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Cars gather for the return of drag racing in Calverton. (Photo Credit: Dan Bower)

John Montecalvo, a three-time world champion drag racer in the Mountain Motor Pro Stock class, said he had tears in his eyes June 2 when the Riverhead Town Board approved resolutions permitting drag racing events at Enterprise Park in Calverton.

The Center Moriches driver found himself with a lump in his throat Saturday morning when he arrived for the first of the eight weekend events that constitute the Race Track Not Street at EPCAL racing series.

“When I pulled in here today, I just had to stop the car and catch my breath because it was getting to me again,” he said. “You know, it’s really emotional for me.”

Montecalvo said he was actually supposed to be in Brainerd, Minn., this past weekend, racing in a National Hot Rod Association national event, but opted for the Calverton opening instead. “They’re a little upset that I’m not out there, but this was more important to me because this is history,” he said.

A former Grumman airstrip was converted into a drag strip, and for the first time in 17 years, drag racing returned to Long Island Saturday.

It was a joyous occasion for those passionate about the sport. Drivers like Garrett Paz of Selden were anxiously awaiting this day.

“I’m in heaven right now,” said Paz, standing next to his 2013 Mustang that had an engine that looked clean enough to eat lunch off of it. “… To get the car ready for this event, I was up late night every single day, you know, till one, two o’clock in the morning, you know, because I wanted to be a part of this, you know. This is Long Island. This is my home, and being here is just something that, you know, to me it’s a dream come true.”

Drag racing enthusiasts spoke nostalgically about how Long Island once had as many as three drag strips for racing — in Islip, Center Moriches and Westhampton. Since the Westhampton facility closed 17 years ago, drag racers found themselves needing to travel out of state to compete.

John Cozzali is president of Long Island Needs a Drag Strip, an advocacy group whose purpose can be found in its name.

“It took a while, you know what I mean?” Cozzali said. “A lot of naysayers and we kept struggling, and it was a joint effort between all our volunteers and the 20,000 people on our Facebook page. And yes, we’re here. Everyone’s proud.”

For event organizer Pete Scalzo, it’s the realization of years of effort. Scalzo, who said he has promoted 378 events, including daredevil Evel Knievel’s last jump, said at least 200 drag racers turned out Saturday. He estimated the attendance at about 1,000. No tickets were sold the day of the event.

As part of the opening ceremony, Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar declared Aug. 21 to be Drag Racing Day in Riverhead. She said, “I have two words: Let’s race!”

Then Aguiar put on a helmet and got behind the wheel of a 1939 Ford Coupe, with an American flag attached to the back of it. She drove through a ribbon placed across the starting line and proceeded to speed down the 7,000-foot runway.

Cars, racing two at a time, were limited to a maximum speed of 115 miles per hour and couldn’t complete the one-eighth-of-a-mile stretch faster than six seconds flat.

Cars line up at the starting line. (Photo Credit: Dan Bower)

“This is a pretty big deal,” driver Charles Zelnick of East Hampton said. “I mean, not being able to race on Long Island since Westhampton, you know, was open, I was a kid then. Now, this is around and my kid gets to come and my father-in-law and we don’t have to, you know, travel out of state, and to have this on Long Island, you know, it means a lot. There’s not a whole lot left out here to do for people who like cars and, you know, this is really big for us.”

Tom Pisciotta Jr. of Mastic took his 1969 Oldsmobile 442 out for the first time in two years so his son, also named Tom, could drive it. He said the car has gone as fast as 121 mph over a quarter-mile distance.

What is it about the sport that captivates him?

“It’s a rush, that’s all I can say,” he said.

He’s not the only one who expressed that thought.

Bill Gimello of Mount Sinai, co-founder of Long Island Needs a Drag Strip, said, “I’m 63 and I started racing again last year after about a 25-year hiatus, you know, raising kids, but my grandchildren are here, my daughter’s here, my son-in-law, and I want to thank God almighty for letting me race at my age, you know. I’m gonna have a blast.”

When it comes to cars, though, the most impressive might have been the beauty Montecalvo had by his trailer. The 2017 hand-built car, a Camaro replica that is basically all carbon fiber and titanium, is painted in patriotic red, white and blue. Montecalvo said the car, which has approximately 2,000 horsepower, has flown down a quarter-mile track in as fast as 226 miles per hour.

What’s it like driving that fast?

“Well, when everything’s going good, it’s like driving down Main Street,” Montecalvo said. “When things are going wrong, it’s white-knuckle all the way, but it’s an adrenaline rush that I haven’t been able to get anywhere else.”