FREEVILLE — Rebuffed by baseball and football folks as a frustrated 10-year-old kid battling epilepsy, a simple trip to Emerson Park in Auburn alongside his father as wide-eyed microd racing spectator proved monumental for A.J. Burgess.
“It saved my life, which is why I’m still in that life,” is how Burgess put that journey from Western New York to visit his aunt those many summers ago.
Now 50 years later, this past Saturday afternoon at the Little Wheels Speedway microd track that is his pride and joy, friends, family, current drivers and past participants all gathered to celebrate Burgess and a lifetime devoted to the sport. After the Finger Lakes Microd Club’s mid-season races were concluded, it was time to laud the club president who has done so much for so many.
Burgess never forgot the feeling of being welcomed into the microd community despite his physical handicap, having been doubtful at first that the Auburn organization would accept him as a participant.
“Baseball and football wouldn’t let me be involved. They wouldn’t let me,” said Burgess before stumbling upon microd racing as a possible sports option. “My father saw this, saw it would be safe enough, and asked if we could do this. To my surprise they said yes, with no trial period, nothing special needed.”
Being able to compete was just part of the value Burgess would get out of those early years as a microd racer, as his body eventually out-grew epilepsy. As his family moved to this area, he eventually raced at Moravia and Homer tracks. Even after college days he returned to Homer (at a site that is now Griggs Field catering to Little League baseball players) and worked as a flag man for races.
Still, being side-by-side with his father — the late Bob Burgess, who went on to become a New York State Microd Association president — while preparing their car for competition was a bigger thrill than the actual racing.
“I got to know my father as a person, working with him on our car, working together as one,” is what Burgess remembers best of those early days. “I only won three times in eight years, so it wasn’t about winning. It was about working with him and working towards a goal.”
SO THAT’S THE spirit Burgess brings to the Finger Lakes Microd Club, where children with physical handicaps are more than welcomed to participate. You don’t have to own a microd to compete on the one-tenth of a mile Little Wheels Speedway circuit, since drivers can draw a number to use one of the 50 rented racers on site.
“For me, it was a chance to be normal, and that’s one of the things we have here,” said the 60-year-old Burgess of his Finger Lakes Microd Club. “We have special needs cars with hand controls for kids in wheelchairs. We cater to special-needs kids. That’s been our goal. That’s really what it’s all about.”
It is all about people like Johnny Newberry, who had three operations by age six trying to conquer a heart condition. He had three years of racing at the track as a youngster, though heading to New York City as a 17-year-old for a heart transplant Newberry caught pneumonia and eventually passed away.
There was another former kid driver who ran into Burgess at an auto show in Binghamton recently, who as a grown up 24-year-old mentioned that the time spent at Little Wheels Raceway was “the best
summer of his life so far.”
The club used to sub-lease Hillcrest Speedway for races, which is still the home for the Mid-State Microd Club — formerly the Cortland County Microd Club. Burgess then went on a mission to build his own place, and on June 18 in 1988 the first race on the Little Wheels Raceway — located on the corner of Routes 38 and 34 B between the towns of Groton and Freeville — was held.
“I TAKE A LOT of pride in the facility we built,” says the obviously biased Burgess, whose has sidekick and club secretary Sue Rowe — who produced Saturday’s party — also plays a crucial role in everything the club does. “I always wanted a nice track, and we’ve got a lot of shade where people can sit.”
Planting those trees are just some of the track improvements made since 1988, such as a concessions, bath rooms and other additions.
“It’s just a pleasant place to be,” Burgess adds. “We’re here to have fun. Everyone helps each other. It’s not the you-versus-everyone-else mentality. If you need help the person next to you will help, and if he needs help then you go help him.”
So the goal of the club remains the same, giving special-need kids the same opportunities Burgess was provided 50 years ago. That’s why drivers have to sign a form labeled “The Burgess Doctrine” before racing to understand in this situation winning is not the only thing.
The Finger Lakes Microd Club has helped out 653 kids during its existence, though an all-time high of 53 participants from 2008-09 has dwindled to 17 drivers this summer.
Still, the opportunity is there for one and all — which has been the main goal and the main reason why Burgess has put so much time and effort into this cause that led to Saturday’s deserved celebration.
And even outside of the microd world Burgess is helping those less fortunate, as he works as one of 24 Ithaca School District bus aides helping transport special need students.
“We are different. We’re not all about winning and that sort of thing,” notes Burgess of his club, after admitting in the early days there was dissension among more competitive club members before “The Burgess Doctrine” was created in 1992. “We want people to know that and know what we’re about.”