Ray Ciccarelli pulls out a drawer from the white, bulky cabinet in his racing trailer and begins to rummage through an assortment of tools.
He’s running on just three hours of sleep, arriving back in his Reisterstown home that morning after attending the NASCAR Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway the night prior, but the grogginess doesn’t matter. Ciccarelli is in race mode as he makes the finishing touches to his dirt modified ahead of an 18-lap race on July 13 at Bedford Fairgrounds Speedway in southwest Pennsylvania, prepping for another go-around at a childhood dream that seemed shattered not long ago.
On Wednesday July 18, the 48-year-old Ciccarelli — a 1989 graduate of Mt. Hebron High School who copes with an ostomy and Crohn's disease — is set to compete in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series “Eldora Dirt Derby” at the famed Eldora Speedway in New Weston, Ohio for the second year in a row.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” said Ciccarelli, who will wheel the No. 0 Stealth Belt Chevrolet Silverado for Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing at the place he made his NASCAR national touring series debut last year. “Anyone that’s into dirt racing knows the history of Eldora. I was honored to just go there and even turn laps at that track. And to go there and compete in the NASCAR Truck Series, that’s like the icing on the cake.”
Since bringing back a dirt oval race to the NASCAR scene for the first time in over 40 years in 2013, the event has become a motorsport staple — merging racing’s elite with its roots on a unique stage. But it holds special value for Ciccarelli, who’s battled through tribulation to at last obtain his dream in his late 40s.
In 2002, Ciccarelli was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a common but potentially life-threatening form of inflammatory bowel disease. It inflames the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition. And since racing requires intense stamina and focus, especially at the NASCAR national touring series level when drivers are strapped into sweltering cockpits for two- to five-hour races, Ciccarelli thought those aspirations were done for.
“It’s brutal,” said Ciccarelli, who races his modified on the weekends at dirt tracks across the Mid-Atlantic. “It’s brutal to live with.”
He then became involved with the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, a volunteer-driven non-profit organization dedicated to finding cures for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis and improving the quality of life for people who suffer from the affliction, sharing his testimony at clinics and events.
“Problem is, a lot of people are afraid to talk about it, like they’re embarrassed or something,” Ciccarelli said. “I don’t mind sharing my story, because if I can help one person, [they’ll think], ‘If this guy can do this, then I can do it, too.’”
The foundation helped Ciccarelli break onto the NASCAR K&N East Series tour in 2006, a developmental step to the national touring series, sponsoring three races. But after one lead-lap placing and finishes of 16th, 15th, and 31st, more opportunities didn’t follow.
So, Ciccarelli started his own business called Ciccarelli Moving and Installation — a 34-employee furniture and insulation company in the DC-Baltimore area — so he could launch his own race team.
“It’s funny because I looked forever to find sponsors, try to find sponsors, and could never find sponsors,” Ciccarelli said. “[I said], ‘The hell with this.’ Went and started my own company to hopefully, eventually be able to afford my own race team. Lo and behold it worked out.”
Things then turned south once again at an annual colonoscopy in 2015 when Ciccarelli was informed he had stage four pre-cancer cells in his colon. He needed his colon surgically removed within 30 days.
Ciccarelli now lives with an ostomy, which causes a change in the way bodily waste exits the body and rerouted through a surgically-created stoma on the abdomen into a prosthetic known as a “pouch” or “ostomy bag.”
“I really wasn’t sure if I was going to race again,” Ciccarelli said. “I thought I was really done. We sit pretty tight in these race cars, and the belts go up all in that area. I thought I was never going to race again.”
Ciccarelli then began using a Stealth Belt, which secures and protects ostomy bags and allows athletes to compete. And two years after what seemed like career-ending surgery, Ciccarelli stumbled into his dream opportunity with the sponsor that keeps racing aspirations alive.
NASCAR driver and owner Jennifer Jo Cobb sought an experienced dirt racer for the 2017 Eldora Dirt Derby, and that’s when her crew chief, Tim Silva, recommended Ciccarelli. In his NASCAR national touring series debut, Ciccarelli overcame car malfunction in practice to race his way into the 32-car show. And after starting dead last, he wheeled his way through the field, into the top 10, before getting spun out on Lap 138 of 150 to eventually finish 22nd.
“To be competitive like we was, it was mind-blowing,” Ciccarelli said. “It was a little overwhelming, but it was awesome.”
Ciccarelli ran five more NASCAR Truck Series events after his debut at Eldora, but now — with an attentive diet to maximize health with an ostomy and endurance-building seat-time at local events like Friday’s race in Bedford — the 48-year-old finds himself back in the fold at the anointed “Worlds Greatest Dirt Track,” the only NASCAR event he has a real shot at winning.
Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing is an underfunded team on the NASCAR circuit, but since speed is suppressed at Eldora and more geared toward how the half-mile, high-banked clay oval is managed, it’s practically even playing field with dirt ringers like Ciccarelli holding an upper hand.
“If you’re an underfunded team, you can go to a place like that and be competitive against a big money team,” said Ciccarelli. “When we all put our helmets on, I don’t care if Tony Stewart’s in the race … they’re just names. We all put our helmets on, we all have the same chance.”
The race will be nationally-televised on FOX Sports 1, beginning with coverage of qualifying at 4:30 p.m. Heat races start at 7 p.m. and the 150-lap race is set to roll off at roughly 9 p.m.
Truck Series veteran Matt Crafton is the defending winner, and other competitors include NASCAR up-and-comer Noah Gragson, as well as Cup Series driver and former Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman. But for one night, the 48-year-old journeyman Ciccarelli will suit up with equal odds and a shot at history.
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“It’s going to be pretty exciting,” Ciccarelli said. “We’re going to do anything we can -- even if we have to ruffle a few feathers — to try to get it in the show. It’s old-school racing. We all put our pants on the same.”