After decades of lobbying public officials and searching for a suitable site, drag racing has returned to Long Island, at least temporarily.
Efforts by groups like Long Island Needs a Dragstrip, thousands of local racing enthusiasts and businesses that cater to the hotrod crowd, have been the driving force to bring drag racing back to the birthplace of fast-car culture in America.
As a result, a four-weekend drag-racing series that kicked off on August 21 inside the Enterprise Park at Calverton has brought joy and fueled hope to those who’d like to see a permanent dragstrip facility established here.
The series dubbed “Race Track Not Street” is sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association and produced by veteran racing promoter Pete Scalzo, who has transformed one of EPCAL’s runways, formerly used in testing F-14 aircraft, into an eighth-mile dragstrip complete with Christmas tree starting lights, finish-line timing displays and spectator bleachers.
Drivers at the Calverton series pay $50 per session and can make as many passes down the track as time and race traffic allow. Admission for spectators and pit crew personnel is $25 and children 10 and under get in free. All tickets must be purchased online in advance and attendance is limited to 1,350 per event, according to the special-event permit Scalzo secured from the Town of Riverhead.
The opening Saturday session was sold out, with fans packing the sun-scorched bleachers and hundreds of drivers assembled in the pits and lined up in the two staging lanes that lead to the starting grid.
A beat-up 1980s-era Chevy Monte Carlo with a torn vinyl roof won the day’s very first pairing, taking 8.81 seconds to get down the eighth-of-a-mile stretch of asphalt.
That set the tone for the “run-what-you-brung” gathering that attracted an eclectic assortment of vehicles to the airstrip-turned-dragstrip. Among the first group in the staging lanes were a souped-up Volkswagen Beetle, a 2021 Dodge Charger Redeye with an 800-horsepower Hellcat engine, and a blue Chevy Silverado pick-up truck piloted by Lew Oppenheimer of Huntington, who used to run a 1970 Mach 1 Mustang at Westhampton 20 years ago, before Long Island’s last dragstrip was replaced by a residential subdivision.
Birthplace of car culture
Automobile racing has been a part of the Island’s DNA since the dawn of the 20th century, when William K. Vanderbilt founded the Vanderbilt Cup in 1904, getting the rich and famous from here and abroad to slap on their goggles and drive through 30 miles of dirt roads in Nassau County. The race was moved a few years later to Vanderbilt’s privately built Motor Parkway, which was the first high-speed concrete road in the country.
Over the years, Long Island became a Mecca for dragsters and stockcar racing. One of the earliest official drag strips in the country was the quarter-mile at Westhampton, built in 1953. Another popular venue, New York National Speedway in Center Moriches, hosted national hot rod races in the 1960s. and 1970s. Islip Speedway had a one-eighth-mile drag strip, but its main attraction was its tiny one-fifth-mile oval, the site of NASCAR events through the 1960s until it was shuttered in 1984.
Freeport Speedway, built in the 1930s, didn’t have a dragstrip, but it also had a one-fifth-mile racing oval, which closed in 1983.
Long Island’s last remaining one-fifth-mile track is at Riverhead Raceway, which still runs racing and demolition derby events on many weekends. Westhampton, also known as Long Island Motorsports Park, closed in 2003 leaving no more legal dragstrips here, forcing Long Island racers to travel out of the area to compete.
The long haul to other tracks prompted John Cozzali to organize the Long Island Needs a Dragstrip advocacy group, which boasts more than 20,000 members.
“I came home from racing in Atco, New Jersey one day and I was complaining about the traffic and the long drive and the money I spent,” said Cozzali, a retired sheetmetal worker from Mastic, who has been racing since he was 14. “My wife Kathleen said stop bitching and do something about it.”
Cozzali, who trailers his 2002 Jerry Bickel Pro Stock Chevy Cavalier to dragstrips throughout the East Coast, would much rather stay closer to home.
“We’re tired of going off Long Island to race,” he said. “It’s time to keep that money on Long Island.”
That money could be substantial, according to a 2019 economic report from the United States Motorsports Association. A Long Island dragstrip would host an average of 84 event days bringing in more than 328,000 visitors a year and generate $17.66 million in annual spending, the report said.
Revving up revenue
Despite having no local place to run, there are still plenty of Long Island businesses focused on the racing crowd. Performance Services in West Hempstead, which was founded as High Tune Automotive in 1969, rebuilds and enhances race-worthy engines. Its owner, Dennis Quitoni, has been involved in the effort to establish a new Long Island dragstrip since Westhampton shut down 18 years ago.
“We’ve got several businesses that cater to the racing crowd and each employ more than 20 people,” Quitoni said. “But we’ve lost a lot, too.”
This summer, Nick Montana, principal of Pro Chasis Design in Bay Shore, says he has seen more customers as a direct result of the EPCAL series.
“Business has always been pretty steady, but I noticed that since this event was announced, people were taking cars out of mothballs and looking to make upgrades for safety and performance,” Montana said.
Like many of his fellow performance-business brethren, Montana is also a participating hotrodder. His race team runs a Pro Mod 1969 Camaro with a carbon-fiber body and a 959 cubic-inch engine boosted by a nitrous system.
“When we go testing, we have to go out of state,” Montana said. “We spend over $1,000 getting to the racetrack and back.”
Also a racer, Vinny Budano, general manager at Scott Shafiroff Race Engines & Components in Bohemia, has won several championships with his Pro Mod 1968 Camaro, and he credits the EPCAL series with providing a boost to the industry.
“Just the hype of it has helped the business. It’s brought a lot of interest back,” Budano said. “We have more race cars on Long Island than most other places, but it’s so expensive to go to other tracks out of state.”
One of the largest racing-related businesses on Long Island is American Racing Headers, which employs 48 people in Deer Park. Its owner, Nick Fillipedis, has also seen an increase in business since the Calverton event was announced.
“It’s people that had their cars in the garage,” he said. “They pulled their cars out and needed to do updates. It’s definitely created more interest.”
And while the four-weekend drag racing series has raised awareness for the sport, Fillipedis said a permanent dragstrip will do a lot more.
“If you bring motorsports back to Long Island in a meaningful way, you’re going to see a boom in business and job creation,” he said.
A common theme among those seeking a permanent dragstrip here is keeping younger drivers from racing on the street. In 2018, nearly 400 people were killed in illegal street racing incidents nationwide, according to the USMA report.
“People are just desperate, so they go street racing and stupid things happen,” Budano said.
Montana stressed that having a legit place to race would be tremendous for safety.
“You’re going to drastically reduce street racing,” he said. “It would save countless number of lives and property damage.”
On Saturday, Sept. 4, the EPCAL series will hold a “Beat the Heat” event, where racers will try to outrun police, on the track that is. Founded in 1992, Beat the Heat is a national nonprofit launched by first responders to help combat the problem of street racing and drunk driving.
Local hotrodders say another positive impact that a permanent dragstrip facility would have on youth is encouraging more automotive vocational training.
“We need to get auto repair and mechanics back in the high schools,” Cozzali says.
Montana said the effort to revive drag racing here is for the next generation.
“All these kids will never get a shot to do this,” he said.
Fillipedis added that a dragstrip would go a long way to retaining Long Island’s young talent.
“You want to give people a reason to stay and motorsports attracts young people,” he said.
Getting from A to B
Bringing drag racing back to Long Island, even for the brief four-weekend EPCAL series, has been a monumental struggle.
Scalzo, who has promoted more than 500 racing events over the last 45 years and has owned and operated four dragstrip facilities in Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, pitched the idea of racing at EPCAL to the last two Riverhead Town supervisors, but they rejected the idea.
“I went two or three times in front of town officials and felt we were spinning our wheels,” Scalzo said.
But in January, current Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguilar reached out to the promoter and set up a meeting that included Dawn Thomas, the director of the town’s Community Development Agency.
“I met with them at the site in the snow and made a proposal,” Scalzo said.
Quitoni credits Aquilar with moving the needle.
“We’ve talked to a million politicians,” he said. “She was the first one that sat down with us and seemed to be interested.”
Among the racing advocates who lobbied the town was professional drag racer John Montecalvo, whose Riverhead-based race team’s Pro Stock 2017 Camaro has taken home a trunkful of championship trophies.
“When I was growing up in Center Moriches, I used to go down the road to National Speedway,” he said. “It kept me out of trouble. That’s what I want for today’s youth.”
Montecalvo, who once tried to buy 200 acres at EPCAL, obtained the concrete barriers for the temporary dragstrip and his family’s company, Montecalvo Asphalt Maintenance, filled the cracks in the runway-turned-speedway.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 20 years,” Montecalvo said. “It brought tears to my eyes when the town board approved it.”
And while getting the four-weekend drag racing series was a big win for the Island’s hot rod community, the real goal is to establish a permanent dragstrip here.
“The whole purpose of this thing is to put a fulltime track on Long Island,” Quitoni said. “But it’s Long Island and space is very expensive.”
Budano agreed that the shortage of land and its high price here is a huge handicap.
“It can be profitable in Calverton,” he said. “Drag racers will go anywhere, so anywhere on Long Island would be a good spot. It would draw from all over the New York metro area.”
Montana estimates that a minimum of 20 to 25 acres would be needed to develop an eighth-mile drag racing facility.
“Calverton would be the best place,” he said. “It’s perfect for this. You wouldn’t find a better spot because it doesn’t impact a neighborhood.”
However, putting a permanent dragstrip in EPCAL will be challenging, especially since the property is in the process of being sold.
It’s been more than two decades since the town took title to the 2,900-acre Calverton property, last used by the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman for testing F14s and other military aircraft. Some 1,900 acres of it has been preserved as open space and to protect the region’s environmental health. The rest of the property was earmarked for economic development, though the town has struggled to land a deal for the site, despite fielding several ill-fated proposals over the years.
That changed in 2018, when Riverhead approved a $40 million deal to sell the 1,643 acres remaining of the EPCAL land to Calverton Aviation & Technology, headed by Triple Five Worldwide Group. The town is currently waiting for subdivision approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation so the sale can close.
As part of the agreement to sell the land, about 600 acres, which is zoned to accommodate up to 9.8 million square feet of industrial properties, have been earmarked for development. And the buyers are reportedly planning to utilize the existing runways for air traffic that will service the planned industrial park.
Nevertheless, Cozzali said he has spoken with Triple Five executives about using some of the property for a track and Aguilar added that she will do what she can to see that they make room for a permanent drag racing facility at the site.
“I will work with them to ensure that this American sport that’s loved by everyone continues in Riverhead,” the supervisor said.