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WEST BABYLON, N.Y. (Feb. 1, 2008) -- Whether he is gripping the steering wheel of a 600-horsepower ride on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, or a remote at his RC race track, Donny Lia enjoys racing on any scale.
In his fifth full season on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2007, Lia collected six victories en route to becoming the 60th champion in the Modified division's long and storied history with NASCAR. But before he was ever a NASCAR champion, the Jericho, N.Y., resident had already piloted his RC (remote-controlled) car to a national title.
Just prior to the 2007 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season, Lia secured the 1/12-scale stock ROAR National Championship for RC cars at CEFX Raceway in Westland, Mich. That title was the pinnacle of a life-long hobby that Lia has taken to the next level. And just like with the full-scale racers, Lia has turned a hobby into a booming business.
In November 2007, Lia and his good friend and business partner Sal Amato opened 360 Speedway & Hobbies in West Babylon, N.Y. The new business venture includes a 90-foot long by 40-foot wide RC race track and adjoining hobby shop. Lia's hobby-turned-business has quickly become the go-to spot for RC racers in the region.
"We have people that come from all over the tri-state area, and even further from places as far north as Maine and Massachusetts, and as far south as Virginia," Lia said.
The track holds races on Wednesday and Friday nights as well as Sunday afternoons. According to Lia, the Sunday races average between 50 and 60 racers, and the first championship event had 115 entries. But bringing in the masses is not what motivates the owners of 360 Speedway & Hobbies.
"It's great that we attract the racers, but my partner and I really built the track to attract new racers to try to grow the hobby," Lia said. "Our main goal was to build a place that attracted the 'newbies' and help them out by training them on how to build and drive the cars."
With that goal in mind, Lia and Amato designed their facility to cater to nearly every need a driver might have. There are four 50-inch LCD TVs around the perimeter of the race track that provide race information and lap information to the racers, a full-service kitchen for food and snacks, and a hobby shop that carries anything an RC racer might need.
"We really try to service the racer," Lia said. "Anything that we can do to make the racing experience better, we try to do there at 360. We try to provide the best advice and technical support to all of the racers who have problems with the cars or need help building a car."
In addition to the amenities offered to patrons, Lia made sure that their new business venture was more than your typical RC track in terms of the layout.
"We're the only track in the country that races on two different surfaces," Lia said. "It is an asphalt track, but we designed our own system to lay carpet down over the track for racing in the winter. It's kind of the best of both worlds. Our building has two overhead doors on either side of the track, so in the summer the doors go up and it's basically like racing on an outdoor asphalt track without the worries of getting rained out."
Although mixing business and pleasure at 360 Speedway & Hobbies has exceeded expectations, Lia's career as a full-scale driver may be on the rise even more than business at the RC track. The 27-year-old had five victories in 79 starts on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour before the 2007 season when he took the checkered flag six times in 16 races to earn his first NASCAR title.
"In 2007, the performance was on our side, but the luck was on our side, too, and it just never let up," Lia said. "What we had was a dream season; there's really no other way to describe it."
Lia's success on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour earned him more than a seat at the head table at the postseason awards banquet. The racing world took note of his talents and he found a seat in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ride for races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway last year.
With the 2008 season on the horizon, Lia has yet to finalize plans on whether he will be driving in the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Series or on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, or both. One thing is for sure, however, he will be behind the wheel chasing another title.
"At this point in the season you really need to know what you're doing, and I don't right now," Lia said. "But I'm not ruling out defending the [NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour] championship in the Mystic Missile."