By John Goralski
Tony Membrino shadowed the two front cars over the last three laps looking for any sliver of light to make his move. Ahead of him, the two leaders raced shoulder-to-shoulder as if they were trying to work together to keep the Southington driver out of the winner’s circle.
On Friday, June 28, Membrino out-lasted three yellow flags in the 20-lap race at Stafford Motor Speedway. He battled from the sixth spot to own his position behind the leaders of the SK Light feature race. It was Membrino’s last chance to win a race in June, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Still, Membrino enters July with one early season victory under his belt and just two points out the division lead. In just his second full season in the SK Light modified division, Membrino has become one of the front runners.
Even that’s not enough for the Southington racer.
“I set the bar very high, but I expect that from us,” he said. “We work really hard. We’ve got a good car, and I expect to string together a multiple win season this year. I’m not really concerned about going out and getting a track championship. I want to win races.”
The June 28 feature was only the seventh race of the 2013 seasons, but Membrino has already captured one win and four top five finishes. Membrino has placed in the top 10 in every race this season with his lowest finish at No. 6.
But Membrino isn’t satisfied with one victory. He’s looking to be a contender in every race. No longer the up-and-coming rookie, Membrino has adopted a more aggressive style, taking advantage of any change he’s given.
So it’s not improbable to think that the two frontrunners in the last race had at least one eye behind them as they fought for the lead.
“For most of our races, we’ve been the car to beat for the win,” he said. “I feel really fortunate to be able to say that. We led in almost every race that we’ve been in. We’ve managed to get one win so far, but we’re going to get a few more. We’ve been really on top of our game as far as preparation for race day, and I’ve been on my game behind the wheel making the right decisions at the right time.”
Membrino said that it is a calculated risk. When he sat down with his pit leader (his father) at the start of the season, they decided to pull out the stops. In the first race, he was winning when he spun out and fell to sixth place. In the second race, he battled at the front for all 20 laps to lose in a photo finish at the checkered flag.
On the third race of the year, Membrino finally pushed through. From his 10th place start, Membrino catapulted his car into third place by the end of the first lap. Then, all he had to do was pick off the two guys in front of him.
“Once I got out front, I just checked out,” he said. “There was never a caution to bunch us all back up. There weren’t any close calls out front. The car was good. We did all the things we could do, and the fact that the race went from green to checkered was the last ingredient. It was a solid night for us.”
Now, Membrino wants to do it again. He was always good for at least one win each season when he battled his way up from the Dare Stock division. In every year, he has managed to score at least one victory. Now, Membrino is looking to take the next step, and he’s got the car and the support to do it.
“I just try to be smart about everything and not rely on the bumpers and Nerf Bars to make my way to the front,” said the driver. “I just try to out-drive them, but it takes more than just a good car and a good driver to get your car to the front. It takes some luck. A couple of nights, the luck was with us. A couple of nights, we needed a little bit more. We really haven’t had a bad night yet, and that’s something that not a lot of people can say.”
With his latest race, Membrino (306 points) catapulted past Troy Talman (298) for second place in the point standings. Racers get 50 points for first place, and points decrease by two points per position. Membrino is averaging almost 44 points per race and is currently within two points of Chase Dowling (308) at the top of the standings.
“I feel like I’m in my groove. I’m definitely more aggressive than I was last year, but I’m not completely out of control,” Membrino said with a laugh. “I don’t want to go out there too crazy, but I want to let people know that I’m here and not messing around. The first race of the year I was a little out of my tree. I was a little over-aggressive, but after watching the tapes I knew that I only had to dial it back a notch. I have to be a little more hard-nosed behind the wheel. I think that, if I was in this mindset last year, I would probably have about three or four wins instead of finishing second three weeks in a row.”
Can he do it? Can he keep the torrid pace? Is July the month that Membrino begins to snatch victories from his competitors? He urges local race fans to come out and watch him try.
Gates open at 3 p.m. if fans want to rub elbows with the race teams and drivers in the back lot. At 5 p.m. the doors open for heat races and qualifiers. Feature races begin at 7 p.m., and Membrino promises to deliver in the SK Light division.
“If you have nothing to do on a Friday night, and you like racing, come up to Stafford,” he said. “We bring the house down all night, and there’s nothing like going to your local short track and watching local racers go at it. It’s like watching the guy next door. That brings a real hometown feel to the atmosphere, and I think that’s what makes the short track so great.”
Look for Membrino. He’ll be the one in the winner’s circle.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.