Attention NASCAR fans: If you love it loud and have a need for speed, summer Saturday nights may find you at Riverhead Raceway watching drivers battling it out on the track.
“For a bit of excitement and entertainment, this is the place to be,” says general manager John Elwood. “You are right on top of the action.”
The 66-year-old raceway has undergone some improvements, compliments of its new owners, with updated bathrooms, refreshment stands serving burgers, wings and fries, plus a beer garden pouring craft brews, local wines and spiked tea and featuring live music.
“We want this to be a family-friendly, summertime destination,” says co-owner Tom Gatz. “People hang out and eat in addition to watching the races. We are looking to bring back the crowds from years ago.”
In addition to the facilities, the new owners upped the entertainment factor, adding fireworks, monster trucks, a go-kart expo, a school-bus demolition derby and even an Elvis night. On a recent evening, adults competed in a mullet contest while kids raced Big Wheels on the track with the winner keeping the trike they rode.
“We are trying to make things more fun for the fans,” says co-owner Eddie Partridge. “There’s a lot of kids in our stands from age 6 and into their teens.”
THE SOUND OF THE CARS
Fanfare aside, the drivers and the fans remain very passionate about the sport.
“This is a lifestyle,” says John Bauer, 55, of Mastic Beach, who has been coming to the raceway since age 5. “It got into my blood when I was very young. I never got away from the sound of the cars, the smell of the fuel and the excitement of watching them race around the track.”
Race nights bring several events that spotlight different cars. There are modifieds (open wheel race cars), blunderbusts (bulky cars that run on smaller tires) and legends (race cars built from kits). Spectators can also see figure 8 racing, where the cars race in crisscross formation across the track, emulating the number 8.
Fans watch from the grandstand all along the track and cheer on their favorite drivers. Things can get quite exciting. On Memorial Day weekend, Shawn Solomito, 27, of Islip, beat out Ron Silk of Norwalk, Connecticut, in a photo finish.
“Solomito won by mere inches,” says announcer Bob Finan. “It was the closest finish of a modified race in the 66-year history of this racetrack. The fans were going crazy.”
Solomito works as a fiber optic technician during the week, but on weekends he’s an ace behind the wheel.
“I love the adrenaline rush,” says Solomito, who drives a modified car. “There’s no other sport like it. You get to make your own destiny.”
Solomito’s younger brother, Timmy, 24, also races and recently won a doubleheader 50-lap race in the modified division while his wife, Shannon, and daughter, Keva, watched from the grandstand.
“Tim loves going out there and hearing the fans cheer him on,” says Shannon Solomito, 26, of Wading River. “It’s nerve-wracking to watch at times, but when he has a good night it’s contagious.”
Patrons are even able to visit drivers before and after the races at their pit while their car is being tuned up.
“To be able to shake their hand or hang out with them in their pit is something you can’t get at a baseball game,” says Elwood. “Sometimes they even allow kids to sit in the car.”
One fan-favorite driver is Tom Rogers Jr., 37, of Riverhead, who pulled off an incredible feat by capturing both the modified and figure 8 championships last year, which is the first time that has happened since 1957.
“Driving is a thrill and something I always dreamed about as a kid,” says Rogers. “This place is my second home. It’s hard to stay away from.”