The yellow Dodge Charger, number 27L, used to undergo a lot of body work every week in the early 1970s.
Sammy LaMancuso and his crew would burn the midnight oil, banging out dents and repairing other damage, to make sure the car would be ready to race every Saturday night at Stateline Speedway.
At the end of the 1974 season, however, the battle-torn car had seen its final circuit on the track. It was retired to the garage at LaMancuso's Arnold Avenue home, never to see the dirt again.
Post-Journal photo by Dave Emke
One more ride
Sammy LaMancuso sits behind the wheel of his racecar at Lake County Dodge in Jamestown on Tuesday.
Or so the story would seem to have ended.
Instead, the classic racecar was hauled from its tomb in April and has since been the subject of a complete overhaul. And now, Saturday night, it is with new tin, a reworked engine and a fresh coat of bright yellow paint that it will once again tear around the track at Stateline Speedway in front of legions of race fans.
And, of course, it will be Sammy LaMancuso - now 80 years old - behind the wheel.
''I'm not too sure how the car is going to respond, so I'm going to be awful careful with it,'' LaMancuso said of how he's going to approach his return to the track. ''I sure don't want to be dinging the wall with it - them guys who did all this work would kill me.''
THE LAST LINK
A surprise 80th birthday party was held for LaMancuso at Lake County Dodge on Washington Street in Jamestown, N.Y., in December. A number of his old friends and former competitors from his days racing at Stateline Speedway from 1956 to 1974 were in attendance - and during the evening's discussion, an interesting revelation came out.
The 27L Dodge Charger is the only car left.
''As far as we can tell, this is the only car that's left from that era,'' said John Cusimano of Cusimano CARSTAR Collision, who was a member of LaMancuso's crew that worked on the car in the '70s. ''Everything else went to the junkyard.''
LaMancuso was quickly coerced by his former crew chief, Mike LaTone, into allowing his car to become a restoration project. The car was pulled from the garage to Cusimano Collision, where the arduous task began.
Videos of the car and interviews with LaMancuso were posted on YouTube by a crew - led by Greg Peterson, local attorney and Robert H. Jackson Center president, and Randy Anderson, ''unofficial historian'' of Stateline Speedway - shooting a documentary on the early years of Stateline Speedway. One of the videos' viewers produced a ''donor car,'' Cusimano said, from which new doors, fenders and a front bumper could be culled. LaTone, meanwhile, tracked down new quarterpanels.
But Cusimano said it was when he and his cousin Bucky, the two members of the pit crew from the time period, cut away the battered and crumpled 40-year-old tin that comprised that the true damage was revealed.
''We could see the damages that were hidden by the outer skin,'' he said. ''The car was pretty much massacred. It was all bent - it's still bent, to tell you the truth.''
The car went onto a frame machine and was straightened out ''as well as possible,'' Cusimano said. After it was structurally lined up, the Cusimanos began fitting the panels back on - which was no easy task either.
''The rocker panels were all crushed in, so we had to pull them out,'' he said. ''We had to make the one on the other side. It was a mess.''
The car received an all-new paint job in recent weeks. And, probably most importantly, it received a rebuilt motor - courtesy of LaMancuso himself.
''Sammy's down here almost every day,'' Cusimano said. ''He's the one that rebuilt the motor, the transmission, and kind of put all the parts and pieces together mechanically to get this thing done. Imagine that, 80 years old.''
ONE MORE DRIVE
All the hard work, money and effort has been more than worth it, Cusimano said.
''We're doing it for Sammy,'' he said. ''It just made a lot of sense to get involved again. I have the facility and the capabilities to do this.''
Anderson, who has had a front-row seat to the car's rebuilding through the filming of the documentary, said that the way so many people have pitched in to make it happen has been truly heart-warming.
''I'm so impressed by the kind of people who hold Sammy in such high esteem,'' he said. ''This is bigger than Sammy the racecar driver. This is about Sammy the man and the effect he's had on people's lives.''
LaMancuso said that bringing the old car out from the garage and back into the world has been like taking a step back in time.
''It's brought back a ton of memories,'' he said. ''It's really been a lot of fun.''
He and his crew will have the chance to experience a flood of old memories - not to mention a whole lot of fun - Saturday night at Stateline Speedway when the track observes ''Sammy LaMancuso Night'' in conjunction with its Fan Appreciation Night. The refurbished 27L Charger will be on display under the grandstands from 5 to 7 p.m., with LaMancuso available for photos and autographs at that time. A reproduction of an actual program from 1961 with LaMancuso on the cover will be given out at the gates as well.
Then, later that evening, the Charger will be fired up and LaMancuso will get behind the wheel one more time for a handful of ceremonial laps.
Anderson said that the night will be a special one for everyone in attendance - from the old-time fans who remember LaMancuso's racing days down to the kids to whom the name doesn't mean a thing.
''You'll see people like me who've been there forever, and you'll see youngsters who'll have no idea who Sammy is,'' he said. ''But what's going to be really striking for the modern-day fan is that they will be able to look at an authentic racecar from 1974 and see how drastically different it is from a current-day racecar. It will be very instructional.''
For LaMancuso, it's just going to be another chance to enjoy the sport he loves in the car he never wanted to give up.
''I've missed it over the years,'' he said of racing. ''Sometimes I wish I wouldn't have quit. But there comes a time.''