By DOUG STEWARTdstewart@foxct.com
Hartford Courant / Fox CT
9:17 AM EDT, May 5, 2013
Keeping a secret is hard, but a group of friends and family managed to keep quiet for months about a big surprise for their returning serviceman.
Saturday night, the group presented Staff Sgt. Steve Barrett, a resident of Preston and an auto racer at the Waterford Speedbowl, with a totally rebuilt race car to replace one he’d crashed before being deployed to Afghanistan.
In front of a enthusiastic early season crowd, Barrett was presented with the car, brand new except for the old chassis underneath. Told he was there to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, Barrett appeared to be in shock when the car was driven to where he was standing.
"It’s going to take awhile to settle in. I’m very, very appreciative of an awful lot of people apparently," Barrett said after he had the chance to run the car for several laps around the track. "I don’t know what to say, I’m blown away."
The surprise was a success.
After years of racing, Barrett had worked his way up to the Street Stock division at the Speedbowl. He crashed his 1985 Monte Carlo last April, two months before heading overseas with the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) out of Groton.
The 24-year veteran of the National Guard chose time with his family before he shipped out, rather than working on the car, his wife Teresa said. He stored the car, intending to rebuild it upon his return.
In addition to the car, Barrett was presented with a new two-way radio and an autographed Ryan Newman shirt. Newman races the Army Strong car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
After seeing a story on television about servicemen being deployed to Afghanistan, Jeff Winsor and his wife Julie talked to Barrett's wife Teresa about fixing Steve’s car. A group of fellow race enthusiasts from the Waterford Speedbowl got together and – while the serviceman was in Afghanistan – built him what amounts to a new race car, donating their time, services and money.
The group worked two nights a week for seven months, and put in more than 1,000 man-hours to finish the car for Saturday’s presentation, Julie Winsor said. Some parts of the old car were used, but most are new.
Fans at the Speedbowl donated $5,000. Winsor estimated the total cost of the rebuilt car could amount to $20,000, counting donations of time and material.
Larry’s Auto Machine in Groton rebuilt the motor, a 350-cubic-inch V8.
"We took the existing engine and went through it top to bottom and made it like new," said Gary Espinosa, owner of Larry's. "We wanted to support him because he put his life on the line. There are times we get opportunities to help, and this is one of those times."
Many businesses got involved along the way, like Magnus Transmission, which rebuilt the car's transmission and rear end, and the owner of Plainfield Shell, who moved the car around on a flatbed when needed.
Teresa Barrett said they even sent out Steve’s racing suit so a new one could be made to his measurements without his knowledge.
"This has never been done in the history of the Waterford Speedbowl," Jeff Winsor said. "It's a life changing thing."
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