Once a month, the Lawrence and Cole families pack up their cars and race car trailers, and hit the asphalt.
Helen and Jeff Lawrence of East Quogue—along with their daughter and son-in-law, Joey Wintermyer Cole and Jason Cole of Quogue, and their three children, Joelle, 11, and twin 4-year-old daughters Jasey and Jessie—often make the four- to five-hour trek to the Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, or one of the other drag strips in the tri-state area, to enjoy a fun weekend of racing.
For Ms. Lawrence, the long drive is worth it, because of the memories made at the track—where doctors, lawyers, mechanics, teachers and other motorheads face off on the quarter-mile strip, united by a love of loud engines and fast cars. Children even race on a one-eighth of a mile drag strip in go-karts equipped with 5-horsepower Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engines.
It is a tradition for the Lawrence and Cole families, one they wish they could do in their own backyard.
With any luck, that wish could become reality soon.
A new committee recently formed by the Suffolk County Legislature—one that has the support of U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin—has revived a push to find a new location for a drag strip on Long Island, most likely in either Brookhaven or Riverhead town.
If ultimately successful, it will be a return for a local tradition that dates back to the 1950s, at least when it comes to the Westhampton area—a drag racing hot spot for decades prior to the closing of the hamlet’s drag strip in 2004, after a half-century of operation.
Currently, there are no drag strips operating on Long Island; the closest one is Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey, about a three-hour trip.
Prior to its closing, hundreds of people would show up at the Westhampton Drag Strip, located just off Old Country Road, on a Saturday night to hear the engines roar and watch the cars race under the bright lights—and many would race their own personal cars on the two quarter-mile strips of asphalt.
Ms. Lawrence, 66, has many memories of the drag strip, also referred to as the Long Island Dragway. Not only did she race there, she watched her daughter win multiple events. Ms. Lawrence also met her second husband, Jeff, also 66, there in 1998.
“There’s no discrimination in drag racing,” Ms. Lawrence said, who used to race in a bluish-green 1996 Chevrolet Camaro featuring an LT1 engine. “It’s women, it’s men, it’s every nationality, every color, and everybody is together.”
In 2004, then-owner Gary Chimeri sold the Westhampton Drag Strip, and a senior living complex was built on the spot, marking the end of the drag racing era on Long Island and, according to Ms. Lawrence, the loss of something vital to the community, both in terms of economics and recreational value.
“We really need a drag strip,” Ms. Lawrence said. “It brings families together.”
A Night At The Races
Back in the day, the stretch of Old Country Road lying between Eastport and Westhampton was pitch black most nights aside for one: Saturday.
That was the evening when the darkness was replaced with bright lights and, later, the rumbling of car engines and the cheering of spectators.
According to Ms. Cole, on race night, the bleachers lining about half of the quarter-mile track would be packed with fans waiting to see their favorite local racers battle head-to-head.
“It’s sort of a great feeling, because you almost feel like you’re famous,” said Ms. Cole, who is now 39 and has been racing cars since she was 16. “The adrenaline rush—that’s just a bonus.”
Drag racing strips can be either one-eighth or one-quarter of a mile in length; most, including the Westhampton Drag Strip, were of the longer variety. The starting line featured a “burnout box,” a section of asphalt with small depressions that would be sprayed down with water. Before racing, a driver would pull his or her car forward until its rear tires were just at the water’s edge, and then complete a quick burnout to warm up the tires and free whatever small pieces of debris that might be lodged in their treads.
A driver’s reaction time was measured at the start of each race, from the time the lights on the light pole, called a “Christmas Tree,” turned green and the driver reacted. Ms. Cole said the Christmas Tree typically had three yellow lights and one green one, and a successful driver would have to anticipate the green if she hoped to win. “If you wait till it’s green, you’re in big trouble,” she said.
At the same time, jumping the gun too soon would result in a false start, meaning that the successful racers had to get their timing down if they wanted to be competitive.
But once the Christmas Tree turned green, both drivers would punch the gas pedal, the engines of their cars roaring to life among the smoke of burning rubber and screeching tires. Most races took between nine and 11 seconds, with drivers typically hitting speeds of 123 to 125 mph.
After completing the race, drivers proceeded to the shutdown area, a roughly quarter-mile stretch of asphalt that allowed them to safely slow down before exiting the strip. Once they cleared the area, the process would start all over again with another set of drivers.
Fans loved the burnouts, Ms. Cole recalled, and they also were not shy when it came to supporting those who found success on the drag strip.
Ms. Cole said she began racing in Westhampton in 1993, as soon as she secured her learner’s permit, explaining that her motivation was her desire to spend time with her father, Al Wintermyer.
“I was around classic cars all my life, and it just sort of felt like the right thing to do,” said Ms. Cole, a stay-at-home mom who also has no problem changing the oil and tires on her cars.
When she competed for the first time in her silver 1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which she still races today, Ms. Cole recalled feeling nervous because she did not know what to expect. Complicating matters was the fact that her father was not present for her first run; however, his best friend, John Murphy, was in attendance in Westhampton.
“He said, ‘You always have the butterflies, but they learn to fly in formation,’” Ms. Cole said during a recent interview. “So you still get nervous, and still get the rush of it. When I finish my burn out, the nerves go away.”
Both racing and completing “wheel stands,” where a car’s front lifts off the ground during a burnout, were new for her, though they stand out the most when she reflects on her earliest days of racing.
While she found a lot of success and won a number of races, including the High School Eliminator in 1995, Ms. Cole said the victories were always secondary to the experience.
The Place To Be
Mr. Lawrence, who races a silver 1988 Ford Mustang with a 1971 Ford 351 Cleveland engine, noted that in the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, everything revolved around cars, and if a person had a fast street car, the natural thing was to go to the drag strip in Westhampton and race on a Saturday night.
“They had lights way back, so you could race at night,” Mr. Lawrence said. “Guys came from all over.”
Mr. Lawrence opened a machine shop in 1988, where he specialized in racing engines. Today, his shop, Lawrence Racing Engines, sits off Old Riverhead Road, across the street from Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.
He said when he first opened shop, business was really good, but in 1998, when rumors first began circulating that the local race track was closing because of noise complaints, business began to taper off. Finally, when the drag strip closed for good in 2004, his business took a huge hit.
“My business dropped 40 percent when the track closed,” he said. “I had two guys working for me and I had to let them go. I’ve been working by myself since.”
Mr. Lawrence said if a new race track eventually opens, many businesses, like his, could begin to thrive again.
Nick Montana, 54, of Selden, recalls racing in Westhampton starting in the late 1970s. Today, Mr. Montana works as a race car fabricator in Port Jefferson Station. Four years after going into business on his own, the Westhampton drag strip closed, and his business dropped off significantly, he said.
“Yes, we had a ton of customers there, but that wasn’t what our life was about,” Mr. Montana said. “Our lives were about the racers and the racing.”
Mr. Montana said the track was in a state of disrepair for many years prior to its closure. Although it was still a great place to meet other racers and sport enthusiasts, Mr. Montana did not think too highly of Mr. Chimeri.
“He was a miserable person … money was his only objective,” Mr. Montana said. “We just got the wrong guy. He did a lot of renovations at the track, but he took more than he gave.”
As new homes began to sprout up, and the area’s year-round population began to climb, so did the complaints about loud engine noises coming from the drag strip.
But as Mr. Montana recalls it, those complaining the loudest about the drag strip tended to overexaggerate; for example, he recalls one resident telling Southampton Town officials that when she sat on her deck to listen to the rain, she could not hear the raindrops due to the noise coming from the drag strip.
That was a blatant lie, according to Mr. Montana, because they never raced in the rain.
The complaints, however, kept coming and, eventually, town officials asked Mr. Chimeri to turn his track around; specifically, he swapped the starting and finishing lines so racers would begin closer to Sunrise Highway and end closer to Old Country Road. Prior to the change, the starting line was closer to Old Country Road and nearby homes.
The work was completed a short time later, with many of the racers donating their time and skills to address the town’s request. Mr. Montana noted that they had to relocate and rewire the scoreboard and timing system, and a new starting line had to be poured. He estimated that volunteers took care of about 90 percent of the renovations.
“We were so happy to have us a race track there, that the racers did whatever they could,” he said. “You don’t get anyone more loyal than a racer. They’re regular blue-collar guys.”
But after all of that work, combined with drivers taking additional measures to reduce noise levels—like adding mufflers to some of the cars—Mr. Chimeri sold the track and the 66 acres it rested on to Engel-Burman of Lynbrook for an estimated $7 million. Eventually, a 189-unit senior housing development was built in its place.
Multiple attempts to contact Mr. Chimeri over the past several weeks were unsuccessful.
Even though their drag strip was taken away from them, racing enthusiasts still live in the area and many are thrilled at the county’s recent efforts to build a new facility somewhere in the eastern half of Suffolk. Many in this group are led by John Cozzali, 57, of Mastic, who sits on the county committee that is charged with finding a home for a new drag strip.
Mr. Cozzali said his movement—dubbed “LI Needs A Dragstrip”—started as a rant on Facebook, borne out of frustration with the traffic he encountered coming back from a race in New Jersey. The movement, which seeks to have a new drag strip built somewhere on Long Island, has gained the support of nearly 15,000 people, according to Mr. Cozzali, including Mr. Zeldin, who represents New York’s 1st Congressional District.
“Long Island needs a drag strip again,” Mr. Zeldin said in a recent email. “Despite Long Island losing the last drag strip in 2004, the rich racing traditions and culture of Long Island have been kept alive by passionate motor sport enthusiasts and all those involved with the ‘L.I. Needs A Dragstrip’ initiative.”
Bumper stickers supporting the initiative can be spotted all over Long Island, particularly on the East End.
Mr. Cozzali also used to race—in an 1988 Ford Thunderbird called “The Bounty Hunter”—at Westhampton, but when the track closed, he too, started going off the island to race, in places like New Jersey and Darlington, South Carolina. But the travel requires a lot of time and money.
A trip to Englishtown, New Jersey, Mr. Montana said, can cost nearly $700, so it is something he does only once a month. He said it costs that much when you factor in the fuel, tolls, the price of paying a crew and buying food on the road—all money, he pointed out, that leaves Long Island. That could change, he added, if Long Island simply offered enthusiasts a drag strip.
Mr. Cozzali explained that the many engine and automotive shops on the East End, as well as hotels, restaurants and other businesses, would benefit from having a drag strip in eastern Suffolk County.
Mr. Montana added that opening a local track would give kids a place to go and be involved in something they can become passionate about, rather than succumbing to problems facing today’s youth, such as the opioid epidemic. When the Westhampton track was open, Mr. Montana said, he raised his kids there.
“My kids are good kids,” he said. “They stayed away from drugs and they’re not in trouble with the law. That place was family.”
Without a drag strip on Long Island, people are still going to find a place to race, even if it’s on a public street, he added.
“Safe on a drag strip, unsafe on the street,” Mr. Montana said. “If they starve you, you’re going to get food.”
Ms. Cole echoed Mr. Montana’s sentiments.
“To not have something like that, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I wasn’t into sports. I tried every sport there was, and it wasn’t for me.
“To not have something like that for kids to go to, I think it’s sad,” she added.
Though no spot has been identified yet, Mr. Cozzali is confident that a drag strip will eventually open somewhere on Long Island. He said committee members are looking at multiple locations in Riverhead and Brookhaven towns, though he declined to offer specific properties as they are still being vetted.
Still, Mr. Cozzali said, there is good reason for racing fans to be optimistic.
“It’s the best chance we’ve had since Westhampton closed in 2004,” he said. “It’s a matter of making the politicians recognize the amount of money that it brings in.”
Mr. Zeldin said the absence of a drag strip is causing Long Islanders to miss out on the camaraderie, entertainment, safety and business that a strip would provide, and that the benefits “far outweigh any of the politicized arguments against it.”
“The thrill and excitement that this great American tradition offers alone, is worth fighting for, and we must keep pushing to bring a drag strip home to Long Island, not only for us, but for the next generations of racers,” the congressman said. “I strongly support initiatives to bring a drag strip back to Long Island and hope to continue the drive to making this a reality.”