It’s an early morning in August and Michael Sabia is tending to his Christmas tree farm. He’s pulling weeds around an infant Christmas tree he planted. The tiny spruce tree will take several years to grow big enough to decorate a family’s home for the holidays. That’s the nature of farming: you plant now and harvest later.
Farming is part of Sabia’s life – just like some 20 other active Easton farms that are also small family-owned businesses.
In 2005, Sabia began clearing land that he had purchased to start a Christmas tree farm. He planted trees but, since Christmas trees grow roughly one foot per year, it took several years before they were mature enough to sell. While he waits for the trees to grow, he works with his father, Michael Sabia Sr., an excavator who owns a construction company and is Easton’s measurer of wood. Sabia Jr. also serves as a volunteer fireman in Easton.
Over the years, Sabia has expanded his operations on the farm to include tree work and removal, wood splitting and firewood, and excavation. The farm now has over sixty chickens that produce eggs that his wife Samantha, a Samuel Staples Elementary School art teacher, sells at their farm stand, along with several different products, including flower decorations and wreaths. Their son Luke also helps out around the farm.
The Race Car Driver
But on this particular hot August morning, Sabia’s attention soon turns toward his race cars, a passion he discovered in early childhood. When he was young, his father introduced him to go-karts. By age seven, Sabia was competing in regional go-kart racing. At age seventeen, his interest turned to faster cars. Starting with an old car he purchased from a junkyard, Sabia built and modified it so that he could begin racing in the stock car division competitions in the Northeast.
“I love the adrenalin rush of the race,” he said. Sabia won the track championship in his division in his first year.
He eventually decided to move from a paved racing track to a dirt track. Racing on a dirt track is very different from racing on a paved track and requires using a different kind of vehicle with unique specifications. Because he doesn’t have any major corporate sponsors, he builds, modifies, and maintains the cars himself with the support of his crew. As he jokingly puts it, “Splitting firewood and cutting trees pays for my race cars.” He has been racing in this division for fifteen years.
Preparing the car to compete as a modified dirt racer requires a great deal of work before each race. Any damage from a prior race must first be repaired, but the main focus is on how to make the car faster and more aerodynamic for the specific track conditions for the next week’s race. This must all be done within the defined specifications for the cars in Sabia’s racing division.
Sabia has a group of experienced individuals that make up his crew and race team. Rick Authelet has been with Sabia for over two years and started racing in the 1980s himself. Though he no longer races, Authelet has become very involved in the mechanics, engineering, and maintenance of these modified dirt racers. Before joining Sabia’s team, he worked with many other drivers. “After years of trying to beat Michael, I would rather just work with him,” he said with a smile and a laugh. “Working with Michael is fun. Michael is competitive – like we all are – and he usually finishes really well. So, we all have a good time being together. We’re just like brothers or family.”
The two men also spend a good deal of time talking about strategy for the upcoming race. “There is always a strategy to racing,” says Authelet. “Each week is different. The track changes. We are always searching for ways to make the car faster. We talk about it. We make changes. Sometimes, we go the right way. Sometimes we don’t.”
Another teammate John Kearney has known Sabia for thirty years. In addition to the daily maintenance, he always accompanies Sabia to the track for the weekly races, including the upcoming competition at the raceway in Middletown, New York.
Though the race car has been thoroughly prepped for the upcoming race, upon arrival in the pit, the car still gets the “once over.” “Everything is checked and rechecked,” said Kearney. “After the two warmup laps, slight modifications are made concerning what Michael discovers about the conditions on the track.” This must all be done quickly before the “heat laps” that determine the car’s starting position in line for the main race. Starting position is critical and greatly impacts the driver’s ability to win.
The intensity in the crew area or “pit” is loud and fast. Cars fill the inner circle and race teams move at a frantic pace. Each crew member knows how the sequence of the races is scheduled and needs to be ready before each segment begins. The air is filled with loud sounds and dust.
When each phase of the schedule is announced, the drivers scramble to their cars, harness themselves in the safety cage, start their engines, and begin to move into position to enter the track. The race schedule is broken into three segments. The first segment is the warm-up laps. These laps enable the drivers to see and feel out the track’s condition so they can make modifications back in the pit to enhance the car’s performance. The second segment is the eight-lap “heat race.” In this segment, each driver is competing for the best position for the feature race. The cars circle the track furiously to compete for the position they think will best serve them in the main event. The final segment is “the race.” This is the segment that determines the winners and losers. It’s the reason they all come to compete.
Sabia is considered one of the major competitors in “modified dirt racing.” The season begins in April and races are held every week until October. This schedule creates a grueling pace for everyone involved. For this week’s race, Sabia was once again among the leaders, finishing in the top 10. Win or lose, Sabia’s passion for the sport brings him back every year to compete. When asked if he would ever give it up, he laughed and said, “maybe when Luke starts racing.”