By Joseph Wolkin and Jack Yu
Thirty cars lined up like a herd of tigers, ready to be thoroughly examined. They were greeted by a massive statue featuring a red painted and multi-colored feathered war bonnet of a cartoon Native American.
Riverhead Raceway is known as one of Long Island’s hot spots for Sunoco gasoline and Hoosier tires.
As the track gears up for its 66th season beginning on April 9, track officials inspected the cars as teams paraded them through the inspection stable, each hoping to get approved.
“Things are going well,” Tom Gatz, one of three co-owners of Riverhead Raceway, said. “It’s been a giant learning experience for us as new owners. My main line of work is insurance, so it’s a lot more exciting than the insurance world. Last year was a big learning experience for us.”
With the first of two inspection days in the books, the speedway is preparing for seven different divisions to compete at the track. Of the different types of racing, the most popular are the two modified divisions: Riverhead Model Crate division and the NASCAR Modifieds.
However, over the previous three seasons, things did not go well for Riverhead Raceway when the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour came to town. A 2014 race was canceled and a 2015 one was postponed.
“We were hurt a lot by the weather,” Gatz said.
While the weather is out of the track operator’s hands, Gatz is optimistic that 2017 will bode well for Long Island’s only racetrack.
As the 2017 season is rapidly approaching, it is crucial for teams to make sure their cars are up to par with the track standards.
“The inspection is like a safety inspection,” Dylan Slepian, who competes in the Model Crate division and in INEX Legends cars, said. “They’re going to check all of your fire proof equipment and make sure the tethers on the car are up to date with the track safety standards. We refreshed the engine, changed all of the fluids, looked at all of the components in the car to make sure nothing is bent out and replace anything you find wrong and put it back together.”
While the inspection process is rather smooth for Slepian, who finished runner-up to Dave Brigati by two points in last year’s championship battle, it presents a challenge to new teams attempting to get ready for the season.
Come May 6’s opening night for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Riverhead Raceway, Michael Rutkowski will be strapping into a modified racecar for the first time in his career. After he spent $30,000 to purchase his Troyer open-wheel racecar with a spec engine and prepare it for inspection, he is relieved to see the car clearing the templates.
“Four of us built this thing in three days,” Rutkowski said. “The little details are what takes the longest, but it takes all winter to get ready for this [inspection].”
Riverhead Raceway will be hosting a combination of 27 days and nights of racing throughout 2017, with multiple divisions competing on a weekly basis from April 9’s Snow Melt Enduro season-opener through the Sept. 30 championship night.