The Fastest Place On Kauai

Tony Ricci and the Garden Island Racing Association are gearing up for a new season of drag racing on the track at Mana starting March 14

The Garden Isle Racing Association is revving up to host its first official race of the new season next month. On March 14, competitors once again will hit the drag strip pavement at Kauai Raceway Park in Mana. For those uninitiated, in drag racing cars race by accelerating as quickly as possible, two at a time, in a straight line for a quarter mile on a closed course.

“It blew my mind that this setup was here,” says Tony Ricci, Garden Isle Racing Association’s president, describing the first time he visited the park.

Ricci’s inaugural visit to the track was in 2006. He came to support and cheer on friends who were racing for Kauai Harley-Davidson.

“I fell in love with it and all the people of the racing community,” says the motorcycle enthusiast.

In fact, he loved it so much, he decided to race in the motorcycle class the following year.

“The first time I rolled up to the lights, I was very nervous and had butterflies in my stomach,” he recalls. “I think everyone gets butterflies the first time they line up, watching and waiting for the stage lights to start. It was a rush.

“I think my eyes were popping out of my head — I was just hanging on and next thing I knew I was at the finish line. That was awesome.”

Though he no longer races after suffering an injury in a motorcycle accident while traveling down from Kokee, the exhilaration of going fast, as well as the kinship among members of the GIRA, are what keep people like Ricci returning to the track year after year. And since the drag strip was resurfaced in 2013, even more people are racing, some returning after several years away.

“It’s great seeing them come back and hearing the stories from when they used to be out here,” says Ricci.

Prior to its remodel, the track was severely deteriorated after some 30 years of use. The new surface is much safer now and allows cars to travel even faster. The nonprofit GIRA was appropriated a total of $2.5 million in recent years to not only repave the asphalt concrete track, but to complete a project that will bring power to the area (so that generators no longer have to be used for tow-in lights). The project is slated to begin this summer and finish by the end of 2015.

Aside from bringing electricity to the park, GIRA has other big plans for the future. Ricci and his seven fellow board members are planning to implement free racing opportunities for high school students by 2016.

“The idea is so they get off the streets and come onto the track,” he says.

His stepson Mason Koetje, 28, was one of the inspirations behind this decision. While Koetje was attending Waimea High School, he was drawn to cars. At the time, Ricci wondered why Koetje wasn’t joining him at the drag strip. The reason was simple: He couldn’t afford it. So to help high schoolers get off the streets and race somewhere safely while at the same time learning from their mentors, Ricci wants to offer them free admission.

“They’re going to do it anyway, might as well have a safe place for them to do so,” says Ricci.

Providing a safe place for people to race their vehicles is one of GIRA’s primary missions. The is all-volunteer organization holds bracket racing (where handicaps are given according to acceleration times) once a month from March to November. Racing classes include Junior Dragster (ages 8-17), Sport Compact, Muscle V8 and Top Gun. Most race days accommodate some 100 cars.

Ricci, who originally is from New York City, is always surprised by how many people come to the events. There can be anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 attendees. Most of them are from Kauai, but visitors also have started venturing to the drag strip.

“They think it’s amazing Kauai has a drag track,” says Ricci.

The events are family-oriented, and kids under 12 get in free. Ricci, a contractor who moved to the island in the 1990s, loves bringing his own family to the events, including his 3-year-old granddaughter Sophia Koetje, and enjoys seeing other ohana (sometimes three generations) coming together for the races. Even Ricci’s wife Alma likes to race her Corvette.

“We try to gear this for the whole family to come out,” says Ricci.

The first “Test and Tune” day of the season will be held Feb. 22 from 12 to 5 p.m. for grudge racing only. Visit dragracekauai.com for more information.

cocomidweek@gmail.com

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