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The Cremasco Family: Driving duo tackles the track and helps special athletes

by Mike Robinson

ARTHUR - Clearly the Cremasco family on the right track - in this case, the race track.

Although the father and daughter collaboration of Dennis and Tessa Cremasco, of Arthur, are the faces seen by patrons at Varney Motor Speedway, talking to them at their home makes it abundantly clear it is really a family effort.

Together Dennis, his wife Jayne, and children Tessa and Lewis Cremasco make a winning combination.

Dennis Cremasco caught the bug some 15 years ago.

“I’ve been a fan of racing pretty much all of my life. My dad actually got me started, way back in the early 1960s, taking us to local races in Flamborough and Delaware.”

He added, “There was a period of about 15 years where I wasn’t involved at all, but in 1997 we went to Varney just to watch the racing and they had a class I thought we could afford to race in.”

From that idea, “We built a car and started racing. It’s a blast, a real adrenaline rush. It’s like being on a roller coaster, all the time,” Dennis smiled.

“Even at this level, which is basically an entry level, a low budget level, it’s been a lot of work. A lot of people play golf, I spend my time in the garage, fixing stuff.”

Each week, to prepare for the races, he starts by giving the cars “a very good once over. Sometimes you make notes on the race night about things which might need attention.”

He said with a laugh, “And you need to make sure all the parts are bolted on and not going to fall off. It happens.”

He said parts can work loose “and literally, stuff does fall off from time to time.”

Even at a low level of competition, the biggest cost is fuel - and not just for the race cars themselves.

Even though Varney is only a half hour away, expenses involve towing cars to the site, plus fuel for the races.

“Fuel costs are pretty substantial and tire and rim costs are probably the second highest,” Dennis said.

While the initial start-up can be fairly expensive, Dennis compares it to owning a snowmobile, which costs a certain amount for the vehicle, the safety gear and clothing.

“We’re no different. But once you get away from those costs it’s about $100 per week, per car,” he said.

Unlike in many homes, the Cremasco garage is actually used for vehicles - and fixing them.

He said, “Over the past 15 years, we’ve set up the garage for the race cars. The junk is in the basement.”

But pride shows through as he talks about his daughter, Tessa, and her decision to get into stock car racing.

“When we used to go to watch, we’d always take the kids.”

He suspected it was like most kids who want to try whatever a parent is doing.

“Tessa decided she wanted to try, so we put her in a car about five years ago for a couple of races. She’s been racing pretty much full time since, and she’s doing quite well.”

The car Tessa had driven until recently “had been extremely uncompetitive.”

The new car, which was just finished recently, is quite a bit faster. “She’ll be a lot happier” with the new one.

Tessa’s current car is now the same make and model that he drives - a 1990 Nissan 240SX.

For Dennis, Varney’s proximity is definitely a factor, “but they are also very good people up there.”

He has competed at other invitational races as well - such as Sauble, Barrie, Sunset and Flamborough.

“We like to travel a bit when we can, but time commitments are probably the big thing.”

He added, “But, we’ve also gotten pretty far behind on some household projects, “so we might have to shut it down when the season is over at Varney this year.”

For Dennis and Tessa, it is pretty much the entire family acting as the pit crew, too.

“We do all our work ourselves. We don’t have a pit crew per se,” Dennis said.

“I do 95 per cent of the building of the cars and most of the maintenance. Tessa and Jayne certainly help wherever they can. Tessa’s been doing a fair bit of bodywork this year on the cars. Jayne is really good with the paint and the design. If I quit smashing them up, it would make their job a lot easier.”

Dennis and Tessa race in the Stock 4 Class at Varney.

He said a lot of tracks refer to it as the mini-stock class, which follows the same basic rules province-wide.

“The cars are essentially stock, and the motors are stock. We put a full roll cage in them and we run racing wheels because they are a little more durable and wider than street wheels.”

He said, “We can’t really modify much of anything, but we can optimize things. There’s a lot of safety gear involved, such as five-point seat belts and fire retardant roll-bar padding.”

“We both wear two layer fireproof suits and fire retardant underwear, socks and helmet - that sort of thing ... We all have to go to work on Monday, so we try to make certain we have decent safety equipment. It’s amazing what can happen out there sometimes. Even though we’re all trying to go the same direction we sometimes end up hitting each other - things happen.”

Dennis added, “We’ve had some pretty good moments over the years; we’ve won lots of big races.”

One of his bigger feats was at Flamborough, where he won the Oktoberfest race in 2001.

Another time, he won nine features out of 25 events. “That was a pretty successful year.”

“Tessa, in her short period out there, has won a few big races as well.”

He cited her win in the Hillbilly Races a couple of years ago, and two feature races in one night.

“Points wise, we’ve never won a championship, but we’ve  usually ended up finishing in the top two or three. We’ve accomplished a lot more than I ever thought we would,” he said. “We just really wanted to go out and race. And if we won a race here and there, that was great.”

In different years, Dennis and Tessa have earned awards as most sportsmanlike driver. “We try to drive the races pretty clean and help people out when we can.”

But not everything has been an open road for the duo.

One of the low lights came when one of their cars landed on top of the other during a race.

Dennis said another car slid up the track and hit his and Tessa’s cars.

“It knocked us both off the track. I ended up hitting a dirt embankment at about 50 miles per hour, which launched my car up in the air. At the same time, Tessa was right behind me, and she ended up underneath my car. So when I came down, I landed on top of her car.”

Dennis added “No one was hurt and the cars were not that badly wrecked ... We were out racing again the next week.”

Tessa added, “It was probably my worst wreck, psychologically.”

Dennis agreed, “It was pretty nasty. We’ve seen other people write their cars off over the years - that’s never fun - but it happens.”

Tessa said she was about 13 when the racing bug got her.

“It’s one of those things where I really wanted to do it, but I was really fortunate to have someone to teach me. I can take pride in my driving because I learned from someone fantastic.”

Being on the track, Tessa said, “It’s great ... now. I had a time where I felt like where it seemed like other drives did not want to race a girl. I got spun out all the time.”

Her mom, Jayne, said most of that came from young guys who did not want to lose to a girl.

Tessa said, “I was all of 17 and they couldn’t take it. It’s not like I was a phenomenal driver, but I had a decent car, and I could drive enough that I could be ahead of them. I feel it’s different now, and that people respect me.”

She explains for her, racing is not about being a superstar or doing wonderful things.

“There’s something to be said for finding something you like, and doing it. If you’re doing something you enjoy with people that you love, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

But stock car racing isn’t Tessa’s only interest.

She has a degree in music, plays the tuba and the piano, is a member of the Guelph concert band, works at the pool in Fergus, recently went to teacher’s college and in her spare time she coaches figure skating.

“That’s about it. It keeps me busy,” she said.

In comparison, Dennis said his background is pretty easy.

“I’m an auto mechanic for a transportation company in Fergus, and every spare minute of my time after that is spent researching, watching, fixing, designing and building race cars - with the odd couple minutes every now and then to cut some grass.”

“This is not a joke, it’s true,” Jayne laughed.

Tessa added, “It’s good because our cars are solid, competitive, built to last and they are cars to be proud of.”

Tessa’s pride in her father is equally evident.

“I’m the most fortunate person at that track - to learn from someone who knows so much - and to be provided with cars which are competitive,” she said.

Special Olympics

For the Cremascos, their involvement goes beyond racing.

Together the family uses the racing venue to raise money for Special Olympics athletes.

Dennis said Jayne has taken over that end of the family endeavours.

“We obviously help where ever we can, and we use the cars to help promote that end of it.”

Dennis describes Jayne as the driving force behind the Hillbilly Racing in support of Special Olympic Athletes.

“We try to keep them involved in sports and through this we pay the costs for bowling or for competition registrations for either the regional or national levels,” Dennis said.

“It’s also to help build awareness for Special Olympics as well. It’s been pretty successful; it’s been going on for about four years now.”

In the first three years, they raised in excess of $10,000. This year is looking good as well, Dennis said.

One of the reasons behind the family’s involvement is their son, Lewis, himself a Special Olympics athlete.

“He’s been involved in Special Olympics for quite a while,” Dennis said.

“He figure skates, and bowls with the sports groups. That’s what certainly got us involved initially. But since then, the sports group has taken on a life of its own. It’s so much fun to be with the kids every week.”

They bowl from roughly September to May, so the family is in Mount Forest pretty much every Saturday helping out with the bowling. During the summer there is swimming, and in the winter, skating.

“A lot of kids from Mount Forest and that area that didn’t  skate or swim before are starting to branch out a bit. It gets them out and in the community a bit more. They’re all friends, so its a good program for them,” said Dennis.

Jayne anticipates that in the near future there will be a name change from Hillbilly Racing to something else to provide a new image. “A little less hillbilly and a bit more modern, upbeat.”

The new promotion will follow the theme Stock 4 Racers 4 Special Olympics, she said, adding, “And it started out as a fluke. There was an altercation on the track and the mother of the driver came in screaming. ‘You’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies.’ So the next race, everyone came out with duct tape signs on their cars that read Hillbilly.”

She said, “There was so much momentum from that incident that a couple of the younger drivers suggested trying to do something with the momentum and raise money for some group. We thought, ‘They’re supporting the track; maybe we should be supporting them’.”

She said the fundraising support is for local Special Olympics athletes, not Special Olympics Ontario.

“It all goes to a local group. Our deal with the athletes is that they come three times each year and work - that pays for their bowling. They’ve taken huge pride in the fact that they are working and they see it as making money and earning their way and helping.”

She suggested, “That’s probably worth more than the money for a lot of these guys, who may not have a place or a purpose. The track as a whole has just embraced these athletes. Support has been tremendous from the drivers, the fans and the track management.”

“Racing has been a huge part of our lives for the past 15 years,” Jayne says.

Tessa added, “I remember I was in grade 4 and I wrote my first speech on my Dad and his race car.”

“And won,” Jayne said.

Dennis said, “If anyone looking for something to do on a Saturday night, come up to Varney and check it out. It’s so much fun from a fan’s standpoint and a racer’s standpoint.

“We were fans of racing before we ever hit the track, and we will always be fans of racing.

“Dollar for dollar, you can’t beat it. It’s cheaper than a night at the movies.”

August 26, 2011


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