September 21, 2009

ARCHIVES                                         

By Brian Danko

LOUDON, NH--------The NASCAR Whelen modified tour made their 50th visit to the one mile oval and while the race won’t rank as one of the top five events of all time, don’t tell that that to first time winner Ronnie Silk as he passed six time race winner, Reggie Ruggiero on the final lap to win the New Hampshire 100 before over 50,000 fans on a sun drenched autumn afternoon in southern New Hampshire.

Silk, who quit his full time ride in the Roger and Sandy Hill, owned modified back a few months ago teamed up with Eddie Partridge to win the prestigious event getting past modified legend Reggie Ruggiero in one of his best races in years in the Dick Barney owned modified.

“I can’t believe that I won here.” Ronnie said over and over in the media center. “This race is the biggest race of the year for us in the modifieds, I’m still in shock.”

Of the previous 49 events held here, only 6 races have been decided by MORE than one second. With results like that, it’s easy to see why the modifieds are picked on the NHMS website as the race that most fans anticipate each year at the ‘Magic Mile.’

The race for the first 50 laps wasn’t exactly what the teams wanted to put on and the fans wanted to see with multiple cautions slowing the field but the second 50 was the reason with numerous lead changes and great side by side racing.
Silk, who has really honed his skills running weekly on the NASCAR weekly series and some modified tour events thought he blew his chance for a win by taking the lead with like 10 laps to go but Reggie, showing his old winning ways took the lead with about a handful of laps to go and when the ‘Reg’ took the white flag, most of the big crowd stood up and began to applaud pulling for the ageless veteran but it was Silk using the sling shot past Reggie as they headed down the back stretch for the final time but as they did, it drop kicked Reggie to fourth with Donnie Lia second and Ryan Preece third.

“If you mess up in turn one, it ruins your chance for a last lap pass for the win, that’s why I waited and knew that I had a good run at Reggie off the turn. It’s definitely extra special to come here with no full time ride. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

The win for Silk was worth more than $15,000.

LIA MAKES A MOVE
Donnie Lia had a weekend that most drivers would like to forget, but the end result is what the former modified champ will remember as he earned a hard fought second place finish after making up THREE laps on the field.

Things started off bad for the Bob Garbarino owned team on Thursday, when the car caught fire due to a faulty part. The fire was extinguished but the car and motor was covered by the fire retardant foam and without a back up car at the track the team packed up and headed back to Mystic, CT to take apart the car to fix and clean the car. During the race, Lia was involved in an accident and damaged his car, NASCAR black flagged him as his nerf bar needed to be fixed and he lost three laps on pit road.

But Lia was the beneficiary of the many cautions and was able to be the ‘Lucky Dog’ to get back on the lead lap.

Lia rewarded the team with the runner up finish and thus clinched the 2009 track championship by his win here in June.

But it was some questionable moves that Lia made working his way through the field that had other drivers asking if this was the same driver criticizing Teddy Christopher for some driving tactics the last race here in June.

“Yeah at times, I had made some moves that I shouldn’t have.” Lia said when asked about his run to the front. “I was going hard, maybe too hard. Going three wide wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”

Donny Lia has proven that he is a champion and one heck of a driver but he also proved that drivers forget their own words when they criticize drivers in the past for the same thing he did Saturday afternoon.

LARGE CROWD
While many tracks on the modified tour have been hampered by the economy and less than full stands, it was hard to believe that was an issue in New Hampshire as one of the largest Saturday crowds in my memory flooded into the grandstands for a full day racing activities.

The day started off with modified practice, time trials for the Craftsman Truck series, happy hour practice for the Sprint Cup cars, the 100 lap modified feature, the 200 lap truck race won by Kyle Busch and a 50 lap ACT tour race (American-Canadian Tour). Eddie McDonald won the special event.

He also won the Camping Series East race on Friday and drove in the modified race but was the second car out.

Ticket prices were $40.00 but I heard the track had many flyers offering two tickets for the price of one. In these tough times, NHMS did what they needed to do to get the fans into the stands for a great day of racing.

NHMS also announced on Friday, that another sell out will greet the first race for the Chase, as the track only had single seats and standing room available for the 300 lap Cup race on Sunday.

YOUNG GUN PREECE SCORED POLE
To look at Ryan Preece of Berlin, CT., he doesn’t come across as a race car driver. With his baby face and just a few months past his 18th birthday, he looks just like, well, an 18 year old but this year; the first year college student has grown up and is one of the most feared drivers each and every week on the modified tour.

After scoring his first win last year at the Martinsville Speedway, the youngster has followed that up with two more wins this year and less than 100 points out of the points lead before the race on Saturday and his third place finish didn’t hurt any as he gained on TC, Ted Christopher and Todd Szegedy.

On Friday, Preece notched the pole in the Mike Boehler prepared ole Blue that his father, the legendary car owner, Lenny, prepared for some of the best modified drivers in history including Bugsy Stevens and Fred DeSarro.

Modified racing blood also runs deep in the Preece household as his father, Jeff, raced and his mother, is the daughter of longtime modified car owner and crew chief, Bob Judkins, who had many top drivers during his long career including Gene Bergin, Eddie Flemke, Sr., Ronnie Bouchard and Jerry Marquis.

Preece toured the 1.058 mile oval in 29.765 seconds good for 127.962 MPH.

OLD GUYS HAVE GOOD DAYS
As mentioned earlier, it was a good day for Reggie Ruggiero with his fourth place finish but it was also a good day for seven time modified champ, Mike Stefanik as he finished fifth.

I mentioned in the media center to the top three drivers of Silk, Lia and Preece on the run of Ruggiero and they all said it was good to see both drivers running up front and going for the win.

“Reggie and Mike Stefanik have more class on the modified tour than the rest of us put together.” Donnie Lia said after the event while both Preece and Silk said, “You knew that either of them wasn’t going to make a move that could hurt you or him; it’s a pleasure racing with guys like them.”

After the race, Reggie said, “I wanted this win but I screwed up. I shouldn’t have taken the lead when I did and waited till the last lap. The 6 car (Silk) was holding me up on the straights and I got a run and got by him but I should have stayed behind him.” Reggie said.

“I really wanted to win but it was good to run up front. Maybe this quiets some people who said I can’t race anymore. Give me a competitive car and I’ll run with them every week.”
Ruggiero also never pitted in the 100 lap event.

While Mike Stefanik has the most wins of any driver all time on the tour, the Coventry, RI must has ticked off the racing gods as ‘Mighty Mike’ has been fast but mechanical issues and other peoples accidents have sidelined the driver in many races the past couple years. It was good to see two modified greats running up front with legitimate shots of a win.
NEWMAN SOLID ALL DAY
Ryan Newman showed the large crowd his open wheel experience as one of the Sprint Cup drivers to drop down and run the modified race as Newman left the track with a eighth place finish.

Newman drove the Tom Baldwin tribute car, a black modified with the famous 7NY that Baldwin campaigned on the modified tour for years. Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion is the crew chief for the car as well as Cup driver Martin Truex.

Newman was unable to qualify the car on Thursday and they summoned Steven Park to qualify but that meant Newman was forced to start from the rear and Newman steadily moved his way to the front, taking the lead several times in the late stretches of the race before ending up in the top ten.

CHRISTOPHER, SZEGEDY TOUGH DAYS
When ever the modified tour pulls into the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a couple of quick race favorites are Teddy Christopher and Todd Szegedy but while Christopher settled for a seventh place finish, it wasn’t a typical Christopher day. TC would run in the front but never led and while Szegedy was solid, the former modified tour champion was caught up in a late race incident and ended up 29th, severely damaging his hopes of securing his second title.

OTHER STRONG RUNS
Many drivers can have a solid day at a track like New Hampshire and not have the finish to show for it but a few drivers need acknowledgement of their strong day.

Rowan Pennick finished sixth but he ran up front and led. Pennick is another driver like TC who will show up anywhere and race and his steady diet of racing has paid off for the Philadelphia area driver.
Erick Rudolph, Chuck Hossfeld, Doug Coby and Chris Pasteryak finished 9th through 12th but all were contenders.
Rudolph led a couple of the times before getting shuttled back. Chuck Hossfeld, a former winner here at NHMS showed up with his own team and Chuck was a top five runner late in the race while Doug Coby had another strong day.

Chris Pasteryak has shown great promise this year and after years as a crew member on his fathers, Charlie’s team and his uncle, Carl, the young driver has learned the ropes quite well running some modified tour events but also many True Value modified series races.

NEW FACES
As I have mentioned, it’s only been two years since I stopped covering the tour full time and just making spot appearances but I can’t help but notice how many new faces have replaced the many familiar faces that I knew for over 30 years covering the open wheel machines.

Not only are there new faces, many are fresh young faces which bode well for NASCAR’s oldest division bringing in more youthful drivers but the tour still has its grizzled veterans like Ruggiero, Stefanik, Tomaino and Christopher to learn from.

While we all want the modified tour to continue to flourish, NASCAR has a nice group of which to do it with, if they don’t make ridicules rules changes and send them to tracks that either can’t afford a modified tour or they buckle under and offer cut rate races to tracks that take several modified tour races.

NASCAR, the track owners along with the car owners and teams should all be partners in making the modified tour pulling in one direction. That is something that hasn’t been done for many years.

PERFECT WEATHER
When a track like New Hampshire runs a major event, you always want perfect weather but this weekend couldn’t have been any better with blue skies and sunshine the entire weekend.

The last couple of years have seen the Cup race cut short because of rain but when a track gambles and brings in many support divisions like NHMS does, everything must fall perfectly and for once it did.

Bruton Smith and his team at New Hampshire deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the modified tour and the Camping Series East but also adding the ACT tour, giving those teams and FANS a chance to see their favorites running at New England’s largest sporting event. It’s a major gamble because of weather and this time the gamble paid off, let’s hope it continues to pay off for everyone for years to come.

MIKE CHRISTOPHER RETURNS
Mike Christopher, twin brother of TC, Ted Christopher, returned to New Hampshire running his own modified with sponsorship from CoCo Key Water Resorts.

When Mike was asked why return to racing at NHMS, he said, “It’s just the greatest place to go. I’ve had great success there finishing second twice. It’s just a fun place to run at.”

While Mike has been busy with his Honda business, he always wanted to return to big modified races but without proper sponsorship, it’s impossible but with the backing of CoCo Key Water Resorts, he got a freshened up motor and gave it another try.

“Its’ great to have someone like CoCo Key, who is a national chain want to get involved. This is great. They may also want to do something in the future.” Mike said speaking on Gary Danko’s Speedway Line Report radio.

While TC will race anything anywhere, MC is more reserved, even if he had full time sponsorship. “Right now, I don’t know if I would want to return to racing, even if it was with a well financed car owner.”
But in the world of racing, never say never.

BRISTOL BACK ON
It was announced on Friday, that the Bristol Motor Speedway, another of Bruton Smith’s track had resigned the modified tour to another race at the high banked oval in Tennessee for 2010.

According to what I was told, it is a multi year deal. One of the knocks on the first race was the purse, running in the low $90,000 range but the teams supported it and the crowd, announced at 46,000 seemed pleased with the racing in a race won by Donnie Lia last month.

20 YEARS RUNNING
It’s been 20 years since the then New Hampshire International Speedway opened in July of 1990 with a NASCAR Busch series race. It is also the first year that the modifieds ran on the big track and showed what aerodynamics can do to an open wheel machine.

In September of that year, NHIS ran a racing tripleheader with the modifieds, Busch North and the new Sportsman division.

While there were three races, there was only two winners because Mike ‘Magic Shoes’ McLaughlin captured not only the modified tour race but also the Busch North race. In those races, Greg Zipadelli was the crew chief on BOTH winning efforts.

Mike, now retired was on hand this past weekend, to meet many old time modified friends. Mike is on the Joe Gibbs payroll and served as a mentor to Joey Logano during his first year on the Camping Series East, coaching that resulted in Logano winning the championship in his first year.

Mike still does a little testing for Gibbs but mostly works with their development drivers.

20 YEARS AND FIFTY RACE WINNERS
Tony Hirschman leads all drivers in modified wins at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as the Northampton, PA. Resident has seven wins while Reggie Ruggiero has secured six wins including five in a row from July of 1992 to April of 1994. Mike Stefanik also has six modified tour wins.

Ted Christopher is fourth on the list with five modified tour wins while Steve Park and the late John Blewett, III, both had four wins.

Three time race winners are Mike Ewanitsko, Jeff Fuller and Chuck Hossfeld while two time winners are Jan Leaty and Donnie Lia.

Single race winners have been recorded by Mike McLaughlin, Tim Connolly, Doug Heveron, Todd Szegedy and now Ronnie Silk.

TC DOMINATE
Just how dominate has Ted Christopher been at the one mile oval in southern New Hampshire. TC leads ALL drivers who have ever competed at the ‘Magic Mile’ with 10 wins and also in the most poles with 9.

Teddy has five wins in the modified and also five wins on the Camping Series East. Of all of the poles, seven have come in the modified and two on the Camping Series East.

While TC is at the top of the list other drivers in the top ranks in wins including Mike Stefanik with eight, six mods and two Camping Series East, Tony Hirschman with seven wins, Reggie Ruggiero and Mike McLaughlin with six wins apiece. Reggie’s wins were all in the modifieds while McLaughlin won four times in the Camping Series East and once in the modified and once in the Nationwide Series.