June 10, 2013

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Tony "Jap" Membrino Talks About Racing Days At Plainville Stadium and More

"Jap" and the Famous Purple 00 owned by the late Walt Kuryn
Phil Hoyt Photo

By Brian Danko, Staff Writer
The New Britain Herald & Bristol Press

Photos Courtesy of Tom Ormsby
SpeedwayLineReport.com

Click on Photos for Full Size

Tony ‘Jap’ Membrino. Just mention his name and it will evoke a flood of memories. From drivers, it could mean another tough night at the track to the fans that either loved him or despised him.

He was colorful and controversial. For more than 30 years after getting out of the driver’s seat, race fans still recount his exploits at the more than 13 tracks he raced in his almost 30 years of racing.

“I started at Plainville stadium in 1949, right after they put down asphalt down over the dirt. Then I raced at the West Haven Speedway and then Riverside Park. I’ll tell you I had a lot of fun and even won a championship at Plainville.” Tony said from his home.

It was during his racing days at the Plainville Stadium that people will still recount his many wins both on the track, in the pit area and in the parking lot after the races. Let’s just say that ‘Jap’ never backed down from anyone.

When asked if his reputation was deserved, he laughed. “I really never had any problem with any drivers.


Late 50's, early 60's and Jap with another purple modified. Frank Faust Photo

If someone would do something I didn’t think was right, I would warn them. I think the only drivers I really had problems with was Ron Van Ness and Bob Mikulak but all the other drivers I got along with.”

“But it was the fans. Oh man, they called me everything under the sun. The fans are the ones who started a lot of the problems in the stands and in the parking lot.” The resident of the Brass City of Waterbury said.

He drove for many car owners and he drove some crazy looking cars, maybe the most popular of all of his rides was a purple #00 coach. Even that car had an attitude, much like the man who steered it to many victories.
“I was crazy then.” Tony said laughing, “And I still am today.”


The Ron Berndt owned North End Auto Parts #54 that Jap drove to many victories.
Frank Faust Photo

Membrino, an electrician by trade, raced at tracks in and around New England and New York and even ran at the Trenton Speedway and a lot of it was in a purple colored car.

What was it? A Waterbury thing or what. “I drove a car that had a certain shade of purple and I liked it so every year I would darken up the color until I got it just the shade I wanted it and it sort of stuck with me.”
 
In the stands, everyone knew where the Membrino clan would be sitting as a sea of purple shirts and jackets would be seen.

In fact, it seemed the entire town of Waterbury sat in the turn one stands at Plainville Stadium whether or not your name was Membrino. Drivers such as Tony Mordino and Lou Carangelo always had a large contingent of fans and it was not always a love fest.

“Oh yeah, we had a rivalry, A lot of that started at the West Haven Speedway and it carried over to where ever we ran. We always wanted to have the bragging rights.”
 
Twice in his racing career he suffered a fractured skull but he always returned to the driver’s seat and he continued to win.

He drove for such noted car owners such as Ronnie Berndt in the #54. “I think I won more races for Ronnie than any other driver that he had, that was a real good car.”

Membrino was so adaptable as a driver he even drove dirt for three years racing at the Lebanon Valley Speedway in eastern New York and drove a midget car at the Islip Speedway on Long Island.

When asked about some special moments in his career, he quickly pointed out a couple. “I ended up breaking Billy Greco’s three race winning streak at Riverside Park speedway and one night at the Chemung Speedway, I lent my car to Richie Evans after he had a accident with his and he ended up winning the championship that night. Geoff Bodine won the race but Richie won the championship.”

Respect in racing, much like life itself it is always earned and of all the drivers that Membrino raced against two stood out, Dick Watson and Steady Eddie Flemke, Sr.

“Dick Watson had a chance in a race to take me out and never did. He certainly could have but was a gentleman about it. The other was Eddie Flemke, Sr. I remember running second to him in a race and I was so upset with him because I am trying everything to get around and here he is driving with one arm resting on the door. Boy was I mad but you had to respect him for everything he had done in racing.”

When Membrino decided to hang up his helmet, he kids tried racing and today his grand kids are racing but he says it is much harder watching his grandchildren race.

“I get too nervous to watch. It was different when I was racing.” Jap said, “ I just wish they would get a little bit of racing luck. These kids just don’t seem to have much racing luck.”

Through all of the post race rumbles, his wife, Sally, of 55 years has been by his side and today, the man known as ‘Jap’ is busy restoring the 00 purple coach.

Today, at the age of 79, he is quick with a smile and still loves to hunt with his kids and grand kids along with NASCAR modified legend, Reggie Ruggiero.

“We are big hunters. We really enjoy it.” While hunting maybe relaxing, it is eating their catch and Membrino says as good as a racer Ruggiero is, he might be a better cook. “I’ll tell you what, Reggie can cook. We look forward to getting together and eating.”

A few years back, a group of racers, led by Don Moon, formed the Plainville Stadium Reunion. It is a chance for the many drivers, crew members and fans a chance to get together to laugh and share tall stories.

One of the most sought after drivers is Tony Membrino and while he is not in the New England Racing Hall of Fame, many racing historians know this man is just as important to the history of modified racing as those in the hall.

Was he a villain or just a hardnosed racer? Ask 100 fans and it most likely be a 50-50 split but you can’t deny that he added excitement to every race he competed in.

A Few More Photos


Another Ron Berndt owned #54
John Grady Photo


The always potent Garuti Bros. Modified
Frank Faust Photo


Moe Gherzi owned this #38
Frank Faust Photo

 

The 00 in Action at Plainville Stadium

 
 

 

 
 

Brian Danko has been covering Auto Racing for over 30 years for various magazines & and racing papers including Area Auto Racing News. His weekly column can be seen "In The Print Editions" of  The New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.

 

Copyright © 2012-2013  Brian Danko & SpeedwayLineReport.com, New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.