Englishtown: Legendary drag strip

OLD BRIDGE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Sure, big-time drag racing was born in the California sunshine. And it grew in the Midwest like the wheat and corn around its isolated strips. But it got its attitude in the gritty Northeast. It's still got it, too....

OLD BRIDGE TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Sure, big-time drag racing was born in the California sunshine. And it grew in the Midwest like the wheat and corn around its isolated strips. But it got its attitude in the gritty Northeast.

It's still got it, too. For more than 30 years, the National Hot Rod Association has been coming to the Napp family's legendary strip just outside the colonial village of Englishtown. The local geography is a blinding contrast to what's found within Raceway Park's confines.

Two miles down Pension Road, you'll find historic clapboard homes, antique dealers and horse farms. At Raceway Park, though, especially during an NHRA national event, a cultural shift of seismic proportions takes place. This crowd is Joisey, Noo Yawk and to a lesser extent, South Philly, ya got it?

Bruce Springsteen made a pass or three himself down this quarter-mile. The Highway 9 he sang about is just east. Raceway Park, and its fans, are Jersey attitude personified. Even in the chill that enveloped last weekend's Matco Tools SuperNationals, you still saw tank tops, sprayed-on leather adorning the ladies, and tattoos on places many don't talk about.

It's part of an aura, uniquely New Jerseyan, a crowd and fury and unmuffled thunder that's completely in synch with the region's tough, in-your-face, devil-take-the-hindmost demeanor. Raceway Park during the NHRA's annual visit is more than nitro thunder. It evokes the same `tude as a raucous boardwalk, backed-up traffic on the turnpike, lining up impatiently for hot hero sandwiches, "Rosalita" drifting in the distance, Derek Jeter's swing and "The Sopranos."

You gotta problem wit'dat?

U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, a billionaire elected from New Jersey, knows better. He was making his first visit to a motorsport event at Raceway Park on Sunday.

"Definitely, this is a Jersey event," the former Goldman-Sachs tycoon said. "I heard a few catcalls from the crowd to remind me where I was. It was rowdy. It's a Jersey crowd."

Corzine, along with Gov. James McGreevey, were both on hand for more than the normal political gladhanding.

This state, though, and its loud-but-lovable population of characters, was badly wounded on Sept. 11. Middletown, N.J., barely 20 minutes from Raceway Park, lost more residents than any other New Jersey town in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Hats and shirts celebrating New York firefighters and police were as common at Raceway Park as gearhead garb.

Part of Sunday's finals was set aside to remember the Sept. 11 victims. Parading slowly up the return road were a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey cop who took part in the harrowing rescue effort, and family members who lost loved ones in the mass murders.

But, in the end, it was still Raceway Park, and the gesture was more celebratory than somber. The crowd response was lusty, loud and proud, defiant, the kind of retort that might make bin Laden embrace personal martyrdom a little more quickly if he'd heard it.

Hours later, Kenny Bernstein reflected on the moment of recognition, more solemnly than most of the crowd did.

"I hope, I really do, that we brought any ray of light or enjoyment to the people of New York and New Jersey," he said. "I think we did."

The author is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. who has proudly lived in New Jersey for more than 30 years.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein