He never set the racing world on fire, but more than 50 years after the start of a long career a familiar Modified continues to roll out of a trailer towed by a 1990 Chevy pickup truck a few times each year to the eager satisfaction of many longtime fans. Hand-painted in white on the side of the recognizable red and yellow No. 17 is his business of 40 years, Ken Canestrari Auto Body.
At his latest appearance with the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Tour at Shangri-La II Motor Speedway (NY), Canestrari finished 29th in the final running order after pulling his car off the track and back to his usual parking spot in the backstretch infield pit area before halfway. He doesn’t necessarily have all the resources that many of the teams do to adjust from one track or various conditions to another, but he does the best with what he has.
“I’m struggling; I’ll be the first to admit that,” Canestrari told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I thought I had too much cross weight and took 25 pounds out. After 20 laps the right front was colder than the left front. There is so much more available but not everyone can afford to do it, but I’m not complaining.”
The younger generations may see a driver trying his hardest to keep up, but Canestrari, now 75 years old and still in good health, has had his share of accomplishments throughout the years in Eastern and Central New York.
Starting in 1961 at the age of 21, he raced on dirt at the still operating Fonda Speedway (NY) and according to archived news records was named Rookie of the Year in their Sportsman division in 1962. He competed in the 1970s at Fulton Speedway when it was paved as well.
“We were always a step behind,” Canestrari mentioned. “My father and I would have discussions at Fonda when I used to run dirt where we would have a good run one week and the next would be completely different. I never touched the car and would question him if he did.
“I had a couple good runs at Fulton, but at that time you had guys like Geoff Bodine and Richie Evans there. Any track you go to it’s very competitive.”
His biggest successes came at the original Shangri-La Motor Speedway, later known as Tioga Motorsports Park in Owego, New York, before it shut down in 2005.
“We won there eight or nine times,” Canestrari recounted. “It seemed like I could adapt readily to that place.”
Fast forwarding to today, Canestrari continues to compete in two of those Troyer Modifieds that he won with when making the six-hour round trips to either Shangri-La II or Oswego Speedway (NY) from his home north of Albany.
“The ’97 one I brought to Shangri-La II won one race, but it has to be spot in,” Canestrari explained. “The ’90 car won the others and actually feels better than the ’97 car. It’s more forgiving. I’ll probably bring that car the next time.”
Canestrari does get some assistance between races via phone conversations and occasionally at the track. He is often in contact with Troyer Race Cars owner Billy Colton and staff for advice, and is good friends with five-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Tony Hirschman.
Otherwise, it has typically been Canestrari by himself that shows up at the track and tunes on the car. He also builds his own engines and performs mechanical work at his shop, fittingly in the town of Mechanicville, New York where he resides. A good friend of his has painted the car numbers and letters of his auto repair business for the last 25 years, but for the most part over the years he has been alone to do it all. He was quick to point out that he has enjoyed it for all it is worth though, and there is one great reason for that.
One of Canestrari’s biggest supporters through it all has been his wife Dolores. During past decades she would join him in his endeavors, and longtime Modified fans will recall her enthusiasm while he was on track. Ironically, the day he won his first race at Shangri-La, she was unable to make the trip.
“You’re lucky if you have one that will support you,” Canestrari said. “She used to go crazy, but only had seen me win one race. The time she saw me win a race it scared her because she thought I was going so much faster.”
Witnessing the evolution of the Modified and the sport of racing in general, while the overall look of the cars and the faces have changed, Canestrari still sees it as any other competition.
“From year to year not much has changed,” Canestrari analyzed. “It’s still basically the same. You have guys that are doing the most intelligent things that are doing the best.”
Canestrari mentioned the innovative minds of Matt Hirschman and Andy Jankowiak as two examples of his statement. He also applauded how fair Andrew Harpell keeps things going running the RoC Tour along with the quality and durability of the American Racer tire currently utilized.
In the short term, Canestrari will use the summer months as preparation for and plans on being in the pit area when RoC visits Oswego in September.
“Hopefully I can put something together to be decent enough to stay with the field,” Canestrari said. “It’s a tough game.”
For as difficult as it is, Canestrari keeps coming back and was on the track to see the checkered flag twice in four starts in 2014. Nevertheless, in the long term he could be waving the checkered flag on his career sooner rather than later.
“Maybe I’ll run this year and next year and that will be about it,” Canestrari predicted. “I really enjoy racing, but as you go it starts to get to the point where you really have no incentive. I will really miss it when I quit.”
Canestrari’s years in racing and friendships gained have taught him to live life in the moment, but to also be prepared for down the road.
“Life is really simple,” Canestrari pointed out. “You never know about anything. If today is Wednesday, you are lucky to make it to Thursday.
“You’ve got to be good to people. You can give 100 percent and get 75 percent in return a lot of times, but you do what you can. I used to borrow money to get home from Fulton. People were always good to me, and I think it was because I have always been honest and sincere. I am proud of that.”
Looking back, Canestrari has seen so many come and go and to him it has been a career that has gone by in an instant. Overall he has enjoyed the memories and remains confident about his health going forward.
“When you become 40 years old time goes so fast that it seems like when you go home tonight, tomorrow morning when you wake up you are 60,” Canestrari quipped. “Time just flies. Honestly, I don’t feel any different than before. I try to do what I think is right. I have good energy, strength, and I work out every other day.
“When I first started there were four or five guys who won everything, but they ran out of money. At least I spent 50 years having fun instead of 10 years of glory. For me to quit now is going to be hard.”
– By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Pennsylvania/Central New York Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
– Photo credit: Speed51.com