Monday October 15, 2007

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By Brian Danko
A lot has changed since Bob Garbarino first owned a modified stock car. The bodies were coupes, the tires were smaller and the speeds certainly were slower.

The year was 1961 and Garbarino was venturing into the sport of auto racing and for the past 46 years, the well liked, soft-spoken car owner has owned just modified stock cars.

He has won his share of weekly races and big modified events but the one thing that has eluded the owner from Mystic, CT was a NASCAR championship. That is until this year. This year the veteran car owner, who has had many 'name' drivers strap into his car finally will feel what it's like to be the last car owner standing at the annual NASCAR banquet and it's an unlikely story.

You see Bob Garbarino was getting out of the racing business after last season. He notified his driver, Jerry Marquis, that he was calling it quits and that Jerry should look for another ride but a funny thing happened on the way to driving his RV each weekend during the summer months. Donny Lia, who drove and owned his own modifieds on the tour was looking just to drive and give up the car owning part and all the headaches that go with being a driver/owner. He called Bob and asked what could be done to persuade him to stay in racing and let Donny drive. Bob listened and when Lia said he could bring crewmembers, Bob thought about it, reconsidered and went back racing.

A few weeks ago, after winning the car owner championship, I called Bob and asked what it's been like for the owner of the Mystic River Marina on the Connecticut shoreline. "I have gotten so many calls, it's really hard to explain. I've heard from Mike Calinoff (former modified tour writer for Speedway Scene, now spotter and business manager for David Stremme), I haven't talked or heard from him in years." Bob said. "Tony Moffo (former modified car owner) and Dick Watson's (former driver) wife have called to congratulate us. Plus we have gotten hundreds of cards"

When asked why he couldn't win with drivers like Jerry Marquis, Brian Ross, Tim Connolly and Chuck Hossfeld, it came down to one word, chemistry.

"It's hard to put it into an answer but it was just the right people in the right place all pulling for one goal. Donny brought a youthful desire to the sport, he brought a couple of guys with him and we didn't have any power struggles with any other crewmembers who might have said 'well this is the way we did it before.'" Bob said it was all a case of everyone understanding the goals and what could be accomplished if everyone was pulling in one direction. "If we can't do it right, maybe we shouldn't do it. Everyone had to commit to give 100%"

For Garbarino, who has had other Hall of Fame drivers such as Geoff Bodine, Eddie Flemke, Sr. and Gene Bergin, he remembers getting into the sport with a driver named Charlie Blake. After a few races he knew either he or his driver needed to get out of the sport, well 46 years later, Bob is still at it.

Besides Bob is his wife, Joan, who has been scoring and timing the Mystic Missile for as long as her husband has been towing to modified races. When it was official that Lia had captured the title, many people came over to congratulate the popular car owner but two people stuck out in his mind. One was seven time-modified champion, Mike Stefanik and the other was Art Barry, a longtime time and current modified car owner.

"Mike is a man of few words. I don't think in all the years of racing that I have spoken 200 words to Mike but I respect him so much because of what he has accomplished. Art Barry also came over and Art knows what it takes, the work it takes to achieve something like this, those two really made it special." Barry was another longtime modified owner who never had a title, that was until he hooked up with Mike Stefanik to win back to back titles in 2001 and 2002.

While the NASCAR modified tour area is filled with many 18 wheel-big rigs, Garbarino is still hauling his car in a 1985 hauler that is half the size of the big shiny rigs next to his. "Until I see one of those rigs win a race, I'll stay with mine." Bob said laughing. "I brought it new and it still has the same motor in it. We just do regular maintenance on it. The hauler has 360,000 miles on it and the only thing we had to replace was the clutch, that's it."

Besides having his durable car hauler, he also has longtime engine builder, Ron Hutter, still doing the motors and has continued to have his car's chassis built by Troyer Engineering.

Since the tour came into existence in 1985, the famous yellow #4 has pulled into the pit area looking for glory and while Garbarino would like to see NASCAR do more for the modified tour, he has been one of their most loyal car owners and supporters. "I would like to see us at some different tracks. We ought to be at Richmond. We can go to a lot of places. Indianapolis Raceway Park is another place we went to before. It's 18 hours away from here but it's open wheel area. We should be going back there."

While many on the tour weren't too happy with the 'Flash' races that NASCAR scheduled, he realizes that sometimes you have to try something to see how it goes. In these cases it would be if it brought them into a new area that would benefit both the tour and the track. When Bob speaks on the tour, many people listen, including the media, he is often one of the first car owners sought out because of his thoughtful responses to questions and he his also willing to engage the media if they portray an unfavorable light on the modified series. Garbarino is bullish on the tour and although there is the Race of Champions' circuit as well as the True Value Modified series, Garbarino has only run the NASCAR modified tour forsaking other non-NASCAR big money events.

While Garbarino says he is 70 years old, to many in the pit area he looks about 50, it must be all those years of clean living on the shoreline.

When the Pick the Champion poll came out in mid-March, only one media member picked Donny Lia to win the modified tour championship so it was evident that many felt Lia wasn't ready to contend, even with a legendary car owner. Garbarino felt that once the team won the Spring Sizzler, the second race of the season, he knew something special could happen. "I really felt it at the Sizzler. There was just something about it. We could have won the first race too but we broke a part while leading but in this business, you never know."

As Lia headed into the final weekend, the record books would show wins at Stafford (2), Thompson, New Hampshire, Martinsville and Riverhead. This weekend will be for celebrating with the crew as the pressure of the championship chase is behind them. Bob Garbarino has seen a lot of car owners, drivers and crews come and go in his long racing career but he was always the constant in the ever changing world of modified auto racing.

On Friday night, December 14th, at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT., not far from his home in Mystic, Garbarino will be honored by his peers. When asked what the best part of the evening will be, he responded, "knowing that I am the last car owner standing that night." When Garbarino is brought to the stage to accept the Car owners champions trophy, it is sure to bring a standing ovation from the crowd to a man who has devoted his racing career to just open wheeled modifieds.

Mike Stefanik, who knows what it takes to win championships, said about Garbarino, "Here is a man who has dedicated his racing career to the modified tour and modified racing. He has probably spent four million dollars to get here and he certainly deserves it. He runs a first class team. His crewmembers never give anyone any trouble. It's great to see him win the title, it's long overdue."

The old saying in sports is that good guys finish last. Well, it might have taken nearly a half-century but Garbarino has shown that Good guys do come in first.

BRIAN DANKO'S COLUMN CAN BE FOUND EACH WEEK IN AREA AUTO RACING NEWS.
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