|Jody Gucwa - A Self-Taught Racer
By Jim Luikens
Jody grew up in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, Michigan. As the son of Barbara Dalton, a single parent, Jody learned early on that money was in short supply around the Dalton household for extras. As a result he realized that if anyone was going to fund his extracurricular activities it was going to have to be him.
At the tender age of seven he began scavenging bikes in his neighborhood that had been discarded by his neighbors. Using self-taught skills Jody would either rebuild the bikes into salable units or part them out as their condition dictated. He then used the proceeds from these activities to buy good parts for his own racing pedal bike.
Jody is not the only racer that got his start in racing with clandestine activities but I'd be willing to bet that's he's the only one whose activities took place in a skateboard park after he had had to cut open its fence in order to ride his competition pedal bike after hours. These initial contests took place in Warren, another of Detroit's north-central suburbs. Eventually Jody graduated to a larger track in distant New Baltimore, Michigan, where he won his first trophy. In addition to a trophy he got that holy grail of young racers everywhere, a free pass to come back the next week.
At age 15, Jody transitioned from bikes to cars when he got his learner's permit for driving. He sold his racing pedal bike, the culmination of many years worth of effort, for $300 and used the money to purchase a 1973 Chevrolet Camaro. Although he was raised in the big city he spent his summers on his grandparents farm in Ubly, Michigan. As luck would have it Ubly, despite being in the middle of nowhere, had a dragstrip. Jody and his best friend followed the noise, which could be heard from the farm, and paid the princely sum of $6.00 each to attend their first organized drag race.
He took a job at Dothan Collision in hopes of learning bodywork but was relegated to porter duty instead. He saved his money faithfully and before long was the owner of a three-speed Dart Sport. He raced his Dart Sport for a while, eventually upgrading it to a four-speed. One day he decided he wanted to make his own racing gas tank.
He got some aluminum sheet stock from Dothan's and cut it apart with a jig saw, not knowing that the material should have been bent instead. When a welding shop wanted $25 to weld his creation together Jody balked and instead signed up for a welding class at the local school. At the first class his teacher asked if he was looking to learn how to tig weld or mig weld and Jody showed him his aluminum gas tank panels. The teacher patiently explained that aluminum would require heli-arc welding, an advance form of welding for those students who had already mastered the basics.
After being shown how to mig weld Jody advanced to the heli-arc machine with the proviso that he had to tell the other students that he had completed the basic classes before. Not long after that he bought a tig welder at a garage sale and a Competition Engineering roll bar kit (for $98!) and welded it up for his Dart after some practice. Gaining confidence, he also made his own wheel tubs. He then bought some wider rims at another garage sale and a set of Hoosier drag slicks from the vendor at Milan Dragway. Almost before you could say aspiring racer he was running in the 11.90 bracket with his Dart.
Like all racers he always wanted to go faster and set about rebuilding his engine to accomplish that objective. He got some high-performance connecting rods from a friend and purchased a set of Mopar h-p cylinder heads for $80. After a valve job at the local auto parts store he was back on the track. With his new found power was able to destroy his clutch in just two races. After a short delay for repairs a heavier flywheel and bronze clutch disc resulted in a broken drive shaft. This time he was down for a month.
By now the Dart was unstreetable. Looking around for a solution Jody's mom offered up an old van that she was no longer using. Jody then purchased a 28-foot trailer, long enough to haul his car and sleep in, and naively stick welded a trailer hitch to the van's bumper instead of the frame. His evolution into big-time racing continued when his aunt bought him a generator to charge his race car's batteries between rounds.
Still running in the 11.90 class (with a manual transmission) Jody was able to pick up a win here and there. However, wins became increasingly difficult as the more consistent automatic transmission-equipped racers were becoming dominant. When he broke his motor again it was the end of his racing for a while. Remembering his mother's kindness over the years he traded his beloved trailer and $2000 to level her sloped driveway so that her basement wouldn't flood every time it rained.
After being out of racing for a while he purchased a four cylinder Chrysler Lazer to compete in bracket racing. But bracket racing wasn't really his thing and he sold the car after just two seasons despite knowing that this was going to put him out of racing again for a while. He kept active in motorsports by starting Goose Fabrication, a play on his name, and performed work for other racers. He also sold racing gas and nitrous oxide at the sand drags to stay involved and earn a little money on the side.
Over the next five years the Firenza proved to be good learning tool and Jody slowly built a reputation as a consistent performer who could get down any track. Along the way he upgraded his racing components as finances permitted or parts failure dictated. Interestingly, he found an ally in Bill Reichert, an alcohol (and nitro) sportsman racer of some repute whose engine shop was located in nearby Owosso, Michigan.
After paying his dues and upgrading his equipment over the previous half-decade Jody thought that 2005 was going to be his year. He confidently started his season at the Indianapolis Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event, which always features a large field of alcohol competitors vying for one of eight qualified spots. Unfortunately, Jody never got that far as he suffered catastrophic engine failure during qualifying. One of his connecting rods broke and its departure created a big hole in the side of the engine block. The ensuing fire didn't help things either.
A failure of this magnitude only meant one thing, he was going to be down for a while again. Rather than have his season wiped out at the first event Jody decided to spend the rest of the year driving for someone else while he regrouped. A shotgun marriage with the George French Reflexions funny car team actually produced the most respectable results that team has ever achieved with the high water mark being the aforementioned Funny Car Nationals runner-up finish.
Driving for George allowed Jody to save some money once again. He recently put that money to good use when he was able to purchase a like-new Murf McKinney Camaro funny car that had been used very little as a back-up car for the Don Prudhomme team. Jody's tentative plan is to drive his Camaro at Division 3 NHRA events and nearby NHRA national events. Alternately, he'll drive the Reflexions Dodge at IHRA national events and selected match races.
Five-time funny car world champion Mark Thomas likes to say that he was born with a plastic spoon in his mouth instead of a silver spoon and that the spoon might even have been dirty to boot. In addition to Thomas, other world championship funny car racers that have come up the hard-scrabble way include Frank Hawley and John Force. Despite his humble beginnings I would not at all be surprised to see self-taught Jody Gucwa join that elite company some day.