Milestone year for Wegmann


William Wegmann’s car, color and number hasn’t changed in the two and a half decades he’s been competing at Riverhead Raceway, but this year called for some special artwork to be added to his 1974 Oldsmobile Cutlass.

Wegmann, nicknamed the “Racing Grandpa,” will celebrate his 70th birthday on Sept. 19, the day before the season finale at Riverhead. To honor the milestone, the North Bellmore resident had “Turning 70 Tour” and “Just Racin’ On My Social Security” logos painted on the trunk.

“I still do it because it’s fun,” said Wegmann, who ranks tied for third place (out of 35 drivers) in the Blunderbust division standings with six race dates remaining. “I can still drive pretty competitively, but I won’t take big risks anymore. A damaged car costs time and money,” he added.

Wegmann, a 1962 graduate of Sewanhaka High School, started racing at Freeport Speedway as a teenager and would also be found at Islip Speedway and Riverhead in the same week when all three Long Island tracks were operating. Freeport and Islip closed in 1983 and ’84, respectively. “I raced three nights a week for many years,” he noted. “I don’t take it as seriously now as I did back then.”

His son, also named William, remembers growing up around the race scene and competing at Islip when he turned 16. He also drives in the Blunderbust division and has a handful of feature wins at Riverhead, including last year’s finale. “I was at the track as an infant, and some of my best childhood memories are being around racing,” he said.

“I knew my father would always be involved in it,” he added. “It’s in his blood deep. The thing that’s most impressive all these years is he’s done most of the work himself.”

The older Wegmann’s green No. 79 has become a fixture at Riverhead, where he’s missed only a few races in 25 years and is one checkered flag shy of reaching double digits in wins. His main sponsor is Crackerjack Auto Parts of Franklin Square. “The car has been rebuilt so many times, but it’s still the same foundation,” he said. “It’s an oddity. Everyone calls it “The Tank.”

Bob Finan, race announcer and public relations director at the 65-year-old Suffolk County ¼-mile oval track, thinks Wegmann’s car is amazing. “Bill built that Oldsmobile back in the mid 1980’s,” he said. “I bet you could go to 100 race tracks and you’d be hard pressed to find a car built back then.

“Bill is a really unique guy. Not only is he still racing at 69 years old going on 70, but he is competitive week-in and week-out and still wins a race here and there,” Finan added.

Through nine races this year, only Jack Handley Jr. (418) and Tom Pickerell (398) accumulated more points that Wegmann, who is knotted with Jimmy White Jr. at 342. On July 19, Wegmann started 18th in a field of 23 and ended up with a solid sixth-place finish in the standard 5-mile race. “Where you start is part of the challenge, and luck is an important element in racing,” Wegmann said. “It always feels good to win, but it also feels good to have a great time with family. We’re rubbing fenders and laughing about it afterwards.”

Wegmann’s stepson, Ray Shannon, has been a regular Blunderbust driver for almost 20 years. “I’ve been building cars with him in the garage for as long as I can remember,” Shannon said. “He’s not going to stop until he can’t climb in and out of the window.”

Next year, another generation will join the fray when Derek Wegmann, 18, gets behind the wheel at Riverhead. Andrew Wegmann, 17, isn’t far behind. As part of Derek’s preparation, he handles his grandfather’s practice runs on race days.

Racing usually consumes about 12 hours of Wegmann’s Saturdays between April and September. He said his wife, Eileen, isn’t a big race fan but a great supporter of his longtime hobby. “She’s still waiting for me to quit and do other things,” he said.