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New owners have big plans for Riverhead Raceway

05/05/2016 6:00 AM |

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As his pace car approached the finish line at Riverhead Raceway Monday, Ed Partridge didn’t slow down.

The track’s newest owner whipped around the first turn of the quarter-mile oval and did one quick lap before finally coming to a stop for a scheduled photo shoot.

“Look at him,” remarked his wife and business partner, Connie, as he circled the asphalt. “He just can’t help himself.”

It’s safe to say that as they approach the start of their first season, the Partridges and their nephew and fellow co-owner Tom Gatz, are having fun at the track. Now their mission is to make sure the people of Riverhead and elsewhere in Suffolk County do, too.

Racing fans will notice numerous changes when cars return to the track for a grand-opening racing lineup and fireworks show Saturday night. The ownership group hopes even non-regulars take note of the 64-year-old Riverhead staple this season.

In an effort to attract families to the raceway, Mr. Gatz said he’s been working with the Town of Riverhead to organize a series of events that will enable the new owners to use the property on days when the cars aren’t racing.

PPAUL SQUIRE GRAPHIClans are in the works for car shows, a fair, a drive-in movie night and even a haunted house at the raceway. Mr. Partridge said he’d also like to eventually host a concert at the track.

On race nights, fans can also expect to see more of a minor league baseball feel to the events, the owners said, with the addition of T-shirt launchers and a new raceway mascot, which will be unveiled Saturday.

“We have to find ways to get the families involved,” Mr. Gatz said. “They have to be excited about this place and want to come here.”

It takes “new ideas and new blood,” Mr. Partridge added, something he believes the new ownership group represents as longtime regulars running things for the first time.

The Partridges, who own the T.S. Haulers trucking company on Edwards Avenue in Calverton, and Mr. Gatz, a 38-year-old vice president of the Roy H. Reeve Agency in Mattituck, purchased the 24-acre Riverhead Raceway property from longtime owners Jim and Barbara Cromarty for $4 million last August. They are just the third owners of the property since 1955, when an ownership group led by Ed Hawkins of Coram purchased the three-year-old clay track and converted it to asphalt.

The Cromartys, who bought the property in 1984, told the News-Review last year that they had received more than a dozen offers to sell over the years, some even more lucrative than the one they finally accepted. But those offers would have seen the property redeveloped as something other than a raceway.

“There are enough developments around here,” Ms. Cromarty said at the time. “The racetrack is a tradition.”

The Cromartys’ vision for the future of the property isn’t lost on the new owners.

“They sacrificed a lot to keep racing alive on Long Island,” said Mr. Gatz, a Wading River native who now calls Center Moriches home. “The Cromartys turned down offers in excess of three times what we paid for the property. Their commitment to the sport is commendable.”

Mr. Partridge, a lifelong Wading River resident, remembers first attending the raceway with friends as an 11-year-old.

“I loved seeing all the different classes race,” he said. “They had the modified and the sportsman back then too, but I also remember the old jalopies.”

He began working at the raceway in 1970, serving in the pit for legendary Baiting Hollow driver Charlie Jarzombek, who died following an on-track crash at Martinsville Speedway in 1987.

Mr. Partridge has since seen success on NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour as the owner of T.S. Motorsports. In 2013, T.S. Motorsports’ Ryan Preece, then just 23 years old, became the youngest driver to ever win the Whelen Modified Tour championship.

Riverhead Raceway is one of the oldest stock car race tracks in the country, having been built in 1949. It is a one-quarter mile asphalt, high-banked oval which includes a Figure 8 course. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Mr. Partridge said the T.S. Motorsports team will continue on the tour this season, including two events at Riverhead Raceway on June 25 and Aug. 27.

This year’s 28-date Riverhead racing schedule also features the always popular School Bus Demolition Derby, three fireworks nights, an Elvis Night and a Monster Trucks event.

Mr. Partridge said the drivers can expect to see an improvement in officiating on racing nights this year with the hiring of new officials and a new race director, Scott Tapley, a Maine resident with no allegiances to any local racing teams. The format will also change from time trials to heat races this year, forcing the drivers with more points in the standings to move ahead from the back of the pack to win, which Mr. Partridge hopes will improve the fan experience.

With those same fans in mind, a number of capital improvement projects were undertaken this winter by Riverhead Raceway staff and general manager John Elwood, who’s now in his eighth season. The track’s two food stands were torn down and rebuilt, as were the bathroom facilities.

A beer garden with picnic tables was also put in place to offer fans an area to relax and listen to live music before the races.

“We’re very excited for everyone to see all the improvements,” Ms. Partridge said.

Mr. Partridge noted that Riverhead is the last remaining track on Long Island.

“This is something we really want to keep going for a long time,” he said. “It’s getting a second life.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story, which appeared in print, referred to track general manager John Elwood by a different name. We regret the error.

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Top photo: Riverhead Raceway  owners Connie and Ed Partridge with their nephew Tom Gatz at the NASCAR track Monday afternoon. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

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