KEKAHA — Born and raised in the Bronx, Tony Ricci came to Kauai 23 years ago and never left.
Before coming to the island, the Kekaha resident had a contracting company in California in the early 1990s. After Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai in 1992, Ricci received a call from a real estate firm.
“We got a call to see if we were interested in coming up to do some work for one of the real estate firms that managed a bunch of rentals,” he said. “We came out and came to an agreement; came here and ended up meeting my wife and never left.”
Since living on Kauai, Ricci has been involved with numerous community projects such as the Junior Golf Program, coaching the Waimea High School golf team, Eagle Scout projects and motorcycle clubs.
Ricci has been recently focusing his attention as his role as president of the Garden Island Racing Association.
Under Ricci’s tenure, GIRA appropriated $1.5 million to repave the track at Kauai Raceway park in 2013 — the first time the track saw remodeling in 30 years.
When did you get involved with racing?
What did you race?
I was racing a Sportster and then started racing a Harley Davidson-Screamin Eagle V-Rod, which was my wife’s. On race day, I’d take it for the day and then ended up with a dedicated Harley Davidson drag bike. I got into a motorcycle accident, so that stopped the motorcycle part, but that gave me full time to concentrate on the track itself.
What motivated you to get involved with the GIRA board of directors?
As a racer, I was asked to be on the board. It’s a really good board and just seeing what they were trying to do and as a member of the GIRA, I was like “Whatever I can do to help.” One thing led to another and I became the vice president, then eventually the president.
In a past interview, you said you became involved because you wanted to create a safe racing environment.
Yeah, that was always the motto and our mission statement: Race the track, not the street. When I got on the board of directors, we started looking at how to facilitate that, how to encourage that. With Sen. Kouchi stepping in and former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, with the support that they gave us, that they would help us resurface the track and get us the funding through DLNR to facilitate a safer environment, then we can actually promote getting the kids out there. Right now, we’re working on a new lighting program to get power to the track and stadium lights where we can initiate a safe environment and promote a new program where will have high school kids that can race for free. We can have more racing options and not just once a month. We can actually develop more frequent racing.
How much of a transition did you have adjusting from vice president to president?
More phone calls. The transition isn’t that drastic. With my construction background, it helped facilitate part of the repaving and being involved with the consultants and the construction aspect of it. The same thing with the lighting. It’s easy being the conduit between the board and the DLNR. It’s a little more responsibility of being the go-to guy. When there are questions, I need to find answers and we have a great board of directors and members that I can find those answers. In the relationship with DLNR, it’s helped just in the fact that I can be the conduit.
When does GIRA plan to start that program?
We’re hoping in 2016. We’re right now almost in the final of the design phase. They’ve done the environmental assessments and all the permitting that’s going through right now, so they’re hoping that — this is the consultants and DLNR — the overall big package can be put together in August, September. This way they can facilitate construction in 2016.
With the track being closed in 2013 for repaving, what was it like working with the different stakeholders?
We lease from DLNR, so everything is through DLNR and the monies being spent are from DLNR. The bad part was not being open and all of us not getting our race fix, but as far as the professionalism on their end, it was really outstanding. There’s a lot more involved than just going in there and throwing black top down and throwing concrete down. You have to look at everything. The specifications of the final product, as far as the asphalt and the concrete launchpad, were specific from the NHRA. Basically, there’s no place on that track that the water can cover two quarters, which is an eighth of an inch. Everybody involved really came through. Our contractors were really good to worth with. Adrian, the head of our project for DLNR and Kyle were at the spot right there. People were surprised how much attention we got and how fast they facilitated the whole construction process. It was really nice that they all thought it was a cool project because nobody had ever done a race track. Everybody was personally invested in it just because of the excitement in doing it.
When the track opened in 2014, what kind of feedback did you get from the community and the racers?
Great feedback. I think on our opening day we had 1,500 people out there. We had people who had never even been there, but because of the whole excitement and the coconut wireless of all this going on and of course coverage from various media such as yourself spread the word. People spiked an interest. For a track to be receiving $1.5 million, which is pretty unheard of, I’ve gotten several calls from the Mainland from other racetracks like, “How do you do that? They’re trying to shut us down.”
Meanwhile, you’ve got something that’s growing. We’ve had great response from people who now just want to see it. The racers all love it because I used to race a motorcycle and what we were racing on was kind of sketchy. It was a little scary how many cracks were out there. Not that it’s maturing, a safe overall facility, we’ve had a lot of help from the local community outfits and businesses that help us build new safety towers and donated a bunch of materials. We’ve had help from everybody — from the agriculture guys to the lumber companies. We ask and everybody’s right there to help us out. It’s been a good response. What makes it feel good now is like after this July race is going to the store or going somewhere and people I don’t really know and they’re not racers just say, “Oh, what a great weekend” or “What a great race.” And that they’re bringing their kids and families there and that’s what we like to see.
What are some of GIRA’s goals for the near future?
Our junior dragster program has started a Share The Ride program. We’re trying to get that off the ground where they get a car and kids who are interested — and of course the parents can’t spend several thousands of dollars just to see if the kid is going to get into it. Now they can actually learn how to do it and share a car to get a try to see if this is something they want to go to. Motor sports is a little different than buying a $20 basketball and going to a free park. And the kid’s not interested, fine, you’re out $20. You don’t want to be out several thousand when the kid changes his mind — we all do — in three or four months, realizing this isn’t what they want to do. That’s something we’re really proud that’s getting off the ground.
My big thing that I’ve always been pushing was the high school kids. If you have a high school ID and you want to come out and race, then once we get the lighting and facilitate everything, we can actually have them come out. You wanna race your friend? Here, let’s be safe, not be at Mana and Kipu and all the back roads where somebody’s going to get hurt. That’s my No. 1 priority.
What are GIRA’s long-term goals?
The whole idea is to promote the track to hold faster cars and we have a lot of interest in cars. The car culture here is really strong. And after them shutting down Oahu, you became really aware that we’re lucky. Part of the long-term plans is that we create these programs where we have this mentoring thing, where not only letting the high school kids race for free, but we want to work with the high schools and their automotive department where we can set up drag teams. Now they can get a car and we can help try to facilitate grants and sponsorships where they can put a dragrace car together and help learn that whole thing if their future is to become mechanics or all the different aspects of the automotive industry. And they have a chance. It’s something we can work with between KPD and all the businesses here. We’ve had a lot of interest in conversations with other corporations that they will sponsor that. Once we get the track safe and we know that we have the lighting and the facility and everything’s there, we can implement that. That’s a long-term goal and everything takes a few years to get rolling, but we’ve seen a lot of progress in the last five to six years.
How has it been for you personally to work with GIRA?
I love it. The membership’s great. The members are great. It’s a real great ohana. Everybody has the same passion, so when you get a hundred and some odd people all focused on the same love and desire of cars and going fast, you become this one big entity. The ohana part is what drew me in. It’s just the camaraderie. It’s like any team sport. Even though you may be racing individually, you have all the support and all the family down there: The kids are there; the moms and dads there; grandma’s there; grandpa’s there. It’s a whole family endeavour. What’s really nice to see is when you have two or three generations — like in our family — racing. My wife is racing, my son is racing — that’s what you want to see. Working with them is just a pleasure. Everybody is really focused on having a good time. It’s just a hobby that we all love doing.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m really just excited how our membership has embraced our new track. It’s a whole new era for Kauai Raceway Park. We’re really moving into the future. We’re a nonprofit so we need a lot of volunteer help. The memberships are out there and we’ve had a huge help coming from DOW, Syngenta. Without a lot of this corporate support, we wouldn’t have the facility we have. It’s a big property to maintain. We don’t have that kind of tractors or equipment — we’re working on it. It’s part of our goals just being very self-sufficient, which is why we don’t ask — even though we are a DLNR property — we don’t ask the state to mow or groom it. We take pride in being able to do that ourselves, but we can’t do that without the help of the Westside businesses that really step up to the plate.