SHUTDOWN AT E-TOWN CLOSES HISTORY BOOK ON FABLED TRACK, BREAKS HEARTS
In rare quiet moments at the historic dragstrip at Englishtown, N.J., it’s easy to daydream and drift back in time. One can almost see the likes of Jungle Jim Liberman, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Lee Shepherd, John Myers, and Dave Schultz thrilling the NHRA crowds.
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will go into the record books as the final pro winners there. As such, they woke up the echoes cheering the exploits of such drag-racing notables as Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Jeb Allen, Gary Ormsby, Don Prudhomme, Raymond Beadle, Chuck Etchells, Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, and Darrell Alderman – all multi-time winners at the Central New Jersey facility.
But no new names will add to the mystique of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park and its Summernationals. The venue, one of the most iconic on the NHRA tour, confirmed Wednesday it has ceased hosting drag racing, effective immediately – ironically as it was poised to celebrate its 50th season as a revered stop on the 24-event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit.
Since the passing of co-founder brothers Vinny and Richard Napp, cousins Michael and Alex Napp and their respective brothers Richie and David have owned and operated what had been the Northeast’s premier dragstrip and a strategic New York-area presence for the NHRA. Collectively they announced Wednesday a reorganization of the company’s business operations that drops drag racing from its long list of entertainment offerings.
In a prepared statement, the Napp (Napoliello) Family said, “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter-mile or eighth-mile drag racing events, effective immediately. Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility, including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands, and continue most of its operations, including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, Monster Truck shows, musical concerts, and festival events and more. The long-standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park, will also continue to operate as normal.
“The new reorganization reflects the company’s plan moving forward, beginning in 2018, while allowing Raceway Park to still continue to operate as it has in the past with the exception of drag racing,” the announcement said.
Finally, they said, “The Napp family wishes to express their most sincere gratitude to the NHRA, and the many thousands of racers and fans, without whom would have never allowed Raceway Park to become the iconic and nationally recognized drag racing facility it has over the past five decades. The Napp family would also like to extend a heartfelt thank-you to the employees that have served our drag racing customers so well over the previous years. It is with a great sadness that the Napp family is discontinuing drag racing, however the family looks forward to continuing to provide the best outdoor events in this new era of Raceway Park.”
NHRA President Glen Cromwell learned Tuesday of the Napp Family’s decision that leaves a huge and sentimental hole in its lineup.
"The Summernationals have played an important part in our heritage, and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another one of our events,” Cromwell said. “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners, and tracks.”
Reaction has been one of sadness and fond memories.
“There are a lot of broken hearts, trust me. There’s a ton of broken hearts,” multi-time NHRA national Stock, Super Stock, and Super Gas champion Peter Biondo said. The decorated driver is from Queens, N.Y., but literally grew up at Englishtown, sitting in the grandstands with brother Sal, watching father Sam race.
“I grew up since I was one year old at Englishtown. We spent our whole childhood growing up there and cut our teeth there in racing. Our whole childhood was geared around racing, and Englishtown was the focal point. There’s a lot of sentimental value in that track for our family. It’s definitely near and dear to our heart. My father and I won an event there together. I’ve won 52 events, and I say to this day that was the most special out of all 52,” Biondo said. “We’re certainly going to feel the hit, given that we live one hour away. It’s definitely a sad moment in drag racing, especially in the New York City area, because that’s all we had.”
Biondo remembers something many might not: Big Wheel races at Englishtown.
“Everybody knows they built the Jr. Dragster program there. But when we were kids, they had Big Wheel racing. It was unheard of,” he said. “It was really competitive Big Wheel racing. It wouldn’t be for money, but it would be for trophies, all kinds of toys and board games, and a hell of a lot of pride. They were intense. My father used a stop-watch us in the street in Queens and have us practice. It was just another testament to how far [Vinny Napp] reached out of the norm to promote drag racing.”
Raceway Park has its fingerprints all over Eddie Krawiec. It shaped the career of the four-time and current Pro Stock Motorcycle champion. He worked for the racetrack for 18 years and served for eight (1999-2007) as the property’s dragstrip manager. All the while, he yearned for a shot at big-time bike competition and got it with the Vance & Hines operation, which meant a bittersweet move from New Jersey to Brownsburg, Ind.
“If it wasn’t for Englishtown, I wouldn’t be who I am today and I wouldn’t be in the position I am today,” Krawiec said. “It made me who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for what that place did for me. And it has done that for a lot of people.
“Englishtown is a place that, for me, it’s home,” he said. Krawiec said he sent word to Alex Napp late Tuesday that “I respect your decision, I love the family, I love you guys. And I want to say I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for you or the place.”
As for this development, Krawiec said, “It was hard to lose Vinny and Richard. But it’s even harder to lose the track, because that was their legacy. The dragstrip is staying there. The tower is staying there. All that’s staying there. They’re still going to maintain the facility and have Monster Truck races and swap meets. Yes, the track’s still there. But the dragstrip is what made the place ‘Englishtown.’ It may be called ‘Englishtown’ or “Raceway Park,’ but to me, it lost its heart. And its heart is the drag race.
“The necessary evil of drag racing is you have these people who race $100,000 cars. They want to be paid high dollars. Let’s say $100 comes in, but $75 goes out. You’ve got $25 to pay all your employees, pay your property taxes, pay everything. When you’re all done paying everybody, and you’re standing there with $3, you’re going to say, ‘Well, s---, is all this aggravation worth it?’ When there’s $100 and it’s all gone and you’re holding three bucks and that’s your profit, it’s kind of hard. The biggest kink in the whole things is if you have bad weather, you lose all your revenue. By doing what they did [a reported 15-year land lease to an outside party], if it rains, snows, sleets, whatever, that check’s still coming in.”
He said Napp made a tidy profit through the 1980s. After that, though, land-assessment values and taxes rose, and more and more unhappy new neighbors (who didn’t do their research properly when house shopping) began to complain. And society has become more lawsuit-happy and opportunistic, necessitating lawyers on staff. “I believe that’s what the demise of it was,” Krawiec said, citing the skyrocketing cost spiral.
“It comes to your headaches outweigh your rewards. That teeter-totter got fuller on the other side and it went past 50 percent,” Krawiec said. “I always knew the time would come. It was only a matter of time when an offer attractive enough outbid the legacy. Land value of where that facility is . . . it’s a commodity at that point. I knew an offer would come, but it was whether the family would be strong enough to say yes or no.
“Times have changed. It came down to Vinny and Richard who owned it until they passed in the early 2000s. The reins were handed over to the kids. The problem is you’re not dealing with just two minds who have to think alike. You’re dealing with multiple [co-owners]. Then there become different interests. The one thing I really want known out of this whole deal is – and I’ve worked on the management side and been a track employee and a racer – people can’t be bashing the family for the decision that was made. It was very difficult for that facility to sustain its existence. It has run its course. It finally got to the breaking point where an attractive enough offer came in to outweigh the headaches of the drag racing,” he said.
“Rather than people bashing people for the decision that was made, they should be thanking them for the time that they had,” Krawiec said. “Putting the money and trophies aside . . . Even though the track is gone, you still have your friends. We’ve all made connections. We’ve all made friends. The one thing that we’ve got to take from it is we all are still friends. I can’t say enough good things about the [Napp] family and what they’ve done for me, and I can’t say enough good things about the employees.”
He said the Napps “are in the limelight for the wrong reason right now.
"It makes them look like bad guys right now. But nobody knows the whole story. It’s fine to voice your opinion, but you can’t criticize something you can’t speak knowledgeably about. Everybody needs to say how much of a good time they had and what the place did for them.”
That’s Biondo’s approach.
“Sooner or later, it was going to be a matter of if the family wanted to continue working hard for the dragstrip or sell it,” Biondo said.
“There are two different sides to it, the way I look at it,” he said. “One side is that this is sad, that it’s an era that came to an end, that drew from all five boroughs of New York City and Long Island. It’s definitely going to affect a lot of people. The other side to it is I have to give the Napps a lot of credit. I know what those [surrounding] neighborhoods are like, and they [the Napps] had their hands tied, trying to put on races because of curfews. They took what their fathers started, and they ran this for a very long time with those obstacles. So this could have happened 10 years ago. It probably did almost happen 10 years ago, but the boys fought for it. They could have turned those headaches into money and sold the business then, but they fought for another 15 years. And I give them a lot of credit for that.
“There really should be a light shining on the fact that they ran a family business with cousins and a slew of young men. I work in a family business also, and there are challenges. Sometimes people have different visions,” Biondo said. “They should get some credit instead of all the bashing they’re getting for closing their doors.”
For three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown, the two-time Pro Stock Motorcycle winner and 2015 Top Fuel victor at Raceway Park, his first set of wheels there was a stroller. So his sense of loss truly has been personal.
“I was pushed around that racetrack in a stroller. That’s how long I’ve been going there,” Brown, 41, said. “That’s all I ever knew. I embraced it because it was fun – it was exciting. It’s always nice to go back to Englishtown, where the NHRA racing roots were instilled in me . . . [where] people remember me as a kid when I was always walking around with holes in my jeans at the knees, being all greasy from head to toe. That’s what I used to do with my dad and uncle. I learned so much growing up at that racetrack.”
He told Competition Plus Wednesday he was “heartsick” about the news and the notion that all of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park’s history could fade away. He tweeted that Raceway Park is “the place where a lot of dreams became a reality” and recited a list of names to Comp Plus that included himself, Krawiec, Frank Manzo, Tom Martino, and “Pizza John” Mafaro, among dozens.
Longtime Pro Modified / Drag Radial standout Dave Hance established and promoted “The Shakedown at E-Town” that grew from just six entrants to more than 200 as outlaw doorslammer racing rose in popularity.
And he said Wednesday by phone from his Queens-based automotive business, “It has been 30 years since I took my first pass down the Englishtown strip. In 1987, a group of friends and I went there. We were 18 or 19 years old. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we did it and before you know it, the hook was in us. So for me, it’s three decades and tons of memories, starting out with the street car, going 15.50s [in elapsed time], then running in the 5s [with his twin-turbo Pro Mod Chevy] and everything in between. What I’m feeling today is an emptiness that I will not ever do that again, make a pass at that place and see the people I normally see. I was hoping to grow old at that place. It does leave an empty feeling in you.”
With a mix of realism and romanticism, Hance said from his Queens, “I understand it’s a business decision and they have to do what’s best for their business and their respective families. I respect their decision. I wish them all the very best in all future endeavors. And I want to thank all of the track employees. Some of them have been there for 20 and 30 years, and I want to thank them for their loyalty.”
Biondo said, “They’ve all had so many memories, and I’m right in the thick of them. They’ve all stuck together for a long time, and I give them credit for that.”
Raceway Park had an unshakeable hold on Hance.
“In 30 years, it never got old, entering the track and driving around and coming across the back wall and the staging lanes. The feeling was always there that – and you enter the track over 1,000 times in 30 years – as you drove around the bend, your heart always fluttered with excitement,” he said. “There was just something about entering that facility that had an impact on me.”
Funny Car leader John Force is an NHRA icon, but Raceway Park was an icon long before he became famous. The four-time winner there was close to co-founder Vinny Napp and recalled seeing Napp down in the dirt along the dragstrip, helping position light poles, putting more than just his money into making the facility the best it could be.
“It is really sad to hear about the loss of Englishtown. That track was run by a great man, Vinnie Napp, and then his son took it over and did a really good job,” Force said Wednesday. “They were great promoters and built up stars like Jungle Jim, and they gave me the chance to go across the country and race.
“I had never been to the East Coast until I got the chance to match race there,” the sport’s most celebrated driver said. “It was a great race track, and I am not just talking about NHRA national events. Their Wednesday Night Under the Lights shows were awesome. That is a great market, and the fans were amazing. In the early days you would spend time with them at laundry mat and the restaurants because you might be racing around there for a couple weeks. I won a lot of national events and match races there. This is a major loss. The world grew up around them. God bless them for all the great years they gave us. I want to thank the whole family for helping me kick start my career. I will always treasure them.”
Old Bridge Township Raceway Park opened in July 1965, fulfilling the vision Vincent Napp Sr. had along with sons Richard and Vinny and brother Louis. The 308-acre former Middlesex County farm saw nothing quicker-moving and faster than a tractor but it evolved into the site of thrilling racing of all different styles. Its crowning feature was a two-lane dragstrip that featured nitromethane-powered surface-to-surface missiles, Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, that reached nearly 340 mph. The property has seen a broad spectrum of racing, including bracket racing, motocross, go-karting, autocross, road racing, nostalgia and match racing, motorcycle and diesel truck racing, and drifting, as well as fitness challenges, mud runs, lifestyle events, car shows and swap meets. It was the birthplace of the Jr. Dragster program that has launched the driving careers of such racers as Shawn Langdon, Erica Enders, JR Todd, Leah Pritchett, Tanner Gray, Chris McGaha, Vincent Nobile, Deric Kramer, Cory Reed, and Melissa Surber.
Coincidentally, the Summernationals this June would have marked the 10th anniversary of Scott Kalitta’s fatal accident during Funny Car qualifying. That precipitated the NHRA’s move from traditional quarter-mile racing to a 1,000-foot course.
And this week, drag racers and fans once again are saying tearful good-byes to another special friend there at Englishtown, N.J., left once again with unique and unforgettable memories.