If the PDRA’s delayed season-opening race goes off this weekend as planned, it will take place without the series’ reigning champion in the Extreme Pro Stock ranks.
John Montecalvo told competitionplus.com Thursday afternoon that he isn’t making the nearly 600-mile trip from his home on Long Island, New York, to the outskirts of Benson, North Carolina, for a race that was shoved to the back burner for nearly two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2019 Extreme Pro Stock titlist said there are three reasons he won’t be among the competitors at GALOT Motorsports Park.
First, Montecalvo is heeding the advice of his daughter-in-law, a doctor who has “been on the front lines of this stuff” in New York. The Empire State has been hit hardest by the coronavirus with 29,643 deaths reported through Wednesday — a number more than twice that of neighboring New Jersey, the state that’s No. 2 on the list of American losses.
Second, he said he’s providing leadership by example for his employees at John T. Montecalvo Inc., whose primary focus is paving. Staying on home turf, he believes, reduces the chances he could contract the virus at the track and bring it home with him.
Third, Tommy Gray’s Pro Mod crash at Darlington, S.C., has left the veteran racer hospitalized for nearly two weeks. That incident and its ensuing effects weigh heavily on Montecalvo’s mind.
“My family was really against me going,” Montecalvo said from his office Thursday afternoon. “My son, his wife Rose, she’s a doctor and they’re very leery as to … she’s been on the front lines of this stuff, and they just didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go, to fly.
“And we’ve got to go to grocery stores, and it’s a little bit different situation with us. Everybody else takes their motorhomes and they stay there. We’ve got to go back and forth to hotels and all that. We’ve got more exposure.”
“Family” also plays into the scenario involving Gray, whose “Undertaker” Camaro slammed into the retaining wall on both sides of Darlington Dragway. Gray broke seven ribs in the crash and underwent surgery to repair them.
The crash itself isn’t what concerns Montecalvo, given that it’s part of the sport of racing at 200-plus miles per hour. What bothers him most is the solitary recovery Gray is having to make before he is released from a Darlington-area hospital to return home to Maryland.
“We’re not supposed to crash, but it does happen, obviously,” Montecalvo said. “I mean, Tommy’s a great driver, but things happen. And he’s stuck in some hospital down in South Carolina. I think he’s getting out the next day or two.
“But anyway, he’s been down there for a week and a half, almost two weeks. And because of the COVID, nobody could visit him. He can’t see his wife, he can’t see his daughter, he can’t see his family. And I don’t know, that’s a little unnerving to me, you know?”
It’s unsettling because he can’t imagine himself, or anyone in his family, facing a similar situation alone — so he won’t risk putting himself in the same position.
“Anytime any member of my family has been in the hospital, somebody is there with them 24/7, staying there. Whatever they have, if they’re hospitalized, there’s a Montecalvo sitting next to them. And that’s just the way we operate, to coordinate things with the doctors and whatever we have to do.
“And that was a little unnerving to me, knowing that Tommy Gray was sitting there and nobody could visit him. So that played into my mind.”
Then there’s his commitment to his employees. The paving company has been — as is customary — idle during the winter, when laying asphalt is virtually impossible in New York due to the cold climate.
“We made a deal. We’ve got a very limited staff here working,” he said. “The deal that we made is basically we were going to keep our circle tight and we were just going to associate with close family. That’s it, very close family — basically who lives in our household, you know?
“So I’m the guy that’s supposed to lead by example. How does it look (if) I go running off racing and these people have been following the rules to the letter? Thank God nobody here has gotten sick because they have been following the rules to the letter. And it gives them some security to come in here and work beside me and know that I’ve been doing the right thing.
“So it’s all about leading by example. We lock the front door to the office and we don’t let anybody in. The UPS guy drops packages out front. And we’ve been very, very careful here because obviously we’re in a high-risk area. There’s no doubt that where we live is certainly more of a risk than any other area in the country.”
And then there’s the fact that Montecalvo and others in his business received approval from the state of New York on Wednesday to resume operations. Now isn’t the time, he said, for him to concern himself with racing when his livelihood — and that of his employees — is having to play catch-up with a late start to the paving season.
“It’s a seasonal business so we haven’t been paid yet since December. And, again, it’s not right to my employees,” he said. “We’re finally getting some work, we’re finally allowed to work. … So they need me here to get everything organized and get everything going.”
Montecalvo, who won the IHRA Pro Stock title a decade prior to his ‘19 crown in PDRA competition, isn’t ready to put his team in mothballs; far from it, in fact. He’s still eager to race, it’s just that the sport has to be shoved down his list of priorities for the immediate future.
“I’ve won championships, I’ve won a lot of races. Believe me, the competitive spirit is still there because it’s killing me sitting here,” he said. “And (wife) Lois Anne, she wants to go, definitely. For one, she’s very competitive, like me. For two, she misses her friends. Terri Carr and everybody else that she sees there. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen our friends.
“And the Extreme Pro Stock group, they’re a really close-knit gang, there’s no doubt. Violet (Morton) was going to be there, Elijah’s wife, and (Lois Anne) likes Violet. And like I said, Terri Carr. And all the women, Diane Powers and all the women that are there, they all have a pretty … we all have a close knit group there. It’s family.
“So we miss our family and we miss the competitive part. But right now I’ve got to say (racing’s) not a priority for me. I have to worry about what’s going on here more than I have to worry about racing. So, we’re going to take it race by race. Like right now, Darlington, I’m 50/50 on it. Maryland, I’d say by Maryland, we’ll definitely be going. That’s July.”
If Montecalvo’s absence is limited to one event, he still believes he will have a shot to repeat as PDRA champion in 2020. After all, that’s exactly how the points battle played out last year, when he missed one event but ran consistently enough to clinch the championship with one race remaining.
“But quite honestly, that’s in back of my mind,” he said. “The championship really, it’s like ‘been there, done that.’ Now I want to race for fun. I really don’t want to race for points anymore. I want to race some PDRA. I want to race some NHRA. I don’t know if I’m going to race all the NHRA that we’re going to have, and I don’t know if I’m going to, obviously, if I’m going to race all the PDRA. I think I’m going to mix the two up and maybe also do some shows in between, some match races.
“I want to race for fun again. I don’t want to chase points. And if there’s something going on, if there’s a family event, then that’s what I want to do and that’s where I’m going to go. … I learned a long time ago that I can’t be a slave to racing. I’m supposed to be doing it for enjoyment. And that’s what I want to do, I want to bring the fun back into it.”