By John Bisci

Everybody loves the Pizza Man. Local drag racing fans know him as Carl Cannavo, driver of the long black Super Pro dragster at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The son of an immigrant (his father came to America from Messina, Sicily), Carl was born in Astoria General Hospital in Queens, N.Y., and grew up in the shadow of Shea Stadium.

“Growing up, I was interested in cars. I was a diehard Mets and Jets fan too,” Carl began. (He paused from working in the garage for a moment to mutter an observation on his favorite baseball team as they were in the midst of losing their second consecutive game against Colorado.) “We moved out here in 1982 when I was 16. My dad was divorced and a friend of his told him Las Vegas was going to be booming. He owned auto wrecking yards.”

After moving to Las Vegas with his father, he graduated from Clark High School.

“I started drag racing in 1991. My father was an old-time drag racer from the 1960s and early 1970s.”

Believe it or not, the New York City area was a hotbed of auto racing in those days, with three stock car tracks and at least one drag strip on Long Island alone.

Most drag racers launch their careers in an elementary division and move up through the ranks. Not Carl. He purchased a Fiat Topolino dragster from a local racer and cut his teeth at the area’s highest level – the highly-competitive Super Pro division. It was the equivalent of buying your first bat and ball and then immediately signing up for the Las Vegas 51s.

“It wasn’t good at first,” Carl admitted. “I got off to a slow start and it took me six years to win my first race at the old Las Vegas Speedrome. But my wife and kids are out there all the time with (the team). I met my wife Teri in 1993 and she’s been at the track with me all the time.”

The wins came a little easier after he earned his first trophy. Carl started racing around the Southeast and his name began to appear as the winner in the results stories more often. The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was constructed in 2000 and the North Las Vegan’s Fiat gave way to exotic, mid-engine dragsters powered by big-block Chevrolet engines capable of exceeding 180 mph in the quarter mile.

Carl’s racing career was interrupted by a serious illness in 2006. He fell ill and was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome – a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system – on Labor Day. He spent 34 days in a local hospital, followed by a lengthy recovery period at home. Eventually, he was able to return to the sport he loved. 

His biggest win to date is the Race of Champions victory scored last October at the NHRA Pacific Division Summit Racing Series Finals at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz. The competition was fierce and his was the first Las Vegas-area car to win the title since 2002.

The Pizza Man moniker was earned years ago.

“They kept getting this (substandard) pizza delivered to the (officials’) tower at the drag strip and it sucked, so I started bringing them much better pizza. The nickname stuck and that’s how that started.”

All for the love of quality pie.

The jovial Cannavo – who is all business behind the wheel – shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’m 44 now,” Carl opined. “I’ll probably race another 15 years.”

That’s a lot of pizza.

La Voce Magazine
May 2010 issue