Best of the Rest: Chargin’ Charlie was always out in front

Chargin' Charlie
GETTY IMAGES | Charlie Jarzombek was one of Riverhead Raceway's most beloved drivers before he was killed at Martinsville, VA, in 1987.

The YouTube video starts with 14 chilling words: “Chargin’ Charlie Jarzombek Dies in Spring Modified Race at Martinsville Virginia March 22, 1987.”

The next six-plus minutes of video shows a television broadcast depicting in horrifying detail how one of Riverhead Raceway’s most beloved drivers, a native son of Baiting Hollow, lost his life nearly a quarter century ago doing what he loved most.

Greg Sacks is the lone driver to crack our list of the area’s 20 Greatest Athletes. With a few more years on the track, there’s little doubt Charlie Jarzombek would have been right there with him.

“He was a great driver, a tough competitor,” recalled Sacks in an interview this week.

Jarzombek began racing at 20 years old in 1962, driving at the former Islip and Freeport tracks in addition to his hometown track in Riverhead.

Jarzombek raced on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and for years the Whelen races at Riverhead would go an extra lap in his memory.

Perhaps the most celebrated of Jarzombek’s 200 career victories came in the 1986 Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway. In 1985, he claimed the Stafford Speedway Modified Championship.

In 1982, Jarzombek won 29 of the 42 races he entered.

Jarzombek is a member of the Long Island Sports Hall of Fame and in 2004 he was inducted into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.

Prior to his crash, he had endured a great deal of success at Martinsville, where he had won four races and set a speed record in the 1985 Miller 500.

“He never could stay in the back,” recalled Ernest Wilsberg of Mattituck for Jarzombek’s obituary published in the March 26, 1987 issue of the Riverhead News-Review. “He wanted to get in the front as fast as he could.”

Sacks said Jarzombek was so competitive he once dropped out of a race when Sacks was about to win for the third night in a row.

The two would run into each other at a wedding soon after.

“He said, ‘You know, when I saw you were going to win again I couldn’t stand it.’” Sacks recalled. “He was that competitive.”

But Sacks also said Jarzombek was a skilled driver, way ahead of his time.

“When I first started racing, we would go to Charlie’s shop and he’d show us his car,” he said. “Everything he did was so advanced. I didn’t have near the skills to do what he was doing.”

Jarzombek spent his childhood helping out his parents at their farm on Osborne Avenue. He would later work as a truck driver to support his wife and two children, driving for Northville Industries Monday through Thursday and for sport on the weekends.

More than 2,000 people, including many of his racing peers, attended Jarzombek’s funeral at St. Isidore’s Church in Riverhead.

Explaining why so many racers attended the service, former Riverhead Raceway director Bob O’Rourke told the News-Review in the days following Charlie’s death that “when the chips are down, racers are all together.”

Near the end of the YouTube video of Jarzombek’s fatal crash, the broadcaster tells his television audience the 44-year-old racer has died.

“We are sorry to say that Charlie Jarzombek has succumbed to injuries sustained in an early race accident today,” he announces in a somber voice. “We mourn Charlie Jarzombek — a father, a husband, a racer, a champion.”

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