Elyria native Connolly happy to be back where it all began
Dave Connolly is ready to slow down and enjoy himself for a little while.
Until, that is, the Elyria driver gets into his pro stock race car Friday afternoon and begins qualifying for the NHRA Nationals event at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk.
Connolly, 24, is thrilled to be able to see everyone “from high school friends to the grandparents,” while the circuit makes its first-ever stop at the Norwalk track, and even more thrilled that he’ll get the opportunity to draw closer to the points lead — he’s third — on the track where he grew up learning the sport.
“I used to go to Norwalk from the age of 10 and I never missed a weekend every race year until I was 17,” said Connolly, who hasn’t been to the track since 2000. “I watched the place grow into a bigger and better facility and I’ve heard they’ve even done more improvements since the last time I’ve been there.
“It’ll bring back some memories. Home races are always a little bit special and you kind of put some pressure on yourself because you definitely want to do well there.”
Connolly’s familiarity with the track will pay big dividends, according to the young driver’s teammate, Jeg Coughlin, who is from Delaware, Ohio, and has also raced at Norwalk.
“That was Dave’s home race track for a long, long time,” Coughlin said. “He’s made literally thousands of runs down it. He’s got the most experience (of all the drivers) running down that track, and he’ll probably have an outstanding amount of confidence.”
The homecoming has been made even more special due to a year of growth that’s exceeded all expectations. It was barely a year ago that Connolly lost his sponsorship and wasn’t sure he would be able to keep racing.
“It’s been quite a turnaround,” Connolly said. “I lost my first sponsorship, then teamed up with Victor Cagnazzi in the middle of last year. Ever since that’s happened, we’ve put an excellent team together. We’ve won five races in the little under a year we’ve been together now.
“This is actually our first full season with all Victor Cagnazzi’s resources. He’s got a shop down there in Mooresville, N.C. — right down there in the heart of NASCAR country. They do everything in-house — they do engines in-house, chassis in-house and marketing is all in-house. He’s got a full operation going down there and it’s definitely paid off.”
Connolly said that Cagnazzi, the team manager, has provided him with “probably the best race car I’ve ever had in all my years of racing,” and that he feels his team is one of the top contenders to capture the Powerade pro stock world championship.
“After four years of being in pro stock, from where we started to where we are now, it’s kind of incredible,” Connolly said.
Connolly, a 2001 Elyria High grad, said this season has also been special because it’s the first he’s had a teammate, and the pair get along great and learn from each other.
“He and I have been friends for quite some time, since he started on the traveling scene in the early 2000s,” Coughlin said. “He’s just a young athlete with a lot of talent and a lot of will to win. I think those are qualities that I feel I’ve possessed over the years, so we hit it off extremely well.”
Coughlin, 37, is second in the points race and knows racing in Norwalk is going to be special for him and his teammate.
“Quite honestly, our NHRA circuit never raced in Norwalk until this year,” Coughlin said. “We would go test our cars at Norwalk four or five times a year because they always had a great facility and you knew when you went there you’d get a good testing environment. We’ll be able to play on some of our past experiences of testing there. My confidence level is already really, really high.
“My brother has raced up there in the Lucas Oil divisional race about a month back and said things really looked nice. The track was in excellent shape.”
The weekend will also be special for Connolly because his father, Ray, will be participating in the sportsman series.
“It’s kind of good that I get to share the track with my old man,” Connolly said. “He took me to the track, started my career and got me my first race car. I owe a lot to him.”
The four classes of NHRA — top fuel, funny car, pro stock and pro stock motorcycles — will get two qualifying runs Friday, two more Saturday and then the top 16 teams will compete in elimination rounds Sunday.
In the pro stock division, Connolly has 10 career victories, 22 career final rounds and has reached a top speed of 209.95 mph. He’d like to add to those numbers this weekend in Norwalk, something he’s dreamed about since he was little.
“It’s kind of in my blood,” Connolly said. “I’ve always been a big fan of racing. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you a time that I haven’t been interested in it. I didn’t live the normal childhood. If there was a race car, I’d be at the track during the weekend.
“It’s just my way of life and I have no regrets. I’ve made a career out of doing something I love.”
Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NHRA Powerade series
WHAT: Inaugural Summit Racing Equipment Nationals
8:30 a.m. — Spectator gates open; 9 a.m. — Sportsman qualifying;
4 p.m. — Comp eliminator qualifying session
TICKETS: Adults, $12 today; ages 6-12, free. Call (419) 688-5555 or on line at www.tix.com