RPW Column: Losing & Winning: How Alex Yankowski Drove The Race Of His Life With A Purpose

Column By: MARTY KELLY III / RPW – JERMYN, PA – Alex Yankowski adjusted the velcro strap on the back of his new black and gray Super Dirtcar Series hat and raised it to his head inside the cockpit of his Big Block Modified.

He pulled his one-way radio earbuds off through his new purple Hoosier neck band. Then, he emerged from the driver’s compartment out onto the roof of his red #84y and stood silently, waving a checkered flag in a storm of yellow and black confetti in front of a few thousand people in victory lane at the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Next, he then stepped to the ground and was directed to the interview stage, where he spoke most of his few words of the day.

“It’s been a tough day, I lost my grandfather this morning,” the 17-year-old said on the World Finals stage.

Yankowski finished the interview with the brevity and composure of a multi-time champion and held the World Finals trophy high above his head, almost straight-elbowed and nearly out of frame for the photographers below.

Already an underdog in a field of 30, 40, and 50-something year old savants like Brett Hearn, Matt Sheppard, Mat Williamson, and Tim McCreadie, a 17-year-old kid from Moscow, Pennsylvania had beaten them all in a family-owned car powered by an engine built by his neighbor, Jack Murray.

Yankowski, a rising star on the Northeast big-block scene, had just become the youngest winner in Super Dirtcar Series history and done so on one of the biggest racing stages on the east coast, all in the wake of the death of his grandfather that very same morning.

In 1965 when Walter “Butchie” Yankowski and his brother Frank bought their first racecar for $84 and painted it red, starting the racing bug in the Yankowski family that bit Alex from the jump. Ever since Alex’s first laps in a go kart when he was only four, Butchie played a big part in his success as a driver.

“Alex has raced a lot. There’s only so many that I can go to,” said Alex’s father, Steve Yankowski. “My father would make sure Alex got there if I couldn’t.”

And it’s paid off clearly. Because of his grandfather, Alex got more opportunities to turn laps, including road course practice sessions in a go kart during his formative years.

“I think I learned a lot from [road course racing] and I think it kinda made me a little bit more consistent,” Yankowski said. “We went a lot of places together. That was just kind of us being close…In 2010 or 2011 he took me to Big Diamond every week and we would watch.”

Yankowski has raced karts, slingshots, USAC Speedstrs, sportsman modifieds, big-block modifieds, and 360 wingless sprint cars.

He has won in all of those cars, save for the sprints- so far.

He caught fire at the end of 2020 with a win in the Danny Serrano 100 at Bridgeport, New Jersey, and carried the flame into 2021. He won Big Diamond Speedway specials like Money in the Mountains back in May, the Coal Cracker 72 in August, and now, Charlotte’s World Finals.

And Yankowski is no helmet bag chauffeur, either.

“He’s very passionate about it, he spends a ton of time in that shop,” his mother, Jennifer said.

“If anything, I try to pull him back from time in the shop…He’ll spend 24/7 out there,” said Steve Yankowski.

For all the successes in his young career, his recent triumph at Charlotte serves as the most meaningful, coming in the wake of his grandfather’s passing. The pair were very close.

“It was actually pretty emotional because my father passed away in the morning,” Steve Yankowski recalled. “My Dad was probably his biggest supporter and fan.”

Steve and Jennifer packed their bags and left the Tar Heel state the morning of November 5th, headed for Archbald, Pennsylvania, to be with Alex’s Grandmother.

Alex admitted he was unsure if he was going to race, but added that he knew Grandpa Butchie would want him to. Eventually, some encouragement came down the pipe from back home.

“It was my mother…she told him ‘don’t you dare come home. Stay there and race,’” Steve said.

The car ride was filled with the sounds of the race broadcast as Alex’s parents watched the evening’s events unfold live, while Alex and his crew lived them an increasingly large number of miles away.

First, it was quick-time in time trials for Yankowski, then a heat race win, then a 6th-place re-draw for the upcoming 40-lap feature.

Yankowski worked his way forward, but admits the race was no walk in the park.

“I felt pretty good once we got settled. Then we got to second, I just couldn’t find Larry,” Yankowski said. “Dig, Dig, Dig. I was just gonna try to catch him, that’s all you could do.”

Butchie Yankowski taught his grandson he could do almost anything if he was practical in his approach. His mother always reminded him of the importance of luck and circumstance in racing.

“I started telling him that early on because I knew how his heart was in it. You have to help them keep the perspective,” she said.
Phoenix, NY’s Larry Wight had started second and sailed away from the field until Peter Britten’s flat tire brought out a late caution.

Steve Yankowski said he knew his son had a chance at that moment.

Alex knew he had to make the most of that chance.

“Alright, well, this is kinda your shot,” Alex said.

Yankowski battled with Mat Williamson briefly before passing Larry Wight to take the lead late in the going, putting distance between himself and the field, going on to win the 40-lap contest and secure the $10,000 prize, but it wasn’t about the money.

“Once I got the checkered, I think the first thought was kinda my grandfather,” Yankowski recalled.

He admits he was slightly stunned when he got out of the car in victory lane, not realizing just how many people were there watching.

“That was the one thing that kinda took me back for a second,” he said.

Despite the droves of people, bright lights, and circumstantial weight of many tons, Alex Yankowski won on one of the biggest stages in America, and finished his weekend with an 8th place run the following night from his 10th place starting position.

Alex could not easily come up with the words to describe his special bond with his grandfather that went far beyond the depths of your average grandparent-grandchild relationship, but he finally summed it up.

“I really looked up to [my grandfather] because of what he did and how he handled things.”

On those grounds, you can bet Grandpa Butchie looks up to his grandson, too.

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