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