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'Lost Speedways' cohost Matt Dillner recalls glory days of LI racing

Former Long Islander Matt Dillner teamed  with former Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and visited abandoned speedways across the country to see what they look like now on the Peacock streaming series "Lost Speedways." Credit: Newsday

There's a cookie factory at the site of the old Islip Speedway, tucked snugly between Freeman Avenue and Wingan Hauppauge Road. They probably bake perfectly fine cookies there, too, of the sort you bring over to grandma at Thanksgiving. 

But there's a guy who grew up in Huntington and who now lives in Richard Petty Country (North Carolina). This guy hates cookies. Can't stand 'em. Specifically, these cookies.

Who hates grandma's cookies? 

I suppose I should introduce you to Matt Dillner.

A 44-year-old father of two, Dillner is a large, square-framed man with a full COVID-19-why-bother-to-shave beard. Even at a Zoom remove, he is friendly and gregarious. He insists his animosity to baked goods is highly specific (those cookies) although it does extend to developers, suburbs, shopping malls, NIMBYs who complain about race car noise and those town boards that side with them.

 Generally speaking, he would include every other newfangled trapping of modern life that has contributed to the death of a thousand cuts. 

What's died is Islip Speedway (1947-1984) and several thousands of similar racetracks around the world in recent years. There were once 40 stock car racing tracks on Long Island alone, now just one (Riverhead Raceway). Prompt Dillner ever so slightly and he can name them all — a melancholy roll call of forgotten glory and the towns where it all unfolded on some wild, dusty, noisy, magnificent Saturday night long, long ago. 

 To Dillner, they tore down paradise and put up a few dozen parking lots. Or Costcos. Or cookie factories …

 "I was born and raised in the wooden bleachers at Islip Speedway," he explains, "and when that went away, it broke my heart." 

From love sometimes comes obsession, and Dillner has certainly indulged that. Along with a couple of friends, he created a "lost speedways" website a few years ago which lists some 2,000 "ghost" tracks, most in the U.S. That came to the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr., scion of the legendary NASCAR clan, and a TV series was born — "Lost Speedways," which helped launch NBC's Peacock streaming service last month. Both Earnhardt and Dillner are hosts. 

 Hardly a stranger to the Earnhardts, TV or the World Wide Web, Dillner also created another website — Speed51, a popular site devoted to short-track racing. With his brother, Bob Jr., they produced a long-running News 12 weekend racing show ("Track Side Long Island'') back when both were still in their teens. The Dillner brothers would later decamp to Charlotte, N.C., home of the  Speedvision cable channel (now Fox Sports 1) where they have since worked as producers and commentators. 

 Meanwhile, their dad, Bob Dillner Sr. — who died six years ago — was a racer in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s at Islip. After quitting that, dad would bring the kids on weekends — every weekend during the season — to Islip for the races. When Islip shuttered on Sept. 8, 1984, Matt went home, crawled under his sheets, and cried himself to sleep. He was eight years old. He felt as if his childhood had just died too.

 "Islip is for me …" — Dillner then pauses, gulps, sorts through his feelings, and chooses his words — "Oh man, Islip is the deepest thing in my life, if you really think about it." 

 Nostalgia, of course, comes in all shapes. What invokes the cherished past in one person might leave another puzzled. All that noise? For "modified stocks," that'd be about 120 decibels, or a DC-8 taking off on your driveway. All those fumes? What's to get nostalgic about? 

Dillner may be in lonely company, but he's hardly alone. With its rough-and-ready spirit and anything-can-happen (and often anything did) vibe, stock-car racing of the sort that took place at Islip was once a huge part of Long Island culture.   "The Last Race," the 2018 documentary about Riverhead, laments that vanishing past, too — a chronicle of sights and sounds, with a mournful dirge as a soundtrack. The inescapable, unarguable message: Once gone, there won't be so much as a single "ghost tract" left on the Island as testament. 

    Why mourn "ghost tracks?" A little background seems in order. Car racing was always on Long Island (the famed Vanderbilt Cup, beginning 1904, ran through a large swatch of Nassau County) but the modern stock car variety was largely born here, dating back to Prohibition, when bootleggers rigged street cars to outrun cops. So-called short-track racing arrived soon after booze became legal. 

And short did, in fact, mean short. For example, Freeport Stadium's track, which closed a year before Islip (it's now a BJ's Wholesale Club), was a relatively generous 0.2 miles long, but at a brief one-fifth of a mile, drivers called its chief rival "One Slip Islip." When Petty won for the first time there in 1971, he marveled at "Little Itty Bitty" Islip. 

They were short, fast and dangerous while the colorful characters who promoted them had a P.T. Barnum flash and WWF sensibility. Islip's famed promoter, Larry Mendelsohn, fathered lots of innovations, like the "8-track," which was run on a twisted course that forced drivers to either stop at the point where both tracks crossed or risk T-boning. He drew national attention to Islip, and cameras too (ABC's "Wide World of Sports" visited often).

To an 8-year-old like Dillner, the drivers were larger-than-life, with names to match: Lightning Tim Mulqueen, Crazy Eddie Mistretta, Wild Child Tommy Walkowiak. One of the greats of the '50s, Johnny Rocco, was (what else?) the Rock, while Patchogue native Alex Anderson became "the Patchogue Peach." (Most of the drivers, in fact, did come from area towns.) Some of the nation's top NASCAR drivers — John Ambrose, Junior Ambrose, Joe Krakowski, Jim Malone, Charlie Jarzombek, Fred Harbach, Jimmy Hendrickson, Al DeAngelo — were regulars at Islip or started out there.

 The end was sudden. After years of fighting with the town, the track finally worked out an agreement to continue operating until 1992, but after the death of the owner, it was instead sold to a developer (that cookie factory).

 Dillner says "it'll never be the same without Islip but those are the things that emotionally drive you to do certain things in life." In his case, that would be this new TV series. 

For each episode, he and Earnhardt visit some track now lost to time — the stands rusted or collapsed, the track itself overgrown with jimson weed. Some developer is right behind them, they say.

"I miss Long Island," Dillner says, "but I left out of necessity. I love it down here. It's absolutely beautiful and the heart of racing country and there are Earnhardts all around and other big dynasties too. This is where the action is."

He would appear to have many subjects for future episodes, but he's not so sure about that either. Most of the ghost tracks were mom-and-pop affairs like the ones that once proliferated across Long Island: "They were owned by somebody with a passion or were family-owned, but maybe not someone with the biggest pocketbooks." After most closed, they disappeared forever. 

"These defunct tracks all have a connection to their community," he says, "and they all have a story that links them to the people of that community. And they have characters — oh God, yeah, absolutely did they all have characters." 

Dillner has thought about doing a future episode about Islip but says he's not sure he will. There's not a remnant of the original track left, nothing that so much as hints at that former glory. Nothing to look at, nothing for the camera.

Meanwhile, all those great "characters" — those world-class drivers like DeAngelo, Harbach and Jarzombek who roared around "One Slip Islip" at speeds approaching 180 miles per hour — are long gone too. 

 Dillner can't even bring himself to visit Freeman Avenue. The emotions, he explains, are still too raw. 

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