~CLIFF KOTARY~
Article Published in Volume 39 #5, April 2, 2004 in the Gater Racing News
We were traveling the interstate with my most
recent purchase, a 1934 Ford coupe acquired from
Gordy Wood in Weedsport. The body, or what was
left of it, was flapping in the breeze as motorist
passed us with pointed fingers, grins, and
laughter. “They won’t laugh at it once we’re done”
my father remarked. It was to be quite a task but
the car was just what I wanted, a ’34 coupe from
Waterloo, little did I know what I really had. Fellow
Midstate founder Dave Allen came up to look at
the car and remarked “I think that’s Cliff Kotary’s
car.” Oh boy! He returned with a picture of the
#90 and we compared, same nerf bars, same
shock mounts, same radius arm hangers, it was a
dead ringer. I took the chance to call Cliff, ‘Yes, we
did sell a car to Gordy Wood.” Bingo! Thus began
my friendship with the ‘Copper City Cowboy’, one
that remains to this day. We restored the car as
Gordy’s #96 as promised but decided to add Cliff’s
colors after a bad crash at Can-Am necessitated
yet another reworking. Through the years I
campaigned the car with the club, I often heard
the remark ‘I remember the night we beat Cliff
Kotary.’ Obviously, it was to be a big feather in
ones cap to pull such a feat and not to be
forgotten as Cliff was, as my father put it ‘the
measuring stick’ of the flathead era. What follows
is the article I’ve always wanted to write, and the
inspiration of this column.   
Clifford Kotary was born in 1919 in Ava, New York,
one of thirteen children reared by parents Frank
and Anna. He took to sports at an early age and
developed into a fine baseball player, good enough
to play semi-pro in Utica and get a look from a
Philadelphia Phillies scout. Cliff and his brothers
interest in automobiles was borne out of
necessity, both to get around and provide a living.
Interestingly, many of Cliff’s rides were cars that
he had built for others. “I really loved building the
cars but I never built one with the intentions of
driving it.” In the 1950 –1951 timeframe, a fellow
named Norm House got Cliff interested in racing.
Norm worked for a storeowner named Joe Corello
from Rome and they had a car #30 which became
Cliff’s first ride at Bennet’s Field, Brookfield,
Morris and Sharon Springs. They ran this car for a
while and then were approached by a young Stu
Rounds who wanted to go racing, Cliff built his
first car #7 “on the farm” and followed along to the
races at Bennet’s Field in Utica. “They started
smashing them on me so I figured if I had to work
on them, I’d smash ‘em myself.” Cliff’s brother
Tom eventually ended up in this #7 and Cliff
purchased another car from a fellow named Mert
Skinner (of Skinner & Damilus) after a heat race
in Sharon Springs. “Beautiful car, had everything
in it but they couldn’t make it run.” Cliff put the
double springs in the points, which were floating
and went on to win the heat, semi and feature
netting $35. “Mert was there and wanted to buy it
back from us right then, we’d paid $100 for it and
he offered us $300 to buy it back.” This was the
car that won the last race run at the Afton half
mile prior to its resurrection in the 1990’s. It was
a 100 lapper “which was like 1000 laps today” in
which Cliff was leading Fred Sheppard (in Frank
Trinkaus car) at about lap 75 when Fred pulled up
the mainstretch and stopped. Fred had passed out
from the heat, “it was terrible hot that day”, if you’
ve been there then one can imagine bulling
around these hulks in the dusty heat of an Afton
afternoon for 100 laps, not an easy task.
In 1952 Hank Lavarnea of Rome owned a beer
distributorship and trucking company and hired
Cliff full time to build two cars, one for Chuck
Kotwica and one for himself, to run Oswego. The
cars were numbered 88 and 88Jr, Kotwica copped
the first feature ever run at Fonda in Cliff’s
creation in 1953 and also went on to win a track
championship at Oswego. These cars were
equipped with racing engines purchased from
Tippy Light in Syracuse who built race engines for
Hydroplanes and boats. “Those guys had money
and wanted to run the hell out their motors so
Tippy built the best motors around at the time.
Nobody else had stuff like that.”
In 1953 to 1954 Cliff started running at Canton
and Alexanderia Bay with Howie Barber of
Oriskany who worked at the ‘L’ truckstop in Utica,
hence the car number L5. Howie could make a car
handle but never had much money. In another
100 lap championship race at Canton, Cliff was
leading with a horribly worn out motor that was
using 2-3 quarts of oil every 15 laps. Races were
red flagged at that time for an accident and so
every red flag Howie would come out to the car
with an old bag of spark plugs, change plugs and
add oil. Cliff would run another 15 laps until it
started skipping again and Bob Zeigler would get
by. “We run the whole race like that, they weren’t
even new plugs, just ones Howie had cleaned up.”
They got a red flag late and went on to pass
Zeigler for the win. “The rules were such at that
time you had to run stock gears and everyone ran
9:41’s, but we had tore the rear end out. Howie
had a truck rear with 5:38 gears so we stuck them
in, it was a big race, $1000 to win but I didn’t like
running illegal and in fact that was the only time
we did. So I tell Howie that once the race was over,
get the axles out, we flat towed at the time, and
get the hell out of there. We won the race, and the
flagger, who was also a driver, good guy, he asked
me ‘Was the clutch slipping in that?’ “yeah, must’
ve got oil on it” ‘I though you were turning an
awful lot.’ So we grab the money but Howie kinda
liked his beer and wanted a couple, so we got
outta there before the Zeigler’s come around and
left Howie to head for Alex. Bay. We’re at Alex.
Bay and no Howie. Finally he shows up, ‘Jesus
Christ you guys left and I didn’t have any money,
had to sleep in my car a borrow gas money to get
here, oh he howled!” “We were working class
families and raced for money, I got 40%. Howie
would have me run his cars for a few weeks then
fire me and get some kid to drive the car for 10%.
A few weeks later he’d come back and rehire me
because he said he had to get his respect back.
Later he’d confide to Richie Evans that ‘those big
name drivers always took all the money’. Canton,
the Saint Lawrence Fairgrounds was always
packed and paid $45 for the heat, $85 for the
semi and $500 to win, that was a lot of money! We
always ran for the money, we had to make a living
at it and never ran for points. We moved around a
lot, went where they paid the most and for some
reason up North they paid a lot more than they
did down here.”
“In 1955 at Brookfield, at the last race there, there
was a sparse crowd and the lights went out. The
promoter decided to call the race, we were there
with Albert’s #188 that Harry Dunst was driving.
Harry went home and Albert decided to go get a
hot dog, so I jumped in the #188 and Dave
McCredy, who always had a stop watch, timed me
at a second, second and a half faster than anyone
else. Albert comes back, sees his car on the track
‘who the hell’s in the car?’ Well, decided to run.”
The car had a 3 7/16 bore by 4 inch stroke with a
Weber F7 and a four barrel reworked by Homer
Van Epps. The first 4 barrels apparently would
either flood or starve an engine depending upon
their orientation. Van Epps, a friend of Chuck
Mahoney’s, took the carb apart and brazed baffles
in it to correct this condition. A General Electric
engineer named Jerry Rizzo then built Al a spacer
plate to bolt the 4 barrel on a stock two barrel
intake ‘which was an engineering marvel.’ The
combination worked so well that Rochester
Carburetor wanted to look it over in 1956 and
Dave McCredy offered Van Epps $250 to make
him one.  At Canton, the car ran so well that over
the next year and a half it won 108 races out of
122 entered, heat, semi, and features and in fact
won all three for 19 weeks in a row. For the fall
championship race in ’55, the rules, which had
been ‘straight up’ until that point, in other words,
heat winners started up front etc., were altered
yet the track had failed to inform the 188 team.
Buck Holliday was their toughest competition at
the track and they couldn’t understand why he
was running 12th in the semi. Cliff won the semi
and then they got the news as the lineup was
announced with Holliday on the pole and Cliff
back about 30th, an inverted start. ‘I was hot and
after a shot of ginger brandy it didn’t take long to
get the lead, beat ‘em worse than I normally did.”
This car went on to finish second at the NYS Fair
to Ralph Smith of Maryland. “They found out the
next week that Smith had fuel injection. He had
side curtains on the car and they didn’t think
enough to check it. The following week, wherever
he was running they found it and threw him out.
Ira Vail offered to claim me the champion for that
year but you know, we never pursued it. It was
open cubic inch at the time so no one ever
thought about it.” Hmm, so injection did run at
the fair, albeit illegally, in the 1950’s.
“In 1956 it was a split season, we ran the 188 at
races that paid well, because we were running for
a living, so we just picked and chose what we
wanted and showed up at Plattsburgh for a
championship race. By then the Sportsman cars
were all running Ford overheads, Corey, Jim
Luke, they all had them, it was before the Chevy’s
were popular because the Chevy was only 265
inch. Jim Lukes owner Bob Burns asked ‘what are
you guys doing here?’ (with your flathead). After
we won the race we asked Bob ‘Flathead still runs
pretty good doesn’t it’ Bob says ‘yeah it does’.”
This was an open invitation race and took place
after Al’s #188, a 1934 Ford coupe, had been
tossed by NASCAR. Pete Corey’s #3, owned by
Bob Mott, had suffered the same fate as NASCAR
declared that all cars had to have ‘factory
hardtops’. The earlier Ford coupes had cloth tops
which were filled with sheetmetal for racing,
certainly a technicality that made no difference
had either Corey or Kotary been a little less
successful at Fonda and Rochester respectively.
The impetus behind the rules change was no
other than Dave McCredy whose own 1934 Ford,
with Don Hendenberg driving, could beat neither
Kotary or Corey. “The difference was weight. Many
thought you had to have a heavy car to make it
handle. Al and Mott went the other route and
built light cars. Pete went to a ’37 coupe and we
left and ran outlaw. We were better off, we made a
lot more money on the outlaw circuit than what
NASCAR was paying.” The Kotary’s had a good
grasp on the realities of racing as it pertained to
their lives. “Our agreement all through racing was
that we only worked on the car once all our other
work was done. It never came in the garage until
after regular business hours and if we were too
tired to work on it or our other work wasn’t done,
we didn’t go racing. We would sometimes miss two
or three weeks at a time but we never gave into
the temptation to bring the car in and work on it
until everything else was done.” “By mid ’56 we
were running sporadically and an engineer
named Mike Cerasky (aka Mike Michael’s) called
us and wanted me to teach him how to drive. He
originally had a ’32 Rockne, beautiful car but they
wouldn’t let him run it because of the cloth top.
So he built a ’37 Studebaker numbered 10-10
and we ran a few races but had trouble keeping
the engine together. We finished out the season
and he went to Florida over the winter. We didn’t
run much in ’57 until we get this call from
Cerasky on a Friday night in June. He’s on the
thruway in Albany and wants us to meet him in
Rochester that night. We jump in with Chuck
Mahoney and head for Rochester. Over the winter
in Florida, Cerasky has met up with Pop Schooler
(ok, not a household name but let’s just say that
Schooler was one of the best kept secrets in
racing, ask the Petty’s or his buddy, Smokey
Yunick), and has a 3 5/8 X 3 5/8, 299 cubic inch
engine built by him in the car.  We started the car
up, and I’m telling ya, it sounded like it had an
offenhauser in it. It was the first car in this area
that had tuned headers on it, we’d never head
anything like it.” “Hendenberg was there with the
S33, Hoag with the Penn Yan #96, Bliss, you
name it, it was unbelievable. It was like taking a
current dirt modified and running it in your club,
we beat them so bad. Four or five weeks in a row
we were so dominant they held a drivers meeting
to try and figure out how to handicap it. It was
heavy, 3600 lb. and Mike wouldn’t gear it to turn
because of the engine problems he had
experienced the year before. On a big track like
Rochester where you could get it wound out it was
a bear. They always started me in the back and
finally I had to ask why, Dave McCredy overheard
my question and said ‘Christ they could start you
back in Rochester and you’d still win in it.’ I never
forgot that.” Later in the year the team was invited
to Ft. Covington by the promoter to try and beat
Buck Holliday, with a $500 bonus at stake. After
beating Holliday in the heat and semi, Buck
decided to park the C38 and the promoter told
Cliff he didn’t get the bonus because the deal was
that he had to beat him in all three races. The
other competitors, tired of seeing the C38 win all
the time, wondered why the 10-10 was on the
trailer and when they found out the deal they
pushed the rig out onto the front stretch and
blocked the track. “They had to call in the border
police, the fans were going to tear down the
stands, it was a riot, anyway, we got our bonus.”  
At Plattsburg later that year in a 50 lapper, Cliff
was leading when the engine started skipping
badly from a broken rocker. With three to go there
was a red flag and Cliff asked the starter (same
fellow who had noticed his ‘slipping clutch’ at
Canton) when he was going to drop the green,
‘just as you come out of four’ was the response.
Cliff used one of his patented moves, the ‘brake
check’ in turn four to take a huge lead and hold
off his competition once again. Later in the ’57
season he recorded his first win at Fonda which is
well recorded in the FONDA! book of Andy Fusco,
Lew Boyd and Jim Rigney. ‘Easy, Cliff, easy. This
is Fonda. Pete Corey is right on your bumper.
Easy, Cliff. The best there ever was is right behind
you.”
At the State Fair in 1957, Cliff piloted the 10-10 to
2nd in the heat, following Nolan Swift across and
thought the engine was sour. “Wouldn’t turn up”.
Rain washed out the show after the heats so the
feature was scheduled for the following day. Back
to Al’s shop in Rome they tore the engine down to
find it was in perfect condition. They decided to
check the rear to see if was locking up and found
that Stewie Dunst had installed the gears in
upside down in the Halibrand rear. Back to
Syracuse the next day, with the gears in properly,
they started in the second row behind Swift. An
interesting aside, Mahoney was there that day as
well in Al’s #188, complete with 389 Pontiac (the
limit was 300) and Al set the timing of the car by
cutting a hole in the firewall, squeezing himself
into the cockpit on the floor, and adjusting the
distributor through the firewall as Chuck motored
them around the track. Can you imagine?
Mahoney started second on the front row with
Corey on the outside. Cliff, with the proper gears
in jumped to the lead at green and lead until 5 to
go when he was forced to retire as the enclosed
driveshaft had pulled away from the transmission.
Mahoney, now in second behind Swift, wasn’t
happy with Al’s timing set as Al didn’t really want
him running too good what with them being a
‘little over’ as far as cubic inches were concerned.
“Chuck was wilder than the wildest indians that
ever lived, you had to know him. He unbuckled
his seat belt, pulled off his belt and was trying to
loop that through the hole in the firewall to catch
that distributor and move it to win the race.” At
Syracuse no less, Swift went on to win his first of
three Fair events and Chuck finished second.
“Don Hendenberg was killed in an accident a
week later, and the next big race was Langhorne,
that was the first time Mahoney drove for
McCredy.  We were a guaranteed starter, timed
10th or 12th and had to start 32nd. Billy Wimble
and Dutch Hoag started on the pole with Hal
Kempany’s cars after setting the fast times. We
couldn’t handle on the track on our Montgomery
Ward tires so we went over to the fellow from
California Speed Sport and he told us we needed
to buy his tires, they were Racemasters. I told him
I’d buy the tires if he would guarantee my
handling. So he come over and helped us set up
the car, holy cow what a difference. I was lying to
Mike about the gear also, kept telling him it was
only turning 4500, it was really turning 5500. So
he lowered the gear and I was getting 6500, which
was just right. They started the race, Bobby
Cameron jumped to the lead with Hoag and Corey
in tow. By the eighth lap, I took the lead and
Cameron’s engine blew, Corey ducked to miss
him and hit the outside wall, tearing his wheel off.
They didn’t have a hub rail and he went into the
infield, you could see the brake fluid squirting
out,  and a bunch of people got hurt. Took an
hour and half to get things cleaned up. They
reverted to the last lap completed which put me
fifth with Wimble in the lead. Bill later told me
that when I went by him, I went by so fast he
lifted and then hit the throttle again because he
thought his engine had quit. By lap 28 I had
lapped the entire field. On lap 30 the driveshaft
fell out again. He just put it back in from the Fair
and never put in a longer one, I could’ve killed
him.” They finished out the season in ’57 at an
open competition at State Line Speedway (half the
track was in New York, half in Vermont). They had
won a 100 lapper at Rochester on Friday,
Saturday at Fonda and now they had to contend
with the Pennsylvania bugs that had made the
trek for the $1000 to win at State Line. The
Pennsylvania boys snorted at the full fendered
blubbering Stude as it came off the trailer, “they
asked why we would even bring such a thing to a
race like that” Cliff remembers. Cliff, who usually
had his son Roy give him signals from the pits as
to his position, depended on Mike this day. “Mike
kept pointing at me and I thought I had missed
somebody so I kept it wide open. He was trying to
tell me I was in first, well I didn’t know it and so I
lapped the whole field twice trying to catch the
guy I thought was ahead of me.” The Pennsylvania
boys weren’t snorting at the car afterwards.  He
later won another race at State Line which was
run in memoriam of Don Hendenberg in which all
proceeds went to Don’s wife. “I tried to let Chuck
win it, he was in Don’s car but another guy got by
him so I had to pass Chuck.” Another Mahoney
affair happened in 1956 at Rochester. Albert had
gotten his hands on one of approximately 100
specially made Pontiacs produced for Grand
National racing with dual 4 barrels. He never
made it to Grand National and so inserted the
engine in his Sportsman and the debate was on
as to whether the Stude or Pontiac was faster. In
warmups that evening, Cliff and Chuck hooked up
in a duel to find out, running “about 75 laps”
trying to prove which car was faster, ‘everyone else
just got off the track.” Later that evening in the
100 lap event, Cliff had led all 99 laps and took
the white flag, letting off going into turn one, the
Stude tossed her cookies relegating Cliff to a fifth
place finish. He listed it as his most disappointing
loss ever, Mike and Albert were none to happy
either at their drivers’ shenanigans and Cliff had
to catch a ride home with Chuck.
During hunting season in 1957, Cliff had an
accident and severely injured his right foot which
laid him up for most of the 1958 season. It was
fate of sorts as he had been offered a sprint car
ride over the winter and wasn’t able to take it due
to his accident. The owner found another driver
who was subsequently killed in the car early in
the ’58 season when a rock flew up off the track
and hit him in the head. Cliff ran only twice in ’
58, finishing second to Ken Shoemaker at Fonda
both times while operating the car still in his cast.
In 1959, Cliff decided not to run and so built a
Flathead engine for friend Fred Borrisow of Rome.
Fred was able to cop top 10’s at Watertown which
Al and Cliff couldn’t understand, they felt the car
could win an had to find out why it wasn’t. So Cliff
jumped back in as driver of the Borrisow #40 and
reeled off 5 feature wins over the remainder of the
season, including three in a row. Amongst these
wins was the Jefferson County Fair Championship
as well as the 50 lap Club Championship finale.
“The promoter from Kingston came down to
Watertown, Woody Van Order had won every race
at Kingston for a year and a half or something and
he offered us $500 plus what ever we won to come
up and run. He tells us the track is a short half
mile so we get up there and it’s a short quarter
mile. We got 5:86 gears in a straight rear end, no
quickchange and 8:50 fifteen tires, our half mile
set up. We run the heat and finish in the top
three but there’s no way I can beat these guys
with these gears. There’s a guy parked next to us
and he wanted to see Woody get beat too, so he
lends us a set of 13 inch tires, tiny. So we tried it,
they looked funny but we were able to beat Woody
that night and the crowd loved it. Woody
complained to the promoter that we were running
the cast iron SB81 Denver heads and they were
running the aluminum Canadian heads. At
Watertown you had to run stock heads so we didn’
t want to get aluminum heads but that was what
was required at Kingston. So, we ground the 81SB
off of them, painted them silver and put a little
metal flake where we ground the numbers off. We
come back the next week, and this fellow at a gas
station had offered to put in our gas for free if we
could beat Woody. We pulled in his station and
sure enough, he filled us up including the racecar
for free. The inspector looked at our heads and
said ‘there you’re all set now’. We’d brought our
own tires and that week we run real good and
beat Woody again. The third week both Woody
and us got banged around pretty good and
Corcoran won. After that Woody started coming to
Watertown and we got him a 5:86 rear and then
he started running real strong there, we became
good friends.” Cliff passed on the fair that year.
The 'Flyin 90' as bought.
The 'Flyin' 90 @ Syracuse, 1963. Dave Allen Photo
EMRC 1954 Program.
At Brookfield in the Joe Carello #30.
Cliff built this car for Chuck Kotwica, first Fonda feature winner.
Cliff @ Alex Bay in brother Al's #188.
Cliff's ignition of choice..
Weber's 'F-7 Giant' radius tappet cam is a good choice..
Dave McCredy's S-33, George Gallup with the flag. John Grady Photo.
Don Hendenberg in Dave McCredy's S33 @ Fonda, John Grady photo.
Cliff and Roy Kotary @ Syracuse.
Dutch Hoag's Penn Yan Express.
Pete Corey with his hardware. John Grady Photo's.
1950's Fonda Program.
Cliff wins @ Fonda with Mike Michaels 10-10.
1956 NYS Fair Program.
Syracuse 1957, Cliff is in the 10-10 behind Nolan Swift. J&H Photo.
Harvey J. Carne and fellow Floridian John 'Pop' Schooler ground great cams.
Cliff on the hub, Nolan Swift runs high around the Geddes mile. J&H Photo.
'Wild Man' Chuck Mahoney. Coupes and Coaches Website.
This guy looks like fun; Chuck Mahoney. Coupes and Coaches Website.
Langhorne 1957, Kotary, Wimble, Hoag, Corey, Herbert, etc. etc.
Dick, pictured here, and brother Bob Zeigler were tough at Watertown.
Cliff took the 1959 Jefferson County Fair race in Fred Borrisow's #40.
Dutt Yanni was tough competiton.
Woody Van Order @ Watertown, courtesy of Mike Hayslett.