A birthday with a bang

June 26th, 2015 9:59 am

First Posted: 7/14/2013

LAUREL RUN - The only guy under 40 turned 55 this weekend.

And in the process, he also turned a few frightening corners at hair-raising speeds.

That was all part of an exciting party for New Jersey native John Burke, who celebrated his 55th birthday bash by winning the Giants Despair Hill Climb in his first-ever attempt at such an event.

“I’m not used to driving this car this way,” said Burke, a regular on the Jersey area’s road racing circuit whose time of 39.672 in his open-wheel 1997 Reynard Champ Car was little more than a second off the course record. “There’s a curve in the road, little hills.

“It’s fun.”

After celebrating his 55th birthday Saturday, Burke really had a blast Sunday — finishing as the only competitor to crack the 40-second mark and nearly catching Darryl Danko’s course record of 38.36.

“Couple more runs, we might have,” Burke said. “Every time out, I think I went faster.”

The need for speed was a little too much for some.

On a 90-degree afternoon that threatened tire grip on the steaming pavement of the mile-long windy and hilly course, a few drivers fish-tailed trying to conquer “The Hill.” No injuries were reported after the minor wrecks, but one driver suffered severe tire damage that forced his racer onto the back of a hauler after it skidded off the roadway trying to negotiate a tough turn.

“From what the tow driver told me,” said race organizer and co-director Jack Danko Sr., Darryl’s father, “the car hit the bank and was sitting straight up in the air — in an almost vertical position, almost like the car wanted to keep going and climb up the bank.

“But I’ve seen a heck of a lot worse.”

Danko himself had trouble trying to control his own car — a flashy Radical entered in the C Sports Racer division.

“I had a couple dipsy-doodles where the car went sideways, then backwards,” Danko said. “When it’s this hot, the road doesn’t give you the grip you need. As they say it (the car) goes away on you. The heat was a big factor here.

“But it’s always good when no one gets hurt and the race cars don’t suffer much damage.”

Burke didn’t experience those worries.

“Never felt out of control,” Burke said. “I found the pavement smooth.”

It was hardly a rocky transition into the world of hill climbing for the Rumson, N.J., resident.

Normally a road course competitor along with his 24-year-old son, Connor Burke, the elder Burke said he was intrigued by the idea of doing a hill climb after his crew chief Kenneth Company started talking about Giants Despair a few years ago.

“He’s from here, he told me about it,” John Burke said. “I wanted to try it before, but there was always a conflict in the (road racing) schedule. This year, there wasn’t.”

His debut into hill climb was impressive enough, as Burke sat in third place after Saturday’s opening day of the weekend Giants Despair with a fast time of 43.278. Then he headed off to that night’s race party, which sort of turned into his birthday party.

“At the party, they found out it was my birthday and sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ ” Burke said. “That’s half the fun of this — the comraderie.”

The birthday boy found even more fun on the event’s final day. He shaved more than three seconds off his climb time, and overtook Saturday’s leader George Bowland —who placed second with a fast time of 41.140. Connor Burke placed third in his 2004 Swift 014 with a time of 42.988.

“It’s awesome,” Connor said of his dad’s victory. “For him and I both, it was a lot of learning. We talked about our runs — how to kind of use the clutch a little slower and how to get a faster start. I guess we shared our experiences. It’s a lot different than what we’re both used to.

“To come from perfect, paved track conditions to a hill climb with such drastic elevation and corners is so extreme,” Connor continued. If you’re off-line a little bit, it’ll kind of send you out into the weeds.

“To see him take the win in his first time is pretty exciting.”

It seems the thrill of the hill got caught in John Burke’s blood.

“We’ll be back next year, probably just to this one, Giants Despair,” John Burke said. “Made a lot of good friends here this weekend. I think we did everything according to plan — we wanted to be safe, have fun. If we did that, we thought the speed would come, and it did.

“It feels good.”