If you ever found yourself at a NASA Northeast event, and appreciated how smoothly the events are run, you might have thought to yourself, “These guys have probably done this a time or two.” There’s a good reason for that.
NASA Northeast Regional Director Joe Casella recently celebrated a milestone not many people can claim: Joe has been staging track events now for 50 years. Along with his wife Suzan and sons Robert and Brian, Joe has been putting on NASA events since 2004.
Going back to the beginning, Joe began putting on track events and racing one of his beloved Datsun Z cars with the Z Club of America, the club he founded in 1971. Showing no signs of slowing down, Joe and Suzan continue to fill the schedule each season with lots of events for NASA Northeast members. Whether it’s at New Jersey Motorsports Park, which the region has worked with since it opened in 2008, or Pocono, Watkins Glen or Lime Rock Park, NASA Northeast events showcase the depth and breadth of Joe’s experience in putting on events drivers return to again and again.
We caught up with Joe Casella to chat him up a bit about the milestone and to find out what it’s like to have been at this game for as long as he has.
Q: OK, let’s start with the obvious. Tell us about the first track event you directed. Can you remember when and where?
A: It was Lime Rock on April 8, 1973.
SN: No, I mean, exactly.
A: That is exactly the date. Really, it all started back when I started the Z Club of America in 1971. I was one of the very earliest owners of the Datsun 240Z cars that were in our area. I went to the New York Auto Show in spring of ‘70, and the next day I went to the Datsun dealer and ordered my first Z. There was very little information on the Z cars at that time and I had already started finding ways to make the car better. At the time I had a small ad agency business and I knew that there were other Z owners out there looking to do stuff and improve their cars. So I decided to start the Z Club of America by putting an ad in Road & Track magazine for about $13, offering a membership, club decal and a newsletter for 10 bucks a year. I asked these members to send me photos and questions on the things they needed and wanted for the Z car.
After the ad had run for three months, we had over a hundred members from all over the country. So, I realized I was really onto something here. And this all led to taking the Z Club members to Lime Rock for a driving school, and I had learned enough about driving schools way back when I had done some other types of stuff, which I’ll get into in a minute. So, that was the basis for that first event.
Q: How long had you already been racing at that point?
A: I began competing with the first ’70 240Z doing time trials. I decided I wanted to go racing and I did a race school at Summit Point, W.V., with Bill Scott and got a rookie license. Then I started to build the car for racing and got a logbook, and did my first race at Bridgehampton, Long Island, N.Y., where I did another licensing school and got a full competition license. That’s how it started.
Q: This is where I’m going to go off script, because you remember Bridgehampton. Everybody I talk to says what a fantastic racetrack it was. It’s now The Bridge Golf Club, where there are homages to the track, including the original Chevron bridge over what was the front straight. What was that like to race at Bridgehampton?
A: Well, it was, by far, the most challenging racetrack I had ever experienced — then and now. The track itself was laid over sand dunes and the runoff was only sand. There was virtually no curbing of any kind. I started renting Bridgehampton and ran the driving schools there as well and raced. And we stayed on that track up until the two weeks before they finally shut it down. So, the track itself had more dangerous corners, blind and so on, but it was the fastest and scariest place you wanted to drive. And we did many schools there. I’d probably put hundreds of miles on that track, maybe thousands of miles for all the years we used to go there, because we started in the early ‘70s, going there once or twice a year, and then finished up in the early ‘90s when they shut the place down.
And we had been running the Z club stuff there all that time. So it was just a great track. I mean, I knew it like the back of my hand and I took people for rides on that track that scared the hell out of them. The scary part of the course was the long straightaway. And when you got to the end of it, all you saw was sky, the bridge and then it went down and the elevation drops from that point to Turn 2 about a hundred feet. And it was like a rollercoaster ride. And if you caught it right, it was like, oh my God. So, I got to handle that track extremely well. Did a bunch of races there, won a bunch of them, did a lot of time trials at that place, too, so it was a great, great track.
One Lap at Bridgehampton
Q: What were some of your biggest accomplishments or fondest memories in racing?
A: There was a bunch. I guess in all the track events I did over time, some of the things that really stood out for me was winning a regional championship at Pocono after being punted off the track by a Corvette, a GT1 Corvette, and coming back from that excursion off track to win the C Production class. That was a big one for me. I mean, it was one of those things where you put the bit in your teeth and you just hammered it. The car held up beautifully, and I caught the second place car about 200 feet before the checkered flag. So, it was a hell of a win.
Another highlight for me was getting a track record at Watkins Glen in that same C Production car on the short course, which they normally don’t run anymore. It’s the course that NASCAR uses. That was before the Bus Stop was there. So this was coming on the long straight, you go through the sweeper at the end of it and just keep on it all the way around and you get onto the NASCAR straight. That was kind of cool to get that. They gave you a flag that had the track record on it, and that was pretty neat.
Probably the next most gratifying for me was getting the pole position at Mosport in a national race on the pole ahead of the GT1 car. What was kind of cool about it is we introduced for the first time a stroker motor that we built. And I pulled a Camaro on the front row with me down the front straightaway into the first corner. And my guys were on the pit wall going ballistic. It was just really cool. The car was spectacular, it was running great. Motor was killer, and I had the field covered. But coming onto the checkered flag lap, coming up on a back marker of an old Porsche. The guy went wide and pushed me off and I hit the guardrail.
That was it, and I didn’t win the race. The pole position was really cool.
Q: Your experiences would make you the perfect witness for the history of the advancement of safety in amateur racing. What changes do you think have made the biggest differences in racing safety over the years?
A: Number one is the HANS device. I think secondly would be the fire systems that are really currently available. And I also believe that the tire technology, tire construction has improved dramatically. We had incidents where side walls would give out. And right now I think the tire companies have done a really great job in making tires safer and faster, obviously. But, I think that those are three big things that I think help the safety. I mean, window nets, that type of stuff that you were required to have on the outside, the halo seats, the interior nets certainly help. Anything keeping the driver contained is definitely a big plus, too, in making the guys much safer.
Q: So, when you were racing with the Z Club, did you guys fill the event with nothing but Datsun Z cars or did you allow other marques to come out and play?
A: Until we took over, our NASA region was pretty much track days and Time Trial. We were in the throes at that stage right around 2002, 2003 to try to develop some type of a racing series. So the guys that were operating the region at the time were having some difficulties because they couldn’t get track dates. So I was in a position because of all my history with the Z Club that I was grandfathered in to weekends all over the place. And these young guys that were starting just couldn’t get really good days. So they had approached me because I knew most of them, and they had approached me and said, ‘Well, can we do something together?’
I said, well, yes and no, but you know, I offered my to help them if they wanted to get more organized, get more people because we had built the Z Club to have substantial number of members and especially in the Northeast. So, as it turns out, I passed on it the first year they approached me, then the second year they came back and they were a bunch of young family guys with kids coming and so on and so forth. And I sure was past that already. So, we made the deal to take the region over. We took care of outstanding debt that they had. We contacted Jerry (Kunzman) and Ryan (Flaherty) and flew out and met them at Sears Point up in NorCal to get a sense of what they were doing and how they were running events and so on. And then we took our normal track day weekends and we started to introduce the competition, the Time Trial and obviously comp school and then the racing.
So that’s how it really took over. The guys that had been running the region before that had made an attempt to do some stuff. The entries were small. They did do some early racing and the transition was pretty smooth, you know, because we had had plenty of experience already in terms of operating the track events, and the racing just kind of fell into place.
Q: If you remember the exact date of your first track event, you must remember how many Datsun Z cars have you owned through the years?
A: Yeah, I do. I had to think back quite a bit cause I’ve had them forever. Here’s the count. I’ve had three Z race cars, two of which we built from scratch, and one of which I got from a guy that bought one of Bob Sharp’s cars that Paul Newman had driven, but was crashed. I bought it and we repaired it and then we raced that one right to the end, before I sold it. But on the other end of it, I’ve had at least four 240s, I’ve had two of the 260s, I had three 280s, two 280ZXs, four 300ZXs up and through the ‘98 model. And then I’ve had two of the later model 300ZX twin turbos.
Q: I saw online a picture of you sitting in a 400Z. Are you going to get one of those?
A: I like the car a lot, and I’m just not ready to pull the trigger on it because I have my E46 M3 Competition that is my baby right now. I will get one, but I think I may have to get rid of the BMW before I pull the trigger on another Z car.
Q: What other kinds of cars have you raced?
A: I’ve raced a BMW E36, a car that was built in Holland. It was a ‘95 chassis that won the touring car championship in the Netherlands, and it was brought over here by a guy that I knew quite well. He gave me the car to drive and race. Amazing machine. When you get something that’s factory built, it’s like, oh my God.
I got a chance to drive a Fox body Mustang in a couple of endurance races, and that was sort of like driving a truck, but it was fun, you know, I had a good time doing it, and that’s about it. Primarily, I spent all the racing years in a Z car. I did get a chance to drive a new Corvette C8 eight at the track last year, a streetcar. Very, very nice car. Really, really nice. I really liked that car.
Q: We touched on this earlier, but Paul Newman was a big Datsun racer. Did you ever get to race with him?
A: Well, we raced with Newman all over the place. I mean, he was at every national race that was up in this region with the Bob Sharp team. He did a great service to bringing attention to club racing and to road racing in general. He was a real gentleman, even though he knocked my driver’s mirror off while passing me, coming out of the Bus Stop at Watkins Glen. But the guy was cool, and one of the pictures I sent you was him at Lime rock. You’ll see my car and the No. 33. That was the car that was the quickest that they ever built for him, other than the gigantic V8 twin turbo car that they built.
SN: So, you met him? You knew him? You talked to him?
A: Well, yeah, he was kind of to himself. We used to see him all the time. He and his wife Joanne, they were there all the time. Suzan has a whole volume of pictures of the two of them that we took at Lime Rock or at the Glen or Pocono, wherever we were racing with them.
He wasn’t much about signing autographs for people, but the racers never bothered him. Basically, he was one of the guys. He was there at the trophy presentations. You know, it was nice to be involved with racing at that time when he was around because the crowds would come just to see him, and coincidentally they saw us race at the same time. So, it was just a good time. It was a different era. People were so friendly. You’d go to Lime Rock and they would pack the hill overlooking the track. You’d get 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 people to come for a Sports Car Club of America national race, not even a pro race. It was just a great time to be involved in racing.
The Bob Sharp team were always helpful to us because, listen, they had all the factory money. They had the Budweisers and they had Planters Peanuts and Canon cameras. They got sponsorship for millions of dollars, and we raced on my wallet. I mean, it’s whatever we could afford. And, you know, I was happy to be in that crowd and always thrilled to be finishing anywhere in the top five. It was always like an like winning the race when you’re racing against factory money like that. From what we had and the kind of money that it cost, I was pretty proud of our team. I had seven or eight guys that would just work their asses off to make sure the car was right. They were there every weekend and, like I said, it was just a great time to be involved in it.
Q: We’re going to change gears a bit here, back to putting on track events. What have been some of the more notable changes in what it takes to put on track events over the years?
A: Well, you’ve got to look at the costs. The rising costs have been something very difficult to deal with sometimes. And it goes back to can people afford to be there? Can you afford to rent a track anymore? As an example, I think the first rental I did at Lime Rock in 1973 was $1,200 for the whole day. You can’t get that per hour now, and insurance, I think to do a track day, my insurance was $150. So, things have absolutely gone bizarre, but it’s the way it is, and you want to be in the game. People still want to come out and do it.
So, we do our best to keep the fees in line as best you can and still cover the costs of the tracks. With tracks popping up all over the place, obviously people still want to do it because somebody’s making, investing in and buying this property and building these things. So it’s something that is going to continue, as far as I can see.
Q: That kind of dovetails into my next question. What do you think of the “motorsports country clubs,” with the huge up-front membership fees and dues? I wonder what their future is.
A: Well, whether you can predict what the future’s going to be, that’s a tough call. I really don’t know that, or couldn’t even begin to guess. But what happens is if you can afford to be a member of one of those country clubs and you like the facility that you’re going to, you know, do it. That’s cool.
But on the other side of the coin, being a NASA member in any region gives you an opportunity to go to a variety of tracks in and around wherever you live. So, a NASA membership pays you back 10 times more than a country club will because you have the variety to go out there and have fun in more places, and learn more. And that’s all part of the deal.
Q: What has it been like to see both your sons take to motorsports? Did they immediately gravitate toward it or did you have to persuade them a bit? What’s that been like as a dad?
A: Well, fortunately it’s in their DNA, so it didn’t take a whole lot to get them involved. I mean, they were involved since, basically since they were born. It’s one of those situations where they’ve made me so proud of the two of them, and the growth they’ve had in this sport. There was really no persuading involved. You know, they took to it very early with karting, then their street cars and then racing. And they’ve done more in developing driving skills than I have ever expected. And they’re both really competent drivers, and they keep doing it, and obviously they’re going to continue to do it.
Q: Think of some of the people who have been racing with you the longest. How far back does that go?
A: Well, some of the guys that I raced with have long retired or no longer with us. But I’ve had many people that came to do track days with us that have come back after decades. You know, some of it, you can call it a midlife crisis, maybe wanting to capture the fun of driving again. Even several of my staff are with us for 20 years or more. So, we’ve seen it cycle.
What’s happened over years, especially when you’re getting the younger folks involved, their family life gets in the way of racing. You can do it in your late teens, early 20s, then you decide you’re going to married, have families and you really need to focus on your family, or not come back for let’s say 10 years or so. But then they get settled in, maybe they’re making more money, the jobs are paying better, they can afford to build race cars. And I’ve seen them come back time and time again, and some of them are older. I mean, some of the guys in the last couple years I’ve had guys in their 60s and 70s come back to do a track day. So, once you’ve been bitten and you have the passion, I think it stays with you.
Q: That brings me to my last question, which is always my last question. What didn’t I ask that I should have? Do you have any parting thoughts or wisdom to share with NASA membership, or anything that you wanted to say but didn’t have a chance to?
A: Being involved in motorsports is a passion, and it can be very rewarding, you know, especially the day that you drive that perfect lap. The need for speed does have something to do with it, for sure. You’ve got to have some passion there as well.
Having the ability to control a vehicle at speed is always the biggest challenge. You know, this sport is not for everybody, but it should be tried at least once. The skills you learn at the track of at a track event will make you a far better and safer driver on the street. I totally believe that. It’s all about what works for you. There are other choices these days if you want to do something in sports, but the driving side of it and motorsports is just in a class by itself.