More than 50 yers ago, Vera DeRosa made her debut on the quarter-mile drag strip at Miami-Hollywood Motorsports Park driving a blue and silver 1955 Chevrolet. Next year, she is expected to be inducted into the track’s hall of fame.
Vera, who has Alzheimer’s disease, smiles as her husband, Mike, recounts her exploits on race tracks throughout Florida between 1967 and 1998.
Mike beams with pride as he talks of Vera’s 21 years of perfect attendance driving at Bradenton, where she won the track championship in 1982.
Although she says nothing, Vera’s eyes hint her memories may be triggered.
“She was one of the few women racing back then,” Mike says.
He turned 75 in September. Vera is 74.
“Vera’s dad raced and she really got the racing bug,” Mike says. “We were going to alternate driving, but it didn’t turn out that way. Racing was Vera’s escape.”
Mike was content to encourage her.
The couple’s oldest daughter, Shelly, was born with brain damage and required around-the-clock care, which Vera lovingly provided.
Mike worked two jobs to support Vera, Shelley and their youngest daughter, Donna—and to help finance their racing habit.
“We would race Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Mike says. “It was a family thing. You need some kind of a getaway.”
For the first 13 years of Vera’s racing career, Mike was her behind-the-scenes mechanic and strategist.
He helped her prepare a white 1968 Chevrolet Nova she named “Bewitched,” which she drove for nearly three decades.
Mike says she did really well.
“I’d rather work on her car than drive myself,” Mike says.
He enjoyed tinkering with cars, and to this day has a side business selling parts for Chevy Novas.
Mike admits he wasn’t shy about handing out unsolicited driving advice to his wife. That eventually got him in trouble, and he was forced to take the wheel.
“In 1980, I was telling her what to do, and she said, ‘If you think you can do better, you do it,’” Mike says.
A friend had a 1970 Buick—“nothing fancy,” Mike says—and encouraged him to take it on the track and run it.
“Vera’s car was too fast for me,” Mike quips, throwing an affectionate glance toward his wife of 55 years.
The Buick covered the quarter-mile distance in 17 seconds.
“It was slow,” Mike admits, “but I got pretty proficient at it. I was track champion at St. Pete’s in 1984.”
Donna also raced, winning a couple of events during her nearly 10-year career.
The DeRosas competed in bracket racing—a form of drag racing that sets a handicap between the predicted elapsed time of two cars. It places a premium on consistency of driver performance rather than raw speed of the car, and allows a variety of cars to race against each other.
Before the race, each driver predicts the elapsed time it will take his or her car to cross the finish line. The slower car is given the green light before the faster car by a margin of the predicted difference.
“The machine must be consistent, and the driver must be consistent,” Mike says.
Although he has fond memories of their racing days—and he and Vera still enjoy watching races—Mike laments that tracks now compete with one another, which has forced some out of business.
He also says the driver camaraderie and competitive spirit is different today.
“You helped people, and people helped you,” Mike says. “If you had a flat tire, we would help you fix it so then we could race you. It’s a different world now.”
He yearns for the old-school days.
“It used to be that racing was man and machine,” Mike says. “You’d buy a car off the showroom and race. It got to the point you’d go to races with more engineers than mechanics. Things got so sophisticated. We couldn’t keep up with that.
“We were a low-budget operation, but we had fun—and that’s what racing should be about.”
The DeRosas live just a few miles from Bradenton Race Park, which was their home track for many years.
Mike and Vera still go to that track and a few others as often as possible.
“We go over to the races to see our friends,” Mike says. “The friends you made—it really was a close-knit family. It’s still family.”