RPW Column: The Champ Trail; Remembering Those That Left Us, Local News & Notes, & More…

RPW Column By: PHIL SMITH / RPW – WESTERLY, RI – The count down to Speedweeks in Florida continues. In five short weeks central Florida comes alive with the sound of racing engines as the 2020 auto racing season begins.

The week plus of speed in the sunshine state will culminate on Sunday, February 16 with the running of the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway.

During the 2019 season auto racing in New England was shocked after two of its biggest stars left us. Many time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Series Champion Mike Stefanik died as a result of burns and injuries incurred in a plane accident and Multi-time Modified/SK Modified champion Bob Potter passed away after suffering a heart attack which resulted in an auto accident.

Just when it was thought that 2019 would end quietly word was received that former Speedway Scene editor and publisher Val LeSieur has passed away and the Thompson Speedway dropped a bomb when they announced they would have an abbreviated schedule and a reduced purse structure for its weekly events. It was a slap in the face to those who have supported the track.

Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park CEO Jonathan Hoenig sent out a letter to competitors announcing that the 2020 season would comprise of a six-race schedule and a reduced purse structure. The new structure cuts winnings down to just $425 for the winner of the track’s Sunoco Modified division, $300 for Late Models, $250 for SK Lights, $175 for Limited Sportsman, and $125 for Mini Stocks. Furthermore, only the top-10 will receive any money in each division.

Should competitors not agree to these changes by January 15 of next year, “we will be forced to eliminate the NASCAR sanction and the NWS program entirely here at Thompson,” Hoenig wrote. Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park is an institution among ovals not only in New England but across the country too. Cars have been turning laps at the 5/8-mile oval since 1940. It is the oldest asphalt-paved oval racetrack in America. John Hoenig, Jonathan’s great grandfather, must be turning over in his grave.

In recent years, millions have been spent to upgrade and change the road course which is part of the facility. The oval has been falling into dis-repair and the grandstands are badly in need of paint before they rot and fall down. Truth be known, the state of Connecticut paid a considerable sum to upgrade the road course.

With the writing on the wall at Thompson hopefully the powers that be at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl will shift their reconstruction efforts into high gear and re-open the track for the 2020 season. My spies tell me that the concrete footings for the new grandstands have been poured and if the weather cooperates the new grandstands will be going up soon.

Val LeSieur, a giant in the business of motorsports publishing and promotion, passed away Friday. LeSieur was 82 years old. In 1971, Val LeSieur launched a weekly trade paper to chronicle the exploits of the colorful characters he found in auto racing in his native New England. Across the next few decades, he became one of those colorful characters himself.

Speedway Scene’s last issue was printed in 2006. The Champ Trail column was a staple on Page 2 from 1972 to the end.

Known first as New England Speedway Scene and later simply Speedway Scene as it’s coverage area spread, LeSieur’s paper focused on the sport’s people and issues in addition to reporting race results. Full of feisty columns, it was soon required reading across the region. Fans used it to follow their favorite racers, and to help determine their own weekly racing schedules. Promoters alternately loved and hated its candid commentary. Racers valued the boost it gave their careers; one driver said being on Speedway Scene’s front page reminded him of the old Dr. Hook rock song, “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.” Additionally, the paper showcased many of New England’s best-known writers, including Pete Zanardi, Dick Berggren, Lou Modestino, Dave Moody, Phil Smith, Dave Shippee, Mark Thomas, Toodi Gelinas, and Bones Bourcier.

LeSieur also founded the popular Racearama trade shows which for years brought race fans to the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA.

Though known by many for his irreverent sense of humor, LeSieur also had a serious side. Upon the deaths of some of the sport’s heroes, Speedway Scene printed tributes and photo retrospectives which became collectors’ items; many have been reproduced on the Internet through various nostalgia sites. Away from the track, LeSieur has been involved in any number of civic activities and organizations, particularly the Jaycees, and has received numerous citations commending his accomplishments in business and journalism.

Funeral arrangements include calling hours on Thursday Jan. 2, 4-7pm and a funeral service on Friday, Jan 3, 10 am at Kane’s Funeral Home in South Easton, Ma.

Riverhead Raceway owners Eddie & Connie Partridge and Tom Gatz are honored and excited to announce a four race series for the NASCAR Modifieds that will encompass the extra distance races scheduled for the 2020 season, now known as the Crown Jewel Modified events, at the historic quarter mile oval. In addition to the weekly NASCAR track championship points the series will carry a separate set of points awarding the top driver the Ted Christopher Cup. Christopher one of the most successful drivers to ever strap into an open wheel Modified of any kind tragically lost his life in an airplane crash while flying to Riverhead Raceway for a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race on September 16th, 2017 at 59-years young.

The four race Crown Jewel modified series is the concept of Riverhead Raceway race director Scott Tapley, who along with track GM John Ellwood put the final touches on the series. The chase for the Ted Christopher Cup will start with the biggest race of the season at Riverhead the Saturday May 30th Islip 300, a race that pays the winner a cool $7,000. The second race will unfold on Saturday July 4th during the 70th Year Celebration with the NASCAR Modifieds set to do battle in a 70-lap tilt. Race number three takes place during the annual Baldwin, Evans & Jarzombek 77 Saturday July 25th with the four race series set to conclude Saturday night August 29th during the NASCAR 100. During the victory lane celebration at the conclusion of the NASCAR 100 the Ted Christopher Cup will be presented to the champion of the series. Track management additionally disclosed the Ted Christopher Cup will be a perpetual award much like the Big Brothers & Big Sisters Drivers Cup that is presented annually to the track’s NASCAR Modified champion.

The driving career of “TC” indeed is a fabled one spread across numerous race tracks and divisions in the northeast. Ted stood victorious in the historic Riverhead Raceway victory lane 3 times in Whelen Modified Tour competition starting with his win in June of 2002 in the famed #13 and for the 3rd time in 2006 in Eddie Whelan’s #36 machine. Weekly Saturday night racing was a passion for “TC” and in fact Ted spent one summer racing weekly at Riverhead Raceway driving for Wayne Anderson and his Eastport Feeds team with the combination winning once that year in route to a 4th place finish in the championship standings. Teddy enjoyed most of his success at the famed Stafford Motor Speedway where he was a 9 time SK Modified champion totaling 131 wins along the way. “TC” scored four Thompson Speedway Sunoco Modified titles tallying 99 victories while visiting the winners circle 47 times at the Waterford Speedbowl in a SK Modified. Ted’s WMT stats include the 2008 championship and 42 career wins, third on the all-time win list.