Racing career lands Marhefka in Hall of Fame
Bobby Marhefka earned him a spot in the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club's Hall of Fame. (Submitted photo)
With 52 years and counting around the oval, that longevity earned him a spot in the Pittsburgh Circle Track Club's Hall of Fame.
The Purple Bandit, as he was sometimes called, was inducted along with four others at a banquet Saturday. Marhefka was surrounded by his biggest supporter and wife Patti, son Rob, daughters Robin and Renee and their spouses as well as friends at the formal affair.
"When Don Gamble called me the day before New Year's to tell me I had been nominated, I was taken aback," Marhefka said. "I never expected this. I didn't accept it right away. I talked to Patti and she said, 'That's great!' and from there it was a go."
Marhefka began his career at age 16 as a drag racer. He spent four years traveling to tracks in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey.
"My friend Don Klimek badgered me for two years about anyone being able to race in a straight line, but how it took skill to race on an oval track," the grandfather of six said. "I got mad and in 1959 I bought a '34 Ford Coupe and won my first race that year."
He raced four different types of cars over the next 23 years — sportsman class cars, modifieds, super modifieds and finally late model Chevelles and Camaros in 1970s and early '80s. Crew chief Mike Mindala was with him all 23 years.
Marhefka said every car had the number 85 and all but the first car were purple and white because his wife loved the color purple. Many of the modifieds had "Color Me Gone" painted on them after a song he liked.
"I never won a points championship because I didn't like losing," the Indian Lake resident and borough council member said. "I would pull my car into the pits if it was running bad or if I was having an off night driving. There was absolutely no interest in finishing second. In fact, I replaced my cars every two years because they were usually destroyed but the end of the season due to my racing so hard."
That type of racing was a lot like the way his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, drove and earned Marhefka both fans and critics. He said he didn't know of many people from Jennerstown or Boswell who liked the name Bobby Marhefka.
Mike Sotosky, public address announcer for Thunder Valley Raceway and Bedford Speedway, said although his uncle raced, it was Bobby whom he watched as a kid.
"I would always ask my dad to take me to Jennerstown because I wanted to watch him race," Sotosky, a Windber native, said. "The guys I call now watched guys like Bobby and were enamored with the way they drove.
"When people talk of true legends in the racing community his name will be one of the three that will be said. He was very instrumental in providing leadership as a consultant for the Will family when they were building and opening Thunder Valley. He even worked with me for a year in the announcer's booth and added so much knowledge to the mic."
Marhefka raced mostly on dirt tracks, saying he only saw a handful of races on asphalt in the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas. Local tracks he raced on included Windber, Jennerstown, Bedford, Latrobe and Motordrome. He also traveled to Eldora, Ohio, Hagerstown, Md., Trenton, N.J., and Winchester, W.Va., to compete.
"One of my most memorable moments was when I won the 1973 Motordrome 200," the former owner of Marhefka Chevrolet said. "I won here at Jennerstown as a qualifier for the Trenton race. I also really enjoyed qualifying 10th out of 145 cars at Eldora Speedway for a big race that paid $8,000 or $9,000 in 1976. Finally, I enjoyed watching Robby in his first career race — in the late models at Windber — in the last Purple Bandit car I raced in 1981."
He recounted a story about Marhefka Chevrolet providing pace cars for Jennerstown and Bedford speedways and how Jennerstown owner Stanley "Piney" Lasky loved the paint job on a Corvette so much that he bought the car after the racing season.
As he flipped through a photo album he made for his Hall of Fame induction, Marhefka stopped on a photo of himself, Piney Laskey and his son Stanley, Paul Bess and actor (and race car driver) Paul Newman taken in 1976 at Jennerstown Speedway.
"He was in Johnstown shooting the movie 'Slap Shot' and was always interested in racing something that had a 200-horsepower engine," Marhefka said. "Our race cars all had 600 or 700 horsepower, but we did an exhibition at the track. We were out there for five or six hours getting him familiar with the cars. He drove one and ended up putting it into the wall due to a miscue on his part. We got him another car and he was able to spend the rest of the day with us. After everything was over he let people take photos and then he took us into his motor home to drink beer and talk racing."
Marhefka also has a photo of NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip discussing racing with his young son Robby at Motordrome Speedway in the '70s.
Getting children involved with racing is something Marhefka feels strongly about. He said it keeps them out of trouble and teaches them about ethics and hard work.
"That is something that was important when I started racing and is still very important in today's racing," he said. "Much of racing is still the same since when I started. Sponsorship is still hard to come by. I chose to have just Marhefka Chevrolet and MC Racing Division as my only sponsors. You can't do that now."
He added that they raced for more money when he was driving than what Robby races for now.
"The stands were full when I raced," Marhefka said. "People can't afford to go now."
One thing that will never change for Marhefka is his determination not to reveal his age.
"I've been avoiding the question of age since I began racing," Marhefka said. "I believe it's all about mentality and what you want out of life. I still crawl under cars to fix what needs repaired."
When not crawling around under Robby's car, he can be found spending time with his grandchild at BMX events, other activities or toting them and their friends around on his boat at Indian Lake.