Andy Jankowiak still chasing the family dream

Jerry Sullivan

(WIVB) — Andy Jankowiak has loved auto racing for as long as he can remember. He cherishes it as much as his next breath, and he can’t imagine life without it. When he got his chance to drive at the famed Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago, he saw it as “literally chasing the dream.” 

But he never loses sight of the fact that it’s a shared dream, one that gets passed down through the generations and binds families together in a common obsession. He carries the racing dream of his late father Tony and uncle Tommy. He thinks of them often. 

“It pushes me,” Jankowiak said Tuesday. “When I’m in the shop and it’s late and I don’t want to be there anymore, but there’s some big race the next day, not wanting to let those guys down and wanting to be part of their legacy keeps me going.

“I love racing. But that’s always been been my motivation, to continue that story of him and Tommy.”

It’s a family saga, a story of striving and persistence in the face of tragedy. In the summer of 1989, local modified star Tommy Druar was killed in a race at Lancaster Speedway. The following April, Tony Jankowiak died when he lost control of his car and crashed into a wall at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut. 

Andy was 2 years old when his dad was killed.  So in less than a year,  he lost a father and an uncle to auto racing His mother, Debby Jankowiak, lost her brother and husband. Tony’s funeral was in the same funeral parlor as Tommy, same room. They were buried 10 feet apart. 

Debby, who had done some racing and been the first woman to win a feature at Lancaster, stayed away from the track for three weeks. Then she went back. What else could she do? 

Racing was in her blood. The extended family of Western New York wrapped its arms around her. They did the same for Tommy Druar’s widow, Mickey. Thirty years later, they’re still going to races, watching their sons. Tommy’s son, Matt, is a racer, too.

“Yes, my family and friends were all there,” Debby said, “and they still are. They’re the best people in the world.”

Andy entered that world at an early age. Debby and her brother-in-law, Jake, would load up the pickup and take him to Ransomville for the Go-Kart races when he was little. She saw it in his face, the same look Tony had on the Saturday morning of  races, the one that told her racing made him feel more alive. 

She and Tony had talked about him quitting after Tommy died. But that was never an option. She once said Tony was addicted to racing. Early on, when Andy started racing, people would ask how she could allow him to race after what happened to the others.

“Then, after they met him and saw, they realized I probably didn’t have a choice,” she said. 

Andy, 32, was born to the sport. He became one of the top stock car drivers in the state, a star in the Modified and Sportsman classes at Holland, Lancaster, Lake Erie, and other area venues. In 2018, he reached a long-held goal when he won the Tommy Druar/Tony Jankowiak Memorial 110 at Lancaster.

Jankowiak, a bright and engaging character, had planned his celebration for that event 10 years earlier. He drove two victory laps, one in each direction, one for Tommy and one for Tony. Jake was on his crew. Debby came running out of the stands, crying.

“I think she knows that I couldn’t be happy without it,” he said. “I think she knew that from Day One, because she knew that with my dad. It’s just something I had to do, in the same way it was something he had to do.

“There’s just no replacement for it. I couldn’t not do it. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have racing. I think she understands that. It’s that important to me.

“We do everything we can to be as safe as we can. The sport’s come a long way. The danger aspect is always there, and you’ve got to make peace with it.”

Making your peace with racing allows you to love it even more, to accept the inherent dangers — in this case, a cruel double twist of fate that took brothers-in-law a year apart 

“The sport took a lot from our family,” Andy said, “but it’s given us a lot, too. It does. It gives us a reason to work all week and look forward to something on the weekend. It gives us a reason to come together and to be excited.

“It gives me a sense of purpose, because everything I do is for racing. It’s the only thing I’ve ever loved.”

Larry Ott has covered auto racing for The Buffalo News for 35 years. Like Druar, he idolized former NASCAR modified superstar Richie Evans as a kid. In the summer of 1985, Ott rode with Druar to cover a race at Spencer Speedway near Rochester.

Tony Jankowiak came later. Druar won the race that night. Afterwards, Tommy and Tony asked Ott if he’d like to meet Evans. So they went to Evans’s trailer, introduced him and had a chat.

“It was Tommy, Tony, me and Richie,” Ott recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is great.’ By late April of 1990, I was the only one left.”

Evans died in a race in the fall off 1985. Then Tommy and Tony four and five years later. It was a tough time for modified racing. A rash of deaths forced the sport to study the impact that crashes had on drivers and institute changes that made the tracks safer. 

“The Druar/Jankowiak story is very much a typical family generational story in racing,” Ott said, “but with twists and turns like few others.”

Jake Jankowiak, who has been an auto racing mechanic in Western New York for 44 years, has been there for all of it. After his brother died, he was there for Andy, “turning the wrenches” throughout his nephew’s sometimes bumpy ascent in the sport. 

“When we started out in go-karts, he wasn’t that good,” Jake said. “We struggled a lot. He knew people that I knew. He was always going to races, always reading books. So he was in it from the get-go. Whether he was going to be that good, he didn’t know. But he had the desire to do it.”

“He always had the desire. He was destined to be an auto racer.”

Of course, it’s a sport that requires a lot of money. Like his dad and uncle, Andy was self-financed. He worked as a pizza delivery man for Bob & John’s, poured his money into his cars, competed in Sportsmen, Modified, TQ Midgets, anything to feed his passion.

“He’s always got more stuff going on,” said Uncle Jake. “I was like, ‘Can’t we just do one thing at a time?’”

But Andy had a big dream stored in the back of his mind — finding a way to Daytona, to experience what it’s like to drive on one of the most famous tracks in the world. Last April, he decided to make plans to turn that dream into a reality. 

The goal was to compete in the Lucas Oil 200, an ARCA Menards Series race that would be run at iconic Daytona on Feb. 13, the day before stock car racing’s big event, the Daytona 500. 

“It was at the height of the pandemic that this whole idea began,” Andy said. “I didn’t think we were going to be racing. So without any other racing going on for a year, I thought we could try to do that. It definitely helped the ARCA venture, because it allowed me to focus on that.”

Jankowiak wasn’t as idle as he’d imagined. Most racing was shut down in New York. But in typical fashion, he kept racing wherever he could. He was up and back on Route 90 in the summer, mainly racing modified in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

He mostly drove other people’s cars. The No. 73 (same number as his dad) ARCA car he bought from veteran NASCAR driver Ken Schrader was kept back for his big day at Daytona. He got a top team to help prepare him, including Donnie Richardson, Mike Dayton and T. J. Majors.

In January, Jankowiak went to Daytona for the two-day time trial. It was his first time in person at the giant 2.5-mile, high-banked racing Mecca. He was in awe, like a kid at first. 

“My first day was like a blur,” he said. “I was trying so hard not to make a mistake, getting on and off pit road the right way, kind of taking it all in and making sure I didn’t do the wrong thing. I almost didn’t enjoy it the first day.

“The second day, I kind of woke up. I told myself to stop and smell the roses and process everything we were doing. I made sure I took a moment to look out the windshield and up at the wall and say, ‘Wow, we’re really at Daytona. Dale Earnhardt raced here!”

Jankowiak didn’t just admire the view. He qualified 11th. In the ARCA main event on Feb. 13, he finished eighth. He was as high as fifth late in the race, but a hectic restart scramble pushed him back to eighth. 

“He did amazing,” Jake said. “I never thought for someone that’s driven open-wheel cars, never been in a big car like that, never been to Daytona, never been in a draft, never ran 180 miles an hour, I thought he did amazing for never doing it before.”

It was a remarkable effort, one the nation’s race fans shared on TV. Jamie Little, the track announcer on FS1, featured Andy during the race. She talked about Jankowiak taking money he’d save for a house and putting everything he owned into the car. 

“It really was everything I had when I purchased that car from Mr. Schrader,” he said. “That’s not an exaggeration. I was literally at zero once we did that. That was an all-in effort.”

He hesitated at the memory, thinking of all the people who had worked to make it possible, including his family, the ARCA team he got through Schrader and his major sponsor, OneRail. 

A lot of people shared in his dream, and naturally he thought about his uncle and dad, who would have loved so much to be there and to race Daytona. Tommy was known as a safe, calculating racer, Tony as a charger who liked to take risks. 

“He’s got a little bit of his dad and his uncle,” Debby said. “He’s got the best of both in him.”

Jankowiak said toward the end of the race, he told Majors, his spotter, that he’d go for it if he thought he had a chance to win. But he wouldn’t take a big risk just to move up to seventh. Somewhere, Tony smiled.

“He’s always with me,” Jankowiak said. Tommy, too. 

Later, Andy discovered how many people were also there in spirit from the extended family of Western New York racing. The Facebook reaction was overwhelming. People posted photos of him when he was racing as a kid. Few local racers ever get that far; he realized he was carrying a lot of dreams in that car.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said, growing emotional again. “I know a lot of people were proud of me. It made me stop and realize what we were doing did resonate with people. A lot of people were paying attention and this was … not an ‘I made it’ moment, because I haven’t, but it was a big step for me.”

How big a step remains to be seen. He told Ott before the race that simply getting to Daytona was the dream of a lifetime. If it ended there, he could be content. But now he says “the sky is the limit”. A true Jankowiak, he’s going to charge ahead. 

Thanks to Daytona, he got a sponsorship from Thermal Foams, a Kenmore company, which will help bankroll No. 73 for the ARCA race at Talledega on April 24. From there, who knows? Maybe he impresses some big-timer and gets to the next level.

“We’re still trying to chase a couple of sponsors to fill the rest of the spots on the car,” he said. “It’s going to be a race-by-race thing, but as long as we’re out here and running well, I think it gives me an opportunity.We’re kind of planting our flag and letting everyone know that we want to be here. 

“We performed better than we thought we would at Daytona. I knew we could do it. But you plan against luck and circumstance. You could get some bad breaks. It’s racing. Racing has a way of humbling you. When you’re racing against the Venturini teams and Joe Gibbs teams, you don’t expect it to come easy.

“To go out and run well, it’s definitely encouraging. It makes you want to get up early the next day and push it. It’s hard not to be encouraged. I don’t think we have any delusions about how difficult this is, and how quickly things could go the other way.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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