Vincent Nobile’s gaze drifted off somewhere into the desert sunset as he stood there in the media room at Phoenix’s Firebird Raceway last October, his third 60th Anniversary pewter Wally trophy in his young hands.
Perhaps what seemed to launch him into deep thought was simply the thrill of winning his third race in five final-round appearances in the rookie season.
Perhaps it was thinking he was in perfect position to win the Road to the Future Award for the entire National Hot Rod Association’s top-performing professional-class rookie.
Perhaps it was a thought about IndyCar star Dan Wheldon, who had lost his life that day just a few hundred miles away at Las Vegas laced with grateful affirmation that he, the business student at Adelphi University, was so incredibly fortunate to drive the NAPA / Mountain View Racing Dodge Avenger. After all, his team owner was Nick Mitsos, who lived 2,500 miles across the country in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and in a different culture than his own drag-racing family from Long Island.
What was on his mind was family.
“Once again, I brought tears to his eyes,” the then-teenager said, not boastfully. “That makes me so proud, just to make my dad that happy. That is why I’m out here. It feels just as good as winning the Wally and hoisting it up.”
His first Pro Stock victory, Vincent Nobile said, still has an effect on him.
“I’m very proud of it. I choke up every time I watch the video, it is that special to me, and I never let that trophy get too far away. It was one of the best days of my life,” he told the media. “It was so emotional for me because my father [a two-time IHRA series champion] tried to do this on the NHRA scale his entire life, and he always had the knowledge, the capability, the talent – he just didn’t have the money. This year, my father and I were given this opportunity, and we are doing this together. He is a great mentor and teacher, and I’m here because of him. When I won that race, it was for him.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Nobile is all about. And his family has expanded far beyond dad John and mom Susan and uncle John Pluchino, a longtime ADRL and outlaw racer.
It includes the Mitsos family. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be standing here now,” Nobile said. “They gave me this opportunity to drive this car, going out on a complete limb. They didn’t know what to expect of me. I didn’t know what to expect of me. We meshed really well.”
No, no one knew what this young Jr. Dragster graduate would do in a tricky, hard-to-tame factory hot rod in a class of mostly seasoned veterans who succeeded and failed by mere thousandths of a second. Nobile’s demeanor is quiet, laid-back, unruffled . . . 180 degrees different from his father’s excitable, chatty, passionate personality.
What everyone has come to see is a still-low-key, respectful young man, now 20, who takes in every piece of information from his elders with thoughtful enthusiasm. They’ve discovered a bit of a risk-taker in Nobile, whose aggressive style makes him prone to stage his Dodge too deeply sometimes and commit more red-light fouls than he would like to have. And they surely have seen his unselfishness.
Nobile didn’t receive the Auto Club of Southern California’s Road to the Future Award after all. It went to Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Hector Arana III (“Hector Jr.”) — his sister Nicole’s boyfriend. All year long, the media had joked about who Nicole Nobile would vote for if she were among the voting panel of journalists. Never once did Nobile — or Arana, for that matter — weary of the predictable prattle at every stop on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour.
Sometimes the two sounded like echoes, saying the $20,000 cash prize wasn’t what motivated them as they pursued the honor.
“It’s not about the money,” Nobile said. “It’s about being on that list of people who have won that award. It’s so prestigious to me. If we were both on that list, it would mean the world to both of us.”
Arana said on the eve of the announcement, comparing their performances, ‘It makes it a really tough battle. Me and Vincent, we’ve both got five finals and three wins. So I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a tie, really. We’re both deserving. It’s not about the money. It’s about the reward.”
For Nobile and the Mitsos team, the $20,000 gift would have come in handy.
But he has his reward in knowing that he has some of the finest engine folks helping him, notably Roy Johnson, who has kept his own son Allen in the championship battle every year now but supplies the Mopar HEMI engines. Nobile and Allen Johnson share crew chief, J&J Racing’s longtime tuner Mark Ingersoll.
Despite losing to Nobile on a holeshot as he recorded his career first round-win, Johnosn is one of Nobile’s biggest cheerleaders. That day at the Winternationals at Pomona, Calif, when student beat teacher, Johnson predicted, “Vincent is going to be a good driver, and his team is going to do well this year.”
Later in the season, Johnson said, “The kid is doing great. It’s a joy to watch him do well.”
Mike Edwards, NHRA Pro Stock’s 2009 champion, seconded that. “That Vincent Nobile, he is going to be quite a Pro Stock driver, I can tell you that right now,” he said. “That young man, he’s a super talent. He’s going to give us old guys a run for our money.”
Nobile and Allen Johnson have traded several final-round battles already. At the end of 2011, Nobile defeated Johnson that afternoon at Phoenix to return the favor from the Englishtown, N.J. event last June.
That Englishtown outcome — a red-light disqualification — has bugged Nobile for almost a year now. And this weekend, he wants to atone for it as the Toyota SuperNationals kicks off Friday at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
“I made a mistake at Englishtown (in the 2011 final against his tutor) of staging a little deeper than I should have,” he said that winning day at Phoenix. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not giving this one up.’ ”
So the Englishtown miscue inspired his Phoenix victory, and that Phoenix victory — along with his repeat this April at Houston — can serve as inspiration for this weekend’s Englishtown race.
“I grew up racing Jr. Dragsters there and watched my dad race there a lot, too,” Nobile said. “Most of my memories as a kid are at the track from the times we raced juniors there and all of the local events during the weekends, which makes racing there so great because it feels like home to me.
“I’m very confident in my driving and my car this year, so I’m very excited about racing there again,” he said. “Hopefully this year we can go just a little farther than last year. We made it to the final round, but unfortunately I red-lit. I still have nightmares about that moment, because winning at Raceway Park would just be the ultimate.
“I’m hoping this time we can pull out the win at our home track. I would love nothing more than to win at Englishtown. It’s home. All my friends and family come out, which is easily the best part about that,” he said. “So winning here would be the best.”
No telling what sort of emotion he would show if he were to win on “home turf.” But a victory like that would crowd the Houston memories, for sure.
“A year ago, I was just a kid with a dream and now, almost every dream I’ve ever had has come true,” Nobile said at the end of the 2011 season. “I got the opportunity to follow my father and race an NHRA Pro Stock car — and I had an absolute blast.”
He almost certainly hasn’t fired his last salvo yet.