Riverhead Raceway offers high-octane family fun

Drivers in the NASCAR Whelan modified division speed

Drivers in the NASCAR Whelan modified division speed around turn three during a summer race at the Riverhead Raceway. The modified division is one of the fastest events at the raceway and always offers plenty of action for the race fans to enjoy. (Aug. 20, 2011) (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

Somewhat hidden and maybe even a little misunderstood, the Riverhead Raceway is a truly unique landmark on Long Island's East End.

The track was built in 1949, but it was not until 1976 that raceway owners Barbara and Jim Cromarty met with the founder and chief executive of NASCAR, Bill France Sr., and gained approval to become an official NASCAR track.

This move elevated the Riverhead Raceway to a new level and, as a result, distinguished the oval-shaped quarter-mile of asphalt as the only official NASCAR track in the metropolitan area.

Far removed from the prestigious circuits of Monte Carlo in Monaco, Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., and even Daytona in Daytona Beach, Fla., this is racing in a more simple and pure form. The prevailing do-it-yourself, blue-collar spirit keeps it that way. There are few corporate sponsors and not much money to be made by racers and their teams: It's all for love of the sport.

"It's the ultimate family sport; you look at almost every team there and it's all family-run," says Holtsville driver Justin Bonsignore, the 2011 Modified Division track champion. "I don't think there is one person at Riverhead that gets paid to work on a race car, but people are still in the shop helping out a couple of nights a week on top of working full-time and having a family."

Each Saturday from May through September, drivers and fans from across Long Island flock to the raceway for their fix.

"I think it's part of the charm of Riverhead," says Town Supervisor Sean Walter. "It is good for the hotels, the businesses, and it puts us on the map with NASCAR."

As you walk through the gated entrance and hear the announcer on the PA system, the excitement and tension build. The smell of high-octane exhaust hangs sharply in the air around the track. It fills your nostrils and burns your throat.

On a typical night the track will run races in six divisions, usually topping the evening off with a chaotic and crowd-pleasing demolition derby.

To a new spectator the subtle differences between racing divisions may not be obvious. It might all just seem like cars speeding in a circle. But after a few weeks spent perched in the bleachers or up close gripping the fence near the second turn, you can pick up on the nuances and dynamics of each race.

Everybody's got a favorite. The Blunderbust cars may seem like they are careening out of control around each corner, while the drivers in the Whelen Modified division finesse each turn with artistic precision and pass within inches of each other while never making contact.

"It's one of the toughest tracks to get around just because it's so small and the cars are so fast." says Bonsignore.

Regardless of driving style or division, the common thread at the track, stands and pit area is dedicated passion. This is racing. It is violence and aggression; noise and excitement; courage and commitment.

And it always leaves the fans wanting more.

RACING FEVER

Season. May-September

When. Races are held every Saturday (weather permitting); gates open at 3 p.m., races begin at 5:30.

Where. Route 58 in Riverhead

Admission. $20 for adults; $5 for kids 6-12; free for kids 5 and younger

More info. riverheadraceway.com

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