---- — By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
WIND GAP -- After two years of tackling the 410 winged sprint car capitol of the world, Frank Cozze is back to his modified roots, where he forged a hall of fame career.
On Tuesday, Cozze was inducted into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame.
"All the really good guys are in there and I'm still racing," he said. "Everyone on the wall is not racing and there's a lot of history there so I am glad to be part of it."
Cozze, the son of long-time car owner and driver Richard "Dick" Cozze, returned to the modified ranks after racing a 410 sprint car at both Port Royal and Williams Grove Speedways.
He is driving this year for long-time car owner Norm Hansell in the ultra-competitive dual-track 358 dirt modified circuit of both Big Diamond Speedway (Friday) and Grandview Speedway (Saturday).
"The problem with the 410 was that I started too late," he said despite winning at Port Royal last year. "I wasn't going to get a ride at 55 (now 57) and it was not a question of going from modifieds to 410s, but I should have run the 358 sprint cars for a year or two first. I hadn't sat in a sprint car since I last ran one 30 years ago in 1989, but, we jumped in with two feet. We made some gains last year. You have to have a lot of faith in racing a sprint car that when you get to the end of the straightaway and your foot is flat on the floor, the car will turn left."
Cozze started "racing" cars at the age 9 in the cornfields behind his father's salvage yard in Jutland, N.J.
"We didn't have go-karts or quarter-midget clubs back then," he noted. "We went out and raced and had fun."
A two-sport athlete in high school (wrestling and football), Cozze started running the big block modifieds full-time in 1976.
"I was the rookie champion at the Flemington Fair Speedway (N.J.) in 1974 in a car that my dad gave to me that Budd Olsen had driven and destroyed when the throttle stuck," he said. "My dad said that if I could fix the car I could race it. It was a 1936 Chevy Coupe."
In 1975, Cozze went to Brewerton Speedway in Western, N.Y., a track he had never heard of and won the 100-lap sportsman feature.
"I made $1,428 for that win. I had the cash in my hand and I thought that no man can have more money in the world than this," he said.
The men who drove for Cozze's father read like a Who's Who in modified racing with Olsen, Stan Ploski, Bobby Pickel and the legendary Al Tasnady.
"Those guys were my heroes, and can you imagine sitting at the dinner table and having Al Tasnady sitting across from you? They all helped me out with advice and I always thanked them for that."
Jumpin' Jack Johnson, the all-time winningest driver at the Fonda Speedway (N.Y.) and a fellow DIRT motorsports Hall of Famer, mentored Cozze in his early days on the Super DIRT Series tour.
"I always liked Jack and he helped me out when I got started with the series," Cozze said. "We had a lot of 'car-wash talks,' as we always seemed to end up at the same car wash after a race."
With more than 300 wins to his credit, it took Cozze nearly 30 years to win the 200-lap feature at Syracuse, the crown jewels for modifieds.
"It's just luck to win there," he said of Syracuse. "I didn't make the show my first year in 1976. The next year, we timed 10th quick out of 206 cars. I ran second in 1978 and was battling Gary Balough in his famed 'Batmobile' in 1980 when Budd (Olsen) passed me for second."
Cozze finally won the 200-lapper in 2008. He started 33rd in the filed that day and had a lot of luck go his way.
"We needed cautions to come and they came; guys who were battling me either ran out of gas or blew up," he said. "It is a fun place to race at as there are places where you can pass and places where you can pass but you put yourself in a really bad spot. We start preparing for the race in July and people don't realize how expensive it is for the week."
Cozze won the first of his two Eastern States 200-lap features at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, N.Y., in 1989, 30 years after Tasnady won it for his dad in 1969. Cozze's second win came in 1990.
This year, Cozze has a win on May 17 at Big Diamond where he is sixth in the points entering tonight's race. He is fourth in the points at Grandview.
"We're as good as anybody, but not as great as a few of them," he said. "We've been a top-three or -four car every week. We're close; we're not far off."
Cozze credits the teams success to owner Hansell and crew chief Jay Thomas.
"Jay's a real good crew chief and Norm's a great owner," he said. "They know the race tracks well. It has been a good relationship so far. They are hard-working people who are dedicated to racing, and while we hadn't had the success we want we'll get it."
"There's a little more contact at those tracks than I am used to and I know the guys by name, but I don't know their driving habits yet."
A recent conversation with Hansell revealed Cozze's desire to race Syracuse this year. "We had the big block out at Bridgeport the other week and we were leading with three laps to go and got a flat tire," Cozze said. "The car felt good the first time out."
After his son's first big-block race in '76, Dick Cozze asked him what he thought.
"I didn't qualify and I said I have no idea with all of this power. Budd Olsen said to me, 'You'll get the hang of it."
Nearly four decades later, thanks to advice from his heroes, Frank Cozze can still drive the wheels off a modified.