Ken Alfano believes he felt the presence of his deceased wife, Julie, with him in his late model vehicle on July 13 at Riverhead Raceway.
That was the day the Southold resident won the 25-lap feature event. It was Alfano's first victory since Julie, a racing fan and mainstay at the track, passed away on May 3, 2011, after a five-year battle against ovarian cancer. Julie died less than a month before what would have been her 48th birthday. After winning, Alfano, 51, parked his car in-between the first and second turn where he and Julie always sat to watch the races. He got halfway out of his car, which is painted pink in honor of Julie, and blew kisses into the sky.
"It was a big one for me, and it was pretty emotional," Alfano said. "I wanted to win for her and she was with us that night. It's been a long road for me and it played out better than I could've ever thought."
The couple met online in 2003, when Alfano reached out to her screen name, "figure8girl." "And I knew right away what that meant," Alfano said.
In May 2004, the couple spent their first night together at Riverhead. Alfano, who has raced for 28 years, said it didn't take long for everyone at the track to get to know Julie, who was from East Quogue, because "she had a smile that could light up the darkest night."
It was a smile that didn't leave, even when she was diagnosed five years ago and underwent chemotherapy. Julie was at stage IV when the cancer was discovered.
"It was a fluke that they caught it because there are really no signs with ovarian cancer, and once you see the signs, it's too late," Alfano said. "We had our heart-to-hearts and crying sessions, and I told her that there wouldn't be one step of this that she would go through alone."
The couple married soon after she was diagnosed because Alfano, a court officer in Central Islip, wanted her to be on his insurance. Alfano also did things like shave his own head all three times after Julie lost her hair.
"There was no decision, no thought process to do any of it," Alfano said. "She was my soul mate and that's how it had to be. She was there for me and I had to be there for her."
Alfano described competing in the initial races at Riverhead after Julie's death as the hardest things he's ever had to do. Mentally and emotionally, Alfano said, he was out of it. Yet now he's discovered that racing may in fact be the best remedy to cure his broken heart.
"I don't know exactly how, why or what, but something changed," Alfano said. "I just went into Riverhead this year actually wanting to win again. I can feel it again in my bones."