MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mahopac’s Bob Olszewski, Tom Pinto and Tom Bonacci have been friends for a long time. Olszewski and Bonacci grew up in Yonkers, though they didn’t really get to know each other until they both moved to Mahopac.
“We met about 14 years ago,” Olszewski said. “Our kids are the same age and go to school together. We have the same background and we both collect cars. We both grew up in Yonkers, but on opposite sides of the town. We ran into each other back in the day but didn’t really hang out. But we both had the same passion for cars. I started building when I was 15 and so did he. When we both got up here (Mahopac), we discovered that not only were our kids the same age, but we have the same wedding anniversary and so we started celebrating those together. Over the years we have hung out a lot. We go on vacations together. We are a tight-knit group.”
Then last month, Bonacci received some devastating news. He learned he had pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. The diagnosis was terminal.
“He got diagnosed about a month ago. He wasn’t feeling well and was going back and forth to the doctor,” Olszewski said. “His wife called us up and gave us the news. The doctor had told him he has pancreatic cancer and it spread to his liver and it’s not too good. He just turned 50.”
One of the passions that united Bonacci with Olszewski and Pinto is their love of classic cars. Bonacci owns a 1973 Chevy Camaro Z-28 that’s been sitting on the side of house for a long time.
“He used to drive the car regularly,” Olszewski said. “It’s an original numbers-matching car, which means it’s as original as the day it came off the GM assembly line and out of the showroom. It has the original motor and transmission, which is rare because with cars like this, what happens is guys like us get them and rip the motor out and put in something bigger and faster. But not this one. He got this one about 25 years ago and drove it daily. But like many of us, he got married, had kids, the car goes on the side of the house. He didn’t want to get rid of it. Eventually, it became undrivable because it wasn’t started, it wasn’t run.”
More than a month ago, after they’d all learned of Bonacci’s diagnosis, the group of friends gathered at Pinto’s house.
“Tommy [Bonacci] told us that the one thing he really regretted was he never had the chance to get that car running and take his kid for a ride,” Olszewski said. “After he left that night, Pinto came up to me and looked me in the face and said we have to get that car running now.”
Olszewski created a Facebook page called “Camaro Build Day for a Great Cause” asking friends of Bonacci and others who know their way around a car engine to show up at Pinto’s house and help bring the Camaro back to life.
“For the last few weeks, I made a point to get everyone together who’s worked on cars,” Olszewski said. “And I worked with a number of shops throughout Mahopac that have donated about $4,000 in parts. We have new brakes, all new brake lines, a new fuel tank, new carburetor, new windshield, tune-up kit.”
Businesses that donated to the Camaro Build Day included Central Auto & Truck Parts, C&A Auto Service, Rockwell Awnings, Iguana Wanna Car Wash, Brian’s Automotive Inc., AutoZone of Mahopac and Aries Automotive from Somers. Zach’s Pizza delivered free pizzas to the crew while they worked.
The plan was to finish the car by the time Bonacci was release from the hospital and then drive him to Pinto’s house where they would surprise him with his newly restored Camaro.
Bonacci’s son, Tommy Jr., 13, said his dad would probably have mixed emotions about the project that his friends have embarked on.
“I think he will be a little bit mad because he doesn’t like people touching his stuff,” he said. “But later, he’ll be happy.”
Olszewski said that, sadly, Bonacci’'s condition worsened last week and he was moved to hospice care. However, the family was able to visit and show him some pictures and videos of his beloved Z-28 undergoing its transformation.
“We were relieved we could do it and we are happy he got to see it,” Olszewski said.
But Bonacci’s friends’ generosity hasn’t stopped at the Camaro’s restoration. They’ve created a GoFundMe page to help the family cope with the mounting medical bills. A goal of $50,000 has been set and as of this writing, a little more than $48,500 has been raised. To contribute, visit www.gofundme.com/f/the-fight-for-strongman-tom.
[Editor's note: Mahopac News is sad to report that Mr. Bonacci passed away in the early-morning hours of Nov. 22. He never had the opportunity to take that ride in his newly restored Camaro.]