Nick De Vitis immerses himself in racing high-end vintage cars

Nick De Vitis, of Sammamish, once was a 10-year-old boy driven by a race car dream. He wanted to be behind the wheel of a fast car, racing against others, just like the drivers he saw at Pacific Raceways in Kent, where his mechanic father, Quinto, took him. De Vitis wanted to be a professional driver.

De Vitis’ childhood dream didn’t come true. He eventually became a business owner and, in 1987, started Harbor Pacific Contractors. His construction company builds public works infrastructure projects such as dams, wastewater treatment plants, and transit centers. Current projects include a parking center near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

While De Vitis didn’t become a professional race car driver, his passion didn’t die; it just went in to hibernation for a while. His interest reignited in the early 1990s after he watched a vintage car race. He was thrilled to see older cars still racing, and it didn’t take him long to get involved.

In 1994, De Vitis purchased what he thought was a “ready-to-race” 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready to hit the track. It needed a new engine, transmission, and brakes, among other repairs. That’s where his mechanic father stepped in to help.

“Little by little, we got the car race-ready,” De Vitis said.

De Vitis attended racing schools at Pacific Raceways and in Phoenix. He has since sold the ’65 Mustang to make room for the three cars he now owns.

Vintage races are organized by era and speed of the cars. Racing older vehicles can be both a blessing and a curse. Older cars lack modern technology, so their engines and other critical components are stripped-down and easier to tweak and maintain. But drivers need to use old-school skills to handle these automotive dinosaurs. No modern technology means no power steering, anti-lock brakes, or other driving luxuries that make today’s cars so easy to control. That adds to the challenge, but driving these cars as they were built is part of the appeal.

Nick De Vitis racing his 1988 Chevrolet Beretta in the 2014 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California. Photo courtesy Michael De Vitis

Nick De Vitis racing his 1988 Chevrolet Beretta in the 2014 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California. Photo courtesy Michael De Vitis

Vintage car racing mostly attracts older drivers. De Vitis says he once raced against a 75-year-old who had a heart attack on the track. “You have got to be in good shape,” De Vitis said. “It takes a lot of endurance.”

To be deemed eligible to race, drivers must pass a medical test that proves they have good vision, heart rates, and blood pressure. “The physical stress on your body is unbelievable,” De Vitis said. “Your hands get tired, the brakes are primitive. It takes stamina.”

It also takes money — which also explains the older drivers. Typically, race cars are driven and maintained by their owners, and De Vitis competes in a category with cars valued between $150,000 and $1,000,000. Racing a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars is, of course, financially risky. But vintage car races are thought of as “gentlemen’s races.” Crashing is frowned upon. There is a strict discipline board, which will quickly expel drivers who cause collisions.

That’s not to say crashes don’t happen. De Vitis said he has been in some bad ones, but has never been injured. That’s despite some of these crashes coming at speeds between 80 and 200 miles per hour.

“It’s hard to get hurt in one of those cars,” De Vitis said. “The required gear includes a flame-retardant suit, all the way down to the underwear and socks, and a helmet with only a five-year life span.”

The cars, on the other hand, don’t always fare so well, and insurance coverage stops the second the car rolls on to the track.

Like many hobbies, there are levels of elite that go beyond the scope of a layperson’s understanding. De Vitis stumbled upon the racing world’s “cool group” at a race in California. There, he watched the elite few who raced Trans Am Series cars. “I wanted to run with them,” he said, so he purchased an eligible 1968 Mustang Notchback.

De Vitis tries to attend six races a year, which each usually take up a week of his time. While the races themselves are only about a half-hour in duration, car owners trailer their cars to each event. Once they arrive at the track, there is a day or two of preparation to make the car race ready. With three cars, De Vitis has triple the work.

Early in his racing career, he did all the prep work himself, keeping meticulous records on each car. Today, he hires much of that work out. “I just want to enjoy myself and not worry about all the rest,” he said.

And enjoy he does. De Vitis’ inner 10-year-old is evident when he talks about the “really cool” cars that participate in the races. He revels in the sport’s legendary past.

“There is historical significance,” he said. “We are driving the cars as they were back then.”

De Vitis enjoys the competition of racing, and there is no shortage of competitive racers on the track.

“These are pretty much business people who controlled their own destinies,” De Vitis said of the racers. “They are used to being the boss. If you have 40 of those guys, you can get too much testosterone out there.” He said racers’ judgment can be clouded by the “red mist” of competitiveness.

To temper that, race organizers hold a mandatory meeting reminding the drivers that this is all just for fun. They tell the group there are no Mario Andrettis out here, so don’t act like one.

It’s all friendly camaraderie before the race, De Vitis said. The moment they get out on the track, it turns competitive.

“The people I race with are such a fun group,” he said. “It’s a stress reliever that allows you to have a focus away from your work.”

De Vitis’ credits his father, now 87, with instilling in him the love of racing. De Vitis’ 17-year-old son, Michael, didn’t escape racing affliction. He will be attending a race car driving school this spring.

“The passion continues to a third generation,” De Vitis said.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of 425 Business.