He was good enough that he literally beat guys with one hand, good enough that Dale Earnhardt once offered him a shot driving one of his cars in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series.
But Paul McElearney was more than happy where he was, a bigger fish than he ever let on, in a pond bigger than most anyone who knew him outside of racing ever realized. The guy who, friends and family recalled last week, told really good stories, beer in hand; who never had a bad word to say, never once was impressed by his own credentials.
"Paul was always saying, 'The older I get the better I was,'" his sister, Milissa Resner of Breezy Point, Queens, said Thursday.
Paul McElearney was pretty good back then, too.
Not only did Dale Sr. offer him that ride in the '80s, asking McElearney to come South and campaign one of his cars. But McElearney was good enough to dominate a bunch of tracks on the Northeast circuit and win three straight Late Model series season titles at Riverhead Raceway from 1990 to '92, where he owned the competition before retiring with five track titles [two in Street Stock] and 45 career wins — third-most in track history.
Good enough to be inducted into the Riverhead Raceway Hall of Fame in August 2014. To have his name up there on the Wall.
Forever, in Turn 3.
McElearney, 70, died April 15 in Huntington Hospital of complications from the coronavirus, in some sad but poetic way an end to his own final lap, since he'd been born in that same hospital April 10, 1950.
He leaves behind wife Michele and five children — Connor, Nicole, Riley, Brian and Tracey, the latter two from a previous marriage.
"As a car owner, having a guy like Paul drive for you was a privilege," Richie Resner, Milissa's husband and Paul's brother-in-law, said Thursday.
Resner owned and ran the race cars McElearney drove to most of those victories, including the one he shared with the late Dale Sr. at Hudson, Lee and Stafford racetracks on the old New Hampshire circuit back in 1986.
"Badass," Dale Jr. wrote on Twitter recently, seeing photos from back then posted right after McElearney first got sick in March, adding: "I'd wondered what the backstory was on the car for years."
One of four kids born to Francis and Madeline McElearney, Paul grew up in Huntington and attended Walt Whitman High School. He went to work as a heavy-equipment operator, running steamrollers and backhoes, driving 18-wheelers, and was employed by the New York City Department of Transportation when he died.
His sister told how McElearney used to outrun the bay constables in this little skiff he had as a kid, and how he took that love of speed and turned it into a lifetime of racing not only in New Hampshire but also at old Freeport Stadium, Islip Speedway and Riverhead.
He learned to drive with one hand, literally, because he'd broken his arm crashing his truck, Richie Resner said — and he didn't want to miss any time behind the wheel.
One race, at Hudson in 1986, Resner said, McElearney snapped the rear axle on his car, and the axle and tire went flying off into the nearby lake. The car crashed to a halt and McElearney climbed out.
"Next thing you know, Paul's running down the backstretch and dives right into the lake," Resner said. "The announcer asked him after the race, 'What were you thinking?' Paul told him, 'That was a brand new tire and brakes.' But, truth is, he was easy on equipment."
Meaning, in driver terms, McElearney had a feel for a car that saved engines and repairs because he often knew when something wasn't right.
One time McElearney drove the first 15 laps of some race with two hands, and Resner knew something was off, because when all was going good McElearney always drove with just one.
"Halfway through, his right hand came off the wheel," Resner said, "and one of the officials said, 'He's driving that car with one hand?' I said, 'Yeah. He's good now.'"
Of course Paul McElearney went on to win.
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