Story By: SHAWN COURCHESNE / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – As a child of the Connecticut short track scene, Marcello Rufrano watched in amazement as his racing idol Keith Rocco would battle near the front of Whelen All-American Series national standings year after year after year.
In 2018 Rufrano got his chance to join his mentor chasing glory on the national stage of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
Rufrano, who turned 18 on Sept. 17, won the 2018 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series UNOH Youth Achievement national championship.
The UNOH Youth Achievement Award is open to NASCAR drivers between the ages of 14-17. Drivers can accumulate points until their 18th birthday.
“To me winning it, I’ve never won something so prestigious in racing,” Rufrano said. “It’s cool to add that to my resume. Going down to North Carolina to go claim that award is going to be pretty special to me. This is actually the first time I’ve ever been in contention for a national title. … That’s pretty cool. Just to be able to do that means everything to me.”
In 2018 Rufrano, of North Haven, CT, raced full-time in the SK Light Modified division at Stafford Motor Speedway and in the Sunoco Modified [SK Modified] division at Thompson Speedway.
For most youngsters, sports idols are revered from afar. That was never the case though for Rufrano.
In 2009 Rocco teamed up with SK Modified team owner John Rufrano at Stafford Motor Speedway. For then nine-year old Marcello Rufrano, Rocco became his racing hero.
“It’s pretty awesome to see where he is now,” said Rocco, who still drives for John Rufrano at Stafford. “I remember going over John’s house when I had just started driving for him. I remember hanging out with them and just remember Marcello sitting in the race car and stuff. It’s just been really cool to watch him grow up.”
Said Marcello Rufrano: “When I was a kid I just admired him. He was a hero of mine. He still is a hero of mine. And we’re pretty cool friends. Whenever I come to the shop we always ball break with each other. When I was a kid I would try to imitate him, good and bad. Sometimes the bad I’d get in trouble for. But the good that he’d do are the racing lessons I’ve learned from him over the years. They really make me the driver I am today. I’ve learned so much just being around him and hanging out with him.
“To have someone like him around all the time I almost feel spoiled. To have someone of such achievement, to be able to talk to him and be friends with him on and off the track is really cool and special to me. To say you’re buddies with Keith Rocco and your father owns Keith Rocco’s, it’s really cool.”
Marcello Rufrano thinks back now to not truly understanding the magnitude of Rocco winning the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship in 2010.
“All I remember is that when I was a kid at home one day my father told me that Keith had won the national championship.” Marcello Rufrano said. “I felt like it was just another victory like he had throughout the years. I didn’t really understand what it meant at the time. Come later in life I just understand now so much how big it was and what he accomplished and the how cool it was the amount of tracks he ran and the races he won.”
Marcello Rufrano won the 2018 SK Light Modified championship at Stafford in ultra-dramatic fashion. He and his close friend, 2018 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division III national champion, Bryan Narducci battled near the top of the standings all year and went into the final race of the season tied at the top of the standings. Whoever beat the other in the season finale on Sept. 30 would be the champion.
On lap 17, Narducci edged by Marcello Rufrano for the lead. The two made contact in turn two with Rufrano getting into the backstretch wall. Going into turn three more contact between the two sent both cars into the wall and ended the day for each of them.
Because Marcello Rufrano led the final scored lap completed by the pair he was deemed to have finished 19thin the event, with Narducci scored 20th. It gave Marcello Rufrano the championship by two points.
“That’s why they save the best for last,” Marcello Rufrano said. “Just the way we ended it, it might not have been the best way possible. But, when you look at it, it’s just one of those races that you’re not going to shake off for a while. We both made mistakes. We’re buddies about it now. It’s a joke among our friend group now. Some people might be bitter about it still, but at this point it’s just another event that happened in my racing career. I don’t like wrecking race cars, don’t get me wrong, but it happened that day.”
Marcello Rufrano ended the season at Stafford with a division-high six victories, 11 top-five’s and 16 top-10’s in 21 starts.
At Thompson Speedway he got his first career Sunoco Modified victory on Sept. 9 and finished the season with four top-10’s in seven starts.
“Every year I look to put up big numbers, but when it comes to the end of the season you just look back at what you achieved and I couldn’t be more proud of myself and my team for what we accomplished,” Marcello Rufrano said. “We won six races [at Stafford] and we went to Thompson and won an [SK Modified] race. To add that to my resume and adding this [UNOH] Youth Achievement award to my resume makes me feel like a whole better of a driver. What we did this year was beyond expectations.”
For Marcello Rufrano, who has proven to be a worthy showman on and off the track, the idea of being on stage at the NASCAR Awards banquet in Charlotte on Dec. 7 has him pumped.
“It’s probably the coolest experience of my life, to have everyone from NASCAR looking up at you on stage,” Marcello Rufrano said. “It’s definitely going to be something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”