By BRIAN JENNINGS
Rain might have pushed the race to a later date, but it didn’t keep Tony Membrino from slipping into the season finale in victory lane. Membrino secured his seventh Speedbowl victory of the season en route to his first track championship at the shoreline oval at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl on Saturday, Oct. 29.
After winning his qualifying race the week prior, Membrino and his crew jumped into a fourth-place starting spot for the feature race with a 14-point advantage over Corey Barry, who also won his qualifying race. The points standings remained unchanged heading into the feature race, and a 13th-place finish or better would clinch the championship for Membrino, even if Barry won the race.
“Putting the seemingly easy requirements to win the championship aside, my mind was set as it always is: to get to the front and win the race,” said Membrino. “I’m very comfortable on the outside groove, so starting there actually gave me a little peace of mind.”
It took three laps or so before Membrino moved up to third and started pressuring the drifting car in second place. But once he got on a run to the outside, Membrino drew ahead before the next corner. Paul French was about a straightaway ahead in the lead.
“I knew I had plenty of time, so I just focused on getting into a rhythm and hitting my marks,” said Membrino. “I could see he was having trouble getting in and to the center of the corners, so that’s where I caught him most.”
Within a few laps, Membrino was on French’s bumper.
“He’s a former track champion and has a lot more laps there than I do,” said Membrino. “He knows how to drive the track to make it hard for someone to pass you.”
A caution flag came out just as Membrino got his first shot to try to pass French, setting Membrino up for a restart with 12 laps to go. The opportunity would give Membrino a chance to ride right alongside French once the green light flashed.
“As good as I am on the outside, I pretty much knew he wasn’t going to drive me into the fence,” said Membrino. “But I also knew that he wasn’t going to make it easy for me by any means.”
The light turned green and French took Membrino up a little higher than he was expecting to go. But Membrino was still able to keep his left front up to French’s door. From there, Membrino drove in third gear as hard as he could and got up a little past French’s right front. Membrino kept French down on the bottom and was able to carry momentum on the top off of the corner into the next turn, clearing French the following lap.
“My father came over the radio and said, ‘It’s all you, do your thing.’” said Membrino. “I just got back into a rhythm, focused on hitting my marks, and didn’t overdrive the car. But then with about seven laps to go, he comes over and says, ‘87 (Brett Gonyaw) up to second,’ and any sense of relaxation I may have had went out the window. I knew Brett was really fast earlier on in the day and was extra determined to win.”
For a few laps, the gap between Membrino and Gonyaw remained the same, but little by little, the Gonyaw’s car creeped up tighter and tighter. Gonyaw started to catch Membrino.
“I can hear my father say, ‘Clear by four, clear by three, clear by two,’” said Membrino. “Then the next thing I know, I hear, ‘He’s on you with two to go, you know what to do.’ I just kept the car rolling on the bottom, using the apron as a crutch to help it rotate a little better. If he was going to get me, he was going to have to go the long way around.”
Going into turn one on the final lap, Membrino received a shot in the right rear as his car skated up the track. After gathering himself, Membrino was still ahead by a couple of car lengths, and his father gave him the green light to hit the gas.
“I rolled it in on the bottom going into turn three one more time,” said Membrino. “Coming off of turn four, I don’t think the waving checkered flag ever looked so good with my father on the radio screaming, ‘Two-time champ, great job.’ I was finally able to breath and just couldn’t contain myself. I was so pumped up.”
Membrino celebrated with a few donuts and pulled up to victory lane where his crew was waiting for him.
“I was so overcome with excitement that I just about made it through the victory lane interview,” said Membrino. “All of the effort and emotion that went into this and the magnitude of what we had just accomplished set in all at once. I could hardly compose myself.”
The win was certainly the cherry on top for Membrino and his crew, but the team still had one of the most successful Modified seasons in the Northeast this year. They wrapped up the season with a pair of track championships (Stafford Motor Speedway & New London-Waterford Speedbowl), 16 wins (7 at Stafford, 7 at Waterford, 2 at Thompson), and 20 podium finishes. The win also marked the team’s fourth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship (2010, 2013, 2016 x2), third SK Light Modified championship, and 25th SK Light Modified win.
Notable achievements and records from Membrino’s season this year included the following: most all-time SK Light Modified championships, most all-time SK Light Modified wins, first driver to win SK Light Modified championships at multiple tracks, most wins in any Modified division in Connecticut in 2016, most SK Light Modified wins in a season at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl (7), and most consecutive SK Light Modified wins in a season at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl (4).
“We had just put the finishing touches on a season that most people dream to have, one that I never dreamed of having,” said Membrino. “I like to think I can do a pretty good job behind the wheel, but I’d be nothing if it weren’t for the support system I have behind me in my father, team, family, friends, partners, and sponsors.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at email@example.com.