By Buffy Swanson
Pennsylvania racing veteran Doug Hoffman, whose storied career straddles both dirt and paved speedways, will be honored as a 2011 Northeast Modified Hall of Fame inductee on Sunday, May 29 on the Cayuga County Fairgrounds, as part of DIRTcar’s All-Star Weekend in Central New York.
Hoffman, 52, began his racing career as a lark in the summer of 1977 at the now defunct Dorney Park Speedway, near his home in Allentown, driving a Late Model #60over to victory his fifth time behind the wheel. He won there and at Evergreen Speedway, another asphalt track, before making the decision to switch to dirt, putting together a small-block Mod to run at Grandview and Big Diamond speedways.
Quite an undertaking for a Pennsy farm boy who knew nothing about racing until he first set foot at Dorney Park. Unlike many of the famous drivers he would go head-to-head with in his later career—Billy Pauch, Jimmy Horton, the Johnson brothers, who all grew up in their fathers’ race car shops—Hoffman was not a second generation driver. But he was good. Real good. And his driving talent got the attention of some very high-profile mentors: notably, Budd Olsen, the former driving great turned chassis builder; and motor man Butch Sentner of Superior Automotive.
“Budd took me under his wing,” Hoffman remembered. “I was at Big Diamond and Grandview, getting wrecked every week, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come over to Bridgeport, where there’s a lot of room to move around?’ The next season, I had 29 wins.”
That was the beginning of Hoffman’s legendary Modified career.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without Budd Olsen,” Doug has said. “He’s the one who led me. He’s the one who guided me in the direction of DIRT racing. I didn’t come from a racing family, so I had no knowledge of what was or wasn’t possible. Budd’s the one who showed me the ins and outs of the sport and made me realize I could do it.”
And Hoffman did it, all right: His current stat sheet lists 482 victories at 40 different speedways spanning nine states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina and Texas) and two Canadian provinces. He’s won the big “crown jewel” events at Big Diamond, Grandview, Penn National, Nazareth, Flemington, East Windsor, Bridgeport, Fonda, Lebanon Valley, Orange County, the Dirt Track at Lowe’s and all along the Super DIRTcar Series trail. And, of course, the Syracuse mile.
Hoffman finally tucked that diamond in his duffel bag in October of 1996, after years of disappointments and DNFs in the big-block ranks. “There’s no better feeling than winning that race,” Doug said of his triumph in the 25th Anniversary Super DIRT Week 200 at Syracuse. “Once you put that Syracuse race under your belt, that’s something nobody can ever take away from you. There have only been a handful of winners there. That’s an elite group to be in.”
With the wins, the championships followed. Among the 25 track and circuit championships he has amassed, Hoffman counts two pinnacle points: beating out series favorite and defending champ Brett Hearn for the 1991 overall Mr. DIRT title; and winning the 2004 NASCAR Northeast Regional championship, on the strength of a killer season on the clay at Big Diamond Raceway.
As a Pennsylvania native, “that was a hard series to win,” Hoffman noted about the Mr. DIRT achievement. “They never raced in my backyard; they always raced in their backyard. The New York drivers definitely had the advantage.”
He still beams about the recognition he received as ’04 NASCAR Regional champ at a lavish awards banquet in Las Vegas. “Most of those guys race against smaller fields and they aren’t handicapped, they’re used to starting up front,” Doug explained. “And there I was, a NASCAR champion, from a dirt track!”
Doug Hoffman, however, was the King of Crossover, winning as easily on asphalt as on dirt surfaces. In 1991, Hoffman took down 200-lap victories on both the Fonda dirt and the Flemington tar, just two weeks apart. The following year, he followed up a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour 200 checker at Flemington with a big win in the Lebanon Valley 200.
He’s had some great rides over the years, starting with Leon Conklin’s #125 (the car he’s most associated with, after his own iconic #60over), and Billy Taylor’s #1 Troyer that took Syracuse. Hoffman also had success with Dieter Schmidt, Dennis “Moose” Eisenhard, Jay James, Jim Romeo, Sal DeBruno and others.
“I was hard on the people I drove for,” Hoffman admitted. “When you’re really intense about winning races. . . you’re really intense.”
His last full-season ride was for DeBruno at Bridgeport Speedway in 2007.
“I was so lucky to race when I did,” Hoffman related. “I got to race against all-time great drivers like Frankie Schneider, Rags Carter and Lou Lazzaro when their careers were winding down, and guys like Jack Johnson, Bob McCreadie and Dave Lape when they were in their prime. And all the great drivers who are still racing today! It was an awesome time.”
In 1994, Hoffman, his good friend Alex Friesen and others partnered to take over the lease at Mahoning Valley Speedway, a paved quarter-mile oval in Lehighton, PA. Two years later, Friesen was killed in a snowmobile accident, “and that really changed everything,” Doug stated. “Things would have been different if Alex were still alive.”
Nonetheless, for the past seven years, Doug and his wife Gena have single-handedly promoted and run Mahoning Valley and done a very good job in a tough economy. Their innovative and popular Poker Series for the Modifieds has been a highlight of the track’s schedule.
In addition to Mahoning Valley, Hoffman also started a trucking business—his “day job.” Doug’s daughter, Joey, made him a grandfather to a little girl, Mattie, now five. Gena’s daughter, Skye, is a big help to the Hoffmans at the race track.
Even with the track and the trucks and the family, Doug isn’t ready yet to say his driving days are over. And he can certainly still get the job done, as he proved in September 2008, during the running of Grandview’s annual Freedom 76 spectacle. Although he’d sat out the entire season, focusing on Mahoning Valley, he picked up a last-minute ride in a Chad Sinon car and had the fans out of their seats as he came within a hair’s breadth of beating six-time track champion Craig VonDohren for the $20,000 victory.
“I didn’t retire,” Hoffman firmly emphasized. “I’m just not racing right now.”