Monday December 17, 2007


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 first titles.

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 award.

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 future.'

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 bag.

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.

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 modified tour.