May 2, 2011

ARCHIVES                                         

By Brian Danko                           

STAFFORD, CT--------The Spring Sizzler. Just mention those words to a NASCAR modified tour driver and it will evoke good memories to the winners and bring a frown to the losers of the ‘Biggest race in the history of spring.’

This weekend, the gates of the Stafford Motor Speedway will swing open to usher in the spring and to celebrate the 40th annual Spring Sizzler.

While the Arute family has fostered the Sizzler and made it, its biggest race at the speedway annually, it wasn’t the Arutes that initiated the Sizzler but a trio of three friends.

In the off season of 1971, Dick Berggren, yes, the same gentleman working on Fox during the NASCAR races, along with Lew Boyd and Bruce Cohen came up the idea of opening the season with a high paying modified race that would bring out the best drivers in the northeast and then including the southeast.

So the trio rented the track for a $1,000 and spring time magic was made as over 137 cars registered for the 33 car starting field for a 80 lap race and despite threatening clouds all day, 11,500 fans jammed every last seat in the speedway making the inaugural race both a financial success as well as a artistic event.

The race was won by the late Fred DeSarro as Eddie Flemke, Sr. blew a water pump with 10 laps to go handing the win over to DeSarro. Denis Giroux and Bugs Stevens rounded out the top three and in the field of 33 it featured 19 modified coupes and 14 late models.

The history of the Spring Sizzler is pretty much the history of modified racing. When the modifieds were the rage of the northeast, it featured many high paying, prestigious events such as the Thompson 300, Race of Champions, and Budweiser 200 at Oswego but there was always something about the Spring Sizzler that brought a twinkle to the eye of a winning driver.

Maybe because it was an 80 lap sprint race. Maybe it was the big dollars being posted or maybe it was the prestige of beating the best modified drivers in the country. Whatever it was, the Spring Sizzler is and for many will always be the race to win.

Looking at the history of the event, the names of modified lore jump out to you as in 1973 when Eddie Flemke, Sr. this time with his car staying together held off DeSarro to win in the Bob Judkins Pinto bodied 2x. An upstate New Yorker named Maynard Troyer would finish third with southern gentleman Paul Radford fourth.

In 1974, another Stafford legend won as Carl ‘Bugsy’ Stevens earned the win to beat young upstart driver, Ronnie Bouchard.

In the season opener in 1975, Richie Evans became the first outsider to win the Sizzler and the Rapid Roman followed the feat the following year holding off Geoff Bodine for the win. In fact, Richie led from green to finish.

From 1977-1979, there was just one winner and that was Maynard Troyer, the veteran New York state driver capturing the Sizzler and thus becoming first three win winner. Troyer would later be known for the innovator of the Troyer chassis that is still used today on the modified tour.

As the decade turned into the 80’s, it was former modified bad boy, Geoff Bodine winning the Sizzler in what would be his final Stafford Speedway win. Bodine was a terror in the Dick Armstrong #1 winning many races at Stafford on a weekly basis but this time, he was living down south trying to pursue a then Winston Cup ride.

Bodine, came up from North Carolina and teamed with crew chief, Billy Taylor took over the lead from Jerry Cook on lap 29 and never looked back in recording the win.

For many Stafford Sizzler fans, it might be the 1981 finish that had everyone talking about as a packed house watched Riverside Park kingpin, Bob Polverari hold off Richie Evans by about a foot in the closest Sizzler finish to date.

Reggie Ruggiero finished third behind Evans in his first Sizzler race.

In 1982 and 1983, it was Long Island driver, Greg Sacks winning the event in the Willsburg #5 modified as the future Pepsi Firecracker 400 winner would hold off Reggie Ruggiero in both ’82 and ’83 as future Sprint Cup driver, Brett Bodine would finish third in 1983.

Sacks also became the first driver to win the Spring Sizzler after pitting.

In the 1984 Sizzler it was Mr. Excitement, Jimmy Spencer winning after taking over the lead from Stan Greger on lap 31 and then holding off Corky Cookman and Brian Ross.

In 1985, NASCAR came up the NASCAR Winston modified tour, a traveling circus if you will of the top drivers in the northeast battling for the championship and in ’85; it would be Richie Evans earning his final Sizzler win beating out Brian Ross and Ruggiero.

It was his third win and he would become the first modified tour champion and the ninth modified title of his career but sadly, Richie would lose his life later that year in a crash at the Martinsville Speedway.

Brian Ross finally got the monkey off his back as he captured the 1986 version of the Sizzler and in 1987; it was the ‘Reg’ Reggie Ruggiero earning his first Sizzler driving for noted car owner, Mario Fiore. In fact, Reggie became the first driver to pit twice in the race and earn the win.

The 1988 Spring Sizzler was run in controversial style as NASCAR and the Arute family couldn’t see eye to eye and the race was run featuring the tracks weekly SK modified division. It is the only year since the modified tour was started that Stafford didn’t run a modified tour race. The winner was Teddy Christopher, today Stafford’s winningest driver. He held off Bob Potter, who will be the 2011 Sizzler Grand Marshal.

The first change in the Sizzler came in 1989 when the race was run at a 100 lap distance and Mike Stefanik earned his first Sizzler win beating out Mike McLaughlin and then in 1990 another major change took place as Stafford management double the number of laps from 100 to 200 but it made no difference to Mike Stefanik as he became a back to back Sizzler winner. Mike ‘Magic Shoes’ McLaughlin once again was the bridesmaid.

In 1991, Jeff Fuller captured his first Sizzler title with the Auburn, MA. Driver taking over the lead on lap 118 and never looked back beating fellow Islanders, Wayne Anderson and George Brunnhoelzl, Jr. While older brother won in ’91, Rick Fuller, wasn’t about to be outdone by Jeff as he won in 1992 holding off Mike Stefanik and brother Jeff.

Reggie Ruggiero continued his stellar Sizzler runs as he won the 1993 race beating Doug Heveron and Tom Baldwin, Sr. The win was the second Sizzler for the ‘Reg’.

Mike Ewanitsko claimed his first title and in the process gave long time modified car owner, Art Barry, his first Sizzler title as he won in 1994. Mike overcame a faulty air gun to win and while Ewanitsko like winning so much he followed it up again in 1995 and again it was hard as he was involved in a multi car incident but with no damage he drove to victory after holding off Rick Fuller and Mike Stefanik.

In 1996, one of the truly good guys earned his first title and was the 17th different winner when Jan Leaty of Williamson, NY. Took down the win. Rick Fuller again was second with Tony Hirschman third.

The next two wins belonged to Mike Stefanik as the Rhode Island driver won in both 1997 and 1998 and it gave the multi time NASCAR champion a record four Sizzlers wins at the time.

While winning the Sizzler seemed to come in pairs, Rick Fuller won in ’99 as he passed Tony Hirschman on the final lap to win and then in 2000,  as he benefited when leader Reggie Ruggiero lost his ignition box with 9 laps remaining.

In 2001, the late John Blewett, III, won his first Sizzler title and the next two years saw Ted Christopher win in 2002 and 2003 to give him three while in 2004 Jerry Marquis earned his only Sizzler title,  giving the Len Boehler family another win in the spring Classis, their first since claiming the inaugural race.

Tony Hirschman, a multi time champion in NASCAR was finally able to be the last man standing when he won the 2005 race after spinning and winning while the 2006 race was won by Doug Coby, driving the Curt Chase owned modified.

Coby, who started his Stafford career in late models, won the modifieds biggest race beating back Donnie Lia

In 2007, Donnie Lia, a Long Island driver finally earned his first title while in 2008, it was the ‘King’ of Stafford, T.C., earning his record trying fourth win and then followed it up winning in 2009 and 2010 to give Christopher 6 Stafford Sizzler championships

Who will add their name to the historic drivers from above is anyone’s guess, but you can be sure that the winner will tell you the thrill is the same, whether it’s your first title or in Christopher’s case, his sixth, it never gets old and it  is truly special.

So enjoy today’s Spring Sizzler, the greatest race in the history of spring.

MODIFIEDS AND NASCAR

In the off season of 2009, competitors on the NASCAR modified tour heard rumors of long promised television exposure for the only open wheel division in NASCAR and indeed when the 2010 season rolled around, the modifieds and their southern cousins, the Southern modified tour had nearly 90% of their races on either the VERSUS network or on the SPEED CHANNEL.

It was the boost that the series was looking for but when the 2011 schedule of races was released it showed just two races for the modifieds with the August race at the Bristol Motor Speedway and in September at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

I contacted Jason Christley of NASCAR to see if indeed what was released was correct and he said it was. “The broadcasts on VERSUS last year were well received; however, the internal changes with Versus/NBC/Comcast and their timing have impacted the renewal of that program and we will continue to work with all of our media partners on the possibility of expanded programming.”

Christley feels that with Speed showing both Bristol and New Hampshire live and in their entirety that is big for the modified tour.

Now I did talk to someone close to the situation on the television this past winter and he told me, Speed was interested in doing all of the modified races this year so something must have changed.

While television has never been the end all for the modified tour, after having all those events either live or taped last year on both networks, you can be sure that many teams promised potential sponsors of television exposure and to now only present two races, and both at the later part of the year is hard to swallow.

All of the K and N Pro Series East and West series will be broadcast live or taped for a later showing.

A call was placed to George Silbermann of NASCAR but he never responded to my email request for his take on the matter.

SANTOS ADD NAMES TO LIST

Bobby Santos, III proved although they opened the season with a bad finish, they are back as they won the 40th edition of the Spring Sizzler before a packed, sun drenched crowd at the Stafford Motor Speedway. He held off Rowan Pennick to win in the Bob Garbarino #4.