January 12, 2010

ARCHIVES                                         

By Brian Danko

Jeff Zarrella has been involved in auto racing for many years. From the time as a fan 40 years ago to now working for Stewart-Haas Racing and driver, Ryan Newman. Zarrella has seen it all.

Zarrella, who hails from Southington, Ct., a town of 50,000 that is known throughout the state as a sports town but what are the odds that Zarrella and a few of his Southington friends would be involved in NASCAR racing in one form or another all these year later.

Friends from town would include a Nationwide Crew chief, an award winning writer and author of many racing books, a radio host of a weekly racing show, a writer covering the modified tour and other NASCAR events, an award winning photo journalist, a NASCAR modified driver and modified tour crew chief.


(Left to Right) Brian Danko, Jeff Zarrella and Gary Danko.
Fran Lawlor Photo

Zarrella was first introduced to the sport by his Uncle Paul Sepko, who took him to Plainville Stadium, a quarter-mile bullring and as Jeff says, “From that first time, I was hooked. School was what was between Saturday nights.” Adding, “God forbid that it rained because that would mean 10 days before heading off to the track.”

As Jeff’s interest with cars was growing, he hooked up with Eddie Asklar, whose family owned an auto repair shop doing odd jobs and was rewarded with a ride back and forth to Plainville Stadium.

“When your 12 years old, you don’t have a lot of options getting from one place to another.”

When at Plainville Stadium, he took a liking to a driver who as he said, ‘waxed’ the field, winning handily and driving one handed.

“Well, over the P.A. system, they said the driver was from my hometown, I had to like him.”

That driver was Eddie Flemke, Sr. One of the true legends in the sport of modified racing.

“When I was in high school, I was good friends with a kid named Tim Olender. Well, one day we decided to skip school and go over to his house and build models. We go in the house, I say hello to his mother and sitting at the table eating is Eddie Flemke, Sr.”

“I said to Tim, ‘That’s Eddie Flemke.’ Tim replies, “Yeah, he is my step-father. I never had an idea that was his father because we didn’t talk racing.”

When Zarrella was in Southington High School during his metal shop course, he met Mark ‘Bones’ Bourcier, himself a burgeoning race fan. They would learn that their teacher, Dave Germano was a modified racer at Plainville. Well not much talk besides racing was done in the classroom that period. Germano, a cousin to Reggie Ruggiero is now the principal at Southington High School.

Zarrella and Boucier began traveling together heading to Stafford Speedway on Friday nights, Riverside Park on Saturday and Thompson Speedway on Sundays.

“We were lucky in that my parents let me use the car each weekend.”

After Zarrella got to know Flemke and his son, Eddie, Jr. he soon began to go to the shop in Manchester, CT. where they built and maintained the cars.

“My first job was sweeping the floor. But later on, I began to work on the cars.” Jeff said with a laugh.

But it was at the race shop, that Zarrella was introduced to other Southington fans, all of whom would have an impact in NASCAR racing in one form or another.

This writer and my brother, Gary has known Jeff and his brother, Dale, now a well known artist and sculptor in Maui since we were kids as our parents were friends.

“Its funny how you grow up as kids, never having an idea that one day you might all be involved in the same sport.” Jeff said shaking his head.

While at the shop, Eddie, Sr. held court to the many fans and admirers’ who would stop by and talk racing.

It was there that Jeff got to know Clyde McLeod, who worked on Eddie, Sr’s car, Kenny Bouchard (not the driver), who would become Eddie, Jr’s crew chief on the modified tour before he passed away several years ago, naturally Eddie, Jr. and a photographer named Mike Adaskaveg, all residents of Southington.

Several years later, at a NASCAR Whelen modified tour race at the Richmond International Raceway, we were all sitting on pit wall talking while waiting for a modified practice when Jeff got up and said to me, “look at us. You, Bones, Clyde, Gary, Kenny Bouchard, Eddie, Jr. and Red Foote, all Southington people sitting here in Richmond.”

Foote was a legendary modified driver in the same era as Flemke, Sr. and others who molded the sport of modified racing.

Jeff then took his skills of tire sizing and tire management to the team of Mario Fiore and its driver, Reggie Ruggiero.

“It was my time with Mario that opened doors down south that wouldn’t have opened for me. It was through his connections that I was able to get my first job. It’s amazing what happens when you say that you worked with Mario and the respect that people down south had for him.”

“It also helped that we won hundreds of races in the 80’s from the Park to races on the tour as well as winning at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.”


Jeff Zarrella at Work
Fran Lawlor Photo

He then moved to Charlotte and got a job working with Rick Fuller, who also drove for Mario Fiore working with the Channel Lock Nationwide team.

“If Rick hadn’t called me, I was ready to pack it up and move back to Maui. It was his help getting my foot in the door after Mario opened it. I worked for them for $250.00 per week.”

Small change to what crew members make nowadays.

Jeff began to talk about his days with the 44 race teamed owned by Fiore and driven, most notably by Ruggiero but also by Jerry Marquis, Fuller and others.

“The 44 race team and its crew members, we were a fraternity in the 80’s and the fans either loved us or hated us.” Jeff said laughing; he also talked about the rivalry with Mike McLaughlin as the two teams battled for the 1988 NASCAR Whelen modified title won by McLaughlin.
 

“As bitter rivals as we were, we’d all get together after the races at the bar and rehash the race. It was a bitter, bitter rivalry but I liked Clyde as he was the crew chief for Mike.” The many teams that Zarrella has worked for include the Channel Lock team with Rick Fuller, Northstar Motorsports with Jeff Fuller, Bobby Hillin Racing, C. C. Welliver Racing, Roush Racing, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Robert Yates Racing and this year joining Stewart-Hass Racing after spending six year with Robert Yates and driver Paul Menard.

It was at Roush Racing that Jeff got to be good friends with a young driver named Carl Edwards.

“We are still real good friends. We got to know each other working out daily. You knew right away that he was headed to the top of the sport and to this day we still get a chance to talk whenever possible.”

When asked what still drives him at his age, nearly 50, Zarrella says quickly, “The will to win. That’s what keeps me going. I’ve had great opportunities and I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways but the reason I took the job with Stewart-Haas was to get a Sprint Cup win.”

Zarrella has won on every level except the Cup and he expects that to change this year with Ryan Newman.

Jeff said the job is very demanding but that the travel is the toughest part of the job. “You get back from a race; do whatever for a few days and then you’re on a plane heading for the next race. I love spending time with my wife but if she wasn’t so supportive of me, I couldn’t do this.”

As he met his new boss, Tony Stewart for the first time, Stewart asked him his racing career and I told him I worked on the modifieds with Reggie Ruggiero.
 
“Tony’s eyes lit up.” Jeff said, “He loves Reggie, he calls him a throw back to the old time racers. We just sat in his office and talked modified racing for the next hour or so.”

“The only reason I am where I am is because of the modifieds. That goes for Bones, Clyde and too a point you covering racing and your brother with his radio show.”

As we wound up our discussion, he talked about the state of modified racing today and talked about the days when we were all regulars at Stafford, Riverside and Thompson Speedway as fans, crew members and media members and later on the modified tour.

“You know, our generation was so lucky to see Eddie Flemke, Sr., Bugsy Stevens, Fred DeSarro and Richie Evans on a weekly basis. Then with the tour we got to see Reggie, McLaughlin, the Fullers, and the great drivers of the late 80’s and 90’s.” Jeff said thinking about the ‘golden era’ of northeastern modified racing.

So the Southington mob continues, Clyde McLeod now works for Michael Waltrip Racing after years as crew chief for Mike McLaughlin on the Nationwide Series, Bones Bourcier is living in Indianapolis and continues to write for national publications as well as writing books, Mike Adaskaveg is one of the top photographers for the Boston Herald, my brother, Gary announced at several weekly NASCAR tracks and has his weekly radio show and I continue to cover the modified tour, having covered the tour since the beginning for several newspapers but solely for Area Auto Racing News the past 20 years or so while Eddie Flemke, Jr. continues to race and win on the modified tour.

Friends from the beginning and friends to the end but all connected with racing still today after all these year. What a small world.