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Riding Shotgun with Emil Assentato

Emil Assentato, auto racer

Emil Assentato, auto racer Credit: Courtesy NASCAR

New York City native Emil Assentato, who lives in Locust Valley, is now leading the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car  Series GT points standings. Two of Assentato's five career victories have come this season, and this is the first time the 61-year-old CEO and Chairman of the Board of FXDD has ever led the points standings. We caught up with him before the scheduled race at Lime Rock on Memorial Day.

Trading Paint: Talk about the atmosphere up at Lime Rock.

Emil Assentato: Lime Rock is a fantastic venue to race at. It's in the middle of one of the most beautiful places in the country. You have the Berkshire Mountains. It's a picnic type of atmosphere. Fans sit on the hill and watch a race. I grew up in Lime Rock. It's where I had my first race. I went to school there. For me, it's personal.

TP: And what about the driving?

EA: It's a short track in terms of what we usually race at. The uphill used to be a very fast uphill turn. It's hard to put power down coming out of that turn. The rest of the track is very fast, there is very little room for error on the west bend. The long straight is really the only straight they have. It's a very exciting track. Everyone is tight, right on top of each other, fighting for every square inch of the track.

TP: Growing up in the New York area, how did you get interested in racing?

EA: From being a little boy, I've always had an affinity for cars, it was always a dream, to drive race cars as a  child. I would watch on television, whatever they had, back then it was usually a tape delay a week later of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. It's always been in my blood. I used to go to Freeport Stadium when it was open.

TP: Tell us the difference between NASCAR and the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car 

EA: The most obvious difference are the cars themselves. The NASCAR prototype are mid-size, intermediate American  sedans. They are much heavier than we are, they have more power. Ninety eight percent of the racing is on ovals and they go left most of the time. In the GT class, these cars are the cars you see on the street and they are racing 
each other on the track -- a Mazda or a Porsche. In the Daytona prototype class, these are pure race cars, built  for racing. There is nothing remotely like it on the street.

TP: As a New Yorker, do you think auto racing will fully catch on in New York?

EA: I think if NASCAR opened up a track closer to New York they would be surprised at the size of the audience they would get.

TP: What's the secret of your longevity?

EA: (Laughs) It's just luck I think. If you run long enough, good things happen. If you hang around long enough,  things turn around. I had an incident that nearly crippled me at Lime Rock. I did actually formally quit racing. I thought, this is more dangerous than I expected it to be. I did the Ferrari Challenge Series in the 1990s and that was a nice way to get back into racing. This is the 40th anniversary since I won my first trophy at a race track. It was June of 1970. Now we are having our best year ever. My success is really a minor story compared to the success of the team itself and my co-driver Jeff Segal. A lot of people don't realize what it takes to make a racing team work and how complicated it is. When we're in the pits, we are watching computer screens, speed differential, fuel mileage, optimal time to pit, a lot comes into play.

New York Sports