Story By: SHAWN COURCHESNE / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Bring up the word handicap to Colchester, Connecticut, SK Light Modified division driver Bryan Narducci and it’s a topic that will likely have him talking about the system used to equitably arrange the starting field at the race tracks he competes at.
Using the definition of the word to describe a physical impediment that would slow him down? Don’t expect that ever from Narducci.
The 18-year old Narducci has never allowed that word to stand in his way when it comes to progressing through the ranks of short track racing in Connecticut.
In 2018 Narducci drove to five victories and 15 top-five finishes in 21 starts at Stafford Motor Speedway on his way to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division III National Championship, and while doing it he never let his cerebral palsy in any way define anything about his racing career.
“I don’t really think about it anymore to be honest with you,” Narducci said. “It’s not even in my head.”
It seems Narducci was predetermined by genetics and bloodlines to be a racer. What was never in doubt was a burning competitive spirit, one that has literally been a part of him since the day he was born, fighting back death twice within weeks as a newborn.
Said his mother, Missy Pearl: “The doctors they said ‘We don’t know if he’ll ever walk.’ So when he started racing that was like the miracle kind of thing. It’s in the blood though. How can he not race?”
Narducci’s maternal grandfather is legendary Southern New England driver Jerry Pearl, a former championship winning Modified driver at Stafford Speedway and the New London-Waterford Speedbowl.
His paternal grandfather, Ron Narducci Sr., is a New England Auto Racing Hall of Famer who was a standout at Stafford in the 1960’s when the track was still dirt. His father, Ron Narducci Jr., competed in upper level kart racing for decades and also raced Legends cars.
His uncle Jeff Pearl is a former SK Modified division champion locally and his uncle Greg Narducci is a longtime crew chief and crew member with NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour teams.
“Racing is just in my blood,” Bryan Narducci said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s all I know.”
Not surprisingly, as a child of racing bloodlines, Bryan Narducci nearly was born at a race track, though quite dangerously early.
Missy Pearl was just over six months pregnant with Bryan while attending the annual Turkey Derby at Wall Stadium in Wall, N.J. in November of 2000. The night before the event Missy Pearl went into labor unexpectedly.
“I woke up at 2 or 3 in the morning and I was like ‘Oh I don’t feel good.’ and I was in labor,” Missy Pearl said. “Basically they threw me in the backseat of the car and off we went.”
Bryan Narducci was born 11 weeks premature. He weighed 3.13 pounds at birth. He spent the first five weeks of his life at the Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune City, N.J.
“So Christmas Eve we were going to bring him home and I went to feed him and all of the sudden he just stopped breathing,” Missy Pearl said. “You know when they clear the room? That happened. And they brought him back. He died and they brought him back.”
On New Years Day 2001 he was released from the hospital and the family returned to Connecticut. Then in mid-February he had to fight for his life once again.
“I hadn’t left his side,” Missy Pearl said. “My mom was like ‘I’m taking you to dinner.’ So I left him with his father and I was out and I got a phone call from his father and he said: ‘He stopped breathing again, you’ve got to come home, he’s in the ambulance.’ So they had to do CPR again to bring him back. We lost him twice. So, he’s a miracle baby.”
And in those first few months of life, Missy Pearl had immediate concerns.
“I kept saying, ‘Something is wrong, something is wrong, he’s not sitting up.’” Missy Pearl said. “And the doctors were like ‘Well he was 11 weeks premature.’ There was always something they’d say. ‘I was like, he’s six months old and he’s not sitting up.’ They were always like ‘Give it time.’ Nine months old, still not sitting up. ‘I’m like, something is wrong.’ Fifteen months, we went to the Children’s Hospital and they diagnosed him with cerebral palsy.”
Cerebral palsy is defined as: “A group of permanent disorders of the development of movement and posture, causing activity limitation, that are attributed to non-progressive disturbances that occurred in the developing fetal or infant brain.”
For Bryan Narducci, the effect visually is an exaggerated walking gait and some loss of movement or flexibility in joints of his lower extremities.
“He was almost two and half years old when he started to even walk with braces,” Missy Pearl said. “Then he had braces on his legs until he had surgery when he was in fourth grade. They reconstructed both legs. They took the muscle from the back and put them in the front. It was crazy. He was nine years old then.”
At nine years old Bryan Narducci began racing in the Tiger B class as part of the Wild Thing Karting Series at Stafford Speedway.
After six years in karts Narducci made the jump to the Limited Late Model division at Stafford Speedway for the 2016 season.
For mom though, there was trepidation when it came to stepping up from a kart to a full-sized racing vehicle.
“I was scared, petrified,” Missy Pearl said. “Only because he is the type of kid that – I don’t know if I want to say forgets he has a disability – but if you tell him that he can’t run over there, he’ll make a liar out of you. That was one of the things, like I have to say ‘Bryan, you have limits and you have to remember that.’
“For the longest time I made him practice getting in and out of the car. … He can’t bend like you and I. So I told him right from the start. I told him, ‘Before you race anything you have to show me you can get in and out.’ With the go-kart we practiced getting in and out, in and out. And then with the Limited [Late Model] it was the same thing. In and out, in and out, in and out, for hours. He’s like ‘Mom, I can do it.’
“It makes me nervous. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it, but he’s a kid and most kids have no fear. So that’s what I was worried, that he was going to drive it not realizing what could happen.”
Under the guidance of family and longtime SK Modified veteran Todd Owen, Bryan Narducci made quick leaps forward in the division.
“He’s got the most awesome car control,” Owen said. “Even watching him in go-karts. The kid knows where’s he’s at. You watch him, he like is methodical, always planning things out. He makes kids look silly. So his ability-wise, that was never a question for me.”
He got his first win in the Limited Late Model on July 15, 2016.
“On the way home I said to my grandfather: ‘Hey, we actually did it.’” Bryan Narducci said. “That was just an awesome feeling.”
Said Jerry Pearl: “I’m very proud of him. When he was born, you could hold him in your hand. We didn’t even think he was going to be able to walk, never mind drive a racecar. He’s learned and advanced very well and he’s doing awesome and it’s so great to see.”
He had six wins over two seasons in the Limited Late Model division before making the jump to the SK Light Modified division at Stafford in 2018.
He got his first SK Light Modified victory at Stafford on May 11 of this year.
“It really blows me away because I never thought I’d be racing a Modified and to be successful is pretty cool,” Bryan Narducci said that night.
And the rookie success in the division kept coming.
“I’m kind of shocked that we won five races at Stafford and we won a national championship,” Bryan Narducci said. “I’m not really shocked that we were fast every week. … I kind of expected to be one of the faster cars this year. To be able to win a national championship is obviously very cool. To be able to put up the numbers that we did, I think we had 12 out of our first 15 races were top-four finishes, to be able to do that against the good guys that are in that field and all the veterans, I think that was really cool.”
Bryan Narducci was embroiled in a season-long battle for the division championship at the track with one of his best friends in racing, Marcello Rufrano.
The two teenagers, who had competed against each other going back to karting days, went into the final event of the season tied for the points lead. Whoever finished ahead of the other would win the championship.
On lap 17 of the 20-lap feature at the NAPA Fall Final at Stafford on Sept. 30, the pair made contact in turn two in a feisty battle for the lead. Narducci came of the corner with the lead, but contact again between the two sent both drivers into the wall, ending their day on the track.
Rufrano was deemed champion of the division by virtue of having led the previously scored lap.
“Every your goal is try to win a championship,” Bryan Narducci said. “As a rookie I don’t think a lot of people thought that goal would be achievable. But in my mind I knew that we could come close if not we’d do it. We ran first or second in points pretty much all year and went into the last race tied and we came out losing by one position. But it just showed that we were one of the top cars every week and we had a car to win pretty much every time we hit the track. It shows that the team was very good and we did very well preparing for the races. Hopefully next year we can come back and get that one position and win the title.”