RPW Exclusive: Looking Back A Bit With Phil Smith – The Second Week Of November

Column By: PHIL SMITH / RPW – WESTERLY, RI – Forty years ago in 1978, Fred DeSarro was laid to rest on November 4.The following day, the Thompson Speedway hosted a benefit race which saw all proceeds go to Fred’s kids and wife. The pit area was jammed, as was the grandstand.

The competitors raced for nothing and the entire purse was donated. Bugsy Stevens, who had been a fierce competitor and close friend, was driving the Joe Brady No.41 and was driving down the backstretch on the parade lap when a ball joint broke. Stevens swore that DeSarro had given him a message and became quite upset. Brady’s car was towed off and Stevens joined chief starter Dick Brooks and his assistant Bob Gelinas on the starter stand.

Stevens dropped the green and the race was on. The event was scheduled for 50 laps. Geoff Bodine took an early lead and was cruising to another win. When Brooksie waved the white flag, Bodine slowed and as the checker waved the next time around, Bodine turned into the infield pit area and the rest of the field followed suit.

The Speedway became so quiet that one could hear a pin drop! It was a fitting tribute to a fallen hero and fellow competitor. Bodine was credited with the win which happened to be his 55th which set an all time modified record which still stands today.

Richie Evans was credited with finishing second and was followed by Ronnie Bouchard, John Rosati, Dick Dunn, Charlie Jarzombek and Bobby Vee. It was a day, which many of us will never forget.

Ten years ago in 2008, The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Series settled into a long winter’s sleep with the exception of the upcoming Banquet of Champions, which would be held at the Mohegan Sun Casino on Saturday, September 13.

The weekly stars of NASCAR headed for Las Vegas for the 27th annual NASCAR Whelen All-American Series awards banquet at the Rio Hotel. NASCAR, series sponsor Whelen Engineering and track operators gathered to honor national champion Philip Morris, plus U.S. state, Canadian provincial, and track champions from throughout North America.
Morris, of Ruckersville, Va., made history, becoming only the second driver to win the title more than once. Morris, the champion also in 2006, joined five-time champion Larry Phillips in the series’ very elite category.

Morris, who raced at the Motor Mile Speedway in Virginia entered 28 events and scored 14 victories. Including the wins he had 23 top fives. Finishing second was Brian Harris who raced at the West Liberty Raceway in Iowa. Harris had 35 top fives in 38 starts including 20 wins. Third is Marty Ward who raced at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. Ward recorded 22 top fives in 24 starts including 13 wins. Fourth was New England’s own, Keith Rocco who raced at Stafford, Waterford and Thompson. Rocco entered 49 events and scored 32 top fives including 11 wins. Rocco drove for three different car owners. Rounding out the top five was Jeff Strunk who raced at the Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania. Strunk ran in only 20 events but made the best of it as he had 19 top fives which included four wins.

NASCAR also honored their state champions. Rocco, who made his Whelen Modified Tour debut at the 2008 World Series at Thompson took top honors as the Connecticut State Champion. Rocco was also the 2008 SK Modified Champion at the Stafford Motor Speedway. Woody Pitkat, who, like Rocco raced at all three tracks, finished second. Pitkat entered 29 events and recorded 13 top fives, which included six wins. Jimmy Blewett, with 12 top fives in 25 starts, finished third. Blewett raced at Thompson and Stafford. Doug Coby, who also raced at all three tracks, finished fourth. Dennis Gada who won a record seventh Modified Track Championship at the Waterford Speedbowl, rounded out the top five. Gada, who raced only at Waterford, scored 13 top fives in 21 starts which included three wins. Sixth through tenth in the final NASCAR State standings are Rob Janovic from the Waterford Speedbowl, Todd Ceravolo from the Thompson Speedway, Jeffrey Paul from Waterford, Ted Christopher from the Stafford Motor Speedway and Tyler Chadwick from the Waterford Speedbowl.

At the Waterford Speedbowl the word had it that Jerry Robinson’s lease of the shoreline oval was up as of November 1. According to reports Mr. Robinson had removed himself and his belongings from the facility. In the mean time competitors who raced in the season ending Fall Finale had not been paid.

In NASCAR Sprint Cup action, Carl Edwards won for the second straight week, squeezing a victory out of his last tank of gas. The combination of the win by Edwards and a 15th-place finish by Jimmie Johnson in the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth left Edwards 106 points behind NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Johnson with two races remaining. Edwards dominated most of the race, leading 199 of the first 264 laps on the 1 1/2-mile oval. Edwards, who inherited the lead when Greg Biffle pitted with 13 laps remaining, beat runner-up Jeff Gordon by more than 8 seconds still had enough gas left to do a couple of victory doughnuts. Edwards went the final 103.5 miles on his last fill-up.

Kyle Busch won the O’Reilly Challenge Nationwide event at Texas Motor Speedway to capture his 10th win of the season, tying him with Sam Ard for the most wins in a season in the series, and giving Joe Gibbs Racing it’s 19th win of the year. Carl Edwards finished second followed by Mark Martin, Joey Logano, and David Ragan. The race was slowed by 5 cautions for 20 laps and there were 4 lead changes among 10 leaders.

Five years ago in 2013, With the 2013 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season in the history books the facts and rumors were beginning to fly concerning the 2014 season. Series champion Ryan Preece had made it known that he would like to advance up the NASCAR ladder. If he does, it would open the door for someone at Flamingo Motorsports. Preece, in addition to taking the championship was the series top winner with four victories. Doug Coby, who was the defending champion, fell short of defending his title through no fault of his own when he was a victim of a stuck throttle at Riverhead which resulted in a destroyed car and a missed race. With two wins to his credit, Coby finished the season in second spot, 32 points behind Preece. Coby, at the top of his game, finds himself between a rock and a hard place as car owner Wayne Darling has made it known that he will not run a full schedule in 2014. Darling told Area Auto Racing News editor Lenny Sammons that the main problem is getting people to work on the car. Donny Lia and Rowan Pennink seem to be pretty secure with their rides while Mike Stefanik’s future remains up in the air pending on a sit-down with his team in the near future. If he were to retire he could walk away with his head high as he had nothing to prove as he has done it all. Todd Szegedy, Ron Silk and Justin Bonsignore are secure with their rides as Woody Pitkat is out there looking as car owner David Hill had previously stated that unless ample sponsorship comes along his team will no longer be able to participate. Pitkat didn’t remain without a full time ride for long as he was selected to replace Bryon Chew who retired from driving the Buzz Chew entry. The Long Island based Modified Tour team plans on running the entire schedule in 2014.

Two major personnel changes were announced by Thompson Speedway General Manager, Josh Vanada. Both appointments are effective immediately. The first announced by Vanada is the promotion of Race Director, Jeff Zuidema, to the position of Director of Competition. This post had been held by Vanada but was recently vacated when he was named the track’s General Manager. Zuidema, a four-time Thompson champion and winner of some 52 races at the track, will have the responsibility of oversight of on-track competition and the inspection process.

The second personnel announcement from Vanada concerned a replacement for the position previously held by Zuidema. “I am pleased to announce that Scott Tapley will join our team and will fill the position of Race Director,” said the GM. Tapley, a UNOH graduate, served as a spotter for the 2008 NASCAR K & N Pro Series East Champion, Matt Kobyluck. He served as Assistant Race Director at the Waterford Speedbowl from 2009 to 2010 and Race Director at the Speedbowl for 2011 and 2012. He then joined the Valenti Modified Racing Series and has just completed his first year as Series Director.

Despite rumors that suggested the races would be cancelled or moved to another NASCAR-affiliated short track, autoweek.com reported the “Battle at the Beach” would return to Daytona International Speedway in 2014 as part of Speedweeks. Debuting in 2013, the Battle was a way to generate some excitement at the track during the normally dormant Monday and Tuesday after the Daytona 500 qualifying weekend. NASCAR set up a temporary course on the back straight using part of the track and part of the apron, outlined by stacked tires and pylons that delineated a roughly .4-mile oval that required drivers to nearly stop for the turns, making for a lot of crashes and caution-flag laps.

Though it hasn’t been announced, the format is expected to be the same as in 2013, when three non-points races featured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tours, and the Late Model division of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Top finishers in the regular season in those divisions earned spots in the Battle, with remaining slots filled by time trials and heat races. The University of Northwest Ohio sponsored the races, and is expected to return.

The races were not without controversy or complaints: Kyle Larson won the late model race after unceremoniously dumping leader C.E. Falk III, drawing more boos than cheers from the fans. Former NASCAR Cup racer Steve Park used a similar tactic on Mike Stefanik to win the modified race. Cameron Haley won the K&N race, with some controversial shoving behind him. But if the event is to have any sort of credibility, NASCAR needs to make sure the drivers know that simply spinning the leader on the last lap will result in consequences other than a visit to the winner’s circle.

Brad Keselowski raced to his sixth Nationwide victory in his last eight starts, leading 106 of 200 laps at Texas to give Roger Penske’s No. 22 car the lead in the owners’ standings. For the drivers’ title, Sam Hornish Jr. overcame being a lap down early in the race to finish third and cut his deficit behind Austin Dillon from eight points to six with two races left in the season.

Jimmie Johnson firmly established himself as the man to beat for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday, scoring a dominant victory in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson led a race-high 255 laps during the 334-lap event and was rarely challenged en route to his sixth victory of the 2013 season. Dale Earnhardt Jr finished second.

Last year, 2017, A trio of well-travelled post-World War II drivers – Midget icon Dutch Schaefer and Modified standouts Joe McNulty and Henri “Red” Barbeau – were the Veterans Committee selections for induction into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame this past Sunday. All three inductions were made posthumously.

Long Islander Schaefer and New Englanders McNulty and Barbeau joined drivers Russ Wood, Bobby Gahan, Gardiner Leavitt, and brothers Jeff and Rick Fuller, crew chief Steve Bird, car owner Tom Dunn, and announcer/promoter Ben Dodge Jr. in the Class of 2017 of the NEAR Hall of Fame. Brian Danko was awarded the Charlie Mitchell/Jack Ratta Media Award and Scott Tapley was presented the Frank Maratta award. The induction ceremony was held at Maneely’s Banquet Hall in South Windsor, Connecticut.

Justin Allgaier, William Byron, Elliott Sadler and Daniel Hemric took the four spots in the Xfinity Series championship race.

All four berths in the championship were on the line Saturday at Phoenix Raceway, where Byron raced to his fourth victory of the season. The other three drivers made it into the Homestead-Miami finale on points.

In Monster Cup racing at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth won for the first time this season, snapping a 51-race winless streak, to earn one final victory celebration.

Noted auto racing scribe Lou Modestino had an opportunity to talk to Wayne Darling of Seekonk who promoted the recent Tri-Track Haunted 100 at the Seekonk Speedway. The event drew 34 Modifieds and only 24 started the main event. Darling and Mark Pennink are the co-promoters of the Tri-Track Open Modified Series that present paved Modified events at selected venues. Among the topics discussed were racing tires for paved track Modifieds and the 2018 TTOMS schedule.

Darling and his partners in the Tri-Track Open Modified Series continues to move that Modified Tour in the right direction with a quality show at selected tracks in the New England area. Four or five races could be in store for fans for the 2018 racing season.
Darling went on to say, “I’d like to do four races next year, maybe five. It looks like two at Seekonk Speedway and two more at Star Speedway in Epping, NH.” He didn’t give a hint which the third track could be. It might be the New London-Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut, provided it gets sold to the current promoter by the present owner, who was charged with a crime this past spring

As far as tires were concerned, Darling had this to say: “If you race at a particular speedway, you have to run the track tire. Although I like the Hoosier because that’s the one I’ve used for a long time because they work well on Modified paved race track cars. They cost about $160 apiece. I also don’t know that much about the American Racing Tire or how good they are and how long they last.”

“We’ve heard the same about American Racing Tires, and that a lot of Modified drivers don’t like them as they are too hard. Some feel that they last longer than the Hoosiers. However, the American Racing Tire was used by the recently-established (2017) Exit Realty Modified Touring Series,” he added. Principal of that tour, Gary Knight, recently announced that he’s switching to the Hoosiers in 2018 in an effort for his young Modified series to draw more entries at his events in both New England and Long Island, NY. The three other New England Modified Tour-Type clubs are the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, Tri-Track Open Modified Racing Series and the Valenti Modified Racing Series that also utilize the Hoosier tires.

In other related Modified Tour news from Modestino, organizer Bob Carrita announced that he will start a new Modified tour utilizing American Racing Tires called the American Modified Series in the wake of the Exit Realty Modified Touring Series, switching to Hoosier Tires in 2018. ERMTS’ Gary Knight made the announcement of going with the Hoosier brand following his season-ending event at the Waterford,Conn. because he is trying to increase his car counts for the 2018 racing season.

Knight’s decision had a ripple effect on the American brand taking a big hit on its racing tire market share in the New England/New York market. Carrita, along with Bill Galloway of American Race Tires, had no alternative because all four current Modified tours, NASCAR, Valenti, Tri-Track and Exit Realty, will all be on Hoosiers next year. It all boils down to increasing American’s marketing share . The American race Tire brand is getting squeezed out of the Modifieds by Hoosier. It appears to be a tire war with American looking in from the outside because Hoosier now has a 75 percent marketing share.

Modified Touring Series champion Eric Goodale had this to say. “I’ve heard a lot of BS about the series for awhile and I can tell you that I have received every check that was due to me and Gary A Knight has delivered on everything he said he was going to. All I know is that every time I strapped in my Modified I was having fun and banging wheels with some of the best! Good luck to both American Racer and the MTS in the future!”

All this news begs the question on where the additional Modified Tour entries are going to come from. There’s concern that the region could have five Modified type tours with only 15 entries each, which would not be good. Consider the fact that when the Exit Realty Series and the Valenti Modified Tour had conflicting race dates, the fields at those two venues were around 15 each. We’re talking about ticket prices here ranging from $25 to $45. Fans paying that amount of money should expect to see at least 24 entries or better still 30 race cars in the pits.

“That’s not the whole story on the regional paved track Modified scene”, stated Modestino. “Joe Lowendowski, formerly manager of the now shuttered Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, as well as a former top level NASCAR official, announced a proposed new Modified tour for 2018. Lowendowski revealed that his tour will have a crate motor rule. He will try to draw the Sk Light type Modifieds which race weekly at a some New England ovals. Joe’s talking about mid-week Wednesday and Sunday programs in 2018 if it does get off the ground.”