When a young Stephen Cultrera took his ’66 Chevelle SS 396 to New England Dragway for the first time in the late 1960s, he had no way of knowing that he was racing into a scene that would become the foundation for the rest of his life. Stephen was just having fun and living in the moment, but with each journey down the dragstrip, he was also racing closer and closer to a future that would include a son born with the same insatiable hunger for speed and a family that would rally around the shared the passion.
Nine years after that fateful first trek down the track, Stephen met JoAnn, the pretty little gal behind the counter at the local speedshop, and he asked her if she would accompany him to the drag race in Englishtown at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. She accepted the invitation, and the pair braved the sweltering heat to watch side-by-side quarter-mile drag racing in the dead of summer. When JoAnn confessed to her suitor that she actually enjoyed the experience and would like to go again, Stephen said to himself, “This one is a keeper.”
As their relationship progressed, so did Stephen’s involvement in racing. He became a crew member on Dick Stein’s Modified Eliminator ’66 Nova, and when Stein decided he was no longer interested in driving, he took Stephen under his wing, showed him the ropes and handed him the reins. Half a year later, Stein asked his protégé if he would be interested in owning the car, and of course the answer was yes.
Stephen raced Modified until the category was eliminated from NHRA’s roster, and he
then ran Super Stock for two years while saving the cash to buy a Liberty transmission and a strong engine. The goal was to take on the ultra-competitive Competition Eliminator category, and once he had the proper equipment in hand, Stephen made the move to B/Super Modified. The year was 1983 – the same year he and JoAnn married.
As time progressed, the Cultrera stable came to include a series of Corvettes – the first was a sweet ’66 that Stephen raced in the early days at New England Dragway – and an ’86 Firebird that ran in multiple classes, including H/Altered, F/Altered and Super Modified. Stephen’s final steed was a tube-chassis car in the likeness of a Pro Stocker that he drove in F/Altered until 1997, when he decided it was a reasonable time to curtail his racing career in favor of a slightly tamer life.
A mere three weeks later, though, Glen Piercey, crew chief for then-Pro Stock driver and engine builder Barry Grant, asked him to join their team. Stephen simply had to accept, and he thrived in the new position. Within four years he was appointed crew chief.
Since then, his expertise has been called on by several other Pro Stock teams and drivers, including Tommy Lee and John Montecalvo on the IHRA circuit and the father-son duo of Roy and Allen Johnson on the NHRA tour. For nearly a decade, Stephen has been part of the successful Cagnazzi Racing operation and played an important role in the collection of numerous event wins, as well as two NHRA Pro Stock world championships.
The children in the family – Jessica, Lauren and Kyle – have joyfully been along for the ride from day one. While big sister Jessica found her strength in the medical field, Lauren and Kyle found their comfort zone at the racetrack. Instead of Jr. dragsters, they raced go-karts in an extremely competitive environment for several years. Lauren became Kyle’s biggest supporter – and vice versa. When the family was collectively ready to pack away the go-karts and try something else, Kyle was insistent upon saving the proceeds from the sale of his equipment and procuring his license to compete in NHRA. As soon as he was of age, he went to Doug Foley’s School of Drag Racing, and by the time he was 16, Kyle was licensed in Super Comp. In 2009, good friend Tommy Lee took him under his wing and showed him how to wrangle the F/Altered 5-speed owned by Chester Housh and Don Smith, and Kyle earned his Competition Eliminator license. He now regularly competes in both categories as he aims toward the ultimate goal: to be an NHRA Pro Stock driver.
To this day, racing is a family affair. Jessica makes it out to the races as often as her career will allow, and her daughter, future Jr. dragster competitor Hailey, is a fervent supporter of
Uncle Kyle and accompanies her grandparents, JoAnn and Stephen, to the racetrack many times throughout the year. Lauren is at nearly every event to cheer on her brother as he accumulates accomplishments and continues to finely hone his driving, and she will soon be joining him in competition as she licenses in the family dragster in 2012. Of course mom and dad are there, too, with JoAnn doing her part in every way possible and Stephen tuning the Comp entry driven by their son and owned by Al Ackerman and Dave Ring.
Kyle tunes his own Super Comp dragster, drives both cars, pours over copious notes between rounds and discusses strategy with his dad, and there will be no break in the action: future plans include the addition of a Stock Eliminator entry that Kyle will drive, in addition to the
Comp car, when Lauren is ready to take over the controls on the Super Comp dragster.
The level of intensity is much higher than it was in the beginning, back when it was just Stephen, his Chevelle and his buddies at the local track, but none of the enjoyment has been lost. In fact, life is a whole lot richer with a family to share it with.