By Brian Danko
UNCASVILLE, CT------The 2007 NASCAR Whelen modified tour season officially came
to a close when Donny Lia and Bob Garbarino were honored as champions of the
modified tour. Lia, from Jericho, NY teamed with veteran car owner, Bob
Garbarino in late January and the team clicked and each was rewarded with their
The annual awards banquet was again held at the magnificent Mohegan Sun Casino
on Friday night and it also featured all living past champions of modified
racing including Bobby Allison from Hueytown, AL. Garbarino did receive a
standing ovation from the crowd of the 600 invited guests for supporting the
modifieds for 45 years as a car owner. Garbarino thanked NASCAR for sanctioning
the modifieds and Whelen for putting end an end to the doom and gloom that many
media felt was in the future for the modifieds and NASCAR. Phil Kurze, the
motorsports director for Whelen and George Silbermann of NASCAR also announced
an extension of the current contract to sponsor not only the modified tour but
also the southern modified tour until 2016. That news was applauded by all in
the great hall where the dinner/awards were held.
Garbarino thanked everyone during his speech and asked all car owners to stand
and be recognized and stated he 'is proud to be the one of the many champions
here tonight.' Before he ended, he said, "I have loved every minute of this.
Thank you very much." For Lia, it was the end of a role as driver/owner when he
teamed with Garbarino and it showed what talent the driver from Long Island
could be when just assigned the task of driver. "I can't thank Bob and Joan
Garbarino enough for the opportunity to drive their car and to the crews that
worked together to make this a championship team." Besides the gorgeous
champions ring, Lia collected awards from Budweiser for winning the Bud Pole
season long award and also received money from Whelen as well as the lions share
of the NASCAR points fund moneys. Richard Buck of NASCAR presented Bob Mueller
the crew chief champions award for directing the #4 Mystic Missile to the title.
The top twenty in points in both the car owners and drivers were given their
awards prior to dinner while the many special awards were also handed. The
Sunoco Rookie of the Year was given to Richard Savery while the Driver
Achievement award was handed out to Ronnie Silk. The prestigious Len Boehler
Award was presented to 2006 champion car owner, Eric Sanderson while the Whelen
modified tour auxiliary award went to the husband/wife team of Joe and Linda
Brady. In an oxymoron, Ted Christopher was presented with the Most Improved
driver award while Mike Stefanik received the Powerade Move of the Race season
George Silbermann of NASCAR then spoke to the crowd and mentioned the many
NASCAR personalities who lost their lives during the past season including John
Blewett, III and Bill France, Jr. A video tribute on France was also shown to
the crowd. Silbermann emphasized that the 'focus of the modifieds is the
It was then that the 2008 NASCAR schedule was released to the crowd with no
surprises other than the addition of Spencer Speedway and Chemung in 'Flash'
style events while Thompson will have its traditional five events with four at
Stafford. The season will open on April 6th at Thompson and close at the
5/8ths-mile oval on Sunday, October 19th. New Hampshire International will have
their two traditional races on Saturday, June 28th and September 13th. Single
events will be Spencer, Chemung, Riverhead, Mansfield and Martinsville.
Todd Szegedy, a former champion, was honored for his second place finish and
congratulated Lia and Garbarino on the title. "Those guys did one heck of a job.
They started fast and continued all season." Todd said. Szegedy said he was
'honored' to be chosen by NASCAR to test the spec motor NASCAR is experimenting
with and to have Mike Stefanik as a team driver during these tests. Later,
Szegedy was presented with Most Popular driver award.
Matt Hirschman capped off an incredible season with a third place points finish.
Matt thanked car owners Wayne Darling and Ed Bennett for allowing him to drive
their cars. "This is certainly the best year that I have had. It is also an
honor for me to speak here tonight." Matt told the crowd. Matt, Szegedy and
other mentioned what a void it is without Blewett any longer with us.
Whelen Engineering also presented all drivers in the top ten a driver's gear
While the banquet was fun filled like always, they must find a way to shorten
them somewhat, as this was four hours plus from dinner to finish.
PAST CHAMPIONS HONORED
Whelen Engineering brought in all of the past living champions of the modified
division that started NASCAR back in 1948. Frankie Schneider, the 1952 champion
and the oldest, living driver was half way here but the winter storm on Thursday
ended his quest as many flights were canceled. Jack Choquette, a champion in
1954 was on hand as was Jerry Cook, now a NASCAR administrator for more than 25
years. Cook won six titles and often battled Richie Evans for the title every
year. NASCAR legend, Bobby Allison, who won the titles in 1964 and 1965 flew in
for the event and was joined on stage by 1966 titlest, Ernie Gahan with three
time champion, Bugsy Stevens. The 'modern' era of the modified division started
in 1985 with champions Mike McLaughlin, Mike Stefanik, Jamie Tomaino Jeff and
Rick Fuller joining the older titlest. As did Wayne Anderson, Tony Hirschman,
Jr., Jerry Marquis, Todd Szegedy and Lia all on stage with each driver receiving
loud ovations but the loudest were reserved for Allison, McLaughlin and Stevens.
Jimmy Spencer, the 1986 and '87 champion couldn't attend while emcee Mike Joy
named all of the champions that are deceased.
It has been a while but it was fun talking with the former champions, especially
Mike McLaughlin and Bobby Allison. Funny, though everyone in the banquet gets
older every year, 1988 champion McLaughlin and 1992 champion, Jeff Fuller look
the same. If you put a now picture next to a then picture, you couldn't tell one
from the other. Allison, the 1980 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion and winner of the
Daytona 500 was thrilled to here in Connecticut and honor the champions from
NASCAR's oldest division. Jerry Cook was joined by his wife, Sue. Jerry was
actually the first modified tour director upon retiring from driving. Their
children David and Kristen were part of the tour in their teenage years and both
are still involved in racing. David works for DEI while Kristen is working at
Robert and Doug Yates Racing. Wayne Anderson is still doing some racing at
Riverhead Raceway on his native Long Island while Mike McLaughlin is done racing
competitively but still tests for Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart, doing all of the
pre Daytona 500 testing. Besides that, Mike is building hot rods and enjoying
life as his son, Max, is getting involved in the sport at 7 years old.
While NASCAR has been criticized for many things, the one item that they deserve
a big thank you is for keeping both the modified tour and the Busch East banquet
at the Mohegan Sun Casino in southeastern Connecticut. There is no need to ever
find a new home for this event.
Talked with Car owner, Curt Chase and he is unsure of his plans for 2008 and
doesn't even have a driver tabbed for next season. Jerry Marquis is another
champion unsure of his plans and told me that he his exploring doing some Busch
East racing or might retire if he can't come up with something on either the