Joe Gravino- Your 2019 Sprint Car Living Legends Dream Race Honoree

By- Justin Snyder

 

PORT ROYAL, Pa- Legend- An extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field

Over the years, many of legends have passed through the Central Pennsylvania racing scene. Most of them have been honored at the Port Royal Speedway in the 12 Living Legends Dream Race’s that have been held since 2007.

 

Keith Kauffman, Greg Hodnett, Lynn Paxton and Jim Nace to name a few. All these drivers won races all over the country. Some of them are National Sprint Car Hall of Famer’s. Many of them fill up the record books in the history of “The Speed Palace”.

But along with those drivers, there are also what I like to refer as the everyday legends. The guys who worked nine-to-five jobs and used the little money they made to get to the track. The driver’s who hand painted their cars and who often were just a car in the field.

 

They were never racing for national acclaim and they would never taste the success many of their peers would. No big paychecks and no fame and fortune. They were just racing because they loved it and whether they won the race or didn’t qualify, it was about the sport and the fans.

If you were not a regular fan or a faithful follower, you might not even know they existed outside of the friendly confines of the Speedway.

 

Joe Gravino is one of those drivers. Always steady and always fast, but never exactly reaching the peek of the sport. A Body and Paint shop owner by day, Sprint Car driver by Saturday night.

 

When the word legend gets thrown around, by definition, Gravino likely is not the first person that comes to mind. But in the hearts of the fans and his fellow drivers, he is.

 

This is why Port Royal Speedway is proud to honor Gravino as the 2019 Sprint Car representative at the 13th Annual Living Legends Dream Race Saturday night.

 

“I honestly thought to myself, they really must be running out of people to celebrate,” said Gravino jokingly. “I had a long career and I ran pretty decent up there, but I never was the guy who sat the racing world on fire. It’s really cool that they are doing this for a guy like me.”

 

Sitting 37th on the career win list at the Speedway, Gravino captured 10-career victories at the Juniata County oval. Perhaps his biggest career victory came in 1989 when he picked up the opening day checkered flag.

 

Not too bad for a guy who got his start in racing motorcycles in 1968. After a few years of competing on 2-wheels, Gravino went to 4-wheels and into the Super Sportsman ranks at the Silver Springs Speedway with his good friend Maynard Yingst in 1972.

 

Five years later in 1977 he decided to make the move to 410-Sprint Cars. Running his own operation, fans grew to recognize his yellow Polaris sponsored #28. He didn’t have a ton of sponsors and help, but he had a drive to win and succeed.

 

“Back then money was hard to come by and we made do with the help we had.” Said Gravino. “We had a local Polaris distributor on the car and Harold Hank would help me. But being the relative unknown I was, we couldn’t get big sponsors and we only really ran one night a week.”

 

One night, Gravino decided to venture to the Port Royal Speedway instead of his regular stomping grounds of Selinsgrove Speedway. A bit smaller than Selinsgrove, but carrying just as much speed, he fell in love with the track.

He also fell in love with the fans.

 

“I came out to Port Royal one night at the insistence of my buddy Mitch Smith and I just fell in love with the place,” said Gravino. “The management treated me great, but the fans really are what stood out. Some of my fondest memories were of them meeting me in victory lane and getting pictures.”

 

While he did win races over time, the biggest thorn in his attempts at track success was Keith Kauffman. A multi-time Track Champion and the all-time leading feature winner in the history of the Port Royal Speedway, Kauffman was the man to beat. And Gravino relished every opportunity to best his nemesis.

 

“I think I finished second in the points four years in a row thanks to Keith and if he hadn’t been there, I think we’d have won quite a bit more,” said Gravino with a slight chuckle. “We didn’t win a whole lot, but when we did, the first question out of my mouth was ‘Where did Keith finish’? I loved beating him when we could.”

 

One of his favorite accomplishments came at the famed Williams Grove Speedway. Due to a busy work schedule and limited funds, Gravino rarely ran 2-nights a week. But when the opportunity presented itself, Gravino loved running at ‘The Grove’. He was recently reminded that he once won 2 weeks in a row at the Mechanicsburg, Pa. speedway. With 3-career victories there and limited track time, it was something that brought him a lot of joy to go back-to-back.

 

“I didn’t run at Williams Grove very often. Financially I just couldn’t do it two nights a week,” said Gravino. “To get one win there ever is a big deal. So, to get two in a row is something I’m really proud of. My name is in the record books and that’s something I’ll remember forever.”

 

In 1987 Gravino moved on from racing his own equipment and he teamed up once again with Maynard Yingst for 2-years. It was a bit of a full-circle moment for Gravino and it was nice to be able to drive for an owner and not handle all the bills and stress of owning a car.

 

Yingst got out of owning a car after 1988 and Gravino moved over to a few more short-lived rides. Ironically it was a young upstart named Lance Dewease who replaced him in his final season of driving in 1990 in a number 4 car with owners from New Jersey. Dewease won the Living Legends race in 2018 and recently was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame.

 

“I always have said they went from bad to great,” said Gravino of Dewease. “I still read the paper and see his name as the guy sitting in victory lane, so I’d say they made the right move after all these years.”

 

Gravino left the Sprint Car world to return to working in his body and paint shop in Pennbrook, Pa. He rarely attends the races anymore, but still has various pictures from his career on the walls and an old driver’s suit that was burned up after a motor failure at Port Royal.

 

The last time he visited a track was in 2017 at Port Royal and he was amazed at the progress of the track and how far it has come since his days of racing.

 

“A lot has changed. I mean honestly it’s a completely different place then what I remember,” said Gravino. “What they have done is truly special and they have turned the speedway into a national treasure.”

 

But while the place looks different, it still feels like home. He’s looking forward to coming back for the night and talking with old friends and seeing familiar faces form the past. He’s most excited about seeing the fans.

 

“The last time I was there I was sitting in the bleachers in turn four and a lady looked over and said ‘Oh my, you’re Joe Gravino’,” laughed Gravino. “I couldn’t believe she recognized me and that’s really cool to know I made an impact.”

 

At 74 years old, Gravino doesn’t have the itch to return to racing. He’s put that part of his life to rest and he’s enjoying life living in Dauphin, Pa. But for one night, Gravino will get to take a trip down memory lane and return to glory in victory lane, this time as a Living Legend.

 

“I don’t know that I’m really worthy of all this recognition, but I really do appreciate it,” said Gravino. “It’s going to be nice to tell some stories, see some people and just enjoy a night at the track surrounded around the people who made this all possible.”

 

“One thing you never forget is the people you meet in racing. I’m looking forward to catching up with people I have not seen in years and reliving the good old days. I can’t say thank you enough and this means a lot.”