Throughout all of 2015, Richie Pallai Jr. sat on the sidelines instead of behind the wheel. With all of the family racing equipment sold, Pallai focused more on finishing up graduate school at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and starting the next chapter of his life when he moved from his home in Yorktown Heights, New York to Concord, North Carolina.
But the itch to race again grew stronger and stronger throughout the year. Now, when the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour heads to North Carolina’s Caraway Speedway on March 12, Pallai can finally scratch that itch when he straps in behind the wheel of the Hill Enterprises No. 79 Modified.
“To tell you the truth, last year I didn’t really miss racing that much, especially with finishing up school and moving down south it was kind of on the back burner,” Pallai told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “But the first race I went to in 2015 was at Charlotte in October. The minute I walked in and saw the Modifieds again it really made me miss it a lot and really made me want to get back into it. I felt like a little bit of an outcast. I felt like I hadn’t been in it for a long time. That’s never a good feeling when you’re so passionate about something. You always want to be a part of it.”
Pallai said he and team owner David Hill have been in constant contact since October about the possibility of teaming up. They tried to work out a last-minute deal to run the North-South Shootout at Concord Speedway (NC), but at the time nothing came about.
“(Hill) reassured me that now that I’m living down here we should stay in contact,” said Pallai. “We had a great dinner about a month ago to talk about some things. I visited the shop, met with David, his son Derek, and one of the crew guys, Mike Wood. I see what David did with his dad in racing and I see what he’s doing now with his son, and that reminds me a lot of me and my dad, so I’m really looking forward to it being a part of that.”
Hill said that he’s known the 26-year-old driver for quite some time due to their days of racing against each other on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in the Northeast, and because of that he feels confident about what Pallai can do in the driver’s seat.
“I think we can be a legitimate top-five car that can battle for wins,” said Hill. “I think we can do that just a few races into it too.”
Pallai and Hill said the plan is to race all 11 races on the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour beginning with the Caraway opener in early March. Pallai hasn’t been to a lot of the tracks on the schedule, so he said he’ll be leaning on the experience of his team and a few of his competitors as well.
“The team knows a lot more about these tracks than I do,” said Pallai. “I’ve already reached out to some drivers that I know down here. They all have been real helpful and and real supportive. I’ll get as much help and get on iRacing as much as I can before March 12. Hopefully we can run well early on and that’ll help us pick up some more sponsorship as the year goes on too.”
Pallai said his goals will be changing as the season goes on. In the beginning he wants to get used to being behind the wheel again, but as the year goes on, he just wants to win, especially since it’s been a while since his last win. The last time Pallai visited victory lane in a Modified came at the 2009 Spring Sizzler at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut.
“I think this is probably the first year in a long time that I’ve been hungry,” he said. “I’m pretty fired up about it. My goal is the same as it’s always been. It’s to finish races, do the best that we can and contend for wins. That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to contend for wins.”
One reason behind Pallai’s lengthy absence was a practice crash for a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event at Stafford in May 2014.
Pallai’s throttle stuck going into turn three and he went into the guardrail almost head-on. His family owned No. 39 was destroyed, the guardrail had to be repaired, and Pallai, who walked away under his own power, was taken to an area hospital for further evaluation.
He hasn’t run a race in a Tour-type Modified since. He ran two more SK Modified races at Stafford that year before his leave of absence began.
“After the Stafford wreck I was able to run my SK a few times at Stafford,” he said. “The whole mental block about getting back in the car and kind of forgetting about the wreck, I kind of got through that then. I just wanted to do it so people would stop talking. A lot of people thought I wasn’t going to race again, but I just wanted to get back in the car.”
Pallai said the crash spooked him a bit, but ultimately he said he understands the dangers of racing, and he just loves being behind the wheel of a race car too much to stay away.
“I’ve always been in safe race cars,” he said. “I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘I’m not afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not living.’ If you’re doing what you love to do and something ever does happen, then I’m alright with that.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Fran Lawlor Photo