May 14, 2012

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Profile, Southington's Jeff Zarrella
 


Racing Journalist Brian Danko, Jeff Zarrella & Speedway Line Report Radio Show Host Gary Danko

 

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

CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR FULL SIZE

Jeff Zarrella of Southington has been around racing nearly his entire life and his career has taken him from the modified series to the NASCAR pinnacle, the Sprint Cup series and the veteran crew member has never regretted his decision to get into racing.

Zarrella, who is the tire specialist for driver Ryan Newman, which is part of the Stewart-Haas Racing team, has been to victory lane many times in his career but when he stepped into Victory Lane at the Martinsville Speedway in April, it may have been the most rewarding time ever.

“When you talk about Martinsville, you talk about tradition. I have been going there for a long time and to win in the Sprint Cup series with Ryan at a track that is so special, it’s something you’ll never forget.”


Ryan Newman & Jeff "The Jet" Zarrella in Martinsville Victory Lane.

The modifieds for years made several trips south to compete at the Martinsville Speedway and it became a second home track for many of the teams. The speedway was happy to have them and equally so were the fans who flocked there for their traditional season opening and season closing races with the then Busch series.

What made it so special is that every time he would head off to the paper clipped oval in southern Virginia, he would always take his Richie Evans modified t-shirt and he vowed he would wear it in victory lane after a Cup win.

Richie Evans was and today still is a hero to many who compete in the modified series, nearly 27 years after his death.

You see, Richie Evans was the king of the modifieds who unfortunately lost his life at the half mile oval and was earlier this year enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“With Richie being inducted and with everything that went on at Martinsville, it was just unbelievable.” said the ‘Jet’ a nickname given to him when he toiled for such drivers as Eddie Flemke, Sr. and later Reggie Ruggiero in the modifieds.

“That win was for everyone in modified racing.”

Zarrella posted a picture of himself and Newman in victory lane with Jeff wearing his Evans t-shirt and pointing to the heavens.

For Zarrella, who turned 53, the lifestyle can he hard and draining and a few years back, he talked about putting away his air gage but with a rigorous work out schedule, he and Berlin native, Aaron Kuehn, a Stewart-Haas teammate and tire specialist for Tony Stewart, he has gotten back into the best shape in years.

“Every day we go work out and I feel great. All the back issues and the knee issues are a thing of the past; I feel I can do this another 10 years.”

Recently, Zarrella was repacking his tool box for a race at Richmond International Speedway just hours after getting back from Kansas Speedway and was getting everything ready as he and several team members were getting ready to get on a plane and head for a two day tire test to Nashville Speedway and then head to Richmond for the race.


The Jet in his days with Mario Fiore
Photo Courtesy of Mario Fiore

Zarrella learned his tire specialist skills while working for Mario Fiore, a longtime modified tour car owner and it was after working for years under his tutelage that he moved south to pursue a career of working full time in racing.

“When you mentioned that you worked for Mario, well, that opened a lot of doors for me. It was through his connections that I was able to get my first job. It’s amazing what happens when you say you worked with Mario and the respect people down south have for him and the modifieds.”

As a member of Fiore’s crew, the 44 racing team with driver Reggie Ruggiero, won many races as they raced upwards to 100 times in a season starting in Florida and ending in Connecticut.

“It was a great learning experience with Mario and Reggie. We had a lot of fun and won a lot of races.”

Getting wins on the Sprint Cup series are hard to come by because of the competitive nature of the series and while any win is huge, another big win came last September when Newman won at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“This is my home track. Not only did we win the pole and lead the most laps, we won the race.” The Jet said. “New Hampshire is now the home to the modifieds and to get a win here was also very special.”

While years ago, the thoughts of a ‘Yankee’ working in NASCAR racing in the south was about as normal as snow in July, now Zarrella besides working with Aaron Kuehn was joined by former Southington resident, Clyde McLeod on the Stewart-Haas team.

“Clyde works in the tear down room. That is where cars go when they come back from a race and are torn down. It’s good to have someone with his knowledge there because he might spot a part wearing that could have broken in the next race.”

The work is hard, the travel even more demanding but the satisfaction of winning is what keeps everyone striving for that checkered flag.

It is what also has kept Jeff Zarrella going on and while he has never won a Sprint Cup title that might be about the only thing this die hard racer hasn’t won, yet.

 

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 Edition" of  The New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.

 

Copyright © 2012 Brian Danko