When Ray Quinones Jr. feels the need for speed, he revs up his Honda Civic and drives from north Tampa to east Manatee County. Thursday nights. “Test & Tune.” The Bradenton Motorsports Park.
“When I come down and blow off some steam, it’s like going to a psychiatrist,” jokes Quinones, 35. “And I’m a little old to be drag-racing on the street.”
As the sun sets on Thursday evenings, dozens of drivers gather at the Motorsports Park on State Road 64. Engines howl as cars leap from the starting line of the quarter-mile drag strip. Slick racing tires leave clouds of smoke behind each 100-mph run.
The burnt rubber smells like victory, or the American dream, or the adrenalin that makes grown men grin like little boys.
Most drivers prefer domestic sports cars — Chevy Corvettes, Dodge Chargers, Ford Mustangs — but there is a subset of racers who prefer small imports, particularly Hondas, especially in red.
Quinones, a professional car detailer, hangs out with a group of friends from Tampa and Sarasota. It’s a guy thing, though he sometimes brings a girlfriend.
“My best times — like last week — came when I brought a date down here,” he says, smiling and shaking his head. “She could not have cared less, but my friends were ecstatic.”
There are lots of older drivers at the track, but Sam Nova stands out.
He’s 84 years old, for one thing, and he’s got some style. He wears a blue jean jacket and a black cowboy hat. He looks like he belongs out there.
Of course, it helps that Nova stands next to a Shelby Ford Mustang GT500 — black with white racing stripes. It’s a beautiful machine gleaming in the night. And it helped save his life.
Nova, a retired auto mechanic, explains that he was depressed after the death of his wife. They had been married for more than 60 years. They had moved from Michigan to Bird Key.
One day he was at a dealership, getting work done on his Ford Focus, when he saw ... The Car.
“I said the hell with it and bought it," Nova says. “I get moody sometimes, you know, but I come out here and hit it. Exhilaration from the acceleration. Makes me feel good.”
GIRL ON TRACK
Kennady Jones can’t wait to get that feeling.
She’s a 16-year-old sophomore at Seminole High School in Tampa. She and her grandfather have been going to races for years. On Thursday nights, he drives in Bradenton.
“This is kind of a long trip for us, but it’s worth it — it’s definitely worth it,” Jones says. “I love it out here. I love the smell of burning rubber. It’s great. And it never gets old, either.”
On cool nights, Jones wears fur-lined boots, jeans and a pea coat. She’s one of the few women at the track. Between races, she chats with her grandfather and other drivers.
Next month, after she gets her driver’s license, Jones hopes to start racing trucks in the Ford Lightning series.
“It’s an F-150,” Jones explains, “with a GT500 engine, short block, and headers.”
The license plate on Quinones’ 1995 Honda Civic reads “ALL MOTR.”
"No turbo, no nitrous, no supercharger,” he says. “Just the engine.”
Quinones drives down to Bradenton carrying slick tires and a racing jack. To make his car more aerodynamic, he seals the grill and seams on the front end with blue painter’s tape.
He sets small goals that help keep him interested in tuning and racing. This year he’s been stuck at top speeds of 117.58 and 117.69 mph.
“When you hit 118,” he says, “every little number means something.”
On cold winter nights, Quinones wears a fleece jacket and a cap that says “Honda Factory Performance.” He prefers cool nights because the denser air makes his car run faster. It’s also easier on engines that rev at 9,600 rpm.
“The heat, that’s a killer on motors,” he says. "When it’s cold, oh, my god, it’s nice. I’m here every Thursday night.”