"The JDRF partnership came about through McCutcheon Enterprises who've been my main sponsors since 1993. Calvin (McCutcheon) isn't just a sponsor but he's become a great friend and he's part of the team, we're really a family affair. His wife has diabetes and he got involved with it and helps organize some of the local chapter fund raising and walk a thons and such and we've taken our car along to those events and the kids love to see it. JDRF is a great organization and it really means a lot to us to have them on the car. Whenever we travel out of the area, people always ask about them being on the car."
|Pat Miller Photo|
And when he'd mastered the modifieds and was stacking wins together like legos, he was tapped to drive the number 111 late model entry for Jim Detman. Swartzlander embraced the challenge of learning what it took to get competitive in a different type of machine.
"They took some getting used to," Swartzlander said. "In the modified you have your feet on both pedals, gas and brake. In the late model, all three pedals are together like a street car and you're more on the ground than in the air as much. The first time I went out in a late model, I hit the first corner and thought I was hitting the brake and I hit the clutch so that was an experience.
"I really had to think about what I was doing there because there's so much more rear steer in the car and it just felt so much different. I really have to concentrate more when I jump in that late model because I've been in the modified so long that there's things you just take for grated that have become second nature to me. And I think that helps make you a better driver when you don't have to think about that stuff. But last year I really felt more comfortable and I'm more prepared for how differently the late model reacts and that's becoming more of a second nature thing to me now. It's not as much of a thinking process for me now and I can just go out there and race the car.
I don't really do much with the setups on the late model just yet because I stick more to the modified, Jim Detman does most of that and he's really great. We're so busy on Friday that Jim and I actually talk about the late model on Saturday. I basically tell him what I feel, and he makes the adjustments. I think we're getting better and better with it.
We were close last year with it. We came in second two times with a chance to win on both of those nights but ended up losing to Jared Miley. One time we were ahead of him for a long time and he got me at the end and another time when he was leading and we caught him but couldn't do anything with him. Jared's a great driver and I really think a lot of him as far as great young drivers coming up through the ranks, he's so smooth out there and he does a heck of a job."
|Pat Miller Photo|
In 2015, the team plans are up in the air to a certain degree, and in a way it's a good thing. There's a lot to be said for flexibility, and Swartzlander's more than earned the right to race where and when he chooses.
"We really don't have a completely set schedule for 2015 yet. We'll be at Lernerville for sure and some of the bigger races in the area including some of the Tri City shows later on. I can't say that we'll hit all the BRP Modified Tour races in 2015 but some of them definitely interest us. We really don't have anything set in stone right now, anymore we just like to take it one race at a time."
Though he's in the second half of his racing career, there's still plenty yet to do, and he's still got the skill, talent, and work ethic to get it done.