Dropping the Hammer

Dropping the Hammer

b y Mark Luedtke

To say Steve Colletti loves racing would be an understatement. He’s been racing for 44 years.

“I have been in racing since 1968 when my boss Walter Siemindinger took me to my first race as a helper when he raced an Alfa Romeo GTV. I enjoyed the competition and the mechanical skill needed to compete.”

He enjoyed it so much he made it his life’s work. He obtained his associate degree in automotive technology from the State University of New York at Farmingdale in 1968. He opened his own shop in Port Jefferson on Long Island in 1979. He started driving in 1988. He’s driven professionally and in club racing.

In 2000, his wife accepted a position at the Kettering College of Medical Arts where she became the head of the Department of Respiratory Care, so Colletti moved Colletti Motorsports to town. It’s now located on Main Street in Moraine. From that base, Colletti has raced all over the country, as far away as California and Canada. Today he races mostly with the Western Ohio Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). So far this year, Colletti teams have raced in SCCA National events in Georgia, Virginia and Ohio.

The popularity of NASCAR illustrates how much Americans love racing, but other racing organizations are thriving too. Organizations like the SCCA offer people the opportunity to race at a significantly lower cost. In typical, understated fashion, Colletti describes the difference between NASCAR and SCCA.

“Nascar is the pinnacle of racing in the U.S. Most drivers would aspire to be at that level. We do a similar thing but at a smaller level.” NASCAR tracks are oval. SCCA tracks are not. He also downplays his record, “We have competed well at the regional and national level of SCCA Racing, winning and podium finishes at both levels. In Grand-Am we were mostly middle to top 10.” Despite his success, Colletti has great respect for his competitors and Dayton’s automotive history. “I don’t think we are the top dog in racing at all around here. There are many talented people in this car town of Dayton.”

Mid-Ohio

 While Colletti isn’t one to toot his own horn, his drivers and his competitors at the SCCA race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course universally praise him, for good reason. SCCA races run rain or shine, and during a Friday afternoon time trial in the rain, one of Colletti’s drivers, Bill Niemeyer, hydroplaned into a wall. He was accelerating down the back straight in a river of water, and several cars around him hydroplaned. Niemeyer managed to avoid the worst of it, but his car grazed the wall, and he bent his driver’s side, rear axle. The tire stuck out 90 degrees from the car. Although Colletti carries plenty of spare parts, he had no spare axle. What he did have was a four-ton hydraulic ram that his team used to bend the axle back into alignment so the car could run on Saturday. Try getting that done in a typical repair shop, let alone outside a trailer in the rain late after a long day of hard work.

To Colletti, this was no big deal. “Back in the paddock we bent the suspension back into shape with a four-ton hydraulic ram and realigned the car.” It sounds so easy, but Niemeyer recognizes the exceptional skill of the Colletti team. “Fortunately, we carry quite a number of spares and repair equipment in the trailer so the talented crew was able to realign the bent axle.”

And Niemeyer knows what he’s talking about. He works for Superior Equipment Solutions, but he has extensive racing experience. “I have some semi-pro experience in what is now known as the Grand-Am Continental Challenge. I drove in the mid 2000s racing with some reasonably well known NASCAR road course specialists like Boris Said, Andy Lally, Ron Fellows, etc.” Not to mention he was also an SCCA national champion. Maybe a tendency toward understatement is common with racers.

For those who have never seen a race, the start of a race is an impressive sight, especially up close. They form a tight grid across and down the track behind the pace car, which leads them around the track for a lap so they can warm their tires. When the pace car leaves the track and the flag drops, the drivers quickly accelerate and maneuver, courting chaos and disaster. Neimeyer describes how chaos but not disaster reigned that Saturday, “Qualifying for Saturday’s race was in the rain and the race was dry. Cars/drivers that are fast in the rain are not necessarily as fast in the dry and vice versa. We had a number of powerful cars with big straight-line speed starting behind us, and they have an advantage accelerating at the start. Starting from the right lane puts you on the outside at turn one which is usually not the fast way around, so everyone is trying to get to the left, creating havoc. It can get worse at Mid-Ohio since some even resort to moving far left into the pit exit and then need to fit in line when the curb/island starts part way into turn one.”

Bill got boxed in, and Colletti’s other driver, Frank Levinson, got rear-ended and spun. Despite their bad starts, they took third and second in their classes, respectively.

And these guys weren’t racing street cars. Their cars top 130 MPH on the back straightaway at Mid-Ohio. Colletti ripped out the interiors and door frames of both cars and installed powerful protective cages, roll bars, a racing driver seat and fire equipment. Colletti also modified the suspension and engines. The drivers wear helmets, fireproof suits, harnesses and the HANS device. From a safety point of view, these cars are like tanks. One car flipped three times during the race, and despite the external damage, the driver was walking and talking normally afterward. In fact, the inventor of the HANS device, Dr. Robert Hubbard, was at the race, though he didn’t race because he flipped his car during qualifying. Neimeyer describes his confidence in the safety systems, “When I know I am going to hit something, the main thought that goes through my mind is, ‘How much is it going to cost to fix the damage?’ With the safety equipment we have today, I have virtually no fear of injury.”

Colletti echoes that sentiment, “Wrecking happens to most of us, be it from an equipment failure, competitor mistake or conditions. It happens. The important thing is to move on and keep going with the event. Fix it and get back out. Don’t cry. The safety equipment helps with wrecks, keeping the damage to the car and not the driver.”

Colletti compares the thrill of racing to a 130 MPH chess match. “The adrenaline is going at the start, then you get into a groove and try to maintain a fast pace without making a mistake while being conscious of people in front and around you and opportunities to pass, and like a chess game, you wait your chance for a pass.” Neimeyer explains that concentration must overcome adrenaline, “It’s not necessarily adrenaline as much as concentration. You cannot let your focus lapse even for a couple of seconds unlike most other sports that have gaps between plays or times when you can stop and rest for awhile. It is actually a very mechanical thing, as you are basically trying to ‘hit your marks,’ with a little guts and bravery thrown in.”

Services

 The Colletti Motorsports shop looks like a combination of a garage and a mad scientist’s lair. Typical garages have neatly separated bays with hydraulic lifts in each bay. Tools and equipment line the walls in a relatively orderly fashion. Space is highly organized for maximum throughput.

Not so at Colletti’s. His facility is mostly open space, but cars and pieces of cars are scattered about surrounded by large unique tools. Engines surround several cars. Giant electronics surround others. A welding machine sits in a corner. Tools and equipment line every inch of wall and are stacked on tables. Changing out engines is a big job for most garages. It’s commonplace at Colletti’s. Most garages don’t do welding. Colletti not only does it, he manufactures his own one-off pieces as needed. He does electrical, suspension and brake work. He does all this work for street cars as well as race cars. In fact, racing is only 40 percent of his business. Colletti also offers Dyno tuning for people who would like to get better gas mileage or better performance out of their cars. Colletti is also a Tiretrack installer. In other words, Colletti Motorsports does it all.

Colletti’s experience and capability draw engineers to work for him, “Many local engineers are also car buffs and, being such creatures, are drawn to what we do. Over the summers we usually have a couple of college kids helping. That helps them by seeing first hand how things are done. Innovation is born at the track because the need arises, and you have to find a solution. That kind of problem-solving carries over to business and to personal life.”

For racers, aspiring and experienced, Colletti offers car rentals, transportation, driver coaching, trackside support and repairs and maintenance. Colletti explains, “Many drivers team up with us because they are professional in their work lives and don’t have the time to do all the work and transportation on their own. We make the race experience a fun experience for them.” Colletti Motorsports is also a certified National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Tech Inspection site.

Perhaps Colletti’s most important service is applying his experience. In forty-four years of racing, he’s seen about everything. He can also make racing affordable. With all the different classes offered by the SCCA and NASA, an enthusiast can run with a street car or any number of modifications to improve performance and move up in class. Colletti Motorsports handles them all.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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