Keith Cleveland’s efforts in Memphis could not be topped.
The suburban Buffalo racer drove to the top of the racing world by winning the Top division championship at the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Summit SuperSeries World Finals at Memphis International Raceway.
His championship package included $20,000 from Summit Racing Equipment, a seven-night/eight-day vacation for two on the island of Aruba courtesy of Around Aruba Tours, a golf cart from Darts Carts, a world championship diamond ring, a world championship Ironman Trophy and IHRA Gold Card. Cleveland also took home an additional $500 from Battle Born Battery for having the best reaction time of all the final round competitors.
The trip to the exotic island comes in particularly handy after Cleveland got engaged earlier this year. He’s also glad to plenty of extra cash in hand.
“I’m looking forward to that. It’s either going to be the honeymoon or marriage,” he said about the Aruba trip. “Then, $20,000 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s big money. Twenty-grand is twenty-grand and it feels good to get that check.”
It felt good for him to perform like he did at Memphis. Cleveland, who works as a painter and mechanic for a company which manufacturers offshore equipment, was spot on throughout the Saturday eliminations. Representing Lancaster Dragway, he defeated Paul Peterson from Dragway 42 in the final round with a .010 reaction time and a 5.66-second run at 119.80 mph.
“It was a surreal experience. I’ve been racing for 20 years and my father has been racing since ’81,” Cleveland said. “There are no slouches there. When I got back home, they had on the board at work, ‘World Champion.’ It’s hard to put into words, but it’s an amazing experience.”
Cleveland’s championship-winning car is quite the head-turner. It’s a 1923 Ford T bucket with a 383-cubic inch small block motor and a powerglide transmission. He explained it wasn’t the car which qualified him for the IHRA Summit SuperSeries World Finals.
“We get some looks, but it runs the number and works. It’s a low-budget racing operation with me and my father,” he said about the 1923 Ford. “We also race a 1970 Oldsmobile that we run with a 468 big block. But, the Ford T bucket just fits me and I feel so comfortable in that car.
“When we were talking about what car to bring to Memphis, I qualified for the World Finals in my Oldsmobile, but, I wanted to take that car because it just works. It would be nice to have one of those long dragsters, but the T bucket leaves soft and works perfect.”
It certainly did at the IHRA Summit SuperSeries World Finals, where he faced Peterson, who earned his way to Memphis by winning the IHRA Division 3 Summit Team Finals. Cleveland knows about the tough competition in Division 3, particularly at his home track, officially known as Lancaster Dragway at New York International Raceway Park.
Veteran racers Mike Swinarski, Vito Antonicelli and his wife, Sylvia, purchased the 1/8-mile drag strip earlier this year and put a major emphasis on the IHRA Summit SuperSeries, the largest and most prestigious program in bracket racing.
“We have some of the toughest competition anywhere,” Cleveland said. “You have to be good to win at our track. The track was closed, but it reopened a month before the season started because of the efforts they put in. Without them and the staff at Lancaster, none of this would be possible.”
Cleveland also credited the efforts of his family and close supporters. He felt them with him every step of the way and every pass down the drag strip.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this without my mom and dad,” he said. “My finance’ Tracey, my kids, Jordan, Gabby and Owen were there every week supporting me. My brother and sister-in-law were there almost every week along with my soon to be father-in-law Mike and my engine builder Tom. It’s just a dream come true.”