Maybe next week, next year, next century at the historic family track
By Paul KandarianGlobe Correspondent / May 29, 2011
SEEKONK — Speeding cars jockeyed for position, bumper to bumper, no one giving an inch. Seeing a glint of open space, a driver would hit the gas and swerve inside, barely missing the car he had cut off. The goal was to get ahead, and fast, to be the first in the mass of moving metal running in one thunderous, mechanized growl.
This was not the Southeast Expressway at rush hour but a typical Saturday night at Seekonk Speedway near the Rhode Island border. Said to be the longest continually operated track in the country, the speedway is a family-run stock-car racing facility that has been going strong since 1946, when the Venditti family started it.
“It’s a place families come, have some fun, get away from the real world for a while,’’ said Francis Venditti, 69, son of the late founder, D. Anthony Venditti. Francis runs it now with his nephew David. “Americans still have a love of the automobile,’’ Venditti said.
On any Saturday night of the 26-week season up to two dozen vehicles scream around the track, racing in various categories. Upward of 5,000 spectators line the metal bleachers that surround a one-third-mile oval track that has not changed much since the place opened.
And neither has one financial fact: No one is getting rich racing. These are part-time racers, from all walks of life, engaging in an obsession that racer Gerry DeGasparre said, “is not a hobby, it’s a small monster.’’
“You definitely spend more than you make,’’ said racer Jake Vanado, 20, from nearby Berkley, his pro-stock car emblazoned with sponsor decals from Skater’s Edge in Taunton and a local Dunkin’ Donuts. “Last week, we had a mechanical failure and it cost $600 to fix. We won $150 that night.’’
First-place finishes net drivers $1,500 — a far cry from what it costs to run a car. A new one can easily top $50,000, used around $35,000, said Vanado, who works for Comcast. But that doesn’t matter in this hobby-obsession; the love of racing is what it’s all about.
“I like the chess-match aspect of racing, the strategy, more than the speed or adrenaline rush,’’ he said. “You factor in things like how many laps are left, where you are in the pack, who you’re racing against. There are a lot of variables.’’
Competition is the lure to his friend Tom Scully Jr., 30, a NAPA store salesman, who said he likes working on his car all week and seeing how he does against others on Saturday night — including his dad, Tom Scully Sr., 54.
“It keeps me going,’’ the elder Scully said, moments before father and son faced off in a race. “I have a grandson in it now, that makes three of us here. I’ve been doing it for 33 years.’’ In the race, father bested son, finishing second to Tom Jr.’s fifth, prompting the father to joke, “I stuck it to him in the restart.’’
The sound of racing varies in intensity, volume, and pitch depending on the vehicles. Trucks produce a constant low roar, while the motorcycle engines in the much smaller Legend cars give off a high-pitched shriek. Top speeds here can hit 94 miles per hour — vibrating the track and the bleachers. A new public-address system does not help much: The announcer still bellows his best play-by-play.
The crowd one early-season Saturday night was sparse, owing mostly to a forecast of thunderstorms that materialized only over nearby Providence, the occasional flash of lightning cutting through dark clouds on the horizon. Family presence is huge here. Many spectators have relatives racing, including the DeGasparre clan of Pawtucket, R.I., and the Darlings of Rehoboth. David Darling took first place in the pro-stock division on the track’s opening night.
“Yes, this is our Saturday date night,’’ said Tracie DeGasparre as her daughter Bryce cupped her pink ear protectors, watching her dad, Gerry, blast by on the track. Little boys in the Darling family played with toy race cars. “We’re here every Saturday night,’’ De Gasparre said.
This is entertainment on the cheap. General admission is $12. For $20 you can get a pit bracelet, allowing you into the pit area to mingle with drivers, watch them work on their cars, and then head over to the track to see the races. Concession stands abound, serving burgers, hot dogs, meatball subs, and fries. Get a spicy chourico sub for $5 and hunker down to watch the action.
While straight-up car racing is the staple here, Venditti said, they sprinkle in other events to draw crowds. These include thrill shows, featuring things like figure-eight races and drag racing, and also truck-trailer races, midget-car racing, demolition derbies, flea markets, and fireworks.
You do what you can to pack them in, Venditti said, recalling the early days when they would host camel races, and flood the track with water for hydroplane boat racing.
“There wasn’t a lot of room, so drivers would sometimes flip their boats and then swim away,’’ he said.
The fan base is largely local and loyal, he said, with generations of race lovers showing up every Saturday night, from May to October. They include Tom Lallier of Attleboro, here with his grandchildren to watch his racing son, Paul Lallier.
“For your entertainment dollar, this isn’t bad,’’ Lallier said, head swiveling as he watched his son fly by. “Twelve bucks to get in and watch the races. I’ve been coming here since I was 5, and now my grandchildren come with me. My son races, all the more incentive to come.’’
As Lallier spoke, Paul’s car got run into the far wall and he had to leave the race.
“Ah well, another night in Mudville,’’ Lallier said, throwing up his hands. “We’ll be back next week.’’
Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.