The Pro Stock driver showed up in Norwalk for the inaugural event in 2007 and captured the championship. Two years later, he was without a sponsor and watching the factory hot rods speed down the quarter-mile from the sideline.
Connolly continued to race during the event in the Sportsman series, then was back in Pro Stock action — sort of — when he served as Erica Enders’ crew chief the last two seasons.
An offseason team merger has placed Connolly behind the driver’s wheel in the pro series for the first time in six years, and he’s expecting to put on a show for his hometown crowd this weekend.
“It’s always good to go back to your home track,” Connolly said in an NHRA release earlier this week. “I pretty much grew up in Norwalk and have been going there since I was 10 years old, so it’s fun to go back there and see family and friends. I won the first race in Norwalk so we’ve definitely grown fond of that track. There is a comfortable feeling there. We’ve had a great car lately, and we definitely want to finish strong before we have a week off going into the Western Swing.”
Connolly won his first event of the season two weeks ago at the New England Dragway and Motorsports Park in Epping, N.H. — his 24th career Pro Stock title — and sits sixth in the points standings, putting him solidly in the potential playoff field.
Connolly is back in the driver’s seat thanks to his longtime team — Cagnazzi Racing — signing a deal with Gray Motorsports late last year. The merger spawned three Pro Stock teams — Connolly, Shane Gray and rookie Jonathan Gray. The Gray brothers are sons of legendary Funny Car driver Johnny Gray.
“It’s definitely been real exciting,” Connolly said. “We knew going into this program that there would be a learning curve. Even with being in the sport for many years, you’re still learning every day. You keep seeing the team improve and make gains, and the guys back at the shop are working to get even more horsepower. The work ethic here at Gray Motorsports is great.
“You know what’s really impressive is that everyone has big shoulders. Everyone can take constructive criticism to gain headway, and everyone is very open, whether we struggle or not. The team is still gelling, and we strive to make the best passes every time we run.”
The trio will be facing stiff competition this weekend.
Enders — now Enders-Stevens after getting married recently — is leading the Pro Stock points standings, two-time Norwalk champion Greg Anderson is the event’s and raceway’s sponsored driver and Connolly’s former teammate Jeg Coughlin is the defending series champion.
“You’ve got to have a good crew, a good car and a good engine,” Connolly said. “You have to have everything anymore. It’s so competitive, and it doesn’t matter how good of a driver you are or how your car runs, you have to have both those things working together.”
While driving a pro series car is tough enough, Connolly will also be competing again in the Sportsman ranks and helping his father, Ray, who captured the Super Gas championship in Norwalk last year, with his Sportsman cars.
“Friday through Sunday, he’s over there (in the pro pits),” Ray said Thursday night. “But he comes over here and runs the Sportsman car and helps me with mine … he stays busy, that’s for sure.
“Working with Erica (the last two years), it’s kind of the same thing this year.”
The Connollys set up a big camp in the Sportsman pits, spending time with friends, family and the other local drivers they don’t get to see but a handful of times each year.
“Last week we’re in Chicago and you don’t get that many people who get to watch you race,” Ray said. “This weekend they all get to show up and see you compete … so that’s a lot of fun.”
Area race fans will get to see all four pro series race the next three days — four qualifying runs will be held for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle today and Saturday, and the eliminations will take place Sunday.