Bruce Bennett, CC Racer
Root Beer and Vuolo
One of the things I love about CC racing is the colorful characters you meet. Take Matt Vuolo and Richie Brannon, for instance.
Vuolo was one of those people who did everything larger than life. When he decided to go TQ Midget racing, he didn’t just buy a car like normal people would. He designed and built one himself. It was one of the most unorthodox, butt-ugly TQ Midgets ever created. It looked like a doorstop on steroids.
I met Vuolo the night he planned to debut the car in 1988 at a tiny 1/10-mile bullring in NJ called Pine Brook Speedway. I was talking to driver Joey Coy when this big red box truck rolled into the lot with Matco Racing emblazoned on the sides. “Want to see my brother, Johnny’s, new ride?” Coy asked me.
We got to the truck just as Vuolo opened the big back door, we climbed inside, and Coy introduced me to Vuolo. No sooner had we shook hands than the clouds opened up, flooding the track. No racing that night. Vuolo shrugged, opened one of the custom-made cabinets above the race car, grabbed several big bags of candy, and handed them to his girlfriend.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” she asked.
“Open them up, stick some in your mouth, and pass them around,” he replied. Just because we couldn’t race didn’t mean we couldn’t enjoy ourselves. That was Matt Vuolo’s philosophy.
Of course, it’s hard to enjoy yourselves when your car not only looks like a doorstop but runs like one. Vuolo knew he needed help, and he found it in a talented racing mechanic named Richie “Root Beer” Brannan. Root Beer was a Viet Nam vet whose one arm bore the ugly evidence that something bad had happened over there, but he wouldn’t talk about it. He also wouldn’t talk about how he got the nickname “Root Beer.” He was working for URC sprint car owner Jimmy Shaw at the time and agreed to help out the ambitious new TQ Midget owner. It was a match made in heaven.
Their rookie season with the new car was a learning experience. What they learned is that theory doesn’t always match reality. So Vuolo and Root Beer went back to the drawing board and built a new, more conventional TQ in Vuolo’s garage. They also bought a small engine dynamometer so they could test their own engines, again, in Vuolo’s garage. He must’ve had patient neighbors.
The team also switched drivers, putting Joey Payne in the cockpit, and they lit up the American Three-Quarter Midget Racing Association, winning the 1990 championship. But they did it in typical Matco Racing style.
One night at Pine Brook a kid showed up at the pit gate carrying 3 or 4 pizzas and asked for Vuolo. Since he wouldn’t buy a pit pass, they alerted ATQMRA president Bob Berry, who promptly went off in search of Vuolo.
“Great,” Vuolo said. “We’re starving. Send him over.”
Berry just stood there, shaking his head in disbelief.
After conquering TQ Midgets, Vuolo and Root Beer decided to move up to a full Midget. Vuolo bought a new Gaerte-powered Beast and off they went. After some hiccups and another driver change, they won the 1992 ARDC championship with Joey Coy at the wheel, and Vuolo promptly called it quits. He’d accomplished his goals in racing.
Root Beer, however, had not. He moved to Indianapolis and opened a racing fabrication business. I’d see him on my annual trips to Indy, either helping one of the Silver Crown teams at the Fairgrounds, or at the Little 500. One year I saw him at the Indy 500, crewing for one of the low-budget teams, and we laughed about how two guys from Pine Brook Speedway had made it all the way to the big show. It was Root Beer who broke the news to me several years ago that Matt Vuolo had passed away. He told me they’d spread Matt’s ashes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, probably because Pine Brook is now a Home Depot and nobody wants their final resting place to be in the plumbing department. As he’d done with CC racing, not long after that Root Beer followed Vuolo into the next life where they’re finally back together again.
If there’s racing in heaven, Root Beer and Vuolo are probably building a new car. And Saint Peter probably has God on the walkie-talkie wanting to know why there’s a pizza delivery guy at the Pearly Gates.
Flashback - Pine Brook Speedway
Although its official name was Home of Champions Speedway for decades, most people simply called it Pine Brook Speedway. The tiny 1/10-mile paved bullring in Pine Brook, NJ was built in 1962 by businessman Dick Marlow to give the American Three-Quarter Midget Racing Association (ATQMRA) a place to race on a weekly basis.
Marlow tried his hand at promoting the track for a couple of years but couldn’t make money at it, so the ATQMRA ran it for a few more years before turning it over to Jack Dowie, one of the club’s founders, in 1967. When Dowie passed away, his business partner, Jack Bellinato, took over and ran the track until the landowner decided to develop the property in late 1989.
People familiar with the track’s history will tell you about the legendary Indy car drivers like Mario Andretti, Wally Dallenbach, and Steve Krisiloff who honed their craft at Pine Brook in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. However, the track thrived in the 1980s with a talented crop of young up-and-coming drivers like Nick and Drew Fornoro, Joey Coy, Joey Payne, Lenny Boyd, and Lou Cicconi Jr., all of whom would make names for themselves in short track racing circles.
The action made Pine Brook popular with the fans. Weighing a minimum of 500 lbs., TQ Midgets in the ‘80s were typically powered by 524cc, three-cylinder, two-cycle snowmobile engines that produced 90 to 100 HP. Put 20 of them on Pine Brook’s flat 1/10-mile paper clip and the action was non-stop. Average lap times were 8 to 9 seconds; spins and crashes were frequent; visibility was excellent, and the track’s natural amphitheater shape meant the sound the cars made was scintillating.
Bellinato was a natural-born promoter. Rail-thin, with a curmudgeonly demeanor and a heart of gold, nobody worked harder on Friday nights. From maintaining the facilities, to selling tickets and souvenirs, to organizing Big Wheel races for the kids during intermission, he did it all. Whether he made any money at it, nobody knows. If he did, most of the people who raced there agreed, he earned it.
Rumors had circulated for years the family who owned the land – the Pio Costas – were planning to develop it, and sure enough, word came that 1989 would be Pine Brook’s last season. Nobody wanted to believe it – least of all Bellinato – but as the season wound down, the truth sunk in. So, on the last night of racing, during intermission, he gathered together as many of the TQ racers as he could and had them pose for one last picture with him.
Jack Bellinato passed away on July 5, 1992, 30 years – and a day – after Pine Brook opened. A Home Depot now occupies the land where the track once stood. But for those who raced there, the memories of one of the most important chapters in ATQMRA history live on.