Story and photo by Rhonda Beck.
John Ruggiero, Jr. is ready to race April 15-16, 2022 at Carolina Speedway as part of the Mid-East Mania show in both the 602 and 604 Late Model divisions. He got his fifth win of the season a couple of weeks ago and has been very successful at Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, SC. Ruggiero, Jr. is also involved with IRacing, which has become a popular outlet for both professional racers and amateurs. His father, John Ruggiero, Sr., raced at Wall Stadium in New Jersey and Ruggiero, Jr. got his start in the sport after the family moved to North Carolina. He talked about his history in racing as well as his goals for this season and in the future.
Rhonda Beck: Congrats on your good start to the year–five wins. You’ve done some racing with the Mid-East Series, which seems really great with everything from the Street Stocks to the Modifieds to the Late Models. Are Cherokee, Friendship and Harris the main tracks you’ll been racing at this year?
John Ruggiero Jr: We’ll go to Carolina Speedway with the Mid-East Series. They race 602 Late Models on Friday and the Street Stocks division and then on Saturday the 604 Late Models and the Modifieds. They call it the Mid-East Mania and the money’s insane. Like if you win two out of four divisions you get a $10,000 bonus. If you can win three out of the four it is $25,000 and if you can win all four, it’s $50,000. I don’t know how many drivers are trying for all four or even three. Certainly, there will be a few. I know last year there were a few guys that ran all three. And now this year with there being four, obviously the money’s being added. It’s a pretty cool event and a track that obviously we don’t get to run at much, so I’m looking forward to going to Carolina and then Cherokee and Friendship. I’m not sure where they have other races—County Line, I believe is one. And Fayetteville–I’ve never been there and I’m kind of looking forward to going there this year possibly. That series is really something that’s come about. The 602s were around last year and we ran one or two of their races and enjoyed the way they ran their show. The 604s starting up this year was a big, big deal just because there isn’t any sort of 604 touring in this area. So to have that series come up is big for us, and I look forward to racing with them and seeing how we do.
RB: I saw something on your profile about iRacing. It seems to be a way that certain people are even getting their start in the sport.
JR: Yes, I certainly agree. There’s been a lot of drivers that I know of that have ran iRacing and have been very successful in the game and moved up into the real car and have great success. It just shortens the learning curve, which is pretty cool, in my opinion.
RB: As far as Cherokee Speedway, you’ve had good success there. Anything to say about that track?
JR: Yeah, I mean it’s always been my home track in a sense. We’ve ran there really from the start of my career. It’s always been one of the mainstream racetracks; everybody’s heard of it. They host a lot of really big races, like the World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil. It’s an awesome racetrack; I love the size of it. Personally, I think Cherokee is probably the perfect size. I’m not a big fan of big racetracks for me as a driver, so Cherokee is probably the biggest track that I enjoy racing on. Thankfully we’ve had a lot of success there. And it’s kind of one of those things–whenever you’re running good, you tend to like that place and when you’re not running good, you hate it. So as of right now I can sit here and say that I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone. But like anything else in the sport of racing, you can be humbled pretty quick. Hopefully things will continue to trend this way and if not, obviously we’ll continue to work to get back on top.
RB: So you went to North Lincolnton High School but you came from New Jersey. When did you get started in the racing?
JR: I lived in New Jersey for two years and my family moved down here in 2000 or 2001. I was born in ’98, so I was two or three. I was born in New Jersey but have lived here my whole life pretty much. We lived in the Lincolnton area. I got started racing quarter midgets when I was nine and I ran the USAC series for three years. And then by the time I was 12, it got to the point where it was time to move up if we were ever going to be competitive in a late model or any form of racing. My dad wanted to start me young. And I wanted to go race dirt because of the race Tony Stewart had at his track. They built a little go-kart track behind Eldora (Speedway) and the USAC series went there. I ran there, had fun, and I was like, ‘Man, I want to go dirt racing.’ And sure enough, Carolina Speedway was the first dirt track I ever watched–or what I can remember. I went to Carolina and I saw the late models pull out and I think, ‘I want one of those.’ And so yeah, we got one when I was 12 and I didn’t race it until I was 13. But I’ve been racing late models for 10 years now which, has been a very long hard road. But here in the last few years we’ve finally got up to speed and have been running well. It’s fun and it’s like anything else–like all the time you put in–it all finally does pay off.
RB: And you certainly have a bunch of good competitors; are there any that you enjoy racing against?
JR: Fortunately, I tell people that ever ask me, like people I work with when asked about the late models, that we’re so fortunate to race with so many great people. There isn’t anybody that I don’t enjoy racing with. A few names that stick out to me are for sure Brian Mullis. The amount of respect I have for him and his father is through the roof. They race smart. I feel like me and my dad, we do this together and do what we can with what we have. I feel like Bryan and them are very similar and that’s why I respect him and enjoy racing with him. And Jeremy (Steele), man, he’s so good. He’s got a great group of people behind him. I know he and his father work really hard and that team he’s driving with, they’ve got really good equipment. He makes sure he does his job behind the wheel each and every week. It’s really fun to race with him. And then there’s other people. Like back when I used to race with Trent Ivey. Before he moved up to supers, me and him raced every week. And man, we had so much fun. We’d hang out on the weekends when we weren’t racing. He was more of a friend than a competitor. And just stuff like that I enjoy. Because, yeah, I understand that when you’re there at the track you’re not there to make friends–but to have that friendship was pretty special. Because you do get to the track and when you line up on the front row together it is fun and after the race saying, ‘Good run and stuff.’ It’s cool to have friendships throughout this deal.
RB: You’ve raced crate late models with some others who have moved up to super late models, like Michael Brown who just got his first World of Outlaws win. Also against drivers like Ross Bailes and Zack Mitchell.
JR: Yes, I raced with Zack a little bit and yeah, Ross. Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s funny because back when I started racing crate cars–like I said, it was 10 years ago–but when I started, Trent Ivey, Michael Brown, Zack Mitchell, Ron Parker, Steve Hendren; when you rolled into the racetrack, those were the guys to beat. And now you look at it; here we’re 10 years later. Ron doesn’t race much anymore and Steve Hendren doesn’t. Michael is in a super, Ross Bailes is in a super; and Trent. It’s funny how times change. I look back at all the years that I spent racing with them guys and obviously we got our teeth kicked in quite a lot. But I look back and all I can do is thank those guys. Because it was frustrating a few of nights ‘cause you’d leave there and all you’d think was, ‘All I want to be is as good as they are.’ But I know that every week we didn’t win and we were behind one of those guys like Ross and Michael, it was just making me better as a driver. It’s funny to see times change and see them become successful in the next step. It’s always cool. Like I texted Michael Brown the other night and I said, ‘Dude, that’s awesome.’ And he texted me and said, ‘Congrats to you too.’
RB: As far as your day job, you said you do fabrication? Or do you work with your dad?
JR: No, so I actually work over at Hendrick Motorsports. I’ve been over at Hendrick’s for like three years. I was in the fab shop, and I recently moved; I’m in the electrical room now. Do all the wiring of the cars and small projects like that which I really enjoy. Prior to then I worked at (Joe) Gibbs for three years as well with my father. I ended up leaving. So I work at Hendrick’s and my dad works at Gibbs.
RB: So what are some of your goals for this year and then thinking ahead, say in the next five years?
JR: I’d say my goal for this year is–man, I don’t even know. Like last year I had a goal of I wanted to win 10 races. That was something I was wanting to do in my career for a long time. Or 10 races in a single season. And we surpassed that, and I wound up winning 14 and I was thrilled. This year I’d just like to match that. Like I said, in this sport it’s very humbling and the minute you think you’ve got it figured out, the next guy’s got an advantage on you. So my goal, honestly, is I want to stay competitive. I’d like to run up front. Just try to do the best we can each and every week. I’d like to say if we could win another 10 races or so, I’d be thrilled. And then obviously in the next five years, if everything played out and either if I’d get a big sponsor or find a ride, I’d love to race a super late model. But I’m never going to dwell on the fact that I’m not in one. I’ve been very, very fortunate with the opportunity that my father’s given to me, and I won’t ever beat ‘em down or beat myself down for not being in a super. I’m happy where I’m at and wherever the future takes me is where it takes me.
RB: That’s a good message. And not everybody has the money. There are good racers at every level and there’s the cost, like of the engines.
JR: Oh yeah, the crate stuff’s so more affordable. And the super deal, the motor costs quite a bit of money. And not only that, it’s the maintenance costs and the tires and all and a lot of people don’t look at all that. But it’s certainly the next step; everybody knows that. If you’re racing crate cars the next step is definitely a super. But as a family owned and operated team like we are it’s certainly not in our budget. We have fun racing every week and if the day ever comes that we’re not having fun anymore, it’s time to get out. As long as me and my dad are having a good time, we’ll keep plugging along and doing everything we can do.
RB: And just a couple more things. There’s a lot of history in the sport of dirt racing. Are there any pioneers that you’ve admired or met?
JR: Oh man, I’ll have to say, a pioneer that I’ve met and have a lot of respect for would certainly have to be Mike Duvall. I was fortunate enough at the start of my career I got to go to Cherokee and race. Actually, Mike was racing a crate car at the time and I got to race with Mike and talked to him a lot. We parked next to each other, and he always had a lot of respect for me. Even whenever he quit racing, he’d come to the track and watch. He would park next to us and sit in a single cab F150 and he’d never get out of the truck. But he would just sit there and watch us all night long. That was certainly a memory that I’ll always keep with me, especially now that he’s passed. I always wondered why he came and parked next to us, but I never questioned it and it was just a cool feeling. He’s certainly one that I’ll always keep in mind. He’s a pioneer in the sport; he’s won a lot of races and a lot of big races. He’s one of ‘em and obviously Scott Bloomquist. I look at his accomplishments and I’d love to maybe someday get to that point, see if I can’t get my name etched in there, like his name is. Those are the two drivers that certainly come to mind.
RB: Would you race The Shrine 100 at Carolina if they had a class you could compete in?
JR: Yeah, I’m certain if our division was on the schedule I’d make every attempt possible to be out there. If the opportunity arose, I’d love to race. I don’t know what divisions they have running. But I’ll be sure to keep an eye out and worst-case scenario, if I don’t get to race, I’ll come out to support the deal anyway. It’s such an awesome event they have each and every year.
RB: And you’re number 44. Is there a certain reason for that?
JR: It was just my father’s number, back whenever he raced back home in Jersey. It’s just one of the things I knew whenever I started, that was the number I was going to want to run. So that’s just a family deal.
RB: Anything else?
JR: I certainly hope things keep going the way they’re going.