“I started driving quarter midgets when I was 8 years old – we had a local quarter midgets track in Phoenixville. We never did that as seriously as people do now.”
This wasn’t exactly what I expected to hear when I asked eight-time SCCA National Champion Andrew Aquilante about his early days in motorsports. But while his younger days were less assuming, the reality is, Andrew was born to do what he does, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Right as I was getting to the stage where [my dad and I were] wondering what we were going to do next,” Andrew continues, “some of the guys started spending five grand on quarter midget engines, which blew my dad away because, at the time, an engine for the Firehawk series was about $5,000. So we said, that’s cool, we don’t really need to do that.” They left, and for the next few years, Andrew spent the time indoor go-karting.
But yes, did you catch that? His dad is Joe Aquilante, owner of Phoenix Performance, and he, along with his brother Tom, had fielded cars in various pro series through the decades.
“I was always around when we were doing the Firehawk series in the mid ’90s, and I was watching John Heinricy, Don Knowles, and Stu Hayner, who were driving for my dad at the time,” Andrew explains. “I was learning from them, although I wasn’t realizing that I was learning at the time.”
Andrew’s father and uncle have somewhat started an SCCA empire. “Tom and my dad went to races at Watkins Glen, then got involved with the Sports Car Club of America, and then went racing themselves,” Andrew says. “It’s only natural that I’d get involved.” Tom’s family was not immune to the racing bug, either, and his daughters Beth and Amy – Andrews cousins – also road race with the SCCA.
None of this is to say that Andrew’s road to racing came without work. On numerous occasions, I’ve heard other racers refer to Andrew as “the real deal” – a racer, a builder, and a nice guy. It seems it all began just prior to his teenage years.
“We bought a salvage title Corvette for the Motorola Cup and I took it apart when I was about 12 years old.”
Many of Andrew’s stories start with “we built a car,” and that’s because to him, it’s what you do. Be it for a client or someone on staff at Phoenix, you build a car, and then you go racing. Consequently, in 2001, he says, “We built a car. I was 13-years old, and I helped build the car that John Heinricy won the Runoffs in, lapping the field in the rain in at Mid-Ohio; and it went from there.”
In February 2004, Andrew obtained his competition license – with no less than multi-time SCCA National Champion Don Knowles as his instructor – and he began racing.
“All through that time, I was working on cars and helping build racecars,” Andrew recalls. “I was fully immersed in it. I attempted to go to college, but that only lasted two and a half years. As my dad and I joke, my degree came in 2008 when we were looking for something to do above Club Racing with Corvettes, and there was Grand Am’s GT class.”
But between 2004 and ’08 came a steep learning curve. “One of the times we went to Mid-Ohio for a Regional [before the 2004 Runoffs] and we took John Heinricy,” he says. “One of my ‘aha’ moments was I gritted my teeth and followed John around Mid-Ohio. While I was scared for three laps, I managed to hold on – it was an eye-opening experience. I said if his car can do it then my car can because they’re the same. I learned a lot about what a car can do.”
At the National just prior to his Runoffs debut, Andrew put his newfound speed to the test.
“I think I qualified fourth behind John, Freddy Baker, and David Roush,” he says with fond recollection in his voice. “I ran 18 of 20 laps just behind those three while they were scrapping it out. Then Roush went to pass John and spun, and it kind of knocked John off the road. That left Freddy Baker up in front of me. I thought I’d finish second, and that was cool, but one lap later I’m in his trunk, passing him going down the back straight on the final lap. At that point, the dog had just caught the bus, and I had no clue what to do – I’d won the race!”
But come that Runoffs, another valuable lesson was to be learned.
“I just sucked and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he says. “It turned out, somebody who last used our alignment machine had changed the settings from degrees to inches, or vice versa, so the toe was way too far on both ends of the car. I didn’t find that out until right before the race, so I was mired in the back of the pack. That was one of those learning moments where realize you can’t let any stone go unturned. You hate that they’re all learning experiences, but without them, you don’t learn.”