Michelle Bukaty worked the Friday night drag races at Dunn Tire Raceway Park in Lancaster for 24 years, beginning when she was just 13, but she quit working there two years ago after unexplained muscle weakness and balance problems led to a series of falls.
It wasn’t until this spring that doctors diagnosed Bukaty with a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Bukaty responded by making plans for a trip she wanted to take while she still had enough energy and mobility to go, and that’s why she’s in Las Vegas this weekend to watch the top professional drag racers and to cheer on a driver from this area.
“This is my bucket list dream,” Bukaty told The Buffalo News. “This is the one thing I always wanted to do.”
ALS is progressive, and there’s no known cure. Bukaty is on medication, but her symptoms persist and she struggles with tasks such as getting up and down the stairs in her house or walking her dog.
Her optimism in the face of her health challenges and those of her family make a strong impression on her friends in the racing community.
“It puts things in perspective sometimes, when I lose a race and you feel sorry for yourself,” said Billy Leber, a drag racer on the national circuit who started out racing at the Lancaster track.
Bukaty grew up in Cheektowaga in a family that loved drag racing. Her father, Chuck Gioeli, raced for many years and was a starter at what is now called Dunn Tire Raceway Park.
Bukaty tagged along with her father to the race track as a child and began working there well before she was old enough to get her driver’s license.
She started out handing the drivers their elapsed time, or E.T., tickets after the Friday night drag races. She eventually was assigned to working the race lanes, where she made sure the drivers were lined up in the proper order.
Bukaty was well known for her talkative nature, her ready smile and her ear-splitting laugh. Gary Westfall, a longtime track employee who now serves as assistant race director, has a recording of her laugh on his cellphone.
“You could just have gotten run over by a car, but if she’d laughed, you’d laugh,” Westfall said.
Bukaty took a year off from working at the track after she married her husband, Jim, a salesman who doesn’t like racing but tolerates his wife’s passion for the sport. Bukaty soon returned to the track, even as she raised two children.
She worked full time at the Hamburg Casino, and her seasonal, part-time job at the track sometimes barely covered the cost of hiring a baby-sitter.
“You’re doing it for the love of the sport,” Bukaty said in a recent interview in her Hamburg home.
However, in 2007, Bukaty went to her family doctor because she’d started feeling soreness in her legs.
This began five years of examinations by eight area doctors who couldn’t diagnose what was wrong with Bukaty, who developed weakness in her muscles and saw her reflexes and sense of balance deteriorate.
Doctors at various times told her she had fibromyalgia, or multiple sclerosis, but the medication she took for those and other suggested conditions didn’t help her. “We tried everything,” said Bukaty, who had 12 MRIs and lost track of how many times she had blood drawn for testing.
Bukaty’s symptoms worsened, and after several spills at the race track, she decided in March 2010 that she couldn’t continue working there.
“That was very hard to do,” Westfall said. “That race track, Lancaster, has been her life.”
She still didn’t know what was wrong with her until a doctor recommended she visit the Cleveland Clinic, where, in April, she received a diagnosis of a form of ALS, which is a motor neuron disease.
Bukaty excused herself from the doctor’s office and went to the women’s bathroom. Her mother, Pam, followed her in and asked what was wrong.
“I said, 'Mom, all I want to do is work at that race track,’” Bukaty recalled. “And the reality is, I can’t. I can’t do what I did.”
Bukaty knows she won’t get better, but she’s on a regimen of four prescription drugs and eight vitamins to help stabilize her condition and ease her pain.
She still struggles with her balance and holds onto furniture or railings, while shuffling her feet to steady herself as she walks. She relies on a cane at times, or a wheelchair if she has farther to go, though she doesn’t like to be seen in a wheelchair.
“I’m a 41-year-old person. I just feel like I’m in a 90-year-old body, which I don’t like at all,” said Bukaty.
Doctors have ordered her to move from her raised ranch house in Hamburg to a one-story ranch. The pending move has been hard on her son, Ryan, who is 10 and doesn’t completely understand what his mother is going through.
“I look at my children and I say, 'Oh my God, I feel so young to have to have this.’ I feel that I can’t be the mother that I should be to my children,” Bukaty said.
Facing an uncertain future, she decided she wanted to travel to Las Vegas to watch top-level drag racing while she can still get around.
Michelle and Jim Bukaty haven’t taken a trip like this since their honeymoon 16 years ago, and she doesn’t even own luggage.
“I had to borrow a suitcase to go do this,” Michelle Bukaty said.
She won’t be doing much gambling while she’s there. She plans to watch Mike Janis Sr., a Lancaster resident, as he tries to qualify for this weekend’s pro modified drag race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I’m definitely going to make it special for her when she gets here,” Janis said.
She’s also going to watch the top-level drivers compete in the National Hot Rod Association’s Big O Tires Nationals, and officials with the speedway have arranged VIP treatment for her – including the chance to meet Funny Car legend John Force.
Bukaty met and took a picture with Force years ago and she’s bringing that picture with her to have him sign it.
“She’s so excited about this,” Leber said.
Bukaty’s racing friends say they hope she has a trip to remember this weekend. They say they miss her at the Lancaster raceway and they don’t know how she stays as positive as she does, given everything she and her family are going through.
Her daughter, Amanda, 14, lives with Type I diabetes; Bukaty’s mother has lung cancer; and her father is in treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It’s been a difficult past five years, Bukaty admitted, capped by her own dire diagnosis.
“It is what it is,” she said. “I can’t change it. So I guess I’m accepting it. Not that I like it or don’t like it. I’m just accepting it. We’re just getting through. It’s a daily thing.”