Drag racers win years-long fight to restore competition to Long Island

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This isn’t another race track obituary lamenting one more paved mecca lost to urban development or noise ordinances. Those have, unfortunately, become commonplace over the years, but this story has a light at the end of the tunnel. An airstrip in Calverton, New York, five miles west of the town of Riverhead, recently opened its doors to 200 racers and just over 1000 spectators in a breakthrough opportunity to prove to local leaders that organized drag racing isn’t the public nuisance it’s made out to be. Now in the track’s fourth weekend of action, local leaders and racers are finding common ground thanks to a group of diehard locals—and a particularly obsessed promoter from Florida.

Located about 15 minutes southeast of Calverton, Westhampton Raceway opened in 1952. It was paved two years later and then operated successfully under a handful of different names until the facility became known as Long Island Dragway in 1991 and then Long Island Motorsports Park in 1996. However, in 2004, noise complaints led to the historic drag strip’s closing and eventual conversion into a retirement community. For nearly 20 years, that decision has deprived Long Island drag racers a place to compete on their home turf. Long Island Motorsports Park’s land had been rezoned residential use, despite the track’s half-century of history in the region, which meant the two-lane strip was churned up after the shutdown and made into a gentle neighborhood road. At the time, the township’s supervisor told the New York Times that a drag strip is “an idea whose time has come and gone.” It was the last of three drag strips to have once operated simultaneously on the island, leaving racers gutted.

Since then, gearheads have had to pay life’s most precious assets—time and money—to continue their passion. The next-closest drag tracks were at least an hour away, and for Long Islanders it’s more complicated than just hopping into a pick-up and hauling the car and trailer across town; toll fees quickly stack up against a racing budget, and there are only so many ways in and out of the island, which means leaving for mainland tracks is something of a hassle. Some drivers travel across state lines to New Jersey and Pennsylvania or even as far as New Hampshire for big events, but where there’s a vacuum of local venues to race, the racers often just find places themselves. Street racing is illegal, of course, but once organized venues disappear from a region that is so geographically isolated, the temptation to engage in it becomes a lot stronger.

After years of frustration, in 2016 John Cozzali founded a Facebook group called “Long Island Needs a Drag Strip” as a hub to organize an effort around restoring drag racing to the island. Along with the advocacy of Florida-based Pete Scalzo, they led a community of supporters to find a location that could host them.

Town hall meetings in Riverhead began getting crowded with racing shirts and hope, but there was pushback. The communities in Calverton, near the old wartime testing facility and Calverton Executive Airpark, now known as EPCAL, provided familiar gripes about race tracks. “The last thing this community needs is a drag strip,” one resident said in a 2017 interview. “There are a lot of retirement communities in the area, and the noise would be a big problem.” Others thought that the crash barriers (the same concrete K-rails you see in road construction) would be a hazard to racers, not realizing that those barriers would make the converted runways at EPCAL for everyone. Final approval from the Riverhead Town leaders to conduct an objective noise test eluded Scalzo for years, especially as the council members rotated in and out of office, leaving the Long Island racers to start over from scratch, in a sense.

Scalzo had proposed several compromises to work around noise concerns, including requiring mufflers, limiting speeds to about 115 mph, and a serious commitment to changing plans should the sound of racing be too much for residents down the road, or for visitors at the nearby Calverton National Cemetery. “I’ll prove we are not a noise issue,” he recounted at the inaugural Race Track, Not Street event at EPCAL. “If we are making a lot of noise and there are folks paying their respects to their fallen […] I wouldn’t want to be involved in it.”

Finally, the town board gave drag fans and racers a shot. For the initial permit allowing for eight events, the NHRA stepped up to sanction EPCAL as a Division 1 track. This was more than just a statement of support; the sanctioning helped to also provide a safety structure for all relevant permits and insurance. It wasn’t until the town’s official resolution marked August 21 as “Drag Racing Day” that nearly two decades of activism had actually paid off.

Long Island Needs a Drag Strip

“Supervisor Aguiar has been instrumental with getting these events approved and she has been at every single one. She had an open mind and saw the tremendous opportunity that there was to bring drag racing back to Long Island and to the Town of Riverhead. She has supported the Motorsports community, and the entire Motorsports community supports her,” said Johnny Consoli, one of the committee members of Long Island Needs A Dragstrip. “She has said that she would love to have these events happen more and more. It truly has been an economic generator for the town with the local delis, restaurants, and shops getting some much extra foot traffic from these events.

“We can’t thank Pete Scalzo and Maree Moscati enough for giving us this opportunity to race here on Long Island,” he continued. “Along with Tom and Eric, they transformed a runway into an NHRA sanctioned dragstrip!”

Long Island Needs a Drag Strip

There is one other event (separate from Race Track, Not Street) that will also run this fall, but future permits will still require a review process. Everyone is hopeful, and with a few events under his belt at EPCAL without issue, Scalzo’s scrappy efforts might just endear him to the town. For now though, it’s become a racer’s delight each weekend, with everything from stock late-model Chargers and Camaros to drag-and-drive regulars in their purpose-built street cars.

“We have said it from day 1, ‘Teamwork makes the dream work,'” Consoli said. “Pete also has had tremendous sponsors that have pitched in to make these events be the best they can be. Without all of these pieces of the puzzle, we wouldn’t be able to say that Long Island got a dragstrip.”

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