By JOHN HOWELL
Before he ran for the School Committee, before he turned his home into a Christmas light show phenomena and long, long before he even dreamed of running for mayor, Frank Picozzi was …
By JOHN HOWELL
Before he ran for the School Committee, before he turned his home into a Christmas light show phenomena and long, long before he even dreamed of running for mayor, Frank Picozzi was into cars.
That, in part, explains why Picozzi was in overdrive last week. Almost daily he could be found at the Crowne Plaza parking lot – decked out in jacket and tie with his wife Kim in a flowing spring dress Wednesday night at a party attended by at least 400 at the Warwick Neck estate of Richard Shappy overlooking Narragansett Bay and why he and Gov. Dan McKee waved green flags Saturday morning at Rocky Point Park.
All of those venues had cars. These cars, however, carried a unique distinction. All 150 of them are participants in the Great Race that started Saturday from Rocky Point and end June 26 at Fargo, North Dakota.
Before the Christmas lights, Picozzi had a 2007 Mustang GT in his garage. He needed more space to fabricate light show fixtures such as the pinwheels mounted on the roof or the computer activated board in front of the house used to introduce the show and dancing figures, so the Mustang went. Way back, he says he had a 1980 Pontiac Trans Am but his favorite, which he never owned, has always been the Hudson Hornet.
Pun intended, that could explain why Picozzi had a “bee in his bonnet” when he learned the Great Race that has been run by Hemmings Motor News since 1985 would start in Rhode Island this year. Race organizers contacted the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau as they considered options as to where to start the race. Being the state’s capitol, Providence appeared to be the logical choice. That was until they cross paths with Picozzi. The mayor not only made it clear there was no good place for the race to start in Providence, but Warwick offered several options in addition to nearby hotel accommodates for the more than 500 visitors the race would bring to Rhode Island.
It didn’t take much to convince event director Jeff Stumb that Picozzi was on to something. When he visited Rocky Point, Stumb was sold and didn’t even take a look at Oakland Beach or Goddard Park.
The logistics of putting of promoting the race, planning the activities around it and coordinating with state and city officials then the job of the city and the PWCVB and John Gibbons of the Rhode Island Sports Commission. With so much attention focused on Gaspee Days and it culminating events – the parade and the burning of the Gaspee the weekend preceding the race – the Great Race got little media attention. Elizabeth Dunton of Warwick tourism was mystified. How could an event of such magnitude with entries from across the country as well as foreign countries be overlooked? Press releases were sent out; arrangements made to appear on the Rhode Show along with social media posts.
Then there was rolling out the red carpet for all the participants. Dunton put together swag bags for the entrants; connections were made with Audrain’s Newport and the Newport Auto Museum. Shappy welcomed the visitors to his Classic Auto Sales in Providence and then to the party at his Warwick Neck home that could have been a page out of the gilded age of motor vehicles with his collection of Cadillacs, Duesenbergs and vintage motorcycles.
Tom Laferriere and his 1939 Model 120 Packard was a local celebrity of the event. Laferriere, owner of Laferriere Classic Cars, is the only Rhode Island entry in the race. Laferriere of Smithfield traces his fascination with cars to his father and the Packard that he acquired in 1970 in exchange for a World War II bayonet. The car was a neglected and rusty hulk that went untouched for awhile, other than the fact that Laferriere played in it as a boy. At the age of 12 and having already learned to drive, Laferriere questioned his father about getting the Packard to run. They took on the project. It launched Laferriere’s career in cars. When his father introduced him to body filler, Laferriere knew what he wanted. He enrolled in Davies Vocational Technical School.
Laferriere also knew what he wanted when he learned the Great Race would start in Rhode Island. With so many automobile enthusiasts in Rhode Island, Laferriere finds it incredible he’s the only Ocean State entry. Traveling with him is AJ SanClemente, who is the navigator and Laferriere calls the brains to the race.
On Saturday, SanClemente sat silently in the passenger seat, a three ring binder open on his lap while the crowd milled between the cars, music blasted and people crushed behind steel gates lining the former entrance to the park on either side of a giant inflated arch. SanClemente concentrated on that day’s run handed to competitors only hours earlier at the Crowne Plaza. Directions were broken into blocks indicating turns and projected average speeds (all within limits). Names of roads are omitted from the directions.
SanClemente said he was along for the ride because of his friendship with Laferriere. But, quite obviously given his intensity and understanding of the rules, he not going to be a casual observer.
When it was time to start, following remarks from officials, Picozzi and McKee took positions at either side of the inflated arch and waved cars on with their green flags. It was a friendly sendoff with Picozzi reaching through car windows to shake hands and wish people safe travels.
The festive atmosphere extended beyond the park. The word was out that the Great Race was in Rhode Island. Families with lawn chairs, coolers and beach umbrellas set up camp long the route. They cheered, waved and took pictures as the cars rolled by. This was a parade of cars.
One of them was a 1952 Hudson Hornet that Picozzi believes is “greatest car ever manufactured.”
Picozzi wasn’t behind the wheel, not then at least.
Earlier in the week he had the chance to drive it.
It had no power steering or brakes, “but it drove like a dream,” he said.
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