Making history at Riverhead Raceway — without a driver’s license

06/01/2012 11:00 AM |
PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Vincent Biondolillo hops into his team's #06 car Saturday at Riverhead Raceway.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Vincent Biondolillo hops into his team's #06 car Saturday at the Raceway.

It’s eight hours before the featured race at Riverhead Raceway, and the Biondolillo team is preparing the No. 06 car for another Saturday night at the track.

Just like all the other racers, the team is hard at work, checking to make sure everything is in order. The team’s box-shaped trailer is just as chaotic as the rest of the competition’s, with tool drawers and hoses and coolers filled with soda lining the metal walls inside.

But the driver revving the race car’s massive engine from behind the wheel is a different story.

He goes to high school. He wears braces. He isn’t even old enough to legally drive, outside the track that is.

Fourteen-year-old Vinny Biondolillo is the youngest NASCAR Modified All-American series racer in Riverhead Raceway history. And he’s getting faster by the day.

Racing is in this Sachem honor roll student’s blood. His uncle raced figure-eight cars for years and his father, Andrew, drove in drag races. His younger sister raced go-karts at the racetrack, too.

Vinny, a Farmingville native, began racing go-karts in a separate division at Riverhead Raceway when he was 10 years old, winning three championships before moving on to finish in “a few Top Tens” in the Legends car series last year.

This season, Vinny joined the Modified races, the featured event at the track.

His open-wheel racecar — a 2,000-pound, 600-horsepower orange and black monster — averages about 76 mph during a race and can reach more than 100 mph on the straightaway.

“This is like a go-kart on steroids,” Vinny said before Saturday night’s race in Riverhead. “It handles the same, it’s just bigger with more horsepower.”

The teen said he’s still getting used to the big races and makes sure he gives the more experienced racers the right amount of space as a sign of respect.

“You have to give respect to get respect,” he says.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The open-wheel racecar Vinny drives is a 2,000-pound, 600-horsepower monster.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | The open-wheel racecar Vinny drives is a 2,000-pound, 600-horsepower monster.

Vinny said the team members are taking each race one at a time, trying not to get too far ahead of themselves in this inaugural season.

“You try to keep your lines,” he said. “Just try to make sure you’re still rolling at the end of the race.”

Andrew Biondolillo says both Vinny and the crew are learning on the fly.

“It’s like going from crawling to sprinting,” Mr. Biondolillo said while working on the car. “We’re still finding our roads. When we stumble, we stumble together, and when we do good, we do good.”

Everyone in the Biondolillo pit crew is a relative, friend or neighbor. They help make repairs, change tires and even barbecue snacks for the team.

“They take time out of their schedules to help out at the garage,” said Vinny’s mother, Michelle Biondolillo. “It’s a lifestyle, not just a sport.”

“It’s a costly hobby, but it keeps him out of trouble,” Ms. Biondolillo said. “He’s a good egg.”

Vinny is allowed to participate thanks to a ruling made last year by NASCAR, which lowered the minimum age for drivers to 14 after individual tracks requested younger drivers be allowed to race.

“We’ve seen phenomenal success with a lot of the young kids on the touring series level,” said Jason Christley, senior manager of communications for the touring and regional series. “These kids are getting younger and younger.”

Vinny, Mr. Christley said, represents the next class of race car driver.

“Vincent is unique,” he said. “He’s certainly on the first wave of kids coming in and running these races.”

Hours later at Riverhead Raceway, the crew is working frantically minutes before the start of the 35-lap race. Andrew Biondolillo unscrews the hood of the car to make some last minute repairs to the car’s engine, which is turning over but refuses to start. He hunches over, checking the parts, while Vinny pushes the ignition.

The modified car roars to life with a stomach-rattling rumble. Vinny parks the car near the end of the pit area and puts on his earplugs and helmet as his crew mounts fresh tires on the car.

Vinny qualified 18th out of the 25 racers this Saturday night, but opted to start in dead last place. His father says the middle of the pack can be dangerous early in the race so the team would rather have Vinny work his way up from the back.

The racers line up and take a few laps around the quarter-mile track before the race begins, to the delight of the hundreds of fans watching. The green flag waves and the cars blast around the oval, drowning out the cheers and the announcers’ voices.

But the drivers don’t make it far before a caution flag comes out on the second lap and the race is temporarily suspended. When a caution is called, drivers keep moving, but must reduce speed and stay in their positions until the issue — anything from an accident to debris on the track — is addressed and the race resumes.

Three laps later, another caution, then another on lap seven after a crash, and another. The cars begin to overheat and stall on the track, leaking fluids that need to be cleaned up quickly before the race can begin again.

Vinny’s car has barely moved up from last place; he would tell his father after the race that he was waiting to pass 10 laps until he started to make his move.
On the lap 11 restart, Vinny does just that, rocketing past the car in front of him and beginning to gain ground on the other racers. During lap 15, four cars collide, resulting in a yet another caution. The race has gone on for nearly an hour.

As the cars round Turn Three under caution, the race official at the finish line waves a checkered flag. The NASCAR-sanctioned race has been stopped after exceeding the time limit.

But what may have been a frustrating day for fans hoping for a speedy race was a momentous day for the Biondolillo team: Vinny charged up from last place to finish in 14th, his best finish yet in a modified race.

After the race, Vinny’s family and friends were overjoyed. Crew members gave Vinny hugs and bumped fists as he climbed out of his car in the pit area.

“That was a really good run for us,” Mr. Biondolillo said.

Other modified racers said the youngest member on the track was doing just fine.

“He’s going a good job for a young kid,” said John Beatty Jr. of the No. 14 car, who finished second in the race. “I was getting lost on my bike at 14.”

Al Emmarino, who drives the No. 13 racer, said Vinny was “holding his own,” adding that he sees Vinny as another worthy competitor.

“Once you get in the car and you strap in, everyone’s equal,” Mr. Emmarino said. “You’re at war.”

As for Vinny himself, the history-making racer downplayed his finish as a grin spread on his face.

“We’re still rolling, so that’s good,” he said.

psquire@timesreview.com