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Life on the Strip
01/09/2008 - By By Lauren Covino

Life on the Strip

Third-generation and co-owner Richard Napoliello, Jr. shares what life was like growing up at Raceway Park.

The serene streets of Colts Neck, with its rural appeal and historic aura, are home to several well-known, influential, and even famous figures. It is within our town that these people find peace and privacy in a sometimes tumultuous outside world. For Richard Napoliello, Jr. (also known as Richie Napp), third-generation co-owner of Raceway Park in Old Bridge Township, this town may be the quietest environment hes ever known. With a childhood like no one else his age, Richie spent afternoons listening to the growls of real drag car engines while most of his classmates played with miniature types on their front porch. Watching his father, Richard Vincent, Sr., and grandfather, Vincent, develop this enterprise with their bare hands, Richie and his current partners, his brother Michael and cousin Alex, feel proud to carry on their familys legacy. As Richie told LICN, The job is exciting and unpredictable its usually fun and is not always easy.




His renovated Colts Neck farmhouse, where his family of four lives today (on a beautiful corner lot), is his place to unwind, although Richie still rises out of bed each morning anxious for a new day filled with the familiar engine purr hes grown to love. Its in his blood! Jan Napoliello, Richies wife, and their two children are simple people and prefer to enjoy the sport (rather than the spotlight) behind running the largest drag strip on the mid-Atlantic. They do admit, however, to having pretty exciting and unique lives, including meeting some of the most famous drag racers in the world. The Napoliello children Rick, 12 and Kelly, 9 realize that their father does not go to an office like many daddies, and their faces light up when he reminisces about how Raceway Park got started. Rick is about the same age that Richie was when he began to work part-time at the park concessions, though when asking Richie what his sons future at Raceway Park would be, his response was, He can choose whatever he would like in life.




When I was first introduced to the Napoliello family (who prefer being called Napp) at their home, their warmth was evident and I immediately felt welcome even by their two friendly dogs, Daisy and Duke. Richie was thrilled to share his history with LICN. Not long after arriving at their home I was led into a private garage for an up-close look at several of Richies hobbies, which can also be viewed on his Colts Neck Choppers website (www.coltsneckchoppers.com). Learning from his father on hot rods, boats, and airplanes, Richie has an exceptional skill in custom fabricating and designing half-scale chopper bikes by welding chromalloy tubing into specific form, and its fascinating to see the finished product. After marveling over these flame-painted machines, I was brought to a different garage to see where Raceway Parks true inspiration came from. With proud daughter Kelly by his side, Richie prefaced the official unveiling of what appeared to be a standard sedan by stating, This is where it all started. With one yank of a heavy car cover he revealed an immaculate, iridescent pearl-white 1955 Ford Thunderbird with luminous rims and a personalized license plate T-BIRD. I poked my head inside and could still smell the fresh aroma of leather. Richie went on to explain how this car was given to him at the age of 17 by his father, Richard Vincent, Sr. Richie was at one with the classic jewel even before birth, having been driven around in it while still in his mothers womb. When his father passed away it was difficult for Richie to even look at the classic, let alone take it out for a spin. Today the car is driven occasionally but, more importantly, it is admired as a symbol of the hard work and dedication that led to the birth of Raceway Park. LICN sat down with Richard Napoliello as he painted the picture of his fathers dream come to life.




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LICN: How did your father make the decision to start Raceway Park?

RN: My grandfather, with a shovel and his bare hands, started Napp-Greco construction, which still exists today. After the business expanded, he decided to sell his portion and invest it elsewhere. At the time, my father was big into drag racing, loved cars, and actually gave my grandfather the idea to build a drag stripI was still in diapers at the time!


LICN: What was the birth of Raceway Park like from the beginning of construction until the very first opening day in July of 1965?

RN: Choosing the land mass to build on was pretty neat. My grandfather and father enjoyed flying seaplanes, so one day they decided to fly around New Jersey and search for the perfect location. Anticipating the construction of the Garden State Parkway, they decided this enormous, original 308-acre (which is now 425 acres) farm off Pension Road in Old Bridge was it! When my father and his brother Vinnie first traveled over the Driscoll Bridge to a realtor to explain his vision, they laughed at him! When they finally did break ground in 1963, part of the land was extremely wet, similar to a swamp, and the bulldozers would constantly get stuck in the mud. Leveling out the drag strip was extremely difficult. It was a very discouraging time; having almost gone bankrupt and with tears streaming down his face, my grandfather would sometimes say, Were snake-bitten, son. We just had bad luck, but my father never lost hope and knew the dream would be a success. Hed say, Were gonna make it, Dad!


LICN: What was that opening day like, as your grandfather may have shared with you?

RN: On a humid Fourth of July weekend in 1965, Raceway Park (back then called Madison Township Raceway Park) officially opened its doors. There was a very small turnout and, again, my grandfather cried. Still, my father saw how far the project had come and was positive and he said Dad, dont worry; were gonna make it!


LICN: What was the biggest hardship experienced during those first few years?

RN: Well, being that opening day did not produce an overwhelming turnout, my father, his brother and grandfather needed to get creative or the business would go under! They decided advertising on the only radio station available at the time would certainly help. In addition, they decided hiring some of the bigger drag racers would attract tons of fans. It worked and I think around 3,000 people showed up! Tickets were sold out of the trunk of a car since there were no ticket booths yet and everything was run by my father, his brother, grandfather, and a few others.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LICN: What do you remember about Raceway Park growing up, being that this has been a family-owned business for 40+ years?

RN: Wow, I have some outrageous memories growing up there as a child! When I was a toddler and the drag strip was being built my father made me play next to the timing tower so I wouldnt get hurt. Often he would find an animals nest, bring it over to me, and make me carry it far out into the woods so bulldozers wouldnt run it over. Man, did I get tired from all those treks back and forth! At 8 years old, I remember going to the Funny Car Shows the flames, the lights, the noise and the fact that my father owned the place was all so amazing to me. It was important, and still is today, that the family kept a low profile and enjoyed the sport more than the fame behind owning the park. We were taught that at a very young age.


LICN: How early on did you become involved in the operations of the park?

RN: When I turned 12 I used to work in the food stands pouring soda cans and making popcorn. At the end of the summer I hoped I had worked enough to buy a new bike or surfboard. From that point on I acquired more important jobs and responsibilities, which was neat. Working there allowed me to see all the shows, meet the experienced drivers and learn everything there was to know about the sport. I attended Brookdale College part time, I went to the track to work full time in 1978, and am still there today.


LICN: Can you point to one or a few key strategies that helped

propel Raceway Park to the success it is having today?

RN: I would have to say turning the park into a super track. Back when we first opened, however, the simple idea of advertising and getting the biggest names in drag racing out to our park was critical.


LICN: How has the park changed and been modernized since 1965?

RN: Modern-day tracks are now built by corporations, with enormous footprints, all at once. Raceway Park developed and evolved piece by piece and grew better over time. A ton of money was reinvested in the park and we soon decided it would be wise to stay in tune with industry enhancements and become a super track, which meant building a new starting line, corporate/public suites, and grandstands with much more comfortable seats, among other things. This was a huge change for us, but an ingenious one. Last year, actually, Drag Racing magazine named us Best Track Facility of the Year so the jump to becoming a super track was worth it. Also in 2005, my brother Mike and cousin Alex and I took the tower my father had envisioned as a restaurant and moved it from our airport to the finish line for spectators to have a great view, something to eat, and have a beer its really something.


LICN: You probably get asked this all the time, but how did the Grateful Dead concert from 1977 come about at the park?

RN: It was so interesting the way it happened. I was 14 at the time. We were facing a tough drag strip season, with repeated rainouts. A rock music promoter named John Shear randomly came to us and asked to put on a concert. My father obviously agreed, and over 80,000 people filled the grounds of Raceway Park to come see the Grateful Dead perform. The aerial photos are out of this world.

LICN: What are some future plans you and your partners have?

RN: Were actually in construction right now of a 1.35-mile road course with 13 turns, to be used by many different sports car clubs and the public. I remember a few years ago, right before my father died, I would hook up a computer in his hospital room to show him pictures of our progress with the road course. It was important and special to make him a part of it even then. We hope to open up the course in 2008, as were just putting the finishing touches on it. This road course will be the only one in New Jersey.


LICN: In the big picturecan you describe what is contained within the Raceway Park complex?


RN: Two drag strips (1/4 mile and 1/8 mile), a motocross track, three different motocross practice tracks, a competition karting track, 1.35-mile road course, a starting line hospitality tower, a 3-story finish line tower and grandstand seating for 20,000plus a 3,600-foot-long airport with heliport. It really has everything a state-of-the-art facility needs. 





 

LICN: For readers that may not be completely familiar with each activity at Raceway Park, can you elaborate?

RN: Wow, we really have so much that takes place there. The NHRA Super Nationals, a competition that tours the country every summer with the biggest names in drag racing, is our biggest. Some Wednesday nights consist of family-oriented thrill shows with monster trucks and jet cars. The Vans Warped Tour that used to take place in Asbury is now held at Raceway Park. Classic car shows and Cruise Nights are always a favorite as well, all season long. We really try to make the experience special for people who own certain cars, and might have a Honda Day, for example. Ride & Drives are for car manufacturers, perhaps Mercedes Benz, to teach their employees about the newest model and also give interested customers a real performance test drive. Motocross racing, go-carts, rock crawling, burnout contests we literally have everything and are coming up with new ideas all the time.


LICN: What goes into a typical day in the life of this business?

RN: In years past its been a ton of upgrading, building, looking around constantly to see what needed improving. Now I organize and maintain the infrastructure of the facility and some of the staff with their responsibilities. Every weekend we have different events that include setup, teardown, lots of orchestration thats me. My cousin and partner Alex Napoliello, a Colts Neck resident, is the drag racing coordinator, taking care of timing equipment and all racing activity components. He also runs the karting. My brother Michael, also a Colts Neck resident, handles the town and all politics associated with the park. Its a tough job and hes great at it. We all get along very well and although we may share different views, the end result always produces success.


LICN: Personally, what is your favorite thing about this sport and being involved?

RN: Oh, everything! I love that I experience something different every day. Some wild things have happened in my life working at Raceway Park. The fans and the excitement is what keep me loving this job, though.


LICN: Having grown up in and living in Colts Neck, what about this town keeps you here to raise your own family?

RN: This is a great town; I love it here. I have so many great memories from this area and growing up as a child here. Its nice that my extended family also lives here. Our 250-year-old home sits on beautiful property that used to be an old farm years ago, and were really comfortable here.


LICN: What do you remember about this town as a young boy: school, restaurants, family outings, friends?

RN: I moved here in 1968, when I was 7 years old. The summers, since I was working at the park, consisted of working and playing. I, of course, attended school Atlantic Elementary School (now an administrative building), Conover Road, Cedar Drive and eventually Marlboro High School where I was elected Class Vice President and Best Lookingha! I did a ton of fishing when I was young, behind Cedar Drive School on what used to be Ditmarss Farm. This area was so much more rural than it is today, lots of cornfields that I enjoyed riding my bike through.


LICN: What do you anticipate for the future of Raceway Park as it continues to grow and become more popular?

RN: The growth potential is still so huge, even after all we already offer. We are so in-tune to what people love and want in this

industry. Richard Petty Driving Experience is going to be available, in addition to short classes being offered for the owner of a new performance vehicle, such as a Porsche. You cannot have fun with a car like that on Route 34 or youll get arrested! We want to give people the opportunity to enjoy the vehicle theyve just purchased to its full potential.



Pictures of Raceway Park in those first years on 308 acres and today as the dragstrip giant of the East Coast on 425 acres of land. The classic 1955 Ford T-Bird that, as Richie describes, "started it all," was originally painted black and is shared today as an authentic piece of Raceway Park's history.


Clockwise from top: All smiles for Richard Napoliello, his wife Jan, their daughter Kelly, and son Rick, who enjoy a little peace and quiet once in a while.


When Richie is not found on the tracks, he can be found surfing or spending time building his custom-made chopper bikes.


Raceway Fun Facts


Number of total motor sport spectators each year: 3 quarters of a million people

Farthest distance a fan has traveled to see the festivities: mostly from the

tri-state area, but during Super Nationals they come from all over the world

Actual length in feet of track: a total 3,800 feet

Total acres acquired by Raceway Park: 308 acres

Number of staff: 12 in the off-season and 1,000 during the biggest event in the summer

Event that draws the most spectators: the Super Nationals Competition

Average age of the Raceway Park fan: any and all ages

Something our readers dont know: we like to water ski and jet ski on the man-made lake built at the park


Photo Gallery

Click here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
  • Pictures of Raceway Park in those first years on 308 acres and today as the dragstrip giant of the East Coast on 425 acres of land.

    Pictures of Raceway Park in those first years on 308 acres and today as the dragstrip giant of the East Coast on 425 acres of land.

  • Clockwise from top: All smiles for Richard Napoliello, his wife Jan, their daughter Kelly, and son Rick, who enjoy a little peace and quiet once in a while.

    Clockwise from top: All smiles for Richard Napoliello, his wife Jan, their daughter Kelly, and son Rick, who enjoy a little peace and quiet once in a while.

  • When Richie is not found on the tracks, he can be found surfing or spending time building his custom-made chopper bikes.

    When Richie is not found on the tracks, he can be found surfing or spending time building his custom-made chopper bikes.

Slideshow »



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