Hockey is one of the most athletic sports there is. To be a even a decent hockey player one has to be good at skating. A great hockey player has mastered the skill of moving around a sheet of ice with a thin steel blade strapped to both feet. Race car drivers are athletes as well, contrary to the beliefs of many stick-and-ball followers. It requires lightning fast reflexes and the stamina and physical strength to be able to muscle your machine to the win at the end of a long race.
Richie Pallai Jr. knows that better than anybody. Pallai is a pretty darn good hockey player at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He also happens to be a past Spring Sizzler SK Modified winner at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT).
Pallai, 24, has been playing ice hockey since he was three years old. Last year he put up big numbers at WPU, scoring 22 goals and 22 assists in 28 games. He’s gone to Europe, twice, representing America and the college hockey association that his school plays in, the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
“The team is a select team from across the country,” said Pallai. “They choose out of like 1,400 players. And they put a team together and we go over for two weeks in between December and January and we play against professional teams in various countries. Guys that get paid to play hockey for a living.”
And he’s been racing cars since he was 15. In Pallai’s mind there is no debate over whether race car drivers or athletes or if auto racing is a sport.
“Unless you’re a natural born race car driver, and there’s very few out there, you have to be an athlete,” said the Yorktown Heights, New York native. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey one day I want to get in a race car and drive 200 laps.’ You just physically won’t make it. But in my opinion drivers are just as good of athletes as basketball players or hockey players.”
Pallai said it’s difficult compare the physicality of racing to ice hockey.
“I compare it to being on a roller coaster,” he said. “You’re buckled in and you have no control over what’s going to happen. When that wreck happened, I saw it, but it happened in slow motion in my mind. You can’t really do anything. You’re along for the ride.”
Pallai is currently in his last year of graduate school at WPU where he is getting his M.B.A. in business. He graduated from New York University with a degree in sports business.
“Ideally I’d like to work in sports,” he said. “Ideally in hockey or in motorsports. That would be nice.”
Sports have been a huge part of Pallai’s life. He went off to boarding school at 14 years old. While attending Berkshire School in Sheffield, MA, Pallai played just about every sport one could play. Ice hockey, football, baseball, soccer, and he even ran track. Pallai credits his ability to juggle school, hockey, racing, and his personal life to his time at Berkshire school.
“I guess going away to boarding school you kind of mature quickly,” he said. “I moved away when I was 14. There was a lot of discipline involved. You’ve got to mature right away.”
It’s around that same time when Pallai’s racing career got started as well.
“I went to a SK race (at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut) when I was 15,” said Pallai. “We went to the infield and Jackie (Arute, a good friend of the Pallai family) comes up to me and he says ‘You want to race?’ and I said ‘Yeah absolutely.’ But I was like, ‘We can’t afford to play hockey and race.’ He said ‘Alright let me figure it out.'”
After that day Pallai started racing mini sprint cars. Then he moved into the SK Light division at Stafford. He won in just his third race. He said that’s one of his greatest moments in racing.
“I didn’t have the quarter midget days,” he said. “I was racing against guys my age that had already been racing 10 years.”
A couple years later and Pallai was in victory lane at Stafford again in what he said was the biggest win of his life when he took home the checkered flag in the 2009 SK Spring Sizzler.
“The Spring Sizzler win was cool because in the Fall Final the year before we led 30 laps and the carburetor let go on a restart,” he said. “So that was a huge win and that was back when Carquest sponsored it so there was a lot of Carquest people there so it was pretty cool.”
Pallai hasn’t raced much this year. He’s made a couple of starts in his SK at Stafford this year. He also tried to qualify for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour TSI Harley Davidson 125 at Stafford back in May, but a massive crash in practice ended that attempt as well as any other races he may have had lined up. Pallai’s throttle stuck going into turn three. He slammed the turn three guardrail, causing a delay of over an hour to repair the hole. Pallai walked away from the crash.
“We don’t have a lot of monetary backing like a lot of teams do,” said Pallai. “When we wrecked at Stafford we were planning on going to Loudon next. But obviously we couldn’t because of the wreck. We don’t have the big hauler or the money everyone else does. I think people forget about teams like us. Without the small guys you really don’t have a field.”
He said he doesn’t know when his next race will be, but he does know that he’s done racing for this season.
“I do hope we can put the Tour program back together,” he said. “It would be nice if someone stepped up and said ‘We want to help you.’ My dad and I will continue what we do. He’s my best friend. We just enjoy going together. Hopefully we can put the car back together and make some races next year.”
As for hockey? Well, this is Pallai’s last year of college eligibility. He said he still has yet to decide if he’ll “hang it up and go into the real world,” or if he’ll continue to lace up his skates.
“I haven’t completely given up on the goal of playing professional hockey somewhere,” he said. “I’ve had some opportunities where I could try out or pursue it.”
The lifelong New York Rangers fan would love to have his dream of skating out onto the ice at Madison Square Garden in front of his friends and family come true. He knows the probability of that, but he’s still holding out hope.
“That would be pretty cool,” he said. “But I’m realistic in a sense that will probably never happen.
“A tryout anywhere would mean a lot. But as long as I’m enjoying playing hockey or racing, that’s enough for me.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Regional Editor (Long Island, CT, and NJ)- Twitter: @RobBlount
Photo Credit: Crystal Snape.