By Buffy Swanson
WEEDSPORT, NY-Continuing his family’s legacy, “The Pocket Rocket,” Danny O’Brien from Kingston, ONT, has been chosen as a 2023 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 13 at the Hall of Fame Museum on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
Patriarch Pat O’Brien Sr. put his name in the record books at the old Watertown and Kingston speedways, back in the 1950s and ’60s.
“He raced for 18 years—his last year was 1974, I believe. I was very young. Then he got out of racing to grow the family business, Pat’s Radiator,” Danny detailed. “Years after, he took Pat and I to Brockville and Cornwall a few times. He kinda got the itch and gave us a hand to get started. That’s where all this came from.”
Three years older, Pat Jr. began racing in 1985, with middle brother Danny turning wrenches in the pits. That lasted two years before Danny surfaced from the sidelines to grab his own seat.
“I started right in 358 Modifieds. In fact, I’ve never raced a Sportsman car! And I ended up winning three races that first year—one race at Brockville, and then in late July or early August we won two in a row down at Cornwall,” O’Brien recalled his dynamic debut in the headlining division.
By the early ’90s, Danny was full in, racing Edelweiss on Thursday nights, Brockville Friday, Can-Am on Saturdays and Cornwall on Sundays—all while holding down a full-time job at the family business.
“I did everything with my own car, except for the Gallo brothers at Fonda. I had a couple years with the Evoys, ran the Kendrick Global Warranty 7* in 2009-10 and for Paul and Heather Topping in 2018, then filled in a little bit for the Slacks,” O’Brien said. “Other than that, most of it has been in my own equipment.”
More aggressive than his even-keeled brother Pat, O’Brien just about willed himself into the winner’s circle. Currently credited with 225 career wins at 11 tracks in two countries, Danny was the 1994 DIRT big-block champion at Cornwall, where he also won four 358 titles; a four-timer in Brockville’s Ogilvie’s 358 Modified Triple Crown Series; a two-time winner of both the Doiron Engineering Cup at Cornwall and Mohawk’s Memorial Cup Series; and the 2005 Lucas Oil Canadian Dirt Series champ.
At Brockville, he’s been close to unbeatable, banking 14 track titles and 99 victories, the all-time record.
Of course, at most of these meets, Danny’s primary rival would be…his brother Pat.
“At Brockville and Cornwall, it would be a slugfest between the two of us for wins on many nights. You’d lose ’em with one or two to go or win ’em with one or two to go. There were so many nights we finished one-two together,” O’Brien described their weekly tug-of-war, which got heated at times. “In the 2000s, my brother Timmy was racing with us also—and we had a couple of one-two-three podium finishes at Brockville. That was pretty cool.”
In his autobiography, legendary driver Bob McCreadie gave this succinct synopsis of the two eldest O’Brien brothers: “Pat is the better driver—but Danny wants it more.”
And all of Danny’s intense, single-minded determination was put to the ultimate test in 1996. At Can-Am on Labor Day weekend, he got caught up in a hellish and heart-stopping wreck that ripped the cage right off his car and, even more alarmingly, sent his helmet skidding down the track.
Dead silence. Every spectator on the premises that awful day was convinced they had witnessed a fatality. “Unsurvivable,” they said.
But O’Brien is made of tough stuff. He miraculously lived—made it through the accident, made it through all the excruciating surgeries to save his eyesight and reconstruct his face. (see sidebar)
And he never lost his focus or desire.
The following April, he was back in the driver’s seat; within a month, he was back in victory lane. Right where he left off.
“I slowed down probably around 2015-16. And at the end of 2018, I stepped out. It was very hard to get funding, to keep it all going. It got to be another full-time job along with the business,” Danny admitted.
“And the main reason is…I wanted to win so bad that I was spending every night in my garage, to make sure nothing broke. I was obsessed with it. It got to the point where I got burned out and wanted a break.”
It was a fairly short retirement.
“Bob Slack called me on a Friday morning in late August in 2021. Casual conversation. ‘You feeling good? You want to go racing?’ And that was it,” O’Brien related. “His son Dalton wanted a break, and he needed someone to fill in for a little bit.”
Both Dalton and Tim Fuller recommended Danny as the temporary replacement.
It was more of a transition than O’Brien had expected. “That was tough: when I quit we were running torsion-bar suspensions. So I came back to basically a whole new race car, on coils. It took a few weeks to figure it out.”
Not to worry: Danny showed well in the season-end shows, winning the big Applefest Shootout at Brighton.
Forgoing a full-time commitment, O’Brien stayed on as a part-timer with the Slack team, splitting up a schedule with Tim Fuller and Erick Rudolph until Dalton’s return at the end of 2022.
“Then two weeks after the Fall Nationals race at Brockville, Steve Polite called me. It took a bit of convincing—I didn’t say yes right away. But he made me a lucrative offer, they’re really great people, been racing in the Brockville area for years, and I agreed to give it a shot. As of right now, we’re at 10 races this year and we’ll see where it goes.”
The carrot dangling in front of Danny? His 100th career win at Brockville.
And he is hell-bent to get it. “I’m going to work hard to learn this new Bicknell car this winter, really understand it. And we’re gonna come out swinging!” O’Brien promised. “I’m more excited than I have been in years. I want to get this 100th win—very, very badly.
“I have no interest in going out there and racing for fifth.”
Looking back on a Hall of Fame career, Danny most values the opportunity to race against—and learn from—some of the titans on the tour.
“I think ’95 was probably our best year—I believe we had 15 or 16 wins that year. Everything was clicking, it didn’t really matter where we went. We were just fast!
That was in my own car, too,” he pointed out.
The pinnacle that season: beating Frank Cozze, Buzzie Reutimann, Doug Hoffman and Danny Johnson to the line to take the Super DIRT Series big-block event at one of his home tracks, Can-Am, in August.
“That was really cool! All the guys were there, and it was really tough to win one back then,” O’Brien said of the talent pool on the DIRT tour.
Many of those top drivers were generous with their knowledge—and a kid like O’Brien took it all to heart. “Jack Johnson used to help me at Fonda. Joe Plazek. All those guys would get you guided in the right direction and give you help any time they could,” he acknowledged. “At the time, I figured they wanted to keep you straight and up to speed so you wouldn’t cause trouble.
“Bob McCreadie was always a big help in my career. You could always go sit down with him, ask a question and he’d give you a straight answer,” Danny maintained.
“At the end of the day, it all made the racing better.”