The most successful driver in Giants Despair history describes the event’s carnival-like atmosphere as equivalent to your average summer bazaar.
But in a bizarre twist, his home event is anything but a picnic for Darryl Danko.
“As a driver, I don’t get to enjoy it much,” Danko sighed.
The way he’s won so consistently should dictate feelings of glee.
With an all-time record seven titles and the fastest recorded time of 38.360 in the 107-year running of the Giants Despair Hillclimb up Northampton Street in Laurel Run, Danko is one of the race’s most celebrated and distinguished drivers.
He even lives just off Laurel Run Road at the end of the course, which an expected field of 90 cars through 20 different car classes are expected to motor up from 9 a.m to 5 p.m. today and Sunday in an event that will be televised by SECTV Channel 35.
But he’s also an organizer of the race.
And driving both the car and setting up the event darn-near runs him ragged.
“It’s like trying to do a week’s worth of stuff in an hour,” Danko, 44, said. “That’s how I feel. Yeah, I love it. But it’s a relief when it’s over.”
It’s been that way for him since his father, Jack Danko Sr., took over as chairman of the Giants Despair Hillclimb 12 years ago.
With that came tremendous responsibilities for the Danko family.
“We start early,” said Darryl , who will debut his new Indycar during this weekend’s race. “There’s a lot of paper work to fill out — the permits to close the road, the sanction from the PHA (Pennsylvania Hillclimb Association). You have to get T-shirts and sponsors — it’s non-profit, and you’ve got to get money to put out money.”
He doesn’t mean to sound as if he’s put off by the deal.
On the contrary, Darryl speaks with delight over watching how the once-dying race that hit its glory days in the 1980s and early 90s but drew dwindling crowds almost two decades ago has regrouped under his dad’s watch.
“The whole event was kind of starting to go away,” Darryl said. “The original chairman didn’t want to do it. My father took over the position — he made it bigger and better. We’ve brought in more vendors. I think it’s become more family-friendly for the simple fact we made it more accessible for people to walk up the hill and watch. We got rid of those big banks.
“We try to make it more than a race,” Darryl continued. “People go to bazaars and picnics. We have food just as good here, and you can watch something along with it.”
For the past few years, Giants Despair fans have been watching from actual bleachers — the portable kind — on loan from the the Wilkes-Barre Area School District for the weekend.
“We try to improve every year,” said Jack , who also runs hillclimbs and set the Giants Despair course record in the Prototype 1 (P-1) division three years ago running his England-built Prototype Radical. “Now we have bleachers on the other side of the big green water tank, right near the first turn. It’s a great place to watch the race. Families with little ones, they needed somewhere to sit down.”
If only the Dankos could find some down time at home.
But their name, and reputation, is all over this course and they’re determined to uphold both.
Jack not only raised his family on upper Northampton Street, his family business is located a couple blocks down the street. Jack and Darryl still run Danko’s Gas and Propane Fuel. Keep traveling down Northampton Street and you’ll find the headquarters for Danko’s Fitness Center, owned by Jack’s son and Darryl’s brother Larry.
So for three months leading up to the race, the Dankos work tediously to prepare the course, eliciting the assistance of employees from Danko Gas to help with the process.
“Everything from dumpsters to port-a-potties,” Darryl said. “The timing (system), (generating) contributions, setting up the hill, trying to make it good for the fans — it doesn’t end. Then, come the morning of, it’s another 100 things.”
No wonder why Darryl doesn’t get much time to smile on race day, even when he’s tearing through the competition.
“He’s trying to devote himself to the hill and the running,” said George Willis, Darryl’s veteran crew chief. “It’s mentally and physically challenging to do that. I think that has a tremendous amount to do with it.”
Those worries seem to disappear when Darryl roars up hills out of town.
“I would say it’s a lot less pressure, a lot less stress,” Darryl said. “The other hillclimbs don’t have the fans we have here, or the history. This is, by far, the hardest one to do. I guess the biggest thing is the history. It’s so ingrained into this valley.”
It got into Darryl somewhere in elementary school, while he watched Scranton’s Oscar Kovaleski roar by to conquer “The Hill” while setting a record of six course championships Darryl eventually broke.
“As a kid, it’s something you never thought was possible for you to do,” Darryl said. “You need a car, and you need the time to do it. Fortunately, this is kind of a slow season (for the gas and propane business). But growing up, watching people like Oscar Kovaleski — one of the greatest drivers — it was larger than life.
“You never thought you could be a part of it. I never thought of running, let alone breaking the record.”
If things break right for the Dankos, they won’t be leading the race setup much longer.
They are in the process of organizing a Giants Despair Hillclimb Association — a committee that would take some of the burden from the Dankos.
“We thought we’d have it for this year,” Darryl said, “but it looks like it’s another few years away.”
“It’s in its infancy,” Jack said. “We started it, we’re trying to teach some of the people in the organization what has to be done. There’s a world of things that has to be done.”
Maybe then, Darryl Danko can focus on what he does best — trying to best the Giants Despair records he’s already set.
“I want to concentrate on what I want to do or what I have to do,” Darryl said. “I get pulled from that often. What we’d like to do is get this association going. A lot of people think it’s just, you go and work on the car and race.
“It’s a job. It really is.”