In 2004, when Gary Cortese was 36, he bought a street stock car to drive at I-25 Speedway, a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series sanctioned quarter-mile high-banked asphalt oval in Pueblo, Colorado.
Cortese had always wanted to get into racing, but had never had the chance until later into adulthood. He purchased a good car to start his career, but there were doubters about how well he would do that first season.
“I bought a car from a guy and he told me, ‘This car is really fast. Don’t expect to win because you have no experience,’” Cortese said. “’You won’t be able to handle the car and you won’t be able to win.’”
By the end of the season, Cortese had three main event wins, two trophy dash victories, a track championship in the street stocks division, and a rookie of the year title.
“I guess it was a challenge when the guy told me it wasn’t gong to happen,” he said.
Cortese is the longest tenured driver in the street stocks field at I-25, now in his 15th season, and he’s on another quest. After that first title, he took second and third in the points, and was always in the top 10, but didn’t get another titled until 2017.
Then, in 2018, he won another, becoming the fourth back-to-back champion since 2003.
This season, he’s hoping to be the first to win three straight street stocks championships at the track. It’s a close race right now, as he leads by about six points with three races to go.
Cortese’s interest in racing started when he was about 10 years old going to races. At the time, it was a dream to be able to race one day, but it took a while for him to be able to financially. I-25 was perfect, too, because it’s just 30 minutes from his home.
“I really, really just like being at home,” he said.
When Cortese started, the street stocks division at the track was still fairly new. There was a good mix of ages among the drivers, and he was on the older side. Some young drivers had some experience in go-karts and other lower series, which may have put him at a disadvantage.
“I just had to study the sport a little bit more and adapt myself to being a rookie at such a different age,” he said.
Cortese admittedly is not a very good mechanic, he “just enjoyed cars.” He had help on the mechanical side of the sport from fellow racers Jon Stewart, Richard Pratt, and Mark Delaney, who offered their expertise, time, and efforts into his racing venture.
His brother, Greg, too, was a very good mechanic. He was the wrench in the operation, and the two were yin and yang when it came to the team.
“As two young kids we idolized the drivers when we were 8, 9, 10 years old so I think he had an interest then as well,” Cortese said of his brother. “It was just an exciting time to be able to do what we dreamed of doing. He wasn’t disappointed to not drive and I wasn’t a very good mechanic so we made a pretty good team.”
Cortese also met his wife, Virginia, in 2004, and said her support throughout his career has been “amazing.”
“It’s tough being a spouse of a racer because she has to listen to the talk and she has to spend weekends doing things that selfishly I get to do that unselfishly she joins me for,” he said. “So I sure want to note that I wouldn’t be as happy or successful as I am without her support.”
At the same time Cortese was beginning, his daughter, Shelby, was 10 and his son, Andrew, was 8. They turned racing into family bonding time, with his daughter serving as stat keeper, and his son helping Greg do mechanical work.
His children stayed with racing just as long as their dad did. Shelby races street stocks at Colorado National Speedway and I-25, and Andrew has switched to drag racing. With all three racing, it’s helped grow the bond between them.
“They really got the bug so racing has been a big part of our lives since then for all of us,” Cortese said. “We’ve been at it for quite a long time but it’s really been the glue that’s really got us close as a family.”
Shelby and Andrew used to race street stocks against one another before Andrew made the switch, which Cortese said was “tricky to watch” as a parent.
Even trickier? Cortese racing against his daughter. They raced against each other for part of a season before he took a year off to help on her crew. They hadn’t raced against one another for about four years until last Saturday when she made an appearance at I-25.
Cortese finished one spot in front of Shelby in the dash, but she finished two spots in front in the feature.
“It’s quite a dynamic to be able to race with your child,” Cortese said. “It was really exciting. It has it’s challenges but it is still fun to have that happen.”
The two are both very competitive, so when they race against each other they try to keep the smack talk to a minimum.
“I don’t really want to pick that sticker a little bit,” he said. “It doesn’t do a lot of good to rub that in. We both understand each other well so I let that dog sleep a little bit.”
Cortese is the only rookie driver from that 2004 street stocks season still in the division at I-25. Some went to other classes, some retired, some quit and sold their cars. In his words, “I’m the only one crazy enough to decide to stick with it.”
Keeping the tradition alive is important to Cortese. He’s made a lot of friends in the racing world, he still gets to work with his brother, and maintains a close bond with his children.
He also gets to help keep short track racing at small towns like his alive, which is important to him.
“That’s who else I want to thank is the people giving us the opportunity to do something we really love,” he said.
And if all goes according to plan, after these final three races he could be a new record holder at his home track.
“So far so good. We’ve got three races to go and that’s a small margin. There’s no room for error. Not this year.”
NASCAR racing will return to I-25 Speedway this Saturday night.