In an obituary in Saturday’s Daily Gazette, Mike Ronca was said to be “involved in dirt track auto racing.”
That’s like saying Eli Manning is involved in football.
Ronca, 50, who died suddenly on Wednesday, followed in the footsteps of his father and older brother to carve out his own successful career on area dirt tracks, especially Albany-Saratoga Speedway and its Champlain Valley Racing Association sister track, Devil’s Bowl.
The Roncas have been a fixture at area tracks since the late 1960s, when Nick Ronca competed in the charger division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway. His sons — first, Don; then, Mike; and finally, Rich — followed in his footsteps, and earned the respect of officials, fans and fellow drivers throughout the area, as witnessed by the hundreds who lined up in the cold outside Catricala’s Funeral Home in Clifton Park to pay their respects Sunday.
“This is a tragic loss for racing. He was so young,” said former Albany-Saratoga promoter Bruce Richards. “The Ronca family has always had a real passion for motorsports at the grassroots level.”
Mike Ronca began his racing career in the early 1980s as a talented teenager who looked like he always needed a haircut. Starting out in a four-door Chevrolet Nova in the hobby stock division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, he won 35 races in a four-year span, including 11 victories and the track championship in 1981, and 13 wins in 1982.
During that time, he earned the nickname “Hungry Mike.”
“That nickname came out of Dexter Dorr’s shop,” said longtime Albany-Saratoga Speedway announcer Dan Martin. “Dexter and the late John Osterhoudt [a columnist for Gater Racing News] hung the nickname on him after his first win and his insatiable desire for more, a desire that stayed with him into his modified career.”
Ronca left racing for five years, but returned in the late 1980s to work on his brother Don’s car, doing most of the engine work as well as being involved in day-to-day maintenance. It wasn’t until late in the 1990 campaign that he got back behind the wheel, this time of a small-block modified.
With Mike and Don both running modifieds, there were numerous Ronca exactas, with the brothers finished first and second. On three of those occasions, Don was the winner, but Mike got the better of the sibling rivalry on June 19, 1993, when he notched his first career win at Devil’s Bowl.
Mike Ronca went on to win four modified features at Albany-Saratoga, with his first win coming on Sept. 5, 1997, and continued to build the engines for his family’s three-car team throughout his career.
His biggest achievement came in 1996, when he won the modified point championship at Devil’s Bowl, despite not winning a race.
When Albany-Saratoga Speedway switched to asphalt prior to the 2010 season, Don and Rich Ronca decided to give the new surface a try, but Mike Ronca stuck to his dirt-track roots and began racing at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, where he finished seventh in the point standings last season.
When Rich Ronca won the final race of the 2010 season at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, it gave the family the distinction of having three brothers pick up a victory in the premier division for the first time in the history of the track.
“I know there will be a great void in the lineup at Malta on opening night, and when I announce ‘The Racing Ronca Brothers,’ there will be more than a car missing from the lineup,” said Martin.
A memorial service will be held at 11 this morning at the Catricala Funeral Home. Burial will be in St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Glenville.