on May 7, 2013 - 11:53 PM
, updated May 8, 2013 at 10:27 AM
Aug. 29, 1932 – May 6, 2013
People in North Collins and nearby communities knew him as Harold McGrath, the friendly and soft-spoken Korean War veteran who ran a busy collision shop.
But to auto racing fans, he was “Stroker McGurk” the hard-driving competitor who battled it out for decades on race tracks all over Western New York and Southern Ontario.
Mr. McGrath, widely considered one of the best race car drivers in local history, died Monday in his North Collins home after a short illness. He was 80.
During a racing career that spanned 23 years, he won hundreds of races and numerous championships, mostly on the race tracks at Holland, Perry and North Collins.
In 2001, the FOAR Score Club, made up of local auto racing enthusiasts, named Mr. McGrath – whom they knew as McGurk – one of the top 25 drivers to compete in Western New York over the past century. FOAR Score also named him to its Hall of Fame.
“He loved racing, but what he really loved the most was the friendships he made on the track,” said his wife of 40 years, the former Magdaline “Frenchie” Garcia. “McGurk loved the parties. ... He called those people his racing family.”
Born in Buffalo, Mr. McGrath was raised in North Collins, where he attended school and graduated from North Collins High School. Soon after graduation, he entered the Army and shipped overseas to fight in the Korean War.
After his military service, he briefly worked in a Buffalo factory before starting his own collision shop in North Collins. He ran the shop, which he called “McGurk’s Collision,” until retiring in 1999.
From the early 1950s until 1975, Mr. McGrath drove race cars in Western New York and Southern Ontario, sometimes competing in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was especially well-known for the wheel-to-wheel battles he had at the Holland and Perry tracks with Art Clark and Dick Flaig, who were fierce competitors but also two of Mr. McGrath’s closest friends.
Early in his racing career, Mr. McGrath adopted “Stroker McGurk” as his racing nickname, and most race fans had no idea that his real name was Harold McGrath. The colorful “McGurk” name was taken from the main character of a popular comic strip that appeared in Hot Rod magazine in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mr. McGrath often drove a distinctive yellow car with the number 18, which he nicknamed the “Bad Banana.” Although a fierce competitor on the track, Mr. McGrath also had a reputation as a very approachable, easygoing jokester who enjoyed chatting with fans after the night’s competition was over.
His wife said Mr. McGrath often credited Johnny Gullo, who built and sponsored race cars and ran a track in North Collins, as his racing mentor.
Mr. McGrath also enjoyed fishing, camping and spending time with his three grandchildren.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Shannon McGrath Locking.
A memorial gathering will take place at 11 a.m. May 18 in the North Collins Training Center on Spruce Street in North Collins.
– Dan Herbeck