Something was going on inside of Wayne Anderson's
trailer at Riverhead Raceway last month. There was whooping. There was
hollering. There was so much excitement that passersby thought someone had won
Turns out Anderson had the cable on and a dozen or so Riverhead regulars
had just watched Long Island racing history in the making. They had watched one
of their own, Donny Lia, win his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event,
nudging past a veteran driver on the final lap of the Ohio 250 in Mansfield,
"Here were guys who had all raced against Donny, and they couldn't have
been happier," longtime Riverhead announcer Bob Finan said. "Everyone wants to
see this kid from Long Island succeed."
Can a kid from the Long Island suburbs really make it big in a sport whose
roots are decidedly southern and rural? Can a guy who didn't grow up in a
racing family make a name in a sport populated by generations of Pettys and
Earnhardts and Allisons? Can a driver who cut his teeth on computer simulations
and Legend cars at Riverhead make it to the big time?
Lia, a 27-year-old from Jericho with a short-track, in-your-face style of
driving, has a chance.
With his win in Mansfield, Lia became the first driver out of Riverhead to
win a NASCAR elite event since Steve Park won the Dura Lube 400 in 2001. He
also became the first rookie to win a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event in
five years. Now Lia is in contention for the Craftsman's rookie of the year
award. He was second in the rookie standings entering Friday's Milwaukee Mile
in which he finished 22nd overall.
"I think there are a lot of good drivers from this area, but for whatever
reasons, they just don't get the opportunities," Lia said last week. "I think
some of the guys in the big leagues need to go watch one of the modified races
at Riverhead one Saturday night. Because then they'd know all about what
short-track beating and banging is all about."
Though Lia doesn't come from a racing family, the car business is in his
blood. His father, Don, owns several car dealerships, including Huntington
Honda. From the time Lia was a toddler, he would entertain his friends and
family by remembering what kind of car they drove.
"I was the crazy kid on the bicycle, and when I got older, I was the kid
who drove too fast and got tickets," Lia said with a laugh.
Unlike most racers his age, he never started off with go-karts or midget
racing. Until he bought a Legends car in 1999 from a lawyer who was helping him
with some speeding tickets, his racing experience had been limited to computer
simulations. He quickly made an impression at Riverhead.
"From his very first laps in a Legend car, you could see there was
something special," said Finan, who has watched more than three decades of
racers at Riverhead. "There's certain young athletes that come along that just
have it, and Donny had it."
With his father's financial backing, he made the leap to a Modified car in
2001 and won the rookie of the year title at Riverhead. The next step was to
what is now called the Whelen Modified Tour, which he raced on for several
years before taking six first places in 2007.
This season, he's racing on television, competing for upstart TRG
Motorsports. Because he also works on Long Island - helping out at his family's
car dealership and owning a remote control track called 360 Speedway and
many of the elite drivers live. Instead, he logs thousands of frequent flier
miles a month, going from events to Long Island to TRG's headquarters in
Mooresville, N.C. He also occasionally comes back to visit Riverhead, and is
talking about racing there in August.
Because he didn't run the first race in Daytona, it's near impossible for
Lia to win this year's series. So instead, his strategy this season is to go
for wins, instead of points. It's an approach that has people talking,
especially after the way he won in Mansfield.
Lia became only the 10th driver in truck racing history to win an event
after leading only on the final lap. Lia nudged past leader David Star in the
second turn of the final and 250th lap. Then Starr, Lia and Todd Bodine ran
almost side-by-side down the backstretch before Lia pulled his Chevrolet ahead
to edge Starr by .241 of a second.
After the race, Bodine groused about Lia's aggressive tactics, but Starr
said "a little paint swapping" was good for the fans. Lia said he felt no
choice but to do what he had to do to go for the win.
"I got real aggressive, but I had a shot to win and I think it was
warranted," Lia said with a shrug. "When you have a shot of winning, you have
to do whatever you have to do to win the race. I don't want to disrespect
anybody, but I'm not going to let myself get pushed around on the track,
Spoken like a true New Yorker.
Donny Lia profile
Age: 27. Family: Single.
Biggest win: Became the first rookie in five years to win a Craftsman Truck
Series race with his win in the Ohio 250 in May.
Best season: Won the Whelen Modifed tour in 2007, after taking six first
Race philosophy: "When you have a shot at winning, you have to do whatever
you have to do to win the race."