In the driver’s seat

Breaking the sound barrier with Mike Dutka

By TED WADDELL
Posted 7/8/20

KAUNEONGA LAKE, NY — Michael “Mike” Dutka lives in a world of speed without sound.

Born in April of 1979, the now 41-year old accomplished racecar driver was diagnosed as deaf at …

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In the driver’s seat

Breaking the sound barrier with Mike Dutka

Posted

KAUNEONGA LAKE, NY — Michael “Mike” Dutka lives in a world of speed without sound.

Born in April of 1979, the now 41-year old accomplished racecar driver was diagnosed as deaf at the age of two; six years later, he and his family faced a difficult decision.

Doctors told them they could perform an operation that might restore his hearing, but on the downside, the procedure could kill him.

The family, which had already overcome adversity on the road to establishing a successful business based on strong feelings of kinsmanship, nixed the idea after Mike told his mother in essence, “Forget the operation. I’m deaf, love me as I am.”

The real soul of this story is that Mike proved to be a quiet survivor with a strong will to make his mark on the world. As things evolved, it took him into the realm of motorsports where success is measured by how fast you can go—not what you can hear.

Like a lot of kids, Mike and his older brother John Jr. started out riding big-wheel tricycles before graduating to bicycles.

But then, Mike took another fork in the road and started racing go-karts in 1994 at the age of 14. He won his first race three weeks later in Poughkeepsie, NY in a competition dubbed the Turkey Shootout.

But appropriately, I guess, the prize was a turkey rather than a trophy, which hopefully is not on display at home—the bird, that is.

So, Dutka started making his mark on the go-kart racing circuit, and from 1998-2000, he was crowned World Karting Association (WKA) champion in their Northeast Division.

Located near the Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of the stars in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) universe, the WKA is the largest sanctioning body for kart racing in North America.

Before garnering the WKA titles, Dutka paved the way to trophies by competing at several other karting venues from 1994 to 1998: Rookie of the Year at Mid-Hudson Speedway (1994); track titles in 1996 at Accord and Lembo Lake, where he ran for points and won 20 out of 24 races to take the title for the third consecutive season; wins in three out of six events at WKA Northeast Speedway Dirt Events; and in 1998, competed in three classes during the Dirt World Championship at Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium.

Then it was time to put on his big-boy driving suit and step up to more serious iron and join the big leagues—not the top-tier yet, but perhaps on the way.

In 2001, Dutka got into a racecar for the first time at Accord Speedway, showing he had a need for speed and a firm grip on the steering wheel, as he won the coveted rookie-of-the-year title along with taking home the pro-stock-points championship trophy in car #29.

In 2005, Dutka got what at the time was the ride of his life when got to drive a NASCAR car at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Lowes Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) in Concord, NC.

His top speed of 147 miles per hour, with an average speed of 130 mph over six laps, was a half-second faster than the on-track instructor, which impressed the cadre of veteran tutors.

A few years later, he began posting records at Middletown’s Orange County Fair Speedway (OCFS): pro-stocks rookie-of-the-year and third in points (2006), second in points (2008) and first in points (2008-2009).

Along the way at OCFS, he switched from the pro-stock division to sportsman.

In September 2016, Dutka posted his second win at Bethel Motor Speedway (BMS) in Kauneonga Lake, NY, taking the checkered flag while driving a 358 Sportsman.

A couple of years later, along came #11, a 1992 Race Works modified bought from Mike Tidaback, a driver who was seriously injured in a nearly fatal accident at Atlantic City’s Wall Stadium Speedway while at the wheel of a TQ Midget that flipped out of control and crashed.

On New Year’s Day 2020, “Batman” paid a visit to Mike Dutka in the guise of #3, a new-style BMS modified race car set up on a 2019 Fasco chassis, running a 350 GM crate motor and laying down 355 steeds to the asphalt.

Christened “the Batmobile” by his brother, this low slung all-black racer is intimidating just sitting in the pit area; it looks “at speed” even while resting quietly in the shade by the trailer.

If you’re the Joker or the Penguin (a couple of the Dark Knight’s most noteworthy archrivals) think about taking a back seat to this state-of-the-art ride that, when new, topped out at about $50,000.

In its inaugural outing during the local oval track’s first practice on June 13 of this COVID-19 plagued season, Dutka cracked the BMS record in #3 with a lap time of 13.6 seconds, shaving the old record of 13.8 seconds.

And that was on the old 15-inch slicks they bought the car with.

The following Saturday, June 20 marked the first real day of racing at BMS. After switching over to a set of Hoosier-treaded tires, Dutka’s practice times were a bit off from the previous week.

But that’s part of the sport, as the driver and crew work as a team to dial it in, fine-tuning the whole works.

Mike’s folks John and Mary run Active Automotive, a vehicle repair shop located in Highland, NY just a few miles from their home in Gardner, NY.

As a 14-year-old, John Dutka started working on the paintwork of a driver’s car in Accord, NY. “Then another guy, Don Palnaterr—they called him ‘Junk Yard Dog’—let me work on the motor of his late-model 6-cylinder at the speedway.

“At one time I was working on seven cars at the races on Friday nights,” recalled Mike’s father. He and Mary jump-started their auto repair shop several decades ago after borrowing $3,000, leaving a thousand bucks in the bank.

“With his handicap, everybody tells him he can’t do it… it just makes us all work harder,” said John. “He’s done very well, but some people don’t like it. What are you going to do?”

In Mike’s case, as things moved along, not being able to hear turned out to be a mixed blessing: at the wheel, he’s not distracted by the sound of cars closing in from behind, and can thus focus on the track ahead and directions from the track flaggers. On the flip side, an official at Hooters Pro Cup, a series of high-octane races down a few tiers from NASCAR’s Busch Series, told the family that Mike could never advance to that division, as drivers have to be in constant radio communication with the spotters.

“With him being deaf, we really can’t do that,” said John Dutka. “We don’t have enough money to fight it, but we’re always hoping to find a big sponsor that will step up to the plate. We do it on our own and get more satisfaction.”

 Mary Dutka is a force to be reckoned with behind her son’s career as a racecar driver. She interprets for him using American Sign Language to help steer conversations in the right direction.

“He always grew up watching NASCAR,” she said. “When he’s out there, he’s just one of the guys, just another racer,” said Mary Dutka, adding that the term ‘guys’ should now include women as more females are joining the ranks of motorsports.

“He feels what the car’s doing, pays attention to the flaggers, not the lights.”

Asked what passion fuels his desire to chase the unforgiving, yet never-forgetting clock in a high-powered racecar, Mike replied through his Mom, “It’s very exciting. I love to race—it gets my adrenaline going!”

These days, Mike Dutka is backed up by a dedicated grassroots hometown racing pit crew, mostly a family affair with a little extra help: John Dutka (crew chief), Mary Dutka (team spokesperson), John Dutka Jr. (crew) along with Ed Darrow (crew), who said, “Just like Clarence…but I’m the tire and gas guy.”

Darrow, taking a break from the “courtroom,” said of the local speedway’s recent affiliation with NASCAR, “It adds something to the excitement of racing. As a NASCAR fan, it’s a huge step up for a local race car track.”

While the action at BMS was washed out on June 27, the Dutkas traveled to Drums, PA to visit the Evergreen Speedway to check out the action as spectators with an eye of expanding their racing horizons, and according to Mary, may check out tracks up in CT.

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