There's nothing more important to Tom Ferrara than having fun on the race track. And, as the 2013 season morphed into a calamity-filled affair, he noticed he was having less and less of it.
"The beginning of the year started out excellently," Ferrara, 40, of Patchogue recalled. "We won on opening night, the first time we had ever done that, and the next three races we were in the top three. Things started going haywire after that. Things were breaking that normally don't break . . . We were leading one race in late July, got taken out, and that was the icing on the cake."
Ferrara finished up 2013 and decided, after a decade of racing, it was time to take a break. It was never a full retirement, the intention always being to return someday, but the GEICO auto adjuster just couldn't fathom another frustration-filled year.
So, to the surprise and delight of his wife Jennifer and their three children, Jaime (11), Thomas (8) and Anthony (4), Ferrara spent last summer relaxing, swimming in his backyard pool and enjoying a family trip to Disney World. He went back to the track twice to race for fun but, by his own admission, did not miss the weekly grind of the Riverhead pavement.
Then, in late January, the call came. It was former NASCAR Modified car owner Grant Williams asking if Ferrara would be interested in driving his Figure Eight car for Northeastern Office Equipment, a Farmingdale-based office supply company.
During that conversation, Williams expressed confidence that Ferrara could drive the team to a championship.
"There was no added pressure," Ferrara said. "It was 'Go out and have fun' . . . I felt that if I didn't take this opportunity, it might not come again."
With the blessing of his family, Ferrara returned to the track a little earlier than he had originally intended. The beginning of this season saw the same 'what can go wrong, will go wrong' results that led Ferrara to leave two seasons ago. He crashed in the first week, experienced a voltage issue in the second and blew a tire in the third.
But, despite the hard luck, the atmosphere was different.
"We were laughing about it, saying 'What are we going to do, these things happen,' " he said. "I can't explain it, but we were having fun. The crew was not upset. It was 'Don't worry, we're going to fix it.' "
It all came together two weeks ago when Ferrara won his first race of the year, outlasting Riverhead's Tom Rogers Jr. and Bay Shore's Roger Maynor to take the checkered flag.
"I knew we were going to have to earn it," Ferrara said. "As soon as we took the white flag, I knew we just had to run one more perfect lap. I figured, if anything, [Rogers Jr.] would play coy and wait for a last-minute pass. The last lap, I drove the heart out of the car to make sure he couldn't get a run on us. With him behind you, it's not over until the checkered flag flies."
The win moved Ferrara into a fifth-place tie with Mastic Beach's Kenneth Hyde Jr. in the Figure 8 point standings, 26 points behind Rogers. But, for Ferrara, this season is about something far less complicated than a points championship.
"I want to continue to have fun," he said. "We're having a lot of it."
Modified Points Standings
1. John Fortin, Holtsville 151
2. Tom Rogers Jr., Riverhead 140
3. Howie Brode, East Islip 133
4. Ryan Preece, Berlin, Conn. 131
Kyle Soper, Manorville 131
Bandoleros, Go Karts, 50-Lap Modifieds (Time Trials), 30-Lap Late Models (Time Trials), Blunderbusts, Super Pro Trucks, Legends (No Figure-8's or Chargers)