Andy Lally has driven more expensive trucks. He has worked with better-funded racing teams. But he has never competed for an outfit that has as many devoted fans as the one he will be driving for tonight and hopefully tomorrow at Daytona International Speedway.
Lally, who grew up in Northport, is piloting the FDNY Racing Team's No. 28 Chevrolet in the first race of the 2009 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The team has to qualify tonight for a spot in Friday's race at Daytona.
The truck, which is painted fire-truck red, features a photo montage of fireman, policeman, members of the armed services and workers at the World Trade Center on its deck lid under the words "Heroes Wear All Different Uniforms." Many members of its crew are current or retired members of New York City's police and fire departments. All are volunteers.
"It's cool. There's more money given to charity than spent on the race team," Lally said. "It's a classic David and Goliath story. We're going to take on multi-million dollar teams here and see what we got. We don't have the world's greatest truck, but we do have a super group of guys."
Whenever the team races, it attracts a hardcore group of fans, mostly firefighters and other servicemen. Through sales of model trucks, other souvenirs and donations on its website, the team has raised close to $200,000 for the firefighter union's Widows and Orphans Fund. It has also raised money for the NYPD Patrolman's Benevolent Association. For their efforts, team owner Jim Rosenblum received the city's 2004 Liberty Medal from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Rosenblum, who is from Mamaronek, is one of the few NASCAR team owners within driving distance of New York City. Though he has been involved in racing for more than 30 years, he created the NYFD team shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, after a conversation with Mike Bolnik, a retired FDNY lieutenant who now serves as the gasman on the team.
"We both had a lost a lot of friends, a lot of people who we know, and wanted to do something," Bolnik said. "Jim pretty much funds this team. We're all volunteers and it's a close group."
FDNY is not a full-time racing team. They try to compete in four or five races a year, but have never missed a Daytona.
"Wherever we go, fireman are attracted to our truck," Rosenblum said. "We've helped a lot of different fire departments all over the country, and there really is a brotherhood. People see the truck and just want to be a part of it."
Rosenblum's team collects heroes as both fans and crew members. One of its biggest supporters is Murph Giangamo, a friend who was injured while making a helicopter rescue in Viet Nam. Another is Billy Rock, a former West Babylon resident, who now lives in Florida. Rock retired from the NYPD after he was injured in a motorcycle accident while guarding then Vice President Al Gore. In 2002, he stopped by to check out the truck in Daytona in 2002.
"Next thing I knew Jim Rosenblum had we working down in the pits," said Rock, who will be a jackman and front wall tire carrier for the team in Friday's race. "It's a great time, and we're doing it for a great cause."