TODAY'S PAPER
53° Good Evening
53° Good Evening
Sports

LIer a driving force

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

the lottery.

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,

Ohio.

"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

Hobbies in West Babylon - he has resisted moving down to North Carolina, where

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,

either."

Spoken like a true New Yorker.

Donny Lia profile

Home: Jericho/Huntington.

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

places.

Race philosophy: "When you have a shot at winning, you have to do whatever

you have to do to win the race."

New York Sports