YORK HAVEN, Pa. – Moments before engine heat Saturday at BAPS Motor Speedway, Lee Stauffer paced around the machine that helped make a name for himself and a number of others in sprint car racing.
A lot ran through the mechanic’s head, and as he approached his 23-year-old driver and longtime family friend Jordan Mackison, he wanted to make sure they were ready to go.
“We’re staging over there, right?” Stauffer asked Mackison, a third-generation racer wheeling the car Saturday afternoon.
Mackison pointed where they were about to go, to the gravel runway straight ahead, and minutes later strapped in to get the night started. After sitting dormant for six years, the iconic Apple No. 12 that Stauffer helped make famous returned Saturday in the final sprint car event of the year at BAPS Motor Speedway.
From 1988 to 2006, Stauffer guided the Apple Motorsports No. 12 team to more than 250 wins as lead mechanic with drivers Steve Stambaugh, Fred Rahmer, Keith Kauffman, Kevin Gobrecht, Greg Hodnett and Chad Layton. Apple Motorsports, owned by Bob Stewart, ceased operations in 2006 but returned for a brief stint in 2014 with Brian Leppo and Tim Shaffer.
In this unexpected, one-off comeback, Mackison finished 22nd amongst a 35-car turnout, only completing nine of 30 laps due to mechanical troubles. But no result could have provided more than the opportunity itself: a night Stauffer got back to an undertaking dear to his heart and doing so with a longtime family friend in Mackison.
“We had to shake the rust off,” Stauffer said. “And have some fun, too.”
The return culminated a summer’s worth of conversation and work. It all started when Williams Grove Speedway planned to honor Stewart and Apple Motorsports on Sept. 5. From the onset, Stauffer wanted to restore and display one of their sprint cars from the glory days.
It was only natural the 23-year-old Mackison would become a part of the restoration process. Stauffer helps the Mackison family business, SpeedPartz, a sprint car parts and service out of York, Pennsylvania. The families with long racing lineage go way back – “he’s basically Uncle Lee,” Mackison said – and Stauffer noticed Mackison’s initiative in this special project that only intended to honor the car’s history.
“Then we just started talking about trying to put something together,” said Mackison, who’s raced sprint cars since he was 15 and competed on the All Star Circuit of Champions tour in 2017.
Rebuilding the car evoked Stauffer’s itch to race competitively again and the idea to do it with Mackison, a young racer the legendary mechanic thinks highly of, only grew as summer wore on. Then Sept. 5 came, and all the memories and rekindled relationships overwhelmed Stauffer as Williams Grove honored Stewart on that night.
We need to start racing this Hot Rod again. pic.twitter.com/F5vlWgZP5I
— Lee Stauffer (@lee_stauffer) September 4, 2020
Shortly after, preparations to race again began. Stauffer worked to make the car race-ready. Mackison, who hadn’t raced since February, made sure to provide an engine and rig to tote the car around. The two needed to start small, so they tested twice at BAPS Motor Speedway, turning roughly 80 laps before agreeing to race.
“It was truly that simple,” said Stauffer, who used a car he’s held onto since 2012 on Saturday.
In fact, Stauffer has enough frames stashed away “to have [his] own heat race.” Through these years, he never sold his equipment, deciding it was more valuable to lock away secrets than turn in his equipment for revenue. In essence, the competitor in him never retired.
“I didn’t want our stuff to end up in the wrong hands,” Stauffer said, “let alone the right hands.”
Now, heading into the winter and after its one-off return in the final 410 sprint car race of the year Saturday, where does the Apple No. 12 go from here? There is an obvious heartbeat to race regularly again. Stauffer knows motorsports is forever etched in Stewart and the mechanic has enough resources to race at some capacity if given the green light in 2021.
Like all motorsports, though, everything hinges on finances and clear direction, something that isn’t exactly in place at the moment.
“Where are we going with this? I don’t know,” Stauffer said. “It could be nowhere. But I am trying to do my part. … If I can rekindle this as a stepping stone to maybe build this up again, I’m definitely into it. This venture relit a light in my ass on why I love sprint car racing.”
If a return is in the works, Mackison would like to have a hand, even though Saturday marked his fifth race in the last two years.
“I want to run next year, but we haven’t even begun to talk about next year yet,” Mackison said as he donned a vintage Apple No. 12 tee of the late Hodnett, who raced to 86 victories in the car from 1998-99 and 2001-04.
At this moment, uncertainties outweigh the certainties regarding the literal comeback of the Apple No. 12 in central Pennsylvania. Stauffer, meanwhile, is always reminded of how it all began: that his revolutionary father, Ed, convinced Stewart to try sprint car racing in 1988. The team started modestly, one night a week at Williams Grove, amidst a fervent field.
Those who follow along know the story, when that debut season of one night a week escalated into a track championship and something far, far greater. History could remain history, or maybe it repeats itself, that another Stauffer spurs something more.
“It could go nowhere,” Stauffer started, “but hopefully it goes somewhere.”