Some two decades after its last ‘strip closed its gates for good, New York state’s Long Island will, at long last, host drag races again later this summer. The races, which will take place on a former airport runway in the town of Riverhead, is the successful culmination of many years of tireless efforts by the more than 20,000 members of a Facebook group dedicated to racing on the island, and a determined dragstrip operator and promoter who never backed down from a most unlikely mission.
Florida native Pete Scalzo, the CEO of Motorsports Management Group, has a long track operating record in the sport — he also knows a thing or two about fighting uphill battles. Scalzo ran Florida’s Green Cove Dragstrip for several seasons with great success before having his lease yanked out from under him to make way for a Volkswagen vehicle storage site during the “dieselgate” emissions scandal. He then turned his attention to the ill-fated Twin Branch Motorsports Complex in West Virginia, where he again fought a bevy of political red-tape, to no avail. Many years before all of that, however, he had approached leaders on Long Island about opening a dragstrip. Almost twenty years to be exact. With the backing of the “Long Island Needs A Dragstrip” Facebook page, Scalzo finally made some headway earlier this year, receiving approval from the Riverhead Town Board to conduct eight races —with a number of concessions on his part — at the Calverton Executive Airpark (known officially as Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL).
…the local residents there went ballistic over it. They said it was going to be noise, noise, noise, and it’s next the cemetery, and it’s going to harm the environment. They went nuts. – Pete Scalzo
Long Island, spanning 118 square miles, has a population of more than 7.6 million people, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the United States. The nearest drag racing venue to EPCAL is the Island Dragway in New Jersey, 131 miles away. Atco Dragway, also in New Jersey, is a 169-mile drive — that makes EPCAL the nearest option to the some 21 million residents of the New York City metro, or more than six percent of the entire nation’s population.
The 7,000-foot runway, the shorter of two located at the site, was formerly the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant, Calverton which was owned by the United States Navy and used to assemble, test, refit and retrofit jets built by the Grumman Corporation.
The Riverhead Town Board approved the proposal, despite considerable pushback from local residents, with a series of caveats — all vehicles must be muffled, traction compounds are not to be applied to the racing surface, safety barriers must be installed the length of the 1/8-mile track, and just a hair over 1,300 people are permitted to be on the site.
“You have to go in front of the town board, and the town board changes every couple years, and it’s always been ‘no, no, no.’ It’s always a concern about noise. The site is also fairly close to a national cemetery. But if there is a noise issue, I told them I’ll take back my application, as I don’t want to cause any trouble. But I told them, ‘it won’t be an issue. Maybe I’m wrong, but let’s do a sound test,’ but they wouldn’t let me do it. And I wasn’t the only one trying to do that all those years, there were others,” Scalzo says.
Scalzo, who estimates he had worked on political leaders in Long Island for 16 to 17 years, finally put together a proposal to run only muffled cars. He also wanted a special event permit, which would avoid requirements for permanent restrooms and such. The town only grants said permits for a maximum of eight events, and so his schedule was set. He would also get insurance for the event and install concrete jersey barriers.
“They finally came back and said, ‘sure, we’ll take a shot with it.’ Of course the local residents there went ballistic over it. They said it was going to be noise, noise, noise, and it’s next the cemetery, and it’s going to harm the environment. They went nuts. They said, ‘the man is going to put up concrete barriers…well that’s dangerous if a car crashes into them.’ They know nothing about drag racing, obviously,” he says.
I know we’re going to be hugely successful, and then when I’m in diapers in a couple years from now, if it continues to be a regular thing, I can say I was part of creating that and bringing drag racing back to Long Island. – Pete Scalzo
In complying with the town board’s wishes to install safety barriers and obtain insurance, Scalzo went one step further and secured sanctioning from the NHRA, whom he says “jumped on the opportunity,” adding they “wanted to get back in that market in the worst way.”
A snafu in filling out the special event permit application will limit him to just 1,100 spectators and 250 racers, or a total of 1,350 people on the grounds, rather than the 4,000 persons caps he had hoped for.
Further pushback from the locals also stymied the traditional use of traction compounds on the runway.
“I usually never do no-prep, I always prep my tracks. Well, I mentioned it and the naysayers went nuts. They said, ‘it’ll go down into the water system and the drinking water.’ I said, ‘listen, what’s the toughest state in the country on the environment? California. And they use this stuff on every track in the state, even Pomona, which is a fairgrounds.’ But they said, ‘no.’ I found out PJ1 has a new product that is more compliant with environmental regulations, but the locals were having none of it, so I had to give in, and so there will be no track prep. I’m not happy about it, but with the cars we expect, I don’t think it will be that critical,” he says.
Vehicles will be, for these initial eight races, limited to six seconds flat and 115 mph.
Scalzo will open the makeshift facility to racers and fans August 21st, with subsequent events August 22, 28-29, September 4-5, and 11-12. These will include a mixture of daytime and night races under portable lighting. Scalzo has also boxed up his timing equipment and scoreboards from the Green Cove and Twin Branch tracks to give competitors a legitimate drag racing experience. The series will be known as the “Race Track, Not Street Drag Racing Series At EPCAL.”
Scalzo cautioned that this is a stepping-stone, and that racers need to adhere to the noise requirements: “don’t bring a full-blown race car, because you won’t be allowed to race,” he says matter-of-factly “This is critical, and we can’t give the naysayers any excuse to complain about us because we’re too loud.”
Long Island, like everywhere in the country, has a problem of illegal street racing, so that was another way I was able to impress the board, was the impact I had in Miami of getting kids off the streets. – Pete Scalzo
“I’m taking a chance, and I’m eliminating a lot of people, but this could lead to bigger things,” he adds of the vehicle restrictions. “And it might be that there’s no noise, and we might try a couple of events with open-header cars.”
“Long Island, like everywhere in the country, has a problem of illegal street racing, so that was another way I was able to impress the board, was the impact I had in Miami of getting kids off the streets, and that that could also happen on Long Island,” he goes on to say. “Finally, we have a town board that says, ‘we’ve been hearing about this for years and years, we hard there’s an interest, let’s give it a shot.’ This is what I tried to tell these people from the EPCAL Watch, they call it…I;’m not looking to change the zoning,
I’m not looking for a 20-year deal….this is a four week, eight-race deal and I’m allowed to prove the merits of what I’m talking about it. If it’s too loud and traffic is a problem, all they have to say is, ‘no, we tried it, it didn’t work, find yourself another spot.’ ”
For Scalzo, who has been able to make tracks fiscal winners by utilizing existing infrastructure, the opportunity to race at EPCAL was the only thing that made sense.
“You’ve got to be out of your freaking mind [to build a new racetrack]. When you put the pencil to paper, I don’t know how these people do it, unless I’m stupid or something. To buy 30 or 40 acres, and then to build something, to put a couple of million into to build a racetrack…you’ve got to be crazy. To build a track out on Long Island, it’s probably $500,000 an acre…an acre…and that’s just the property. Then you have to get it zoned and everything. I’m 77 years old, and I was basically done, but I’ve always wanted to go up there, and now that this has come about, now I want to prove a point. I know we’re going to be hugely successful, and then when I’m in diapers in a couple years from now, if it continues to be a regular thing, I can say I was part of creating that and bringing drag racing back to Long Island.”