Bobby Lagana and brother Dom Lagana raced the Service Central Dragster at the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals with heavy hearts, mourning the loss of their close friend and "second dad," Jim Weinert. (Photo Courtesy of the IHRA)
Dom Lagana loves being at a dragstrip more than anywhere else on Earth. But his heart wasn't really there at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, Fla., with his the Service Central Dragster this past weekend.
He had raced Friday to the provisional No. 6 spot in the Top Fuel lineup for Sunday's Tire Kingdom Gatornationals. But he wasn't celebrating.
That lofty performance, the best in qualifying so far of his low-budget career, wasn't his focus.
He and older brother Bobby Lagana, his team owner and crew chief, are mourning the passing earlier this week of Jim Weinert, their so-called "adopted dad." Weinert, 58, the International Hot Rod Association's "Picasso of track prep" who also worked for many years at Summit Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, died in his sleep Wednesday.
The Lagana brothers for several years have lived with Weinert, his wife Carrie, and their sons at their home near Norwalk. And the unexpected loss has hit them hard. They had been in Florida, testing before the Gatornationals, and received word of Weinert's death just two days before their 2012 on-track debut.
"Jim and his wife Carrie, they've taken us in. They're like our second set of parents. Matt and Wes are like our little brothers. I never had a little brother," Dom Lagana said.
"We're out here racing , and we wanted to go home," he said. "And Carrie said, 'If you'd have come back, I would have been mad at you.' Everybody keep the kids in their thoughts."
Said Bobby Lagana, "We're only here for him this weekend. Tire Kingdom [Service Central] keeps us out here and they'd support us, whatever we did. We're here because if we went home, he'd be p----d. And we're going to go home as soon as we can to Carrie and the boys."
The Lagana family, always operating with an extremely limited budget, has said that it sets realistic goals. And the most fitting tribute they could pay to Weinert, they said, is to take the Service Central Dragster down the racetrack and have fun doing it.
"Our goal -- we don't come out here to win for Jim," Dom Lagana said. "What we come out here to do is have fun, like he always did. He loved coming out and hanging out at the races when he wasn't working. All we do is think about the good memories and have fun and enjoy each other's company.
"It just reminds you -- you never know what tomorrow's going to bring. You've got to enjoy the people around you. You just surround yourself with good people and enjoy their company," he said.
His brother echoed him.
"This weekend, it doesn't matter what we do. It doesn't matter if we qualify or not. You don't [say you're going to] win for somebody, because you don't know what's going to happen," Bobby Lagana said. "We're here to just make runs for him.
"He took us in when we were lost," he said.
Ultimately, Dom Lagana slipped down the list as Saturday's sessions progressed and ended up missing the cut by one-thousandth of a second. That didn't faze him, either. He was thinking about honoring his friend, his mentor.
The younger racer said, "He meant a lot obviously to us and to a lot of people in IHRA, track owners across the country. He was a friend to everybody. He wasn't just a business acquaintance. It hit us hard. It's going to hit a lot of people hard.
"Jim was big teddy bear. He was the guy that everybody came to with any kind of problem. It didn't matter if it had to do with racing. He held a lot of people together," Dom Lagana said.
"Without Jim and his wife, we definitely would not be able to be racing right now.
They gave us a house to live in. We've got a shop, we eat lunch with them. We act like a family. We have a lot of good memories with him. And it's almost as bad as losing my own dad," he said.
"We'll miss him dearly. He was a heck of a guy. He held a lot of people together, and I can't thank him enough. He knew -- we always said we enjoyed each other's company. I know he knew how much he meant to us. I know he thought of us as his own kids. Just definitely in our hearts. They've devoted their lives to IHRA and drag racing in general. Yeah, they work with an association (IHRA), but they're drag racing junkies. They love the family atmosphere. That's why we get along so together. They're our intermediate family, for sure."
Bobby Lagana was overcome with emotion as he talked about Weinert before Friday's qualifying sessions, choking back the words, "It's . . . I . . . It's . . . I can't even talk about it. Certain things aren't supposed to happen, you know? I know everybody loses somebody."
He said this week's events have underscored that we all need to love our family and friends and brush aside any slight or grievances. "You've got to love 'em. If you harbor bad feelings -- get rid of it," he said. "You know, you never know what's going to happen."
For the past two years, the Lagana brothers went on the road with Jim Weinert, Dom driving one of the big rigs for Feld Entertainment, which owns the IHRA and Bobby going along because he loves the life.
"We had the greatest situation ever. We raced all the IHRA races. Dom was driver for Feld. We all rode on the road together. We left the house together," Bobby Lagana said, adding, "I would trade in anything that we do" for those days to continue. "We loved racing with the IHRA. Even if it was a show, I don't care. We put our all into it. And it was always for him."
What struck Bobby Lagana was Weinert's sense of family and the notion that not his size but the size of his heart that made folks call him "Big Jim." Noplace was that more evident than dinnertime.
"One of the most amazing things when we grew up with my mom and dad, when we were young kids, when it was time to eat, it wasn't about eating. It was about sitting down with your family and talking and talking about life and joking -- and obviously eating," Lagana said. "Jim, from the day we hung out with him for the first time, he was the same. He was adamant that all his kids -- his sons Matt and Wes and Jimmy . . . and us . . . he really considered us to be his sons -- we all ate together. It wasn't because we were eating dinner. It's because it was a family thing.
"And if there was a time that we couldn't do it, it made him upset because he wasn't with his family. That's how much he cared about his family," he said. "When you ate lunch with that family -- and there were a lot of guys who did -- you were eating with him for family. He treated everybody like that.
"That was so special to watch him sit down and enjoy the meal for what it was," Lagana said. "That's just the way it was, always. You sat down with your parents to eat dinner with them, to talk and grow your family life. A lot of this world is missing that. And Jim didn't miss that. He knew what it was about. He loved his boys. That's what makes it impossible right now."
The Lagana brothers, self-confessed drag-racing gypsies from Scarsdale, N.Y., will continue to live near Norwalk at the Weinert family's home, their home. And they'll be role models, they promise for Weinert's teenage sons.
"That's where we live. Matt and Wes, they're our priorities now," Bobby Lagana said. "They're just young boys. They're incredible men, boys. And Carrie's the greatest person. And Jim was just -- it's just not supposed to go down like that, that's all."
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