By WALT WIMER
“Flyin’ Brian” Swartzlander from Leechburg, PA, has been selected as a 2018 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 26 at the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame and Museum in Weedsport, NY. That Saturday, Weedsport Speedway will present its Super DIRTcar Series Hall of Fame 100.
In 1978, Brian Swartzlander drove his very first race in an old Claimer division car at Lernerville Speedway. Now, 40 years later and still going strong, Swartzlander is the winningest active driver on the western Pennsylvania Modified circuit and second only to legendary Hall of Famer Lou Blaney in all-time wins for the modern era, going back to the late 1960s.
For the Swartzlander clan, the racing roots run deep. Brian’s grandfather, Neal, was a regular runner and winner on the old NASCAR Sportsman circuit in the Penn-Ohio area in the early 1950s, back when a driver could race seven times a week. Brian’s dad, Mel, then got behind the wheel during the 1960s, first with a coupe and then a Nash Metro-bodied car. Unfortunately, Mel’s career was cut short by a fiery crash at Blanket Hill Speedway in 1970. He survived, but still bears the scars from that accident, which ended his racing career. Dick Swartzlander, Brian’s cousin, was a front-runner in both Late Models and Sprint Cars in western PA for many years.
“My biggest influences growing up were my dad and grandfather,” Swartzlander stated. “I got to watch my grandfather a little bit — I was really young then — but my dad was my hero, and I loved watching him race. And of course, Dick was winning a lot of races back then, which was really neat.
“It was a great era,” Brian continued. “You had Blackie Watt and Bob Wearing. And of course, Lou Blaney. After my dad got hurt and quit, I became a big Lou Blaney fan.”
When Brian himself got behind the wheel of that Claimer, fresh out of high school, it was a rude awakening. “After all the years of watching my dad race, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got out there on the track. But when I pulled onto the surface, I said to myself, ‘Whoa! This is nothing at all like I expected,’” he ruefully remembered. “It was hard to see and I had all these vibrations going on! As I got more experience, the action slowed down for me and it got easier.”
From stock cars, Swartzlander gave the Late Models a try in the early ’80s before taking a break to spend more time with his family. When he returned in 1989, it was in a Modified owned by Tom Forester. Then in 1991, late in the season, Brian brought out what would be the first in a long line of #83 cars: his dad’s old number. He got his first win that year at Marion Center Speedway. By 1994, he was winning regularly on the PA-OH ovals.
Then came 1998, the year that defined Brian’s career. Race drivers always dream of that perfect season. Swartzlander realized that dream in 1998. Running a three-night-a-week schedule, Brian won all three track point titles at Lernerville, Tri-City and Sportsman’s Speedway and totaled up 25 wins on the year. He was recognized by Area Auto Racing News as the winningest big-block Modified driver in the Northeast. He also won the very first point title for the Bicknell Racing Products Modified Tour, a western PA series now in its 21st year.
Swartzlander has never had another season like 1998, but has continued to add to his impressive record year after year. As of this writing he has won a grand total of 171 races at 14 different tracks in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
He has been particularly dominant at Lernerville Speedway. In 2011, Brian won his 71st race there, passing all-time great Lou Blaney for the top spot on Lernerville’s career win list for the Modifieds. He is now closing in on the magical 100-win mark at Lernerville, and has already added to his total in 2018. One has to go way back in the Lernerville record books, to 1993, to find a season where Brian Swartzlander didn’t win at the well-known track. That’s 24 years — and in only three of those years was he limited to just a single win. His best years at Lernerville were his almost perfect 1998 season and again in 2000, when he won there nine times each. Along with being the track’s all-time top Modified winner, Swartzlander has won a record seven Lernerville Modified championships, starting with his first one during that super 1998 season.
In addition to those seven championship trophies at Lernerville, Brian has claimed another eight Modified point titles, at Marion Center, Sportsman’s, Tri-City and Sharon speedways. He has won at just about every track in the area that has run Modifieds during his driving career: Lernerville, Sportsman’s, Tri-City, Mercer, Challenger Raceway, Marion Center, Pittsburgh Motor Speedway, Hickory, Central PA, Thunder Mountain and Dog Hollow in Pennsylvania; Sharon and Raceway 7 in Ohio; and Tyler County in West Virginia. He topped the annual #1 Cochran Cavalcade of Auto Racing for the Modifieds four times, along with his three BRP series titles in 1998, 1999 and 2008. Heading into 2018, he stands third in all-time victories for the BRP series with 13. Swartzlander was named DIRTcar’s Western region champion in 2007 and 2008.
Unlike many of the best-known Modified drivers in the Northeast, Brian Swartzlander is strictly a “hobby” racer, holding down a full-time job as a weld mechanic. Family members — brother Keith, who was his crew chief for years; son B.J.; and nephew Justin — have played critical roles in Brian’s success. Keith has since retired to the grandstands with Scott Durick now the crew chief.
Swartzlander has used an uncanny knack to build relationships with people who fully support his endeavors to bring in outstanding long-time sponsors, such as McCutcheon Enterprises and Precise Tool & Die. The affiliation with McCutcheon led to a partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The organization’s logo has been emblazoned on Brian’s cars since 2012.
Both Brian and Calvin McCutcheon have family members afflicted with diabetes, and have worked hard to support the fight against the disease, organizing fundraising and walk-a-thons.
“We’ve taken the race car to these events and the kids love to see it,” said Brian. “JDRF is a great organization and it really means a lot to us to have them on the car. It gets a lot of attention and helps to get out the word.”
Recent years have seen Brian cut back his racing schedule to center mostly on Lernerville. But with a new series of $2,000-to-win BRP races at Sharon Speedway, he plans to be more active in 2018.
Ultimately, however, the racing game comes back to square one for Brian — his heritage, his history, and his family.
“We just welcomed a new grandson,” said Swartzlander, 58. He and wife MaryAnn have two children — Tami Richardson and B.J. — and now have three grandkids. That’s the fifth generation of Swartzlanders at the local tracks.
“It’s a big family affair for us,” Brian proudly exclaimed. “Even Calvin (McCutcheon) and his wife Julie. They’re like family, too.”