South Boston Speedway

Daniel Silvestri (left) has had a solid rookie season driving for Jeb Burton (right) and Peyton Sellers.

It’s no secret that South Boston Speedway has some of the most difficult competition of any weekly racetrack in the country, but the 2019 season has proven it’s not too tough for newcomers to have an impact.

One rookie has visited victory lane this season while a couple more are knocking on the door and several more fill the top 10 in the points standings.

Trey Crews has been the cream of the rookie crop. Crews, who had competed successfully in the Limited Sportsman Division in past years, moved up to the demanding Late Model Stock class this spring and had an immediate impact. He was victorious in just his sixth start and has a total of five top-five finishes and seven top-10 finishes in eight starts. Despite missing two races, Crews is sixth in the Late Model Stock point standings.

While he hasn’t rung up a victory yet, 16-year-old Daniel Silvestri has put together a stellar first season in the Late Model Stock division. Running a limited South Boston schedule, the youngster has put together a string of five top-10 finishes after opening the season with an 11th. He had a runner-up finish to mentor Peyton Sellers in his third start of the season. In just seven starts he has an average finish of just over six and is ninth in points.

Kenny Daniel made the jump from Budweiser Hornets to the Limited Sportsman Division this year, and despite the huge difference in the two classes, he’s had a solid impact. He’s finished in the top 10 in every start in 2019, a fifth and three sixth-place finishes.

Fourteen-year-old Landon Pembleton may be the biggest surprise of the 2019 season at South Boston. The youngster, whose dad Brian raced many years at South Boston, has been competitive in the Limited Sportsman Division all season. The rookie has a couple of fourths to his credit, including one in the big 75-lapper at midseason. All total, he has three top-five finishes and seven top 10s.

From sponsor to driver, Andrea Ruotolo enjoys everything about racing at SoBo

Andrea Ruotolo’s path to the banks of South Boston Speedway are far different than anyone else. It’s a guarantee that it isn’t even close.

Ruotolo was born and reared just outside of Naples … the one in Italy, not Florida. He didn’t come to the United States permanently until 2005 and he had already been bitten by the racing bug.

These days Ruotolo is best known as the owner of Italian Delight Family Restaurant. His restaurant is again sponsoring Saturday’s race at South Boston Speedway and has been sponsoring Austin Thaxton’s Late Model Stock car for five years. And this year he’s crawling through the window of a Budweiser Hornet Division car to try his hand at the real thing.

The story begins, though back in 1998, when Ruotolo was a teenager and came to the United States to work for his brother Vinny, also a regional restaurateur, to earn money for school.

“All of this is something my brother started a few years back. When I was a teenager, coming here to make some money and go back for school, he was sponsoring a car. From there, I liked the sport, the race, everything,” said Ruotolo. “When I came back in 2005 for good, I always dreamed to be part of it, not just a sponsor.”

So Thaxton decided it was time to pay his sponsor back for all his help over the past five seasons.

“Austin asked me last year if I wanted to drive and he got a car ready,” said Ruotolo. “Racing is like something that attaches to you and doesn’t let go. Austin warned me … he said this sport is an addiction and an expensive one.”

He actually ran three races at the end of last season and the results weren’t very promising, wrecking once and blowing an engine in another. He entered the 2019 season undaunted though.

“Austin told me this division may be the hardest one of all. There’s a lot of bumping and drivers don’t really respect the lines. But it’s a lot of fun, a lot of adrenaline, the prerace, while you’re racing, after the race, all the frustrations … it’s all fun.

“I’m telling you, there are people in my division that act like crazy when they drive, but they all are really good people and are there to have fun.”

Ruotolo has worked hard to stay out of trouble and gain respect of other competitors as a rookie. With the exception of one race, he has managed to avoid any major trouble to complete as many laps as possible and improve in the process. After running near the back of the field the first half of the season, he has put together consecutive fifth-place finishes in the past two outings.

“I think I’m still learning …. I’ve not learned 100 percent,” he said. “It is a process. Every race the track is different. It may be simple to watch it, you may say ‘they are just going around a track, how hard is that?’ But the track changes all the time.

“I’m definitely getting better every race; from the beginning I’ve learned so many things. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to screw a screw in the engine when we started and I’m still learning. We’ve made the car a little faster, but it’s not really enough yet.”

Ruotolo is a big believer in the Hornets Division as a starting point and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in getting behind the wheel.

“I think you always have to start from the bottom of everything. That’s where you learn a lot. It costs a lot less to race, it’s not that expensive and it’s fun and it’s really hard. If you can do something in the Hornet Division, you can do better in other divisions.”

And Ruotolo is also a big believer in the value of sponsorship at South Boston Speedway, be it putting his restaurant’s name on a race or on a car.

“For our restaurant, it’s a good way to do advertising, especially local because there are so many local people at the speedway,” said Ruotolo, who of course has Italian Delight Family Restaurant on his car but also gets sponsorship help from Richard’s Plumbing, Cycle Works and AT Fabrication. “Most people that come here go to watch the races at South Boston Speedway. I believe if you help the community, they will help you back.”

Ruotolo will be back in action at South Boston Speedway Saturday night with the Italian Delight Family Restaurant Presents National Night Out NASCAR Late Model 100.

The night of racing will feature a 100-lap race for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model Stock Car Division. The Limited Sportsman Division competitors will battle it out in a 50-lap race. Twin 15-lap races are set for the Budweiser Pure Stock Division and a 15-lap race is on tap for the Budweiser Hornets Division.