Even before he was legally able to race, Stroker McGurk knew it was something he wanted to do. As a boy, the North Collins, N.Y. native would attend racing at Buffalo's Civic Stadium and fill in for John Gullo.
"John used to get headaches, so he would toss me his helmet and I would go out and drive for him at the old Civic Stadium in Buffalo," McGurk recalls. That was until he tried to go three abreast on a track designed for two cars. After getting caught driving Gullo's car, Stroker didn't drive again unitl 1959 when Johnnie Speedway opened up in his hometown. With a track so close, he returned in "probably the second or third year the track was open."
It didn't take long for McGurk to make a name for himself as he won the feature race in just his second night of competing at the track. From there McGurk went on to race at more than 20 ovals including Stateline Speedway, Eriez Speedway, Holland International Speedway, Perry Speedway and Olean Raceway. In his first ever visit to Eriez, Stroker won a 100-lap race and he was on his way to making racing a career. It was a career that lasted roughly 15 years.
One of the things that separated McGurk from others racing in the 1950's, 1960's and the 1970's was the fact that he rarely owned or worked on his own car. He spent the majority of his career at a "hired gun" driving for others. His driving career included stints behind the wheel of cars owned by Leo Brown, Doc Hoctor, Joe D. Markel and Anthony Catalano.
"I guess I was lucky," McGurk said. "I would be at the races and someone would need a driver, so I was able to pick up rides." Those rides were usually in the premier classes, such as the Modifieds, New Cars and Late Models. That meant McGurk was competing against the top drivers of the era, including Art Clark, Dick Flaig, Richie Wrobel, Billy Rafter, Ron and Don Wylie.
The western New York driver was up to the task as he won the Eastern Racing Circuit of America (ERCA) crown in 1968 and the Holland Late Model title in 1969. The ERCA title earned him a large trophy and a 1968 Mustang convertible.
With the possible exception of the many friends he met through racing, McGurk considered that car one his most possessions left over from his racing days.
After competing three nights a week at Cayuga Speedway, Holland and Perry Speedway for several years and enjoying a great deal of success, McGurk decided to retire in 1972 before being approached by Catalano about another driving opportunity. The fellow North Collins resident talked Stroker out of retirement and for the next seasons the two men teamed up to campaign the popular Miller High Life #44 at Holland. At the end of the 1975 season, Catalano sold his car to Doug Hewitt and McGurk's career came to an end.
During the season prior to his final retirement from the sport, McGurk won a spot in the Race of Champions at the Pocono Raceway. With the sale of the car, he was unable to make it to the north central Pennsylvania race.
While he admitted to being a bit disappointed that he never got to race at Pocono, he understood why Catalano sold his car and looked at the move from the car owner's perspective. Catalano decided to get out of racing and get married according to McGurk, but then the marriage plans fell through.
When asked what the biggest difference was between his era and racing of later generations McGurk said it was the money. "When I raced you could put a winning car on the track for about $3,500 and now it is really expensive for a Late Model," he explained.
While the price of a race car has gone up drastically, the amount of the prize has failed to keep pace. "One year, Doc Hoctor told me he was about $800 ahead at the end of the year," McGurk said. "I think it would be a lot tougher to come out ahead nowadays."
McGurk said leaving the sport was not as difficult as it might have seemed thanks to his collision business in his hometown that kept him busy. McGurk passed on May 6, 2013 at his North Collins him after a short illness at the age of 80. While he may be no longer with us, Stroker McGurk and his accomplishments remain alive in the minds of area auto racing fans.
Pictures courtesy of Randy Anderson of statelinelegacy.org