By John Goralski
Tony Membrino circled the track in a victory lap, drinking in the cheers from the grandstand at Stafford Motor Speedway. On Saturday, Sept. 28, a crowd spilled out of their seats to circle the black and purple car, and Membrino jumped onto the hood to get a better look through the mob.
He scanned the crowd and zeroed in on his target.
Membrino brushed past celebrating fans. He pushed through the other drivers and race officials to find his father, Tony Membrino, Sr. The two embraced in a wild hug to celebrate their SK Light division title. The cheering faded into white noise, and the father-son team drank in the moment.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” Membrino said. “We don’t have a lot of money or excessive sponsorship dollars behind us, so there’s a lot of penny pinching involved. For everything we do, and everything we go up against, to come out on top again is a million dollar feeling.”
Membrino has a racing pedigree that reaches back three generations. He has short track legends offering advice in the pit and a growing fan base at the Stafford track, but car racing is a big-budget commitment with high-priced equipment, tires, and quick turnarounds for major repairs. Still, the father-son duo have been holding their own on a shoe-string budget.
“He sacrifices so much just so we can go racing, and there aren’t enough words to describe my gratitude for everything he does,” Membrino said about his father’s commitment as his crew chief. The two work side-by-side all week in a garage and tinker with the racecar long into the night. “We put ourselves through the ringer so we can succeed, and sometimes it seems we’re in over our heads. I am beyond ecstatic that we can share this together.”
Membrino’s victory at the CarQuest Fall Final was his third one this season at the Stafford Motor Speedway. The points title championship is his third one in the past five years in two different divisions. The local driver has captured 17 top 10 finishes in 18 races this year. Twelve times, he’s finished in the top five, but his third victory didn’t come easily.
The car handled well in the practice rounds on Friday morning. With minor adjustments, Membrino climbed up to third place at the start of his heat race to earn a seventh place finish in the 20-lap feature. They fixed a stearing issue in the practice rounds, made a few slight adjustments in the heat race, but Membrino needed to finish at least three spots ahead of Chase Dowling to catch up in the standings on the final race. Membrino said that he felt good about his chances at the starting line of the feature race.
“Winning the race was my only objective,” he said. “I knew that the points would take care of themselves. I had a ton of people there to support me. My grandfather made his first appearance at the track this year, along with a bunch of family members and a ton of my friends. There were probably around 20 people just at our pit before the race started, let alone all the other family and friends that were in the stands for the race.”
From the drop of the green flag, Membrino had his hands full. Going into Turn 3, the car in front of him made a three-wide move and tangled up into a melee right in front of Membrino. Luckily, he saw it unfold. Membrino squared his front bumper with the tangle ahead, stood on the gas, and pushed through it to claim fourth place as the caution flag fell.
On the restart, it became a two-man race with Membrino and Tyler Hines as caution flags began to fall on the group behind them like a parade at the United Nations. Hines and Membrino survived the multiple restarts, including a 20-minute cleanup on lap 13 that cooled the tires before the final push to the finish. Suddenly, Membrino’s steering issues returned.
“There was just something I wasn’t liking with the right rear tire,” he said. “The car wasn’t sliding or pushing. It just felt like it wanted to take the wall down off the corners, but it was actually better with longer green flag laps than it was on restarts. So when it was time to go back to green with seven laps to go, with cooler tires and speedy dry all over the track, I didn’t know what to expect.”
He was able to hold onto the lead as Hines continued to challenge him from behind. With two laps remaining, the two were locked in a dogfight at the front of the pack. Membron protected the bottom of the track to try to force him to pass him on the top, and the gamble paid off. Hines tried to pass him on the right. The two raced side-by-side into the final two turns, but Membrino pulled away at the end to win by half a length.
“It was one heck of a race, and one heck of a win—not an easy one by any means,” Membrino said. “Tyler kept me on my toes. He’s a hockey player and those guys go all out, so I knew he wasn’t going to make it easy on me.”
It wasn’t until Dowling pulled up alongside him and flashed the thumbs-up sign that Membrino realized that he’d regained the points title. Dowling finished fifth overall. Membrino captured the checkered flag. When the dust settled, Membrino scored the points victory by a slim, four point margin.
“It was just pandemonium from there. All those people that were at our pit earlier were all around me screaming, cheering, clapping, and throwing water all around,” he said. “It was unreal…It just overwhelmed me. I thought to myself, ‘All this for me?’ It’s a feeling I can’t describe, but I wish everyone could experience just once.”
Although the Stafford season is finished, Membrino still has one more race before he hangs up his gloves. He’s currently ranked fifth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division III national standings, and he’s ranked second in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state standings. Now, Membrino will try to improve his overall rankings with a final regional race.
“While we don’t know what lies ahead of us for next year just yet, we have one more stop in our schedule this year,” he said. “We’re going to try and wrap the year up with another win at the World Series of Speedway Racing at Thompson International Speedway on October 19.”
For now, Membrino will celebrate his victory with his local sponsors: Equipment Services, CWPM, Richards Corporation, TD Homers, Napa Valley Auto Supply, Jay Pahl Auto, Steve Greer, JMW Construction, Embroidery Works, and Membrino Electric.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.
By John Goralski