Warwick’s Nick Matera was the youngest racer on the track at Thompson Speedway last season.
He could put the pedal down and hit speed upwards of 90 miles per hour on race nights, but to get to the track in the first place, he had to be in the passenger seat. He was only 15 years old.
“He didn’t have his driver’s license yet,” said Steve Matera, Nick’s father and crew chief. “One time, we were really busy before a race and we needed a part. We were joking because Nick was about to go out and race but he couldn’t drive down the street to Napa Auto Parts.”
Despite his youth, though, Nick Matera delivered a strong showing in his first season on the circuit, putting himself in Rookie of the Year contention before a wreck ended his season at the midway point. When the 2012 season begins in April, the 16-year-old Matera is hoping for even more success.
“In racing, you never really know what to expect, but the goals are to have a lot of fun and see if we can get a couple of top-10 or even top-five finishes,” he said.
That would be a strong next step on a journey that started a while ago. Matera, now a junior at Toll Gate, was just 8 years old when he first felt the desire to race. His neighbors had some dirt bikes that piqued his interest so his dad signed him up for some races in the New England Trail Riders Association’s Pee Wee Division.
That was the beginning.
“He just had this desire to race,” Steve Matera said.
Over the next few years, that desire never faded, regardless of what Nick was riding or driving. Even when the going got tough, he wanted to keep going.
“He did some motocross training, and I remember driving back with him,” Steve said. “He had ice on just about every part of his body. I told him if you want to do this, this is what it’s going to feel like every week. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that,’ so we decided to get him in something with four wheels.”
The switch took Matera to quarter midgets, which he raced for four years. He then moved on to Bandoleros, a common starting point for NASCAR drivers.
Whatever he drove, Matera was hooked.
“I loved it,” he said. “I looked forward to every weekend.”
Last year, Nick and his father decided to move up again, to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Racing Series, Mini-Stock Division at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
It was a big jump.
“When I first started, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Matera said. “I had no idea what it was going to be like.”
But Matera wasn’t intimidated. He was content to bide his time and gain some experience. In the process, though, he found some success.
His first race, he opted to start last in deference to the more experienced drivers.
“I didn’t want to get in anybody’s way,” he said.
But when the race was over, Matera hadn’t just survived – he finished 14th out of 24 racers.
The trend continued in the next few weeks. Matera always started at the back of the pack, but by the time the checkered flag came out, he was firmly in the middle.
“Pretty much every week, I moved up a spot,” Matera said. “I was quite shocked. I out-did even my own expectations.”
It was an impressive feat, especially considering the competition.
“He was out there against guys who have been racing longer than he’s been alive,” Steve said. “He did great.”
Steve Matera is an auto mechanic by trade. He first got into racing when he helped out some friends who were involved. When Nick took to the track, Steve became his crew chief. With Nick’s help, they do most of the work on the car.
Last year, they felt they were just hitting their stride when the wreck happened.
“He was getting more comfortable, and the car was really dialed in,” Steve said.
The wreck wasn’t too serious, but it did a lot of damage to the car. Financially, it was going to be too difficult to put everything back together and salvage the rest of the season.
But when the new season begins on April 25, the car should be ready to go again. The Materas are currently looking for sponsors to help shoulder some of the financial burden, but money aside, they’re eager to get back on the track.
“We’re excited about it,” Steve said. “Looking at where he was performing last year, if he starts further up in the pack, he’d be top 10 and maybe top five. We’re going to run for points and see if we can run for a victory this year.”
The experience Nick gained last year should help the cause, and this season will offer an opportunity to get even more comfortable. He’s thinking he’ll stick with mini-stocks for a few years before exploring another step up.
Whatever happens, the Materas will keep enjoying their shared passion.
Young or not, Nick plans to keep on racing.
“It really started out just as a father-son hobby,” Steve said. “It’s fun. We’ll take it however far it may go.”