~ Cliff Kotary ~
December 8, 1919 - December 27, 2010

My condolences to the Kotary's, Cliff was the best.
Cliff in 1964, Photo by Bob Hunter.
What follows is an introduction speech I wrote upon Cliff's being honored as a Pioneer by
our club in 2006:  

 By description, a Pioneer is one who ventures into unknown territory and is
an innovator. Nothing could better describe this year’s recipient of the
award, Cliff Kotary. He started in stock car racing during it’s infancy in
New York state by building cars but related to me that once he tired of
other’s smashing up the equipment, he decided that “if they were to get
smashed up, I’d do it myself.” His inspiration at the time came from
another pioneer in the sport, Chuck Mahoney, who gave Cliff a new Isky
camshaft in exchange for work done on his car. Chuck told Cliff he should
build his own car and so he did, a 1937 Ford Coupe with a stock engine.
Cliff campaigned the car with the Eastern Mutual Racing Club at Sharon,
Richfield, Brookfield, Bennett’s Field, Vernon and Morris starting in 1949.
He won his first feature event in 1950 at Afton and also took a checkered
in a 50 lap event here in Morris during this time. It was only a sign of
bigger and better things to come in Cliff’s career as he continued to both
build and race cars. Many don’t realize that the first feature winner at
Fonda, Chuck Kotwica, was driving a car built and prepared by Cliff. With
Cliff providing the first tastes of success for the Kotary family his
brothers were also soon entrenched in the sport and were tough customers at
the tracks they ventured to. As the 50’s progressed Cliff teamed with
brother Al in building their first 1934 Ford coupe #188 in which they
dominated the northern NY tracks winning over 75% of the races they
entered. The car was equipped with what was later known as a 4 barrel
carburetor, built specifically for Cliff by a Rochester GM engineer and
featured a clever adapter plate bolting it to the manifold. It was also
Cliff’s and Al first concerted effort with the power to weight ratio
theory. Less weight equals a faster car and the racing Kotary’s certainly
built light ones. 1955 marked Cliff’s best chance to date at winning the
coveted NYS Fair race in Syracuse, his second place finish to Ralph Smith
was only a taste of things to come although he truly felt he won the race
relating that Smith’s car was illegal per the rules. When I asked him if he
ever took any liberty’s himself he said “No, I got tore down so much I’d
never got away with anything.”  In 1957 he started piloting Mike Serasky’s
(aka Mike Michaels) potent #10-10 Studebaker and held off a charging Pete
Corey for his first and only Fonda win. He also used this car to get rid of
any future bad luck and learn some valuable lessons. At a Rochester 100 lap
event that same year, he led until the final lap when his driveshaft came
out of the car with a failed u-joint. He had them covered at Langhorne as
well when the same thing happened again. He thus demanded perfection from
that point forward and worked diligently to achieve it.
       As the 50’s wound down and Cliff’s business and family grew, the Kotary’s made a
pact and agreed that racing was only to be done once
business was taken care of and only if there was money to be made. Thus
began the vagabond racing adventures of the “Copper City Cowboy” who
raced where they paid best. After riding Fred Borrisow’s  #40 coupe to a
Jefferson County Fair win at Watertown in 1959, Cliff and Al decided it
was time to build another car for themselves and found one in Dave
McCredy’s shop in Sherburne. The car had originally been build by Bill
Blum for Oswego, and met the Kotary requisite for light weight. Upon
showing up at Waterloo with the number 60 on the car, they found there
was another competitor with that number already signed in and the 60X
was born. Teaming up with Bill Beamon of B&M Speedshop fame, Cliff tried
Crane cams and ran the 60X roughshod over his competition, often beating
them with their own cams in winning the 1960 Waterloo Championship.
Beamon would often get his cams returned from dissatisfied customers and
ask Cliff to try them out. When they would call the following week Bill
would relate ‘Hey, you know that cam you said was no good? Well, you got
beat by it this last Saturday night!” Cliff rode his success into the
State Fair that year and won the first of his six consecutive
championships that year at the Geddes Mile. Now that rolls of the tongue
real easy but think about it, that’s 150 laps at easily the toughest
mile track in the Northeast without ever once breaking or wrecking. And
that doesn’t include the qualifying race it took to get there or take
into consideration the fact that over 100 competitors brought their A
game to the event either. It was the Daytona 500 and Super Bowl all
wrapped into one for the racers of the 1950’s and 60’s, a win in the NYS
Fair Championship race put you on the map. On the track that Chuck
Mahoney related ‘Separated the men from the boys’. Here is where Cliff
shined the most and where his innovation took over.
    Now Cliff will tell you he didn’t have any more engine than his
competitors, his car was light but there were lighter ones in the field.
He used the same gears as all the top guns, his camshaft was different
than most, a little secret that Willie Wust wanted to know one day to
which Cliff replied that ‘it’ll cost you many peso’s’ to find out. No
doubt his engine ran like a Swiss watch, no doubt his car was well built
and prepared. And that’s where his innovation took place. It’s said that
success is where preparation meets opportunity, and Cliff’s success at
the state fair year after year was due to his meticulous attention to
detail and sweat equity. He built a new engine for the fair each year
and ran it at Rochester and Waterloo to shake it down. Afterward there
were the 14 hour nights of checking and re-checking each detail to
ensure a banner Labor Day. Once he found a rear end lock in need of
replacement, another a rod bearing that had tightened up. Items that
would have assured a DNF had that not received attention. His tires were
recapped Oswego asphalt which he had ground perfectly round, grooved and
balanced. Valves were re-lapped and lash reset. Jetting depending on the
weather that day, the cars set up was found by practicing at Fulton. In
building their cars for Syracuse the Kotary team took many innovations
at that time into consideration including: aerodynamics, unsprung
weight, left side weight, a low center of gravity, and exhaust tuning.
His cars were almost always at least a year ahead of his competitors.  
You get out of it what you put into it, and Cliff put more into this
race than any other. His success at the mile garnered him much attention
as well as appearance money from promoters, another innovation and the
reason he never ran for points or championships. His points went in the
bank account.
    He counts amongst his memorable moment’s two of his Syracuse wins,
naturally his first in 1960 and also his fourth in 1963 when he broke
Nolan Swift’s record for consecutive wins. His six in a row is a record
that will never be broken. In listing his toughest competitors it’s like
a who’s who of stock car racing; Pete Corey, Dutch Hoag, Buck Holiday,
Sammy Reakes and the Zeigler Brothers, Bob and Dick. He considered Sammy
and Chuck Mahoney his best friends in racing and even let Sammy borrow
his car one night to clinch the Waterloo Track Championship over Wee
Willie Allen.
    Once he hung up his goggles for good in 1968 Cliff stayed active
in the sport he loves by flagging at Fulton, Utica-Rome and the State
Fair. He also went on to mentor many a Rome driver just as Mahoney had
done with him. Many drivers owe a tip of the hat to Cliff including a
young Richie Evans who often sought advice. He still enjoys the racing
game and counts Jack Johnson and Bob McCreadie as his favorite current
drivers, no surprise there as they are both throw backs to his days of
racing. Outside of racing Cliff is proudest of being elected Chairman of
the Oneida County Board of Legislators and has been elected to public
office 16 time, holding positions for over 40 years. His only regret
in racing was that he didn’t pursue an opportunity to go south and run
Grand National and that he lost a chance to drive an Indy type
Championship car due to a hunting accident. In retrospect, Cliff did
pretty darned good staying in Rome.
    I had the good fortune of meeting Cliff over 20 years ago now and
the thing that still impresses me most about him is as soon as we get
talking, he asks how my family is. It’s always been family first with
Cliff and it still is. For his racing accomplishments he has been
inducted into the DIRT Motorsports HOF, New York State Stockcar Racing
Association HOF, Rome All-Sports HOF, Eastern States Stock Car HOF, and
Eastman Kodak Racing HOF. And now, we’re proud to induct Cliff Kotary
into the Central New York Old Time HOF as our Pioneer Award winner for
2006.

I added these thoughts  at his funeral:

   Cliff wasn’t a numbers guy, in the article I wrote about him, I related he’d won 300 races.
Later on he and Roy conferred and said it was probably 100 races, regardless, no one knew
because no one kept track. That wasn’t Cliff’s way. To me, it’s amazing that he won any
races, in my years campaigning his former #90 I was constantly approached  by former
racers who related with wild, fiery eyes ‘The night I beat Cliff Kotary.” I honestly
don’t know how Cliff could’ve snuck a few wins in there himself. Obviously, it was a big
feather in one’s cap to beat Cliff, who many felt was the best driver of his era – and you can
count me on that list. As noted, he only won (1) track championship, at Waterloo in 1960.
Chasing points at a track, or at tracks, or on a series, is a selfish thing. It takes copious
amounts of time, travel and money – Cliff proved he could do it once and was satisfied. If
you’re a racer, then you know what madness racing can be, the speed, the adrenaline
rush, and adulation can become addicting. So can the expense. Cliff’s approach to racing
was different than most, he didn’t chase points. He didn’t work on the car during business
hours. He didn’t race if the car wasn’t 100% and he only chose to race when and where it
made the most sense financially. There’s no doubt he loved the sport but what is clear is
that he did it also with a ‘Family First’ frame of mind. If the car couldn’t make a little
money, then there was no sense in racing it. This was, and to a certain extent remains a
novel approach. He proved he could win anywhere, memories he was proud of and could
relate that he had earned by outsmarting and outworking his competitors, rather than
outspending them. His approach was unselfish, as noted by his loaning his 60X to buddy
Sammy Reakes on the last night of racing at Waterloo in 1962 just so Sammy could
compete for the track championship, which he won. It was this same unselfishness that
actually extended his winning streak at Syracuse as he related to me, “I kept racing the
Fair because I didn’t want who ever won it to not have beat the former winner, I didn’t
think that would be fair to them.” Assuredly, Cliff’s competitive fire still burned bright and
he wasn’t going to the fair to finish second, but he really didn’t need to go at all yet
continued to with his competitors in mind.
   He was very proud of his accomplishments on the track as well as off. As an elected
official for over 40 years his list of contributions are numerous, all with the Oneida
Counties public in mind; Parks, Softball and Little League Fields, Fire Department, Office
Building, Hospital, Highway Garage, etc. are all on Cliff’s resume as well as the Rome
Sports Hall of Fame which he was exceedingly proud of. He continued to work into his 90’s,
and enjoyed it. But the one thing that puffed his chest up the most was when he spoke of
his family. He was exceedingly proud of his son Roy and all his accomplishments in life. I
don’t know much about hockey but learned every time I talked to Cliff about his grandsons,
as well as how everyone was doing in school and life in general. I remember taking some
tapes up to Floyd when I first met Cliff, and playing them as he pointed out cars and faces I
didn’t know. His wife Clara sat there quietly knitting, taking it all in. It was pretty obvious
to me that she gladly stood behind Cliff, a trait all successful men share. He made it very
clear to me that he cared a great deal for you all. I just feel privileged to have known Cliff,
and for him to consider me a friend was, and is a great honor. When I had finished
interviewing him in 2004 for the article I was writing, I asked him abut his main
competitors and he named a few he thought were the best. When he was finished with his
list he asked “I often wondered how good was I?” I assured him he was pretty darned good,
and that didn’t just apply to his racing career. Rest in Peace Cliff, I will miss him and never
forget him.

1/16/2011

   At the funeral and in the week after Cliff's passing, I continued to learn about him and
what he meant to many people. Hi co-workers talked passionately of him starting a third
career at age 71 and teaching them lessons they'll never forget. A family friend told me of
the times Cliff helped his father and family out. His list of accomplishments as a
councilman is impressive and of course his family is rock solid. It's quite a testament to a
man of 91 years to have a full funeral home honoring and celebrating his life. Cliff surely
lived, and dearly enjoyed reliving his conquests at the Syracuse mile. I'll miss those
conversations and him asking how my family is. I can only say that I was lucky to have
known him, guys like Cliff are rare.
Watertown 1955.
1965 NYS Fair Championship.
Cliff with Eddie.
Cliff and Sammy Reakes at Waterloo, 1962. Roy Kotary in background grinning.
Waterloo, 1962
1966 Gater - NYS Fair Preview.