Local racer heats up area circuits

COVINGTON — When C.J. Pucko straps himself into his Legends car, he does not do it for the money; he does it for the love of the competition.

“It’s a hobby; I enjoy working on things and tinkering,” Pucko said. “I know if I win great and if I finish last great. I’m having fun.”

It took three years before Pucko, 34, felt the thrill of victory in the semi-pro division, winning twice at the Watermelon Capital Speedway in Cordele and once in the Thursday Thunder series at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“The semi-pro is for people that don’t have that much experience supposedly, but that’s not the case half the time. Then you have the Masters division which is for 40 and up,” Pucko said. “Then you have the Pro division, which is for anybody. It’s determined by lap times and wins then they make you move up in class.”

Racing has been in Pucko’s life from the very beginning as his father and godfather raced in the Miami area when he was a child. But it wasn’t until he started helping the father of his wife, Rachel, when he really got hooked. After spending time helping him work on a Legend car, his father-in-law told him if he wanted to go get in the car and take a few laps. That was all it took to get him hooked.

“The next thing I do is buy one,” Pucko said. “My wife is very supportive. We went out and started playing with it picking up extra equipment. The first few years was basically learning. You sit there and watch cars then the next thing you know that car is in your rear view mirror.”

Legend cars are sized at a five-eighth scale of a 1930-1940 car powered by a Yamaha motorcycle engine at a cost of $10,000-$15,000 for a new car with a used one starting in the $4,000 range.

Even though it cost close to $300 to go to Cordele, Pucko prefers to race in South Georgia than head a few miles to Hampton to take the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“I like racing in Cordele,” Pucko said. “It’s a lot more fun and a lot more forgiving. But traveling to Cordele with the gas and pulling the trailer it cost me about $300. Hopefully, you might get a payoff, but sometimes it might be $200 or you just might get your entry fee back. You’re not going to get rich doing it.

“It’s called the Watermelon Capital Speedway but its not a watermelon field. It’s in the middle of a farm. There isn’t an outside wall so if a driver misses a turn you’ll see their car in the middle of the field. They have NASCAR people that come there for speedfest like Kyle Busch and David Ragan. Actually it’s David Ragan’s uncle that owns the track. It’s a completely different atmosphere,” Panko said. “It’s more laid back, while in Atlanta everyone wants to win in front of a large crowd, so it’s more serious.”

The other difference is that Atlanta Motor Speedway is a quarter-mile oval flat track. The Melon, on the other hand, is a three-eighth mile, D-shaped banked track allowing for higher speeds. The fastest speed the Atlanta track can maintain on the straightaway is between 60-70 miles per hour while The Melon can see speeds of 90-100 on the straightaway.

Since all the cars are basically the same and have to fall within the specifications according to U.S. Legends Cars International, Pucko also has a strategy that he uses.

“Everyone wants to get up front in the first lap and you get a lot of accidents that way,” he said. “I like to start in the back and let them do what they’re going to do and work my way up towards the front. Even if I start in the front, I’ll fall back. Sometimes it doesn’t work your way because the faster cars are going to get away from you and it’s going to be harder to catch up to them.”

Because of his age and lack of sponsors, Pucko has no illusion of running on the NASCAR. What he would like to do is race the road-style SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) cars where a driver’s ability is challenged with left and right turns. But more importantly, he wants to make it an activity for the entire family.

“I would love to get the kids in the car. But my wife is stopping that for now,” Pucko said.

While the cost of the car can be an issue, the true cost of racing is keeping the cost on the track. According to Pucko, the engine should be rebuilt after 30-40 races. The cost to rebuild the engine starts at $3,500 and can go a lot higher depending on how many parts need to be replaced. He tries to keep those cost down to a minimum by changing the oil after every race.

Pucko races once to three times each time where he uses about three to four gallons of gas for each race at a cost of $9 per gallon for racing fuel.

“Tires are very important too,” Pucko said. “They cost about $99 each plus $40 to have them camber cut. Depending on how many races and practice laps, you can get seven races between tires.”

Pucko missed Thursday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway because of maintenance problems. But he is hoping to be on the track on Saturday at Cordele as well as for the final week of the season at The Melon.

“The season finale is going to be big because they are going to have fireworks. It’s going to be a big event,” Pucko said. “I’ll be there depending if I get back in time from our family vacation.”