OSWEGO — It has been less than a year since Vern LaFave was involved in a fiery turn 1 accident at Oswego Speedway, badly burning the 61-year old racer and destroying his car.
Now, LaFave is ready for a full-time J&S Paving 350 Supermodified comeback in 2020.
“I feel great,” LaFave said. “My vision is back to 20/20 and my burns are healed. I have been better for a while, but it has taken a full year to get to 100 percent. Gina, my girlfriend, took great care of me and made sure bandages were replaced every day. I’m lucky to have some great people around who care about me and helped so much throughout the recovery process.”
For the upcoming season, LaFave purchased last year’s Muldoon Racing supermodified that Michael Muldoon raced frequently on the ISMA trail, and also in the International Classic. The car was built with independent front suspension, but the Muldoons converted it back to a straight axle 350 immediately after the 2019 Star Classic. Now it is revamped and ready for LaFave to race.
“Mike (Muldoon) has been instrumental in everything,” LaFave said. “I would not be racing if it weren’t for his help. Not long after my accident, he knew I wanted to come back. He told me he would rebuild the wrecked car, but I wasn’t into driving that again. That was when we started to put the plan in motion to either build a new one, or use one of last year’s cars.”
LaFave’s 2020 ride is one of four supers to be built or rebuilt in Muldoon’s Baldwinsville shop over the offseason. Two new big-block supers are in the works, LaFave’s car has already been rebuilt and moved out the door, and a mid-1990s Muldoon car to be driven by Doug Sanborn was also refurbished.
“I can’t thank Mike Muldoon enough. First of all, for building me a safe racecar,” LaFave said. “Everything held up great and bent exactly where it was supposed to in my crash. Lately, as we’ve done the conversion, I have made two dozen trips back and forth, but the wing is finished and that was the last piece we needed. The car came out absolutely great and it’s race ready.”
LaFave’s plans for 2020 include a full Oswego slate once the gates are finally able to be opened, and some select appearances in New England, including at Star Speedway and on the 350 SMAC tour, in addition. The Philadelphia, New York resident said he plans to “hit as many of the races as he can.”
“I’m all in for a full Oswego season,” he said. “I’m actually kind of bummed. I just want to get out there already, and this virus has everything on hold. I will absolutely be there for all of the Oswego shows, and we are looking at doing some other stuff too.”
While it has been a long, hard road to recovery for LaFave since his horrific incident, the most difficult part is now behind him. For quite some time, he said he questioned whether or not he would ever be able to get back behind the wheel of any racecar.
“I really wondered how I would handle it mentally,” he said. “Last fall, I got back into a Modified at Evans Mills just to take a few laps. I’m not sure how many people really knew that, but we did and it went fine. I just wanted to be able to tell myself that I can do this still, and that was all I needed. I was totally fine. I just want to race.”
Perhaps the most frequent question LaFave has gotten, he said, are from those wondering if he is “terrified” or ask “how could you” (go back) after a crash like that.
“I’m not scared,” he said. “I do not dwell on it or think of it much, but I remember the whole thing and know I am lucky. It was a just a totally freak deal, but if you are afraid of it, then you shouldn’t be doing it. The right safety changes were made and hopefully have taken care of the problem that caused the fire.”
The big goal for LaFave this year is to get the Oswego victory that he says has always seemed to elude him. A veteran of the Pathfinder Bank SBS and Novelis Supermodified divisions, LaFave has been close to winning several times. He was won several SBS travel shows, and is a multi-time winner in the Evans Mills Modified and Legends division.
“An Oswego win is the last big thing on my racing bucket list. That’s all I want,” LaFave said. “I get upset, because I know we had the car to win last year, but I guess now we have something that should be even better. I’ve been going for the lead in SBS races with a lap to go and gotten wrecked. I’ve just never been able to get it done. To get a win at Oswego Speedway after what happened to me last year would be the biggest dream of my life.”
LaFave thanked those that supported him through his journey.
“I want to say thanks to the Oswego Safety Crew once again for doing what they do best. They saved my life. I want to thank Mike Muldoon, Kent Klock, Kyle Hafeman, Chippy Wood, Mike Bond, Ed Matteson, and Matt Matteson. I have a lot of people that have pitched in from up around home and in Oswego.”
LaFave also had praise for race fans, mentioning how “overwhelming and unbelievable” it felt to return to the track after his accident in July of 2019.
“I just want everyone to know that I am doing well,” he said. “We are excited to come back. All those people that greeted me last year. Honestly, I don’t think I moved 50 feet in an hour. Most of them were people I didn’t even know. I cannot say enough about supermodified fans. I had a bad day, but it wasn’t my day, so we brush it off, have a new car built, and are going to go for that win. I’ve done this for over 40 years. It is in my blood. It’s what I want to do.”
Oswego Speedway’s 2020 season continues to be “paused” due to COVID-19. All patrons are reminded that the speedway office also remains closed due to the restrictions, and all camping and ticket sales are halted for the time being. The 2020 event schedule is tentatively scheduled to resume on June 6, pending state and local guidelines.
See www.oswegospeedway.com for more details and updates.