MEET STEVE SISKO: DRAG RACING'S "RICHEST RACE" WINNER
Steve Sisko had plenty of time to think about what he accomplished on a 725-mile ride from Martin, Mich., to home in Williamstown, N.J., last weekend.
If he’d sung a customized version of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” he’d have run out of time before he ran out of verses. After all, even with a break to grab some shut-eye in Ohio along the way, it’s going to take some time to croon 1.2 million verses of even the simplest ditty.
One-point-two million is how many dollars Sisko, who works at an auto salvage business, earned over a week’s worth of racing in the Jeg’s-SFG Million at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park.
He didn’t take that much away from the Michigan facility -- more on that later -- but it’s what he earned in posted purses with victories over the weekend; victories in different cars against the country’s toughest bracket competitors. It was an astronomical jackpot for a guy who gambled $6,098 in entry fees for four races in a pair of borrowed cars.
“I always tend to go to the big races, but last year (SFG CEO) Kyle (Riley) had that same race that was $525,000 to win. It was long and drawn out, but I really enjoyed myself. I felt like I could have won it,” said Sisko, who spent nine days away from home for the event. “And when he said he was making it a million this year and then changed it (the Friday-Saturday race) to $1.1 million, as soon as he opened up the pre-registration, I just paid in full by credit card just to know I was going.”
Sisko’s no stranger to drag racing success. The 43-year-old racer has competed for 26 years, and his previous victories include the Summit Super Pro championship at the 2014 NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., plus NHRA national-event wins in Super Comp and Super Street at Englishtown, N.J., and Epping, N.H., respectively.
“I would go and watch the national event (at Englishtown) when I was a kid and just wished that I could race in front of those people and never thought I would have a class car or something,” he said. “And then I just started to win every race that I ever dreamed about winning. …
“And once I got to that point, I just decided I wasn’t going to race every single week anymore. I said, ‘I'll just go to the big stuff. I've won plenty of five and tens, and I won a bunch of dragsters and dragster races.’ … I told my wife (Lindsay), I said, ‘Well, now the goal is to go to 50 granders and the million and those are my goals.’ Now I guess I've got to shorten my goals up a little.”
Sisko competed in Michigan in a Chevy II owned by Virginian Anthony Bertozzi and a mid-80s Camaro owned by Bob Maclosky, Sisko’s fellow resident of the Garden State.
He lost in the second round of the “million” race last Saturday in the Camaro, then turned his attention to Bertozzi’s blue Chevy. Action began early in the morning and didn’t conclude until nearly midnight because of a fireworks show once full darkness set in on U.S. 131. By the time the race ended, Sisko had won 11 rounds of competition.
Sisko’s biggest break of the event came in the quarterfinals when his sub-par .029-second reaction time was rescued by Brian Cireddu’s .01-second red-light start. He took down Jason Hemerline in the semifinals -- the final round for door cars -- when Hemerline broke out by .015.
In the finals, Sisko’s .011 light and 6.281-second run on a 6.28 dial-in was a winner over the dragster of Bill Swain, who broke out at 4.644 on a 4.65 dial.
Sisko swears he didn’t have to battle butterflies the closer he got to the biggest payout in drag racing history.
“I've never in my life been nervous in a race car. Every time I'm in the final round of anything, I just have a natural thing that, in my mind, I know what we're racing for, but for some reason, once I put my helmet on, it's always seemed like life doesn't matter,” he said. “I put my helmet on and you could have given me the worst news 30 seconds before that, and I have some weird thing, I put my helmet on and once I do my burnout, there's nothing in the world until I get back. It's a weird feeling. I don't even know how to explain it.”
But the emotions took over as soon as Sisko and Swain hit the finish line and the scoreboards reflected their times, speeds and the winner.
Sisko’s goal in the final was to “try and be 10 on the tree” -- he nearly nailed that with a .011 reaction time -- and “break out a couple or go dead on” his 6.28 dial-in. “And if the guy could beat me, he beats me. They’re just going to put that run together,” he said -- but Swain couldn’t quite produce it.
Sisko experienced a vibration in the driveline as the race went on, and he and Johnny Labbous Jr., who brought the Chevy II to Michigan as part of a four-car haul, were the only ones who knew about the potential back (and heart) breaker.
“When it left (in the finals), it actually didn't vibrate that run when it left. … And I just got to a spot and I just said, ‘I got to hit the brakes.’ I hit ’em and he broke out. It was crazy. You see all the lights on top of the scoreboard light up (indicating a win) and you're like, ‘What the hell did I just do?’
“When the win light came on, I said a couple of choice curse words in a good way. I stood on the brake pedal as hard as I could, I swung right, I made a K turn, and I drove up the racetrack to meet everybody back at the finish line … which, I don't know if they wanted me to do that, but I drove back up there.
“As soon as I went through the finish line, they shut the lights off (for fireworks). But it was cool because the car has headlights, so I drove back up a dark, pitch-black track with the headlights on and the fireworks going. That's one of the experiences I'll never forget.”
Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the record-setting victory, Sisko only managed about two hours’ sleep before he had to get ready to resume racing Sunday for $100,000. He was eliminated in the second round with the Chevy II when he didn’t stage the car quickly enough and was “timed out.” Fortunately for him, that wasn’t the end of his day, as he had Maclosky’s Camaro with which to continue.
In the finals, his .006-second light was paired with a 6.492-second run on a 6.49 dial-in. Brian Taylor barely broke out, by a scant .004, but that was enough to make Sisko the winner for the second time in less than 24 hours.
“The first couple of days, I would make a run and just lay in the motorhome because it was hot, but it was nice out,” Sisko said. “I would sit in the motorhome with my wife, I'd come back, we would play cards at the dinner table, we would eat lunch and take a ride on the scooter, and then when they called us for the next round, we'd go.
“But those last two days that I won, I didn't really spend any time in the motor home. I don't know. I just stayed outside, and I don't know if that helped me. I never went and got comfortable, but it was just one of them days. I looked back, I'm like, ‘I only went inside a couple of times. I never really sat down on the couch and got comfortable.’ So I wonder by being outside if it just kept me more focused.”
It put checks in his pocket that would buy a fleet of racecars. He explained the actual money distribution this way:
“Well, when they get down to 19 cars in the million-dollar race, they divvy up the money so everybody gets a good amount of money because the money swings are so drastic,” Sisko said. “Technically, on paper, it was $1.1 million to win and $55,000 runner-up. So nobody in their right mind is ever going to let that hold up; you're never going to race for that kind of money. … They had broken it down where the winner would end up getting $493,000 and the runner up was going to get $250,000 and then we made it a little bit closer. So I wound up winning $400,000 and he got $343.”
The same scenario occurred with Sunday’s purse, which was advertised as $100,000 to win and $10,000 for the runner-up. “So when we got down to nine cars, they divvied up the money. And in the final, I wound up getting $44,000 and the runner-up got $30,000.”
Sisko said that half of the ‘million’ winnings go to Bertozzi as the car owner, and Maclosky will pocket $22,000 for providing Sunday’s winner.
Oddly enough, Sisko drove other racers’ cars despite having three at home. Wife Lindsay, who once competed in the Junior Dragster ranks with her sister, races a 10-second Camaro. Steve owns a nine-second Vega, and he keeps a friend’s low-eight-second Camaro in his garage.
Now that he’s back home, Sisko’s headed back to work for Tom Stalba at A.A. Auto Salvage. He might have won a million-dollar drag race, but he’s still a blue-collar guy.
Stalba “buys a lot of wrecked cars from auctions,” Sisko said, “so when the car is done, then I inventory all the pieces on the car so they can get put into the computer so people can see what we have by going online -- so you can sell all the products.”
He’s also got to have one of his two firesuits cleaned. His ‘million’ suit was drenched in sweat, plus a bath of beer and other kinds of alcohol by well-wishers.
“I didn’t smell too good,” he said, “but I’ll take that.”
And then he’ll go back racing sooner than later, including the Jim Harrington Memorial events July 18-19 at Cecil County Dragway in Rising Sun, Md. Sisko calls Harrington “my mentor” and “the one that kind of taught me all the tricks about racing” that he employs today.
“I'm very humble. I don't like really trying to show off and buy fancy. I'm not going to go out and blow it,” Sisko said, “so I'll probably just put it in the bank, and if we need anything, we have money -- that kind of thing.”