Mahoning Valley drag racers reaching Summit

By Charles Grove

The races may only last a few seconds, but if you’re looking for excitement per second, you’re hard pressed to find better excitement than drag racing.

A number of Youngs-town area sportsman racers are heading Summit Raceway Park in Norwalk to take part in this weekend’s Cavalcade of Stars with their finely tuned rides in NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) competition.

Some of those locals include Ryan and Tom Martino of Youngstown, Phil Smida and Eric Comolito of Canfield, Gary Merrick of Girard, Marco Abruzzi of Warren, John French of Lordstown, Gary Bueno of North Jackson and Ryan Smith, an Austintown native.

The weekend includes seven sportsman classes and hundreds of competitors. And once qualifying takes place, everything can end with a first-round knockout in elimination brackets, sending weeks worth of preparation up in smoke.

“It’s not easy to win,” said Merrick, who drives a 1970 Camaro in the stock series. “You might see over 100 entries and so the first round is 50 races. Depending on how many entries there are you might have to go six or seven rounds to win.

“You have to be good and lucky because everyone has the same plan.”

Merrick’s Camaro has 375 horsepower and will do a quarter mile in just over 10 seconds, hitting about 120 miles per hour. Merrick said making sure you get a solid reaction time is the key to advancing to the next round, or having your weekend end early over a few fractions of a second.

“You don’t get do-overs,” Merrick said. “Unlike road racing you can’t say, ‘Next lap I’ll do that corner a little differently and I’ll try to pass these cars.’ You get one shot at this.”

Sometimes those fractions are hardly visible to the naked eye. For the Martinos, a father and son combination who run a top dragster, the fastest category of the sportsman, they’ve had wins and losses by just thousandths of a second.

“We had a semifinal appearance where we lost by 0.0008 seconds,” said Ryan Martino, the crew chief for his father this weekend. “One less cookie or hamburger and you might have had it.”

Martino said while tracks may appear similar to some, drivers and teams take note of every crack, dip and bump along the track and have to prepare accordingly, just like tracks in other forms of motorsports.

“Every track has its own character,” Ryan Martino said. “Every track up here has harsh winters so there’s surface issues. We can do data analysis on cars where we measure shock sensors and drive shaft sensors. Those bumps can send the car sideways or launch the car in the air and we want to have the smoothest drive possible.”

Racers come from many different backgrounds and some drivers, like Struthers teacher Kristina Bennett, who races a 1984 Z28 Camaro with a Chevy 327 small-block motor. Bennett said her students always are interested once they find out she races.

“Most of them don’t believe me when they first find out,” Bennett said. “But once I convince them that I really do race they tend to have a million questions. They wanna know why I race, how long I’ve been doing it, how much it costs.”

Bennett, much like the Martinos, participates with her family. Her brother and father race as well and have traveled from New Hampshire to Florida, Louisiana, Phoenix and Quaker City in Salem.

When asked what she likes about drag racing as opposed to other forms of motorsports that drive on ovals or road courses, Bennett said she loves it for the “pure shot of adrenaline.”

“Drag racers go [all out] for 1,320 feet to get to the finish line,” Bennett said. “NASCAR, Sprint Car, Formula 1, spend hours going around in circles trying to find it.”

Events this weekend go from today to Sunday with qualifying mainly today. Stock knockouts start on Saturday and end Sunday with Top Dragster knockouts beginning on Sunday morning.

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