ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There are football tailgate parties and then there is “Pinto Tailgate.”
One of the more popular stops among the hundreds of tailgate parties at Buffalo Bills football games is Kenny Johnson’s version, which he hosts from the hood of a 1980 Ford Pinto station wagon.
Johnson has been grilling all sorts of food on the Pinto’s hood since the early 1980s, much to the delight of Bills fans and those of visiting teams as well. It doesn’t hurt that he also serves up shots of Polish cherry liquor from the thumb hole of a bowling ball as part of his pre-game tailgate party.
“Best wings ever,’’ said Phil Galucki of Jefferson while licking his fingers after sampling wings deep-fried in an Army helmet and served on a paint-roller tray. Galucki, who made the trip to western New York for last week’s big game with a couple of New England Patriots fans, also couldn’t resist a quaff of the bowling ball liquor. “Sweet,” he observed.
In fact it was the bowling ball shots that got Johnson in trouble with the National Football League last year and resulted in his being banished to a back parking lot from his traditional tailgate spot opposite Ralph Wilson Stadium’s front gate. The NFL apparently wanted to polish its image and “Pinto Tailgate” took the fall. The league didn‘t damper the fun, though, as fans quickly spread the word of the rolling barbecue grill’s new location.
“It didn’t matter where they moved me,” Johnson said. “People like it, they know where to find us, so we keep doing it.”
Along with Buffalo Wings cooked in an Army helmet, fans of “Pinto Tailgate,” also enjoy bacon cooked on a cross-cut saw, hot dogs on a lawn rake, onions fried in a hubcap, eggs fried on a spade, pizza from a filing cabinet converted into an oven, burgers cooked on an ammunition box and a lot of other wacky treats.
A software engineer by profession, the Rochester, N.Y.-based Johnson has evolved into a local legend over the years. He has attended 280 consecutive home and away Bills games and usually brings his bowling ball along when he travels to road games. Johnson has served bowling ball shots in every NFL city, he said.
The last year Ford produced the Pinto was 1980, and Johnson picked up his wagon for $300 in 1986. A few years later he decided to place a cooking grill fashioned from wooden two-by-fours filled with charcoal. Needless to say, the smoldering grill left a mark on the car’s hood and Johnson replaced his wooden grill with metal. Over the years the car’s front end has taken on a rich patina of streaked, blackened metal and soot stains. Much to the relief of his wife, he stopped using it as his family car 1991. It has been preserved strictly for tailgating.
“It used to look pretty good,” Johnson said. “It didn’t look like this until I started all these shenanigans. It still runs great. I drove it here today and the car itself is in real good shape. You don’t know how much effort it takes to keep that car in shape and let it look that lousy.”
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s activities seem almost normal in a place like Buffalo. He has attracted a large crew of volunteers from all walks of life, including Johnson’s wife, Dee, and daughters Sara and Danielle.
“I think it’s really cool,” Danielle said. “Everybody I talk to, total strangers, know who my dad is. It’s quite a crew, and we always look forward to football season.”
The Bills were a charter member of the fledgling American Football League that opened its inaugural season in 1960 and were joined by the Boston (New England) Patriots, New York (Jets) Titans, Dallas (Kansas City Chiefs) Texans, Los Angeles (San Diego) Chargers, Denver Broncos, Houston (Tennessee Titans) Oilers and Oakland Raiders. The Bills, Patriots and Jets continue to be heated rivals and wins against each other a cause for major celebrations.
That weekend’s Bills-Patriots game was no different. When the Patriots squandered an early lead and the Bills walked off with a stunning 34-31 upset, the 70,000 fans in attendance shouted, hollered and mocked the losing team. The fact that the Boston Red Sox were also losers that day had Bills fans singing along with Sox theme “Sweet Caroline” as it blasted from the public address system. “Bom, bom, bom,” they bellowed. “So good, so good.”
For young Bills fan Scott Galucki, 13, of East Aurora, N.Y., the victory after having lost 15 straight to the Patriots was a sign of a brighter future. “It was the best,” he said. “But the best is yet to come — playoffs.”