By MATT NOLES
SELKIRK, NY – One second.
For most, one single solitary second is meaningless; a small moment in an hour that is nothing more than a numerical speed-bump denoting the passage of time. Many would even consider it as a mere drop in a supposedly inexhaustible well; a well with a limitless supply that appears to be nearly impervious to the reality of our own mortality. Yet in actuality, one second can prove to be a far greater barrier than many would assume.
For those attuned to their surroundings, one lone second can be the difference between a reality that once was, to a reality that now is. Its true form is nothing short of the proverbial divide between a past life lived against a life shoved forcibly to the present. For individuals such as this the painful truth strikes forcefully like an army of steamrollers; nothing is trivial and what’s more, nothing is guaranteed.
Mark Flach’s meteoric rise to big-block Modified stardom at New York’s Lebanon Valley Speedway [West Lebanon, N.Y.] apparently was a given, from the outside casual observer at least, thanks to the pedigree of racers in his family bloodline. However, for all intents and purposes, his ascension to the upper echelon of the sport reads more like a high-octane case of attention deficit disorder, though that assumption couldn’t be any further from the truth. In the purest sense, Flach just wanted to go as fast as he possibly could regardless of how many wheels were involved.
Racing may not have been imprinted into Flach’s genetics from conception, but it was pretty close.
“The first time I was at the races, I was six-weeks-old,” Flach stated. “I grew up at Lebanon Valley watching uncle John [Flach] and I just kind of idolized him throughout my whole childhood.” Where having heroes is concerned, young Mark Flach certainly chose well and by the time he turned a mere five-years-old, he began carving out what would become his path in the family business.
“I started racing four-wheelers at Lebanon when I was five,” he continued. “And we would continue that for a few years. I actually won my first year which was in 1988 and that was pretty special because that was the first year that uncle John [Flach] won his first point championship in the modifieds. You don’t really realize how special that is when you’re a kid but now looking back you understand the importance of those milestones a little more.”
After finding success in his first two seasons of competition, the time came to migrate on towards other avenues. Where some might ease into a new venture, Mark did not as he developed his head-on approach from an early, formative age. Needless to say, it was a trait that would serve him well many times over later on.
“We jumped right into the go karts after a few years of running the four-wheeler,” Flach stated. “We raced at Albany-Saratoga, Gore Mountain, my uncle’s place up in New Hampshire, the road course at Ballston Spa, Poughkeepsie and a few of the series races. We raced on dirt and asphalt, road courses and ovals, it didn’t matter.”
Success came often and early for the young driver and by 1993, he locked up a win in the ‘Mini Madness’ event along with two class titles at Malta. Though running on four-wheels seemed agreeable enough as the results had shown, change was in the air and in typical Mark Flach fashion, it wasn’t a small one in the least.
“I don’t know if we had had enough of go karts or if we just stopped running them, but we started racing motocross,” Flach concluded simply. “We raced them up until the time I was about 16-years-old. We ran district 34 and district 6 but I spent about two-years in-a-row on crutches with broken ankles, a broken knee and as I was healing my second time around, my grandmother Ann [Carolyn Leigh] called me up and asked me if I wanted to go watch the Lebanon 200.”
Fate has a naturally whimsical way of showing its hand; some look for a sign from the heavens whereas others look for a sign even further away than that. Yet for some, the lucky amongst us that is, fate comes in the form of a dirt modified racing grandmother.
“I sat with her all the time when I was a kid at Lebanon,” continued Flach. “So, I said ‘yeah, it’s been a while, why not.’ That was in 1999 and I had a great time watching and you always have that fire inside of you if you’re a competitor and going to that race just kind of reignited it for me.”
The wheels, all four of them mind you, quickly began to spin inside the head of Mark Flach and after an impromptu trip to Middletown [Orange County Fair Speedway] for the Eastern States 200, his mind was set on a new goal; getting back behind the wheel.
“After Eastern States I told my father that I’d like to get a car,” he explained. “He basically told me that I’d have to ask my grandfather if he would help us so I asked him and he said he’d give us a hand. We basically went to work right then and there.”
There were pros and cons to what he was trying to achieve; he had the drive and determination to make it happen yet at the same time, he lacked the knowledge needed. Family again stepped in to show the way.
“I called my uncle Pete [Essex] because he used to help my uncle John back in the 80’s,” stated Flach. “I asked him if he would help because I had no clue how to even start. We ended up going to the swap meet at Lebanon Valley and bought a car from Bobby Chalmers.”
With the purchase of his first open-wheel car, a 1997 Troyer chassis, Flach brought his new ride home to the garage and immediately went to work.
“We got the car back to the garage and stripped the body down,” he continued. “And he [Pete Essex] made me hand sand everything and paint it white. We couldn’t buy new tin and he made me learn the hard way which I can respect now. It helped me build a good work ethic and definitely added some character.”
Flach had nearly everything he needed to start his open-wheel career the following season; everything that is except for a motor.
“We got together with Jocko [Gable Motorsports] who worked with my uncle back in the 80’s,” stated Flach. “And we ended up getting our short-block motor from him. My open-wheel career started the next season at Lebanon Valley.”
Though the coveted ‘Valley’ would become is full-time home, Flach made a quick detour to shake the rust off at the ‘Great Race Place,’ the Albany-Saratoga Speedway. It was trip that turned out to be unforgettable.
“We went to Malta first,” said Flach with a sheepish grin. “We pulled in and drew the pole for the first heat race. It was like getting fed to the wolves. On the first lap the guy that started outside of me went around me and when we got to turn three, I hit the back of him and spun him out.”
If only this was the end of the story; however, the next few corners did not find his situation improved at all.
“Somebody else passed me going into turn one and I spun him out,” Flach continued shaking his head. “And I’m pretty sure it started to rain because I went into turn three and four the following lap and slid right across the whole track, hit the wall and destroyed the whole right side of the car. That was the first race and I don’t think I got out of the car for a good 40-minutes; I was terrified. I literally wrecked the whole car in about five minutes.”
After his bout with what some would define as growing pains, Flach and his team decided to focus their program on Saturday night’s only for the time being. Though qualifying for the feature may have eluded him for a few weeks, the lesson’s learned came fast and steady and as was to be expected, Flach became fast and steady as well.
After nearly finding victory lane in his rookie season, Flach found himself even more focused during the winter heading into the 2001 season. His hard work paid for itself in full on May 19th of that year with his first-career victory. Never one to sit back and revel in success, times were changing yet again in his young career.
“I just felt like I wasn’t learning enough as a driver,” He explained. “I felt like I needed a change of pace. You talk to enough people and you always hear the same thing; you get stuck in a ‘Valley’ rut where you can’t go anywhere else and be competitive. That’s not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be able to pull up to any track and be competitive.”
With that mindset firmly in place, he hit the road to feed his hunger for experience.
“We went out to Utica-Rome [Speedway in Vernon, N.Y.] a couple of times,” continued Flach. “I just fell in love with the layout of that place. By 2002 we bought a new PMC Z-Link and went to Utica and we started traveling around with Randy Ross and Billy Decker and started learning from them. We logged laps and did alright. I was a young guy at the time and pretty inexperienced but it was good for us.”
Inexperienced as he was, Mark Flach was honing his skills for bigger and better things that were closing in on the not so distant horizon. With trips to Utica-Rome, Fulton, Accord and even running half of a season behind the wheel of an asphalt modified at Riverhead [Raceway in Riverhead, N.Y.] becoming more the norm and less of a shocking surprise, Flach started to develop not only his only style as a driver, but a reputation as a fierce competitor as well.
By 2006, Flach found himself part of the family stable when his uncle John [Flach] brought him under one roof with his son, Keith Flach, whose career was just getting going.
“We had a brand new Teo and a brand-new PMC built,” Flach explained. “We freshened the small-block for Utica-Rome and built a brand-new Bedell big-block for the Valley. We moved our cars down to his shop and went back to Lebanon.”
Had Flach’s homecoming debut in the big-block Modified division been written by a Hollywood producer, one can only imagine the great story that it would have been. However, reality being what it is – often times harsh and unforgiving – that script never came to fruition. Though it may have seemed disappointing to some, the driver of the now infamous No. 77F ‘Flach Attack’ proved that the potential for greatness was irrevocably there.
“That first week back we blew a power-steering line during practice,” Flach recalled. “So, we pulled the back-up car out and started dead-last for the feature. I had a 300 [compound] on the right-front thinking it would last but I was just a little too hard on it. We went from last to about sixth before I lost the front-end and started washing up in the corners. I ended up pulling in but it was an exciting first race for sure.”
Though victory lane eluded him throughout his first Modified season at Lebanon, Flach put together numerous top-five finishes and more importantly, garnered some much-needed experience. By the following season, the young kid who didn’t know where to start less than a decade ago began to develop another facet of his now blossoming reputation; that of a somewhat mad scientist.
Like most talented race car drivers, Flach has never found himself satisfied with what he has. In short, if there was a better way – or at least even the hint of a better way – to build the proverbial mousetrap, he was dead set on finding it.
“In 2007 I had the bright idea that I was going to reinvent the wheel,” Flach said with a hint of sarcasm. “I decided to do another four-link like Tremont [Kenny Tremont]. I found a four-link, built it up and it would go good for half the race and then it would just start backing up.”
Hindsight being what it is, Flach probably would have been better off running a standardized car like everyone else. Then again, if you want to be a step ahead of your contemporaries, chances need to be taken. Needless to say, lessons were learned in 2007 that were quickly applied to his racing program for the 2008 season; a year that would be the defining moment of his career to that point.
“We ended up picking up a Troyer [chassis] for the 2008 season,” he continued. “Dan Bedell did a little more work to our motor and when we got to the track that car was just good. It was a bear to drive for the first 12-laps but the longer the race went, the better it drove. I like a tight car personally and that thing had a lot of grip. We ended up winning the title at Lebanon that year; it was special for sure.”
Though going with a standardized chassis had certainly served the now championship-winning driver well, his curiosity was beginning to get the better of him and after a concussion-causing wreck during Brett Hearn’s ‘The Big Show’ at the Orange County Fair Speedway in 2010 destroyed his Modified viciously, Flach went back to the drawing board for 2011. What he came up with both frustrated and surprised him in equal amounts.
“I was talking to a bunch of my friends down in Tennessee that wer e late model guys,” Flach stated. “And I was already a big four-link guy so we sat down and decided to build a car. It ended up being a four-link/z-link combo with a pull bar and we ended up nicknaming it Hippity Hop.” The transition between the straights and the corners at Lebanon are extreme to say the least. With short links and a seemingly incurable bind in the pull bar, the car would literally hop; it would never seem to settle enough to produce the side bite or forward bite that Mark needed. However, what happened next was fortuitous in and of itself.
“We took it out to Utica to test it,” Flach recalled. “And that car was good on a flat track; really good.”
With that new-found knowledge, there was only one other place to go with his coveted pogo stick on wheels; the Mile in Syracuse.
“It’s a shame that we didn’t have the best motor in that car at the time,” Flach lamented. “Our qualifying wasn’t great because we didn’t have a lot of speed but come Sunday when the pace slowed down, I could drive into turn one and while everyone else would shove up a lane, I could hug the berm on the inside and drive right past them. I was passing a car a lap. That car was fun to drive on a flat track.”
Fun is another understatement. Flach started the 2011 edition of the main event at Super Dirt Week in 34th; at the end of the 200-lap event, the driver from Selkirk, N.Y., found himself finishing in ninth position and garnering the coveted ‘Rookie of the Race’ award. His four-link/z-link chassis may have had a lackluster season to the casual observer, but to those who truly understood what he was trying to accomplish, the knowledge gained was nothing less than invaluable.
Unfortunately, by 2012, the car deemed Hippity Hop had been cut up so much that it seemed to stop reacting. With only 19 or 20 weeks of racing in a season, the research and development that Flach and his team were trying to accomplish couldn’t fit into that time constraint. With his own ideas and the well-established engineering of Bill Colton at Troyer Race Cars, Flach brought out a new chassis just in time for the ‘King of the Track’ race; an event that he subsequently won.
After a wreck at Super DIRT Week in 2012 that left his race-winning modified in shambles, Flach again teamed up with Colton and Troyer Race Cars in 2013 when he brought home a new TD1 for the season. Success wasn’t easily found through the mid-part of the season but as the fall months closed in, Flach’s understanding of what the car needed increased his consistency tenfold. Then came Canandaigua.
After Lebanon Valley canceled due to weather, and with Flach already planning on running the Labor Day race at Rolling Wheels [Raceway Park in Elbridge, N.Y.], he loaded up and decided to attempt a test and tune session at the fabled ‘Land of Legends.’
“We got out there early and Canandaigua was still racing,” Flach stated. “We did well. We qualified through the heat and we started 12th in the feature. After a handful of laps, we were inside the top-ten. Then on a restart, I think someone dropped a driveshaft or the leaders got together and created a melee. The next thing I knew I saw Jimmy Phelps sideways in front of me and I had a full head of steam.”
Flach quickly realized he had two choices and one of them had to be made in a split-second; nail Phelps in the door or try like hell to avoid him. He chose the latter of the two.
“I got on the brakes as hard as I could because I thought I was going to hurt him [Phelps],” remembered Flach. “So that got me sideways and the car dug in and did a little flip; the flip was fine really. But the way the car landed on its side with the top of the cage facing traffic, unfortunately, Rauscher [Dave Rauscher] came in and he had nowhere to go.”
There is nothing more eerie than the silence of a dirt track full of spectators. The impact collapsed Flach’s roll cage in such a way that all in attendance were preparing themselves for the worst possible news. There are moments in time, one single second, where life can literally hang in the balance by thousands of an inch. That September night quickly became remembered as one of them.
“I never was one for wearing a HANS device,” Flach stated. “You go through a couple of good wrecks and you think you’re Superman. Josh [Flint] and Lance [Harting] bought me one for a wedding present and made me wear it; if it wasn’t for that, I’d be a quadriplegic or dead. Another .0032 of an inch and my cord would have been severed.”
Racer’s are an interesting breed; a group of men and women that manage to take the most severe and dire of circumstances and crack a wise comment at seemingly inappropriate times. Mark Flach is no different. Case and point; when Flach woke up in the hospital after his harrowing ordeal and someone asked him if he knew where he was, his first response after looking around briefly was simply, “not at Troyer.”
All kidding aside, the seriousness of his predicament was made perfectly clear when the surgeon who put his neck back together piece by piece came into the room.
“The doctor came in and he was a little arrogant,” Flach said with a smile. “He told me ‘I did an amazing job putting your neck back together,’ I said ‘oh that’s good, great,’ I was looking for a timeline as far as how long it would take to heal and get back in the car. I was thinking 8 to 10 weeks; his exact words were ‘you better find another hobby.’”
There are no coping mechanisms that can prepare a racer for being told that their career is over; there are no words of solace to console or attempt to comfort one who has their career brutally cut short. There is only denial followed closely by deafening silence.
“I was still convinced I was going to come back,” he stated. “I told Billy [Colton] that he was going to build me another car. We actually did have another frame built but at the same time those first four or five months I couldn’t even hold my head up; I couldn’t even bathe myself. There are so many things you take for granted when you can’t do them on your own anymore.”
Between his wife Jamie, his brother-in-law Tim Gofmanas, his brother Cody and his friend Tim Emerick, Flach began the long road to recovery. A recovery that would guarantee his independence and, at the same time, a recovery that included a life without racing.
With his driving career seemingly over, Flach walked away from the sport completely. That status quo remained virtually unchanged until his cousin – Keith Flach – needed a radiator to head down to the World Finals in Charlotte, N.C. Mark’s engineering background and his creativity sprang back into action, almost by sheer accident.
“Keith needed a radiator,” Flach explained. “And I still couldn’t lift over 20 pounds so working with aluminum seemed to make sense.”
What started out as a hobby to pass the time quickly turned into a business and by 2015, Flach Performance Products [FPP] was born. Though he didn’t advertise either in print or digitally, word of mouth quickly brought to light the quality work that went into anything he built or sold. In short; business was good.
“My wife Jamie actually was the one that pushed the business out there,” he continued. “She created the Facebook page for it and it took off. All I wanted to do was help some people out and build a good product and now it’s like having two full-time jobs at this point. It’s a good problem to have and I really do enjoy it; I still get to work with race cars and I thought it would fill the void left with my career ending.”
Though it’s certainly satisfying to see his products in race-winning cars on a nearly weekly basis, there’s still nothing like driving and winning in your own car; it’s a void that can’t be filled completely. However, there are ways to possibly substitute the feeling of emptiness those who are forced out of the sport before their time find themselves weighed down by. For Mark Flach, another unexpected, and unplanned for that matter, twist in his path through racing was fast approaching whether he knew it or not.
“I would not go to the races for the longest time,” stated Flach. “I just did not want to go. I made sure that my customers were taken care of but that was it. I finally started going to the races again in 2017. I would go, watch the heat races, and then I would leave. So, then I got to thinking that if I helped someone, if I worked on a car maybe that would fill whatever I needed inside.”
Enter legendary modified driver Brett Hearn. “I was out at Oswego [Speedway in Oswego, N.Y.] in 2017,” recalled Flach. “And I only went out for Friday. I was just making the rounds and I was talking to Brian Madsen and they had three or four cars out and Brett [Hearn] wasn’t sure if he was in the right one. I walked up to Brian and told him that if you need help, give me a call.”
A few months later, Brian Madsen called to check if he was serious about the offer he made at Super Dirt Week a few months prior; it quickly became evident that he was. Then, Mark Flach received a call that a few short years prior would have been unfathomable.
“Brett ended up calling two weeks later,” said Flach. “He wanted to know if I was serious. I told him why I wanted to do this and he invited me down to his shop to see his operation. I thought that was wild; Brett Hearn wanted me to come to his shop. Long story short, the meeting went well.”
Brian Madsen set up Flach with a car and a motor to start a satellite shop for Hearn’s Friday night program at Albany-Saratoga. As the results of the 2018 season have shown, this sudden leap of faith paid off in spades with another track title for the wily veteran out of Sussex, N.J.
“Brian [Madsen] facilitated the whole deal,” Flach continued. “The whole thing has been good as far as working with Brett [Hearn]. He listens, which makes things easy for both of us. The first few weeks last season we ran his deal but he was pretty open to change from the beginning. Once we established a good relationship, towards the end of the season he would tell me what was wrong with the car and then tell me to do what I had to do to fix it.”
Working with a championship-winning team has certainly alleviated some of the pain from the loss of his driving career, but not all of it. However, there was one more part of the deal between Mark Flach and Brian Madsen; an attempt at getting back behind the wheel at Lebanon Valley, just one more time.
“I think getting back behind the wheel would give me the closure I need,” Flach concluded. “I want to give myself every opportunity I need to be competitive. I just need to get back in shape physically first. I’d probably just show up at a race and get some laps and then I’d want to do a Mr. Dirt because you have to time trial and you can make your own destiny. As long as I haven’t regressed as a driver, and I’m still capable of running the car, I think if I could do one more race at Lebanon Valley, I could put my career to rest.”
To paraphrase Henry Stanley Haskins, what lies behind us and what lies before us are nothing compared to what lies within us. For Mark Flach, eternal optimism in the face of nearly insurmountable odds lies within. From broken ankles to virtually knocking on death’s door, his life is truly a prime example of stubbornness at speed. Later this summer, his final ride awaits on the high banks. With one more chance to put the past to rest for good, the driving portion of Mark Flach’s racing life isn’t entirely complete, at least not quite yet.
Just wait; one more second.