9 September 2015

Alfa Romeos in Long Island City

Most of the warehouses in Long Island City, an industrial neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., are devoid of features that set them apart from one another. But nestled within one of them – blocked from view of the area's few pedestrians by a windowless concrete block wall – lies a colorful secret: six bright red vintage Alfa Romeo racecars.

They belong to Joe Nastasi, a native of Messina, Sicily, who decided as a young man that America held more opportunity for him. But his decision to leave his homeland didn't change his taste in cars, even though he has spent more than half of his 66 years in the United States. For Nastasi, Italian cars are it, and Alfa Romeos in particular.

"I was into cars my whole life," Nastasi said in a thick Italian accent, adding that with his interest came a passion for racing. "I'm not interested in sedans or anything like that, but anything sporty.

Sicily – the large, mountainous island that sits near the southern tip of the Italian peninsula – is home to the Targa Florio, a grueling road race that once pitted the best sports cars in the world against Sicily's treacherous mountain roads. It ran from 1906 until it was ended in 1977, minus the years during the two world wars. Even today, years after race organizers pulled the plug amid safety concerns, graffiti from the race is still visible on walls along the race's course. "Viva Nino" can be seen painted on retaining walls and buildings in several places around the island.

Nastasi was in his early 20s when Nino Vaccarella – a fellow Sicilian and the star of the faded graffiti – won the Targa Florio in an Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 prototype in 1971. Today, Nastasi owns the very same car, part of a collection of Alfa racecars he rescued from oblivion when Autodelta, Alfa Romeo's race shop, closed its doors in the mid-'80s. He scooped up a trove of now-valuable cars and parts for a song.

"When I first bought the cars, they weren't collectible at all," he said. "I had no idea the market would turn out that way. I just bought them because it was my passion."

His path to racecar car ownership was circuitous – he started his career as a mechanic, did some racing himself and, eventually, became an importer. But, in retrospect, his path made sense. It all began in the early 1970s, after he had served in the Italian navy. Nastasi said he made his way to New York City, landing a job at Modena Sports Cars, a shop that specialized in Italian cars.

"I had planned to go back to Sicily, but I liked working there," Nastasi said. "I was one of 11 mechanics."

At the time, he said he was only making $130 a week. His American dream wasn't taking shape in the way that he'd envisioned.

"After a year and a half, I said to myself, 'I came to America and I gotta make money," he said.

Nastasi quit his job in 1974, and with a partner, opened an independent shop. His partner, who spoke English well, was in charge of customer relations, and Nastasi said working on the cars was his department. After a while, Nastasi split with his partner and struck out on his own.

"Back then, there weren't too many people in New York who worked on Italian cars," he said. "It was hard at first, but my customers liked the work I did."

From 1979 to 1982, Nastasi said he turned his attention to racing, driving Formula Fords, among others. Things began to change in 1982, when he bought a shop that converted grey market cars to U.S. standards. By 1985, Nastasi said he had begun importing Lamborghinis homologated for sale in America, including the iconic scissor-doored Countach.

"I made a deal with the factory to bring Lamborghinis over," he said. "I started with 100 to 120 cars a year, and within a few years, I was importing 450 cars a year."

Chrysler bought Lamborghini in 1987 and purchased Nastasi's importing operation a few years later, allowing him to transition to real estate as his bread-and-butter enterprise. That turned out to be a smart move, as it also gave him the space he needed to expand his personal collection, which was already growing beyond what a run-of-the-mill enthusiast might harbor.

The building where the six Alfas live – five Tipo 33 prototypes and a race-prepped GT coupe, to be exact – is one of his properties, and houses the shop where he repairs and maintains his collection. The facility contains a full machine shop and a dynamometer, but like Nastasi's cars, all the equipment is vintage. You won't find any digital readouts here. The most notable feature on the dyno is a giant analog dial that resembles an oversized stopwatch.

Placed in an evenly-spaced row high along one wall of the shop – near the lathe – are posters of the Tipo 33 cars in their glory days. One of the photos shows Nastasi when he was in his early 30s. Wearing a white racing suit, he has wavy dark hair, like James Garner in "Grand Prix." Several shrink-wrapped spare engines and transmissions line a shelf nearby. In a loft above the machine shop, there are rows of shelving packed with spare parts, many of which he acquired when Autodelta closed.

Fast forward to the present: Nastasi spends much of his time in the shop, rebuilding parts for the cars that he still drives. His hair is white now, and he wears a blue work shirt and dungarees as he moves from the lathe, where he just turned a piece of metal, to a table where he has a transmission disassembled, mid-rebuild.

"I learned how to do this by watching other people; now I have 40 years of experience," he said.

All of the cars have a story. In addition to the Vaccarella-piloted Tipo 33, which he said was temporarily located in Sicily, he owns a Fernet Tonic-liveried, flat-12-powered Tipo 33, which he says is the car that won the 1977 World Sports Car Championship. Nastasi said he has other cars squirreled away here and there, too; a few more Tipo 33s, a handful of Ferraris and a pair of Miura SVs (of which only about 150 were produced).

The cars, especially the ones with provenance, may be valuable, but Nastasi doesn't let them gather too much dust, and runs them in vintage races from time to time.

"I cruise around all over the place and play with my cars," he said, recalling that sometimes, cars break, like one of the times he raced a pair of his Tipo 33s in the Le Mans historic. "The first car broke a half shaft and the second car broke in the middle of the night, so we were out of business."

More and more, Nastasi says, the cars are more active participants than he is.

"I've slowed down now; I guess age catches up," he said. "If I can't compete, I'd rather sit back and watch."

In his shop, though, he's as active as ever, and keeps cars that were stars of the motorsports world 40 years ago as they were in their glory days.

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