PROSPECT — While the name Nick Salva might not roll off the tongues of Connecticut short track race enthusiasts just yet, the 22-year-old from Prospect is working to change that under the tutelage of one of Stafford Motor Speedway’s most accomplished drivers.
Salva, who is among the top of the point standings of Stafford’s SK Lights division, is the nephew of Bethlehem’s Bo Gunning. The No. 98 car Salva is racing is the same one last driven at Stafford by Gunning, a three-time SK Modified champion (1983, 1998, 2002) and the second-leading winner of all time there with 47 victories.
“He’s my biggest hero as far as racing goes,” Salva said. “I’ve always worked on my Uncle Bo’s race car since I was very, very young. I started out sweeping the floors at the race shop and then started doing more and more work. It’s definitely evolved.”
Other than a handful of go-kart races when he was 13, Salva’s lack of money limited his racing evolution to learning what he could while helping out at Gunning’s race shop. He loved the sport and took in as much knowledge as he could from his uncle and the crew that included Salva’s stepfather, Tom Gunning, and the Buffinton brothers, George and Bob.
“I’ve been going to the races consistently since I was 5 years old, and my stepfather would take me to the shop every chance he could,” Salva said. “Once I was 12 years old, my uncle started racing for somebody out of Seymour, and I was at the garage every single night.”
Salva finally received his own opportunity to race at Stafford in 2010. While working at a transmission shop for one of his uncle’s friends and racing supporters, shop owner Henry Huard called him one day and told him that he just bought him a DARE Stock car and that it would be ready to race at Stafford the next night.
Salva gained valuable experience as he raced in the DARE Stock division from 2010-12 until deciding to move up into SK Lights last season in his uncle’s old car.
“The DARE Stock is a very loose, ill-handling race car,” Salva said. “Now I feel like I’ve gone from a poorly modified street car to a Cadillac. It’s such a pleasure.”
Still, Salva experienced as much frustration as he did fun because he didn’t have the sponsorship to run full-time. During his first four seasons, he competed in only about a third of the races due to costs, and he could only afford to race as much as he did thanks to the support of his mother, Lynn.
She kept his career on life support until this season when a few sponsors recognized his passion, talent and racing lineage and stepped up to back him. D&D Auto Works of Plymouth, Middlebury Consignment, Del’s Vinyl Siding of Cheshire, First Class Wine & Spirits of Prospect, Frank Talarico & Son of Southbury, Brian Watson of Manchester and JG Poulin Drywall of Hartford have provided him with the necessary cash to win a championship.
Salva put a new suspension front clip on the car to make it handle better and now has the funds to keep the car well-maintained and stocked with enough new tires to make it competitive.
The crew members from his uncle’s race team, along with friends Jim Newmark of Manchester and Paul Quantro of Wallingford, are all vital to his success.
“I consider all those guys to be family,” Salva said. “There’s a lot of busting, but they’ve also taught me a lot of lessons and made me who I am today. And each week they give me one of those cars that is just very, very consistently fast.”
Salva picked up his first win earlier this season and also has had second-, third- and fourth-place finishes. He’s finished in the top 10 in six of his seven races. He believes such consistency coupled with another one to two wins can earn him the track championship.
His growth as a driver has fueled dreams of racing for decades and eventually competing in NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour division. Just like Uncle Bo did.
“People always knew him as a rough and aggressive driver, but I’ve learned from him about the big picture, too,” Salva said. “In 2002, he won the championship with a person named Mike Wheeler, who helped him change his driving style to take the big picture into account rather than just fighting for the win or wrecking.
“That has worked to my advantage a lot, because Bo would tell me the things he did right and the things he did wrong. He was very aggressive, but he would tell me that is not always the best way to approach a situation. I’ve learned a good balance from him of when to be aggressive and when to be patient. Now I’m going to do the best I can with that.”