Monday April 30, 2007

By Brian Danko                                                                   Photos by Mary & Howie Hodge
                                                                                                                                                                   Click on Photo For Full Size

STAFFORD, CT--------Donny Lia of Jericho, NY wasn't even born when the first Spring Sizzler went green in 1972 but he appreciates the history of the "Greatest Race in the history of Spring".

Now, his name is among the winners of the Sizzler as he battled Todd Szegedy for the win taking the lead with two laps left after Szegedy had passed him with four laps remaining. "He was racing me so hard." Donny told the media after the event, "When he got by me, I didn't think I'd get him back."

While Lia, who teamed with veteran car owner, Bob Garbarino in January after running his own team, he didn't know they'd hit off like this. "This was a real team effort. I have always wanted to win a tour race here at Stafford but to win the Spring Sizzler, I'm just a little speechless."

The win for the veteran car owner is quite special, as Garbarino has been one of the longtime supporters of modified racing and was in the field in the first ever Sizzler.

While the race itself wasn't a great event with 14 cautions slowing the field, the final 10 laps is what the fans will remember and twice in the last four laps, Lia and Szegedy proved what close racing is all about. "I tried getting back by the 4 (Lia) after he passed me but my car was a little too inconsistent. I knew that he'd push me up the track, but he gave me plenty of room." Szegedy said after the race. Szegedy also said that he wasn't going to block Lia and it was Lia getting a good run off turn four to grab the lead and then hold off Szegedy and former Sizzler winner, Jerry Marquis.

"This is just an awesome car and an awesome team." Donny said as he gave Garbarino his first Sizzler victory after 36 years of trying. "I knew that I wasn't going to run my own team after last year and I don't even know how I first talked with Bob about the ride but I told him to keep me in mind if he was going to do something."

It's somewhat ironic that Lia replaced Marquis in the Mystic Missile and they both end up in the top three. While the race had many cautions, most of them on restarts and Lia said that that helped him, especially with track position. "We were in the right place at the right time, this is a track position track and it helped us, especially at the end of the race."

While Szegedy would have loved to get the win, he said the biggest thing is for the team to keep getting the top five's and top ten's. "My car was pretty good all day but then it would fade after three laps and there was nothing I could do but the pit stops today played a big part in our second place finish because we earned our track position in the pits."

The Sizzler went green right at the scheduled time under cloudy conditions but with a packed grandstand and it was Tony Hirschman and Reggie Ruggiero bringing the field to green. Hirschman would get the lead and hold on through the first two cautions, one in spectacular fashion. The car of Frank Ruocco landed on top of the #79 of Chuck Hossfeld, pulling the roof over the windshield and flattening all of the sheet metal from just behind the drivers' seat and crushing the gas nozzle. On lap 27, Ted Christopher, a past Sizzler champion took over the lead. Donny Lia was one car that most competitors felt would be strong as he moved into second on lap 39 as last week's winner, James Civali was third. The field continued green and on lap 65, Lia was wearing out the rear bumper on Christopher but couldn't get the car by Stafford's all time race winner. On the 74th circuit, Renee Dupuis inside of the top ten spun off turn four and that was the sign for most of the leaders to pit but Christopher elected to stay out. As the cars clicked off the 90th lap, Mike Stefanik, a four time champion of the Sizzler moved up to second and was challenging Christopher with Marquis in third while other contenders in the top ten included Reggie Ruggiero, Szegedy, Rick Fuller and Civali. A rash of cautions would begin on lap 110, when Matt Hirschman spun off turn four with a flat tire and that sent Ted Christopher into the pits for fresh tires as Ruggiero, Fuller and Civali all followed suit. That pit stop by Christopher handed off the lead to Stefanik but on the lap 116 restart, a multi car crash took place off turn four and ended the days of Ruocco, Fuller while Eric Beers was also involved. It was tough for the veteran Fuller as he had a strong car and was running in the top ten in the Bear Motorsports #13. Another caution on lap 124 slowed the field, as Marquis was able to take the lead from Stefanik on the restart with Szegedy in third, Tony Hirschman and Lia rounding out the top five. Ted Christopher's afternoon would head south after spinning through the back stretch infield after making contact with Dick Houlihan on lap 129. With 60 laps remaining in the 200-lap feature, it was Marquis in the Joe Brady 00 with Szegedy second, Stefanik, Hirschman and Lia rounding out the top five. The 10th caution of the day came out on lap 148 when Christopher and Kevin Goodale made contact in turn three and it caused Christopher to come in with front end damage. After two more cautions on the restarts and with Marquis able to hold off Szegedy twice, NASCAR officials told teams that it would be single file restarts the rest of the way. On the 169th lap, Todd Szegedy was able to get the lead from Marquis in turn three when Marquis washed up the track and that allowed Donny Lia to take over second. Lia though was able to get the lead by Szegedy on lap 173 but a spin on lap 176 by Danny Sammons again slowed the pace. It was unfortunate for Sammons as he was just outside the top ten with a consistent run in Ralph Solhems modified. It appeared that as lap 190 went into the history books, that Lia would be primed for his first Sizzler win but one final time the caution would fly on lap 192 when Billy Pauch, Jr and Ted Christopher tangled off turn two. On the 196th lap, Szegedy took the lead off turn two as the top three cars pulled away but Lia wasn't fazed and on lap 198 cruised by Szegedy off turn four and held on to capture his biggest career win.

The win for Lia was worth $8,200.

Following Lia and Szegedy was Jerry Marquis, defending series champion, Mike Stefanik with Zach Sylvester fifth. The rest of the top ten was Tony Hirschman, James Civali, Matt Hirschman, Jimmy Blewett and Jamie Tomaino.

Donny Lia had one of the cars to beat at the Thompson Speedway and ended up 20th after leading for 74 laps. He proved at the Sizzler that he and Bob Garbarino would be a force on the 2007 NASCAR Whelen modified tour and now he and his car owner join a long list of modified greats who have won the Spring Sizzler.

Jerry Marquis of Broad Brook, CT had quite an off season after being told by Bob Garbarino in mid-January that he wasn't going to be driving the #4 in 2007. After weeks of calling and searching for a ride, Marquis was able to come to terms with legendary car owner, Joe Brady. Brady, whose car was in the first Sizzler in 1972 teamed late in the season with sponsors patched worked together by Marquis and Brady and it nearly paid off in a Sizzler win. An emotional Marquis told the crowd he was thrilled with third. "Everything came together today." Jerry said holding back tears, thinking of the struggles he faced since January. "We didn't need those cautions because we couldn't get the car to fire up but considering everything, it's an honor to finish third. I think we're looking at great things from this race team." Chute Gates Steakhouse and Reynolds Auto Wrecking are two sponsors who jumped on board with Marquis and the former series champion is grateful to both of them along with many friends who have chipped in to keep the soft spoken driver in the field. "I'm disappointed not being with Bob but I'm thrilled being with Joe Brady." Jerry said and was asked if he felt he was close to a win. "You never think that you're going to win until you take the checkered flag, it's nice to lead but the only lap that counts is the last one."

Mike Stefanik finally had a champions like day after taking a provisional on Saturday when the team discovered water in the fuel cell but the Flamingo race team worked to get the tank drained and solve the problem and he came home fourth.

Zach Sylvester finished fifth in the Foxwoods Casino car for the Curt Chase team that won the Spring Sizzler last year with Doug Coby at the wheel. Zach ran a strong race all day and now has rewarded his new team with a tenth at Thompson and now a fifth. The car was the same car that Tony Stewart ran at New Hampshire Speedway last July.

Young Bobby Santos, III, one of the most talented drivers in the country had a busy weekend as he ran in the ARCA race at the Kansas Speedway on Friday and then qualified at Stafford on Saturday but unfortunately for Santos, his day ended Sunday early in a crash.

Matt Hirschman had quite a day on Saturday and then the whole family from Northampton, PA had something to talk about as Matt set a new track record winning his second career Bud Pole and then his dad, Tony, set second quickest time on the afternoon. Matt toured the half-mile oval in 18.009 seconds; good for 99.950 MPH while Tony was a tad slower at 99.701 MPH.

Reggie Ruggiero was third fastest, while last weeks winner, James Civali was fourth and Ted Christopher fifth. Ruggiero also had a tough practice session on Saturday when he blew a left rear tire and made contact with the wall.

History is all around the Spring Sizzler race which first ran in 1972. Eddie Flemke, Sr. appeared to have the race won but with 10 laps remaining, the water pump broke giving the win to Fred DeSarro. Flemke though got revenge and won the 1973 edition.

Other multi time winners of the Sizzler include Mike Stefanik, Reggie Ruggiero, Maynard Troyer, Rick Fuller and Mike Ewanitsko.

Doug Coby was the defending champ of the Spring Sizzler but Doug isn't running the modified tour in 2007.

The Stafford Motor Speedway remembers history better than any track that runs the modified tour and with the release of the new Bones Bourcier edited book entitled "Steady Eddie-Memories of Ed Flemke, Modified Racing's Fastest Professor". Stafford brought back two of Flemke Sr.'s students, Pete Hamilton and Ron Bouchard to serve as respectively, Honorary Starter and Honorary Pace Car driver.

Hamilton was one of the original 'Eastern Bandits' and is best known for winning the 1970 Daytona 500 driving for Petty Enterprises. Bouchard, a two-time Stafford track champion, won titles in 1973 and 1979 along with 34 modified wins at the half-mile oval. Bouchard is married to Paula Flemke, Eddie Sr., daughter.

Phil Kurze, the director of Motorsports for series sponsor, Whelen Engineering served as the Grand Marshal of the 36th annual Spring Sizzler.

The modified tour heads to Wall Stadium, N.J. a one-third mile banked oval this Sunday for the first of three 'Flash' races on the season. It should be interesting.