Saturday afternoons are what Kyle Ellwood has been looking forward to since he was a toddler.
After his dad put him in a go-kart at age 5, racing has been a big part of his life. Since then, he has grown into one of the more charismatic figures at Riverhead Raceway.
Following a championship in the Legends class in 2013, a developmental series for young drivers at Riverhead, the 20-year-old Ellwood made a jump to the modified cars on a full-time basis last year. Enduring the pains of being a rookie, he won two races and finished fifth in the standings at the quarter-mile track.
"Being it was my first full year with the right funding and brand new equipment, I didn't think I was going to win in my first full season," said Ellwood, a Riverhead native. "The whole year was a big learning curve. We had some opportunities that we could capitalize on. I didn't think it was going to happen as soon as it did. The year started out a little rough -- it wasn't bad, but it wasn't the way we wanted it to go. Once I got the first [win], the confidence was there."
Like with many other drivers at Riverhead, racing is a side job for Ellwood. Doug Coby, 2014 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, even called it a "hobby." But Ellwood appears set to compete for a championship in his second season in modifieds at Riverhead, which starts in April.
Last year, in addition to his full-time NASCAR Whelen All-American schedule at Riverhead in the modified division, Ellwood ran a pair of Whelen Modified Tour races on the east coast. Making his debut at Riverhead in June, he qualified in the top 15, but finished 26th out of 30 cars once he experienced brake issues. After the second Riverhead race was canceled because of inclement weather, he took his No. 17 car to Thompson Speedway in Connecticut, where he finished 10 laps down in 19th.
"In those two events, I learned that you have to really save your tires and equipment in general," Ellwood said. "The [non-Tour] races at Riverhead are [approximately 150-180 laps] shorter and you can really go for it. In the Tour race, you have to restrict yourself for a long time and conserve the car to go for it at the end. I learned a ton in those two races, especially at the one at Riverhead since I run there every week. I got a different perspective on running there on a Saturday night after that Tour race. You pick things up during that Tour race, and it is pretty crucial to do so, especially with tires."
In 2015, he is set to return to Riverhead Raceway for the full season. Along with attempting to win a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championship, Ellwood will return to the Whelen Modified Tour for a handful of races.
Ellwood is scheduled to run in five Whelen Modfied Tour races this season: both Riverhead races, the season opener and finale at Thompson and one race at Monadnock, Connecticut, in late July. Ellwood set realistic goals as he looks to advance into the Modified Tour on a full-time basis within the next few years.
"There is no question as to why we shouldn't be able to [win the two Riverhead races]," he said. "My goal at Thompson is to just get in and learn as much as I possibly can. For the Riverhead races, I'm going to try getting a solid finish. I run every week and I know I am pretty good there."
Along with racing, Ellwood has developed an interest in business. Attending Suffolk Community College, he is looking to receive an associate's degree in Business Administration. Working at his family company -- Riverhead Building Supply -- which is on the team's cars, along with Eric Goodale's No. 58 car on the Modified Tour, he wants to work his way up once he graduates.
As this season approaches, Ellwood is prepared to put on his helmet and contend for a championship against veterans Tom Rogers Jr. and reigning champion Howie Brode.
"I would love to run the Tour full-time," he said. "That's my dream. Just to start a couple of Tour races is a dream come true. To say that I did - it was always something I wanted to do - and I think it is pretty crazy that I even did it. My goal is to run the Tour full-time one day, and if funding works or if someone picks me up, it might lead to something."