Kevin Riordan: A high-octane outing

Chuck Billington of Cedarville, N.J., works on the 1981 Van Diemen RF-1 being driven by Edward Del Monico of Burlington Township. At the New Jersey Motorsports Park, the 2011 season of the Sports Car Club of America is racing to the finish line.
Chuck Billington of Cedarville, N.J., works on the 1981 Van Diemen RF-1 being driven by Edward Del Monico of Burlington Township. At the New Jersey Motorsports Park, the 2011 season of the Sports Car Club of America is racing to the finish line. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: October 25, 2011

At the annual Jersey Road Racing Classic in Millville, the autumn air has a metallic buzz.

It's Sunday morning, and I've come to the New Jersey Motorsports Park to watch the Sports Car Club of America's 2011 season speed to a finish. The octane is so high, you can feel it. Smell it, too.

"To us, it's a bouquet," says Jim Tornetta, executive director of the club's South Jersey chapter.

Unlike the oval tracks of professional sports car racing, road races are run on courses with right and left turns, as well as varying grades.

The cars, which include familiar brands such as Ford, Chevy, and Mazda, and custom creations with names such as Van Diemen, Invader, and Cheetah, generally cost about $15,000.

Though some can cost $100,000 and reach speeds of nearly 200 m.p.h., road racing is for "regular" people, says Tornetta, 57, a Pemberton Township resident who owns a lustrous red 1985 Ferrari 308 GTSi (think Magnum, P.I.).

"It's not NASCAR, with big money," he says. "Most of these cars are financed by the drivers."

Nearly 170 drivers from throughout the Northeast compete in nine events over two days, assisted by 70 volunteers with titles such as steward, starter, and flagger.

Many of their duties relate to safety regulations for the vehicles, which comprise most of the nearly 700 pages in the club's rule book.

There were no injuries or serious incidents over the weekend, according to Tornetta.

He shows me around a parking lot, also known as "the paddock," next to the 1.9-mile course.

Under the immaculate October sky, vibrantly painted, decal-covered production race cars, showroom stock cars, and vintage Detroit models look ready to rev as they sit with their hoods open.

As the roar of exquisitely engineered horsepower rises and falls at the track, families relax under awnings and pit crews clatter tools. Drivers in quilted jumpsuits offer one another advice.

"Competitors help competitors, to make sure that everybody gets a chance to drive," says Don Colanero, 61, of Mount Laurel.

A frequent competitor himself, Colanero is the crewman for driver Mike Allenbaugh, 50, of Hamilton, Mercer County, who ultimately takes home a trophy Sunday.

"This is the greatest fraternity you could have," declares Sue King, secretary of the 400-member South Jersey chapter.

Admission to the event costs only $1, and outside a few folks watching from behind the perimeter fence, spectators are few. But the club raises money for charities at its events. Last weekend was "Coats for Kids," and organizations dedicated to the fights against multiple sclerosis and breast cancer were among the season's earlier recipients.

King, a Williamstown resident who owns a title-search company in Vineland, has been a road-racing enthusiast since 1961. She drove a Datsun 240Z competitively until about eight years ago.

Her son, J.D. King, chairman of the Classic, does the driving in the family these days, despite having lost his left arm, starting above the elbow, in an industrial accident 16 years ago.

J.D.'s sons Max, 15, and Jacob, 10, love the sport as well. Many of those I speak to say interest in racing is often multigenerational.

The drivers, virtually all of them male, include Greenwich, Conn., resident John Wechsler, 61, who is in "private equity." He "absolutely loves" racing in his red 1991 Miata.

I also chat with retired corrections officer Chuck Billington, of Cedarville, Cumberland County. "I spend all my time here," he says.

Everyone I talk to loves cars, of course. They enjoy going head to head with highly skilled drivers, their vehicles wheel to wheel, often at speeds the rest of us only experience in the movies.

There's a surprising element, too. Road racing is a Zen thing.

"It's relaxing," Colanero says. "The moments in the car purge your mind."

No wonder there's a wistful feeling to the end of the season.

"What helps," Colanero says, "is planning for the next one."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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