Saturday Night Thunder

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:14

    Vernon-The first thing that comes out of the big and shiny black trailer with the names and logos of a dozen businesses painted on the sides is an inflatable palm tree. The second thing to emerge is a shiny yellow ‘81 Camaro with the number 29 painted on the side and not much more inside than a couple of gauges, a steel roll cage, a five-point harness, and a brand-new engine waiting for its first trial-by-racing. The items and the order in which they appear tell you everything you need to know about the Vernon Valley Automotive racing team. They're here for fun, and the fun comes from driving in circles just as fast as they can, all in an effort to win 40 bucks and a cheap trophy. "You know how to make a small fortune in auto racing?" asks George Begg, a 21-year-old Vernonite who rebuilt his first engine - a weed whacker - when he was 12 and his first race car a year later. "How?" you reply. "By starting with a large fortune," he laughs. The biggest prize at Orange County Speedway, where drivers from northern New Jersey go to race, is $400 in the sportsman class, which sounds like a lot, says Begg, but that's about what it costs for tires, fuel, and everything else you need to race. In the new Camaro's pure stock class, top money is $40, and it costs each team member $20 to get in the track. You don't do this for the money, and to prove it, Begg tells the story of a driver who arrived towing a car with a pick-up truck. When he got to the pits, he pulled the motor out of the truck, dropped it in the car, then went out and raced it. To get home, he reversed the process and defined "love of the game." Begg is standing in the team's pit in the infield of Orange County Speedway in Middletown, N.Y. It's not a big team. Just Begg, his mentor Pete "Scooter" Van Noordt, Lee Charnock, and - providing moral support along with drinks and sandwiches - a cheerful woman who gives her name as "the future Renee Charnock." That they can pursue their passion at all is largely due to the largesse of their title sponsor, Yanni Gianopoulis, the owner of the Vernon Valley Automotive garage just north of the Shop Rite plaza on Route 515. But the team has at least a dozen other sponsors, most of whom provide services in trade for advertising space on one of the four race cars - two pure stock, one pro stock, and one sportsman - the team drives. The team does most of its own work and the sport eats up money as voraciously as a sailboat. Van Noordt got the car they're breaking in tonight two years ago. At least $8,000, a thousand man-hours and five engines later, they're ready to race it. Every one of the previous engines blew before they even drove the car. This one, prepared by Franklin engine-builder LBR Performance, finally looks as if it will hold up. It survives a three-lap warm-up. When the pure stock event finally comes up around 8:30, Van Noordt starts tenth in a 14-car field, works his way up to sixth, but that's as close as he gets. Afterwards, the crew is jubilant. The car came back with only one minor dent and the engine didn't blow up. Van Noordt frets about a lack of RPMs and allowing a slower drive to hold him back. They stick around, watch the main sportsman's feature in which another Vernon driver, Joe Dunay, is competing, eat sandwiches, drink Mountain Dew, and check out their car. Normally, they'd be in three or four races, but today the races are exhibitions, with no points toward the season championship at stake. So they left their other cars at home. It's an eight-hour day and $90 in admission fees for fewer than ten minutes of racing. But as you watch the Vernon Valley Automotive Racing Team pack up, eager for a week to pass so they can do it again, you know that only a fool would ask if it was worth it.