After zooming down a 100-foot strip at Riverhead Raceway Sunday afternoon, Charley Powell climbed out of his Chevy Impala SS a little sweaty, but boasting a practically perfect .003 reaction time.
The figure, a measure of how quickly a driver responds to the drag strip’s “tree” — a pole of lights that signals drivers to go — is an important component to winning the new “holeshot” races that Jay Eastgate has brought to Riverhead from his home state of Connecticut. The race is so short, there’s little time to make up for a slow response.
The contests are the first legal drag races on the Island since 2004, when the quarter-mile long Westhampton Drag Strip closed.
Mr. Powell of Bayport has been racing since the 1960s. He’s brought his Impala to all three Holeshot Drag Racing Association events at the Raceway this racing season, and even won best in his class at a prior contest. He appreciates the race for what it is: an opportunity to sharpen his senses at the starting line, and a possible way to get serious conversation about a quarter-mile strip on Long Island started again.
“It’s better than nothing,” Mr. Powell said of the drag contests.
Marty Johnson, the president of the Long Island Motorsports Association, a group that has been pushing politicians for a quarter-mile track, sees the Riverhead Raceway events as a chance to show decision makers that dragsters aren’t “dirtbags,” but family people looking for fun. Like many of the other racers, Mr. Johnson wrote “We Need a Drag Strip” in bold white paint on the rear window of his Dodge Magnum.
“It’s moms and dads, white collar, blue collar, every race, creed and religion,” Mr. Johnson said.
While acknowledging that Long Island’s motor heads badly want a traditional, quarter-mile track, Mr. Eastgate pointed to the unique benefits of holeshot racing. A shorter trip down the strip means lower fuel costs and less wear-and-tear on the vehicles, he said. Holeshot races are like a shorter, more exciting version of the original, he believes, because many of the quarter-mile races are won or lost in the first 100 feet.
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“Maybe they prefer a quarter-mile strip, but I’m the first person in seven years who has actually been able to bring drag-racing back to Long Island,” he said.
Mr. Eastgate first came up with the idea for holeshot racing in the mid-1990s, but did not find a venue for it until 2007 in Connecticut. Like Long Island, there are no drag strips in the region, making holeshot racing a viable alternative, he said. The holeshot track fits into the figure eight portion of an oval raceway like Riverhead.
Mr. Eastgate said he has been courting Riverhead Raceway’s owners, the Cromartys, since 2007. Jim Cromarty said he tried holeshot because it’s another way to get more people interested in related motorsports, including what he already offers at the track.
“There seems to be a strong interest in it, and hopefully it will build up,” Mr. Cromarty said.
About 70 cars came out to Sunday’s event, a bit lower than what Mr. Eastgate expected. June’s event brought out over 100 cars, and about 80 hot rodders turned up for the first holeshot races in May, Mr. Eastgate said. He blamed last week’s hot weather for Sunday’s lower-than-anticipated turnout.
Kenny Edwards’ 700-horsepower antique Good Humor ice cream truck stood out from the more popular gussied-up Chevelles and fox-body Mustangs at the race. Mr. Edwards came to the holeshot event from Smithtown “not knowing what to expect,” he said. But he ended up having a lot of fun,.
“I’ve got the kids with me, and we’re making noise and smoke, and meeting cool people,” Mr. Edwards said.
Mr. Edwards has raced his Good Humor truck and other nostalgic vehicles at famous tracks across the country. He likes the pitside culture: hot rodders compare notes on their project cars, share barbequed food and race in friendly “grudge” matches. The Good Humor truck is a crowd pleaser because the ice box works, and he usually has frozen treats on hand to give pit crews and passerby.
“I’ll be back, and I’ll be bringing ice cream,” he said.
Holeshot contests use bracket-style racing while creating handicaps for cars, allowing them to be on an even playing field
when racing each other. They can also win awards by getting as close as possible to their “dial-in,” figure, which is a time they predict they can run. It’s an exercise in consistency, Mr. Eastgate said of the dial-in component.
Chris O’Keefe of Franklin Square won best in his class Sunday, even though he wasn’t racing a traditional hot rod. His Toyota Camry, a stand-in for his 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle, made it down the track in 3.746 seconds. His all-important reaction time came in at .070.
He was ecstatic. Sunday marked his third time at holeshot, but first win.
“I still like racing – it’s all math and science” Mr. O’Keefe said about the win in his daily driver. “This will support the whole area; it’s really a neat day.”