For a racecar person — and there are many here in Nashville, the relative lack of awareness among the citizenry and some of those it has elected notwithstanding — a garage is a temple. It is a place for meditation, though not of the quiet variety. It is the basketball player's practice gym, a shrine to effort and determination.
The one belonging to Tony Formosa Jr. is extraordinarily clean and orderly for such an active enterprise. It's home to eight racecars and trucks that he has built and maintained over many years long and short. From the outside it looks like a giant, white-painted cinderblock. But who cares what it looks like from the outside? Racecar people care about the roars within.
Tony Formosa Jr. grew up to fall in love with cars. Father Tony had been in love with cars. Senior served as a mechanic in the U.S. military before coming home to Nashville to work for his father's business, Angelo Formosa Foods, repairing delivery trucks in the 1950s and getting a racing business going on the side. Junior soaked it up. His father would plop him in the driver's seat of a racecar while he worked in his garage, and Junior would pretend he was driving — leaning into the turns, feeling out the road for the lanes. Motor oil, blood: Is there much of a difference?
But Junior's parents divorced in 1966, and his mother moved the kids to Hawaii to live with her sisters while Senior stayed in Nashville. Two years later, at age 14, Junior came home the summer before he was to start high school and decided to stay. He built and rebuilt Ford engines with his father and worked part time at Senior's dealership repossessing cars. From the inoperable ones, Junior would take radiators, batteries, starters and alternators, selling $1,800 worth to a scrapper to buy his first racecar: a 1957 Chevy that, when the gas pedal got stuck during his second-ever race (age 15), Junior sent through the Fairgrounds Speedway wall, bending the frame.
Junior shook it off, learned how to do body work and started driving for Formosa Racing. In 1977, he won six races at the Fairgrounds Speedway. He graduated to regional racing. Four years later, Junior had his own team.
On either side of Tony Formosa Jr.'s 41-year racing career is the Fairgrounds Speedway. If his garage is the gym, the speedway is Formosa's Madison Square Garden. He managed the six races there this season (while most of the infamous racetrack noise was about the various dubious plans for its future). The track claimed the sight from his left eye during one nasty accident, and it's likely responsible for the fact of his hearing aid, which sits snugly in his left ear. But he's driven it hundreds of times — calls it a "special track": "There are spirits here and there are names here and there is history here" — and most importantly, he's conquered it. Now he just wants to enjoy it.
"This is a therapy that you can't buy in a prescription," he says, not betraying even a hint of a smile.