Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘A lot of racers start as early as age 5, so I still feel like I’m catching up to them.’

Justin Dittrich, West Babylon

“My family was into kart racing before I was even born. My older half-brother raced at Riverhead Raceway. He’s 17 years older than me, and I grew up watching him as a toddler. My mom and sister also dabbled in kart racing; there’s even a photo of me at age 1 sleeping in my mom’s go-kart. I had an early start, but there was a point as an early teen [when] my interest in racing had faded. Eventually it came back to me through video games and online socializing, and then it was at a racing club event I attended with my brother when I was 16 that got me back behind the wheel and to the track. I had tagged along, and when I got there, there was a need for people to work on the track. I spent the whole day working, and then when they asked me to come back for the next event, I was like, ‘Sure.’

“By the end of that year, I had started to travel as a track worker, working and officiating at regional championships across the Northeast. As for driving, I didn’t get back behind the wheel full time until I was 20; that was because I met great people at the track who watched me and saw my potential. One who definitely made me the caliber of racer I am today is Pete Miletto, a former professional wrestler and successful businessman who helped fund my racing, which I couldn’t have afforded to do on my own back then. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, I got it.’ He took a chance on me, just based on my work ethic at the track, and fully funded me for three years.

“A lot of racers start as early as age 5, so I still feel like I’m catching up to them, like when I’m racing against high schoolers who have already learned skills I’ve yet to pick up on. But as another mentor of mine says, we’re always the master of our own destinies, even on the racetrack, that ‘you’re holding the wheel, you’ve got to steer it.’ That mentor, Tim Hannen, helped guide me, teach me values related to sportsmanship and helped me learn what to look for while officiating. He also helped me stay in the driver’s seat and to see how that strengthens my officiating. One thing helps the other; when I’m driving, it helps me guess what the judges are looking at while I’m driving, and even what I can get away with.”

I want to enjoy the journey as much as I can, and so far I’ve enjoyed every mile of it.

“Back in 2021, I came up with a new goal, to race in all 50 states. I was at a point where I just really wanted to figure out what to do with my life, and to give myself something to work toward. I had been finding myself officiating more and driving less, and I wanted, quite literally, to find a way to keep myself in the driver’s seat. I also wanted to see new places, and a friend of mine was doing a 50-25 challenge, to see all 50 states before age 25. I was like, ‘That’s cool, I want to do something like that, but how can I also up that?’ I thought, ‘I love racing, so why don’t I just go and do what I already do?’ So far, I have raced in 28 states.

“The goal of racing all 50 is also about me keeping my ear as close to the ground as I can. Whether it’s learning what’s new about engines, strategies in racing, I hope it will also make me a better official as I can see other people’s antics while I drive, which I can then watch for when officiating or include when I’m driving. Also, tracks across the country mostly follow similar rules, but they might not be enforced the same way, and all officials may have different interpretations of the rules. Judgment calls may fall differently. This is part of it; there are different flavors in racing in different places. Doing this whole journey as much as I already have over several years, it’s helping me stick to the black and white while reducing the grey. This will hopefully make people feel confident in my officiating, with the advantage of being a driver. There’s a balance, and I’m seeking it. I still do track work, but I split my time now evenly with racing.

“I still live on Long Island, but Fridays through Sundays, I’m usually working at racetracks, officiating or helping in other ways, on-site at out-of-state events. At 5 p.m. on Fridays after working my office job, I head to Kennedy Airport, work events, and then I’m back by Sunday night. I don’t have a deadline in mind to finish my racing in all 50 states, as I don’t want to rush through it. I want to enjoy it. As much as it’s about going to all these tracks and honing my craft, I want to enjoy the journey as much as I can, and so far I’ve enjoyed every mile of it.”

Interviewed by Ian J. Stark