Southington's Jeff Zarrella
Brian Danko, Jeff Zarrella & Speedway Line Report Radio Show Host
|By Brian Danko, Staff Writer
The New Britain Herald & Bristol Press
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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
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
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
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
“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.