Meet 3-Time Stafford Speedway Champion Kevin Gambacorta
(Stafford Springs, CT)—With 17 wins spread across three different divisions and three career track championships at Stafford Motor Speedway to his credit, Kevin Gambacorta has enjoyed a career that most drivers would be envious of. Gambacorta has progressed his way up the full fender ladder at Stafford, racing 5 seasons in the Street Stock division and 7 seasons in the Limited Late Model division before his current stint of 8 years and counting in the Late Model division behind the wheel of his #23 Lavigne Law Dodge.
Here we take a look at how Gambacorta got involved in racing and how he has shaped his career path. Gambacorta got his first taste of racing through his father Vince, who was part of a 6-man enduro team in the mid to late ‘80’s.
“When my dad was 23 years old, he started racing in the Street Stocks at Thompson, and because he was 23, he numbered his car 23,” said Gambacorta. “He stopped racing for a while and later was part of what we called the Ellington Enduro team, which was my first taste of racing. I remember going to Riverside for a 100 car, 100-lap enduro feature. The team cars were kept at my parents’ house and there were 6 cars numbered 11 through 15 and my uncle was number 200. The team was guys my Dad worked with on the Fire Department and included #11 Bob Smith, #12 Kevin Morse, who is now part of my Late Model crew, my Dad was #13, #14 was Dan Rabbett, #15 was Charlie Sandberg and my Uncle Eddie was #200 before he later switched to #10. I remember as a kid watching those races I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”
In addition to the Ellington Enduro Team, Gambacorta began to become friendly with a neighbor across the street who campaigned a Late Model car at Stafford.
“At the time we lived right across the street from Tommy Griswold, who owned the #22 Late Model at Stafford,” continued Gambacorta. “He had a bunch of different drivers but the one I remember the most is Scott Foster, Sr., who was also from Ellington. I used to hang out with Scott Foster, Jr. and Tommy’s son Mitch in their garage while they worked on the car. So being around the enduro cars and Tommy’s Late Model car started my interest in racing plus I watched NASCAR races on TV.”
It was through the connection to Griswold’s Late Model team that Gambacorta really started to think about how to get involved in racing but when an opportunity came knocking, Gambacorta’s father shut the door on that opportunity. Although his father nixed the opportunity, it left a lasting impression on Gambacorta that he still carries with him to this day.
“The Enduro team raced at Riverside and then some of the guys, when Stafford started running the Left and Right races, came to Stafford and ran those races,” said Gambacorta. “Somewhere around that time period Tommy Griswold was getting out of Late Model racing and was going to go quarter midget racing with his son and he suggested to my Dad that he put one together for me and we could all go racing together. That was a defining moment for me and my work ethic to this day because my father told Tommy no and he wasn’t going to do all the work on the car for me to just show up and drive because I had never shown any interest in spending time in the shop working on the car or getting my hands dirty. I never really thought about it at the time but as I got older that is something that still sticks with me to this day.”
With his father shutting down the quarter midget opportunity, Gambacorta knew he would have to start saving his money if he one day wanted to go racing. It was through one of his after school jobs while in high school that got him his first look at life in the Stafford paddock area.
“Before I was a teenager, I was working,” said Gambacorta. “I helped out a guy who was a graphic artist, I worked with a family friend who had a farm doing some tobacco, and when I got to high school I had a regular job working 5 days a week at an auto body shop after school that was run by Kevin Morse. It was my goal to save up enough money to buy a car on my own. All my friends were going out and having fun but I was working in order to go racing. Kevin was helping Sumner Chapman with his ProStock at Stafford so I started helping them out and that was my first foot in the door towards weekly racing at Stafford. I did that for a year or so before Sumner got into a bad wreck and his car was destroyed so the question was what do I do now?”
Gambacorta started coming to Stafford as a spectator and as he watched more and more of the DARE Stock division, he came to the realization that’s where he could get his racing career started while at the same time he was taking mental notes on the competition.
“After Sumner got into that wreck, I had nothing to do so my senior year of high school I would drive to Stafford on Friday nights and watch the races by myself,” said Gambacorta. “I still remember to this day the night of my Senior Prom I was at Stafford watching the races by myself. I always tried to learn something by watching the cars and back then the DARE Stocks always ran last. Watching those cars I felt like that class was something I could get started with. I graduated high school in 1999 and went to college and I set my schedule up so that I could go to school and keep on working to save money. Before the 2001 season I had enough money saved up and I bought the cheapest car that I could find from the Rent A Racecar guys and I was ready to go racing.”
The DARE Stock Years (2001-2005)
Gambacorta began his Stafford career running the full DARE Stock schedule of 17 events in 2001. Gambacorta quickly found out that taking what he learned from watching the cars and applying it to himself going around the track proved to be a difficult proposition. It was also an opportunity for his father Vince to get back into racing and join Kevin as a teammate.
“We ran the full 2001 season and I was terrible,” said Gambacorta. “I had no idea what I was doing. I had no scales, I didn’t have spare tires, and there was 2 or 3 times that year that I ran the car out of gas just because I didn’t know about filling the car up with enough gas to last 15 laps. My first race was at the Sizzler and I thought I was flying around the track and all of a sudden the leaders put me a lap down in a 15-lap race. In that first season my Dad was always telling me how I was doing things wrong. So one day I said back to him ‘Why don’t you get a car and show me how it’s done?’ and that’s how he ended up buying a car and got back into racing.”
After one top-10 finish during his rookie season in 2001, Gambacorta picked up his performance in 2002 with his first podium finish and 5 top-10 finishes in 13 starts, but he was still struggling. Gambacorta turned his program in the right direction as he locked down his first 2 career wins during the 2003 season.
“We got better in 2002, I got my first podium finish and we finished in the bottom half of the top-10 a few times and the end of that season was when things really started to get good for me,” said Gambacorta. “Jose Rodriguez was the DARE Stock tech inspector at the time and he was also the DARE Stock all-time win leader at that time. Jose was from Ellington so we would always chit chat and at some point towards the end of the season, he said he had been watching me and that I looked like I knew what I was doing but there was a whole lot more I needed to learn. He told me he wasn’t going to be the tech inspector any more after the season and offered to help me out and show me some things to become a winner. It turned out that he lived about a minute from my parents’ house and working with Jose really helped me turn my program around. Getting my first win was a huge sense of accomplishment for everything that I went through to save my money to get started in racing and it was also a huge relief because I felt like I should have been winning races with the people I had around me helping me out.”
Rodriguez’s input wasn’t the only help Gambacorta had going forward into the 2003 season. Gambacorta was armed with a new car that he acquired through a chance encounter.
“Prior to the 2003 season, I was driving through Somers and I saw a brand new car sitting out in front of someone’s lawn with a for sale sign on it,” said Gambacorta. “There was no phone number or anyone at the house, but the name Scott King was on the roof of the car. Back in those days we had phone books so I found Scott King from Somers in the phone book and called the number and ended up buying that car for the 2003 season. Jose helped me out with the car with all his old notes and chassis books and really helped me learn about that side of racing and he was also a great motivator.”
Following the 2003 season, Stafford Speedway made the announcement that 2004 would be the first season where the DARE Stock cars would race for points to count towards a track championship. Fresh off of scoring his first 2 wins in 2003, Gambacorta was ready for the challenge.
“I remember reading on the computer during the 2003 season that Stafford was going to have a championship for the DARE Stocks for the first time in 2004 and thinking that I could win the championship,” said Gambacorta. “I knew I wasn’t going to outspend anyone so I had to outwork everyone, which is still how I go racing every year. We had just won 2 races so I figured we were one of the better cars, I just had to figure out how to go about doing everything the right way to be a championship contender. I met Dave Miller from Auto Machine prior to the 2004 season and he had a lot of success and won some races building engines for Bobby Leone in the DARE Stocks. Dave’s engine along with Jose’s input were the two biggest reasons why I was able to win the championship in 2004.”
After winning the DARE Stock championship in 2004, Gambacorta was at a crossroads of what would be next for him. The answer was the Limited Late Model division, which was announced in 2004 to debut at Stafford for the 2005 season.
“After winning the championship, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next,” said Gambacorta. “The DARE Stocks were the beginner class at Stafford and I was pretty sure the track didn’t want guys to make a career out of racing in the DARE Stock division. It turned out that 2005 was the season that Stafford introduced the Limited Late Model division so I was looking at that like a new challenge and an opportunity to advance a little bit in my career. I had bought a Thompson car before the 2005 season but I didn’t have enough money to finish the car, so I missed the first half of the season. I ran my DARE Stock car a couple times before I sold the car to my father and that money allowed me to finish putting the Limited together and I ran the second half of the year.”
The Limited Late Model Years (2005-2011)
Moving to a new division saw Gambacorta struggle to find front running pace just as he had struggled in the beginning stages of his DARE Stock career. Thanks to a random encounter in the Stafford paddock area one night during the 2005 season, Gambacorta started to become a front running car.
“At first it was like my first year in the DARE Stocks all over again,” said Gambacorta. “I wasn’t very good and that was the year that Michael Bennett and Andrew Durand were kicking everybody’s butts on the track. One night Andrew and his Dad came up to me and handed me a piece of cardboard that had their setup sheet on it. I wasn’t really sure what to think but I figured that what I had been doing up to that point wasn’t working at all so I went home, put the car on the scales, got it as close as I could to what they had given me, and the difference was like night and day. At that point, it was Andrew, Michael, and myself finishing in the top-3 almost every week.”
In addition to Durand’s setup notes, Gambacorta met Jay Stuart for the first time during the 2005 season and that introduction led to Stuart working on Gambacorta’s car in preparation for 2006 season where Gambacorta would win his first two Limited Late Model races and the track championship.
“I won the championship in 2006 and won my first 2 races,” said Gambacorta. “At some point during the 2005 season I met Jay Stuart in the pits at Waterford and we got talking and I asked him if he could help me with the car during the winter. He fixed a bunch of things on the car and taught me a few things about the car that led to us winning those 2 races and the championship. I try to stay humble but winning that first race in the Limited Late Model division felt really good and it was another sense of accomplishment. Back then it was kind of strange in that things always seemed to work out for me no matter what was happening. For instance, I made a pass on the last lap of the last race of the season to get the final 2 points I needed to win the championship. If I hadn’t made that pass, I would have been tied for the championship with George Nocera and he had more wins than I did so I would have lost the tiebreaker. Things like that worked out in our favor and I think I must have used up all my good luck back then.”
With two championships in two different divisions coming in a 3-year span, Gambacorta was riding high. But he was about to embark on a 2-year period in 2007-2008 that saw him go winless and he only managed 12 top-5 finishes in 37 races.
“The 2007 and 2008 seasons are when guys started showing up to the track with purpose built cars for the Limited Late Model division and I was still running my old Thompson car,” said Gambacorta. “I knew it was time to do something with a new car because things weren’t working out and it got really frustrating. By not winning races those 2 years I would get deflated and I would wonder from time to time what happened. After the 2008 season, Jay Stuart built me a rolling chassis and that’s the car I’m still racing today. As tough as those 2 years were, quitting never crossed my mind.”
Armed with the new car, Gambacorta returned to form by winning 3 times in 2009 and 2 more times in 2010 but he came up short in the championship race, finishing 5th in 2009 and fourth in 2010. Gambacorta would again find championship success in 2011, which was his third championship at Stafford.
“The first year with that new car we won 3 races,” said Gambacorta. “When I went out for the open practice before the Spring Sizzler in 2009, I could feel the car was where we needed it to be. The 2011 championship was extra sweet because that season is when the Limited Late Model division began to phase in the crate engines and I think we were the last open motor in the field. My Mom put a sticker on my dashboard that season that said ‘The Little Engine That Could’.”
THE LATE MODEL YEARS (2012-Present)
The introduction of the crate engines as the mandatory engine for the 2012 season left Gambacorta at another crossroad. Gambacorta couldn’t afford to put the crate engine in his car to keep running the Limited Late Model division so Dave Miller from Auto Machine worked out a deal with Gambacorta to do a Late Model engine and Gambacorta was a rookie again in 2012 in the Late Model division.
“Starting in 2012 the crate engine became mandatory so again I had to make a racing career decision ,” said Gambacorta. “Dave Miller was helping me with my engines and I couldn’t afford a crate engine. I had no idea what I was going to do and then things fell into place that winter. Dave told me he could build me a Late Model motor so that was taken care of and then I had to figure out what to do with my car since I had to change it over to a Late Model. I ended up selling my Limited to my father and I used that money to buy a car from Michael Bennett. After the 2012 season I really didn’t like the car so I sold that car and I bought my original Limited car back from my father and brought it down to Jay Stuart and he converted it into a Late Model. Once I had my original car back I started to run better but I still didn’t have what I needed to win races.”
Whereas it took Gambacorta 3 years for his first DARE Stock win and 2 seasons for his first Limited Late Model win, Gambacorta toiled for 4 and half seasons before he was able to make his first trip to victory lane in the Late Model division on June 17, 2016.
“The first late model win was a huge relief,” said Gambacorta. “When I first started racing I never expected to be racing in the Late Model division so to win a race was pretty cool. We’ve improved year by year and slowly upgraded the car after each off season and we’re still updating the car now. Once I won, I started to think that I belonged with the Late Model guys and it was a confidence booster that I could race with the front runners. There’s plenty of guys who have ran Late Models and never won a race so it was pretty huge for me.”
Since winning his first race, Gambacorta has won at least once a year each season since and except for the 2018 season where he missed 5 races due to a bad wreck, Gambacorta has been a constant presence in the top-4 of the Late Model points standings. Gambacorta was anxious to get started racing in 2020 with his eyes set on dethroning Tom Fearn as Late Model champion to become the first driver in Stafford history to win a championship in three different divisions.
“I felt like coming into this year we were going to be a serious contender for the championship,” said Gambacorta. “I’m really anxious to see where we stack up after the changes we made during the winter. Guys like Tommy [Fearn] are all working hard on their cars and if we want to be up front with them we have to do the same thing. When I first started in the Late Model division I felt like maybe I was in over my head but now I feel like I can be considered a threat to win every Friday night and be a championship contender. My next goal is to be the first driver to win a championship at Stafford in 3 different divisions. I’m one of 12 drivers who have won championships in 2 different divisions. I can’t believe that someone hasn’t done 3 yet.”
Gambacorta plans to continue racing his Late Model but with his two sons Kolton and Kody getting older, he might one day be looking to put them behind the wheel of a car.
“My oldest Kolton helps me in the garage and he talks about driving but I don’t know if he’s going to be a driver,” said Gambacorta. “My youngest Kody, he’s crazy and if there’s going to be a driver, I think it’ll be him. Kolton might be more of a crew chief than a driver. Kody always tells me he’s going to be either a NASCAR driver or a Monster Truck driver. I’ve looked into renting a kart on Monday nights for them but I’m not quite sure what the future holds for them right now. Kody has been busy practicing on his big wheel because he wants to win the big wheel race like Kolton did last season.”
From his beginning as a DARE Stock afterthought to a now three-time track champion, Kevin Gambacorta has certainly made a name for himself at Stafford and he is very grateful to those who have helped and supported him over the years.
“I often think about how I’ve got to where I am now and where I started and I’m pretty happy with the accomplishments,” said Gambacorta. “I have surrounded myself with a great group of people. They’re not the name brand chassis or engine guys, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like the underdog role and enjoy racing and I have a lot of fun going out there and competing. I have to thank my parents and my Mom’s business Right Image Signs, my family because they sacrifice a lot to let me do what I do, Jose Rodriguez because who knows where I’d be without his help, Jay Stuart, for his knowledge about racing, Dave Miller from Auto Machine, I wouldn’t be racing anything without what he does for me. Rafferty Fine Grading was one of my first sponsors, a couple of years ago Dr. Sean Noel from LifeCare Family Chiropractic started helping me out and Cold Creek Tavern has been a sponsor of mine for the last couple seasons. Also, Gary Lavigne from Lavigne Law came up to me one day in the pits and asked me for my scanner frequency. I would always wave and say hi whenever I saw him at the track. One day he came up to me in the pits with an envelope of money and told me that he cheers for me and he wanted to help me out and that was just the beginning. I’m not the type of guy who can just go up to someone and ask them for money so I can go racing. I know that I should be doing that but I just can’t do it. So to be involved with the people I am involved with, I feel very fortunate for their support and I know they’re not name brand people but that’s who I am and I’m proud to be associated with them.”