By John Goralski
Tony Membrino Jr. lovingly strokes the bare chassis of his SK Modified racecar as it sits in a Bristol garage. The engine hasn’t been mounted. Hoses an array of hoses wind their way like snakes through a red skeleton frame. It looks more like a go-cart than a racecar, but Membrino slips into a dreamy tone as he describes his precious treasure.
This spring, the Southington driver will make the leap into the top division at Stafford Motor Speedway. It’s the next logical step in his meteoric rise, but even Membrino didn’t expect it to happen this fast.
In late December, he received a call from Steve Greer, the owner of the 2013 SK Modified champion car. Greer offered Membrino a chance to purchase the chassis from a car that Woody Pitkat drove on the MRS tour, and Membrino leapt at the opportunity.
“I didn’t plan it. It was more like an opportunity that fell into our lap,” he said. “We’re friends. He’s been at Stafford about four or five years—about the same amount of time that I have—and we’ve been friends from the get go. He’s working with Ryan Preece at Chassis Dynamics for their SK program. This RaceWorks chassis worked out for both of us. It helps me to work up, and it allows him to focus entirely on his Chassis Dynamics deal. It was a win-win for both of us.”
Membrino has been racing at Stafford since 2008. He earned his first victory in the entry level DARE Stock division the following year, and he rallied to the DARE Stock points title in 2010. Over the past three seasons, Membrino has won the checkered flag four times. Last year, he claimed the SK Light points title in a highly-contested competition.
Still, this move to the top division came ahead of Membrino’s career plan. He was expecting to compete for one more season in the SK Light division, but Greer’s opportunity was too good to pass up.
“Some people told me that I should have moved up last year, but I think it was a good idea to stay,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t think another year in SK Lights would really help me that much. Sure, I could contend for another championship to make it two in a row, but I don’t think I’d be learning as much as I have over the last couple of years. I feel like I’m ready to make the move.”
For the first time, Membrino will be driving a car that’s younger than he is. He expects to run with a T/A engine and will be modifying the car with the help of Southington racing mainstay Ed Flemke. He will continue to work on the car with his father, but they will build a pit crew to handle the longer races.
To help defray costs, he has signed a new sponsor, Check-Mate Industries in New York. He continues to bring along his early sponsors with Equipment Services and CWPM continuing their partnership that reaches back to the DARE stock days.
Gary Danko is host of the Speedway Line Report on WATR 1320 AM, and he’s been following Membrino’s career from the start, and he said that the Southington driver is ready for the new challenge.
“Tony knows that it’s kind of like starting all over again, but the only way that you’re going to get better is to run against the best competition possible,” said Danko. “I think it’s going to be a work in progress. He’ll be running with the best of the best, and he’s going to have to continue to learn…He’s going to have to pay attention. The competition is so great in that premiere division, so it’s going to take some time.”
The biggest difference will be the power of the SK Modifieds as he transitions from 355 horsepower engines to engines over 400 horsepower. Typical lap times drop from almost 20 seconds to less than 19 seconds and race distances stretch from 20 laps to 40 laps. A few races will test him with 80 laps.
“It’s going to be different, but I’m looking forward to it,” Membrino said. “It all adds to the dynamics of this change. I’m getting to the point where I’m actually sick of talking about it. I just want to strap into the car and go.”
In addition, Membrino will be tested by some of the best drivers in the region. Longtime mentors like Preece, Teddy Christopher, Keith Rocco, and Woody Pitkat are going to be facing him head-to-head in competition. Membro said that he welcomes the challenge.
“It’s going to be interesting to take the tips that they’ve given me and trying to use it against them to win, but that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “These are guys that I’ve looked up to for a number of years. Now, I have to go out there and try to beat them. It’s going to be interesting, but it’s going to be fun.”
Membrino will kick off his rookie season at the 43rd Annual Spring Sizzler on April 25-27. Qualifying heats will be held on Saturday, and the 40-lap SK Modified race is scheduled for Sunday, April 27.
“He needs to learn from those drivers that have been in that division for a long time, but I think he’s ready,” said Danko. “He’s well aware of what’s going on around him on the racetrack. He’s almost able to see things before they happen, and that’s what has made him so successful from DARE stocks to the SK Lights. He needs to continue to be a smart driver and make moves on the racetrack when possible.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.