RPW Column: The Champ Trail; Stefanik In NASCAR Hall, Stafford Ready To Race, Riverhead Preparing To Return To Action

Column By: PHIL SMITH / RPW – WAVERLY, RI – Mike Stefanik has been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The three Inductees consist of two from the Modern Era Ballot, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mike Stefanik, and one from the Pioneer Ballot, Red Farmer. Congratulations to the 12th NASCAR Hall of Fame Class. In addition to his accomplishments in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Series and the Busch North NASCAR Series Stefanik was an accomplished weekly racer at Stafford, Riverside Park and Monadnock Speedways as well as a race car designer and fabricator.

Mike Stefanik was the 1986 Stafford Modified Track Champion. He was also the 1979 Six Cylinder Limited Sportsman Champion. It wasn’t until 1986, the last year Stafford ran full bore modifieds on a weekly basis, that Stefanik won his first feature, which came in the Winston 100 on May 30. It was the only feature he won at Stafford that season, but coupled with consistent top 5 finishes, he was able to garner the title.

Stefanik began his racing career at Stafford in 1976, driving a back up car belonging to Bob Witcop. Believe it or not, the night before he was to make his debut, he was hit by a car outside an auto dealership where he worked. Stefanik picked up his first Limited Sportsman win in 1978, but it was in 1979 when he dominated the division with 9 wins. He moved up to the modifieds in 1980 and garnered his first open wheel win at Riverside Park on July 12. Stefanik ran at both Stafford and Riverside, gaining confidence and experience plus, he caught the eye of Richie Evans. Evans talked Sonny Koszela into giving the young hot shoe a ride in the famous Woodchopper Special that had been formerly driven by Ernie Gahan, Leo Cleary, Fred DeSarro, and Bugsy Stevens.

The combination worked so well that Stefanik literally became part of the family as he married Koszela’s daughter Julie. The alliance and marriage into the Koszela family enabled Stefanik to become a full time race car fabricator as well as a driver.

Stefanik began racing on the NASCAR Modified Tour and was the most successful driver in Tour history. From 1985 through 2014, Stefanik made 453 starts and he holds the series record for most career wins with 74 and championships with 7. Stefanik recorded Spring Sizzler® wins in 1989, 1990, 1997, and 1998, Fall Final wins in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 2002, 2007, and 2008. Stefanik’s 2008 Fall Final victory was the 34th and final Stafford win of his career.

When the opportunity to race on the Busch Grand National North series presented itself in 1991, Stefanik jumped at the chance and was been equally successful there. From 1991 through 2005, Stefanik made 164 starts and won 12 races. Stefanik won the championship in 1997 and 1998, marking an unprecedented 2-year stretch where he won the championships in both the NASCAR Modified Tour and Busch North Series.

Mike Stefanik truly deserves his place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as well as being included as one of the Fifty Greatest Modified Drivers of All-time as voted on by the public in the Stafford Salutes NASCAR at 50 program.

In some real good news, the 2020 racing season at the Stafford Motor Speedway will finally get to start their season with spectators in the grandstands on Friday June 26. The speedway has received approval from the state to open at 25 percent capacity. The track holds 10,000. By last Sunday, June 21, opening night was declared a sell-out. Season ticket holders were given first refusal.

Close to 100 race teams braved 90 degree heat on Saturday in order to shake their cars down in preparation for this weeks opener.

The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Series finally got to drop the green for their 2020 season at the Jennerstown Speedway in Pennsylvania. The event was run without spectators because of restrictions imposed by the flu epidemic. After multiple delays resulting from the pandemic to bad weather, the start of the 2020 season is finally here with a race to honor the late Whelen Modified Tour veteran Wade Cole, who passed away in March. Thirty-three entries, including defending and six-time tour champion, Doug Coby, were at the starting line at the Speedway.

Justin Bonsignore hit the ground running and left little doubt that he is the guy to beat. Bonsignore won the pole which put him on the front row at the start. Doug Coby was second fastest. When the green dropped Bonsignore left everyone in his dust as he dominated the field and led every lap. Coby faded after the half way break and ended up seventh at the checker. Coming off his momentum from last year Craig Lutz slugged it out with Jon McKennedy to finish second. McKennedy finished third. Matt Hirschman, who was the fastest in practice, finished fourth and Calvin Carroll made a tremendous run from a 24th starting position to finish fifth. Sixth thru tenth were Ron Silk, Coby, Kyle Bonsignore, Matt Swanson and Rob Summers.

Four cautions slowed the event. The first caution came on lap 1 when Ronnie Williams, Melissa Fifield and Patrick Emerling tangled in turn one. Emmerling suffered a flat right front tire and stopped on the track. The second caution came when Timmy Catalano lost a drive shaft and crashed in turn three. The third caution was a half way break on lap 70 and the fourth and final caution came on lap 106 when Sam Rameau triggered a wreck in turn four which collected Eric Goodale, Tyler Rypkema, Amy Catalano, Jeff Gallup, Woody Pitkat, John Beatty Jr and Ron Williams.

The Morocco Welding/Wade Cole Memorial 133 presented by Dunleavy’s Truck & Trailer Repair aired live on Trackpass on NBC Gold, and will re-air on Saturday, June 27 at 12am ET on NBCSN. The Whelen Modified Tour will return to action on Saturday, July 4, with its inaugural visit to White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. Spectator attendance at this event is limited to 50% of capacity per state health and safety guidelines.

The White Mountain announcement created another problem as the Tri Track Modified Series had previously scheduled an event at the Monadnock Speedway for July 4. Tri Track Open Modified Series officials announced the series will move the originally scheduled season opener at Monadnock Speedway to Sunday, July 5, in the best interest of race teams and fans. The Tri Track Open Modified Series feels this is in the best interest of modified teams and the great fans of our sport. This will allow race fans to catch two modified races in the same state, on the same weekend, without both running at the same time.

The Monadnock event will pay a winner’s purse of $6,000 with $3,250 to be paid for second and $2,600 for third, with a total purse of more than $40,000. NASCAR has not announced a purse structure for the event at White Mountain Motorsports Park. The Whelen Modified Tour has never run at White Mountain, which is not a NASCAR sanctioned track.

It was not an easy decision but Tri-Track officials deserve a pat on the back for making a decision that is best for fans and competitors.

Good news comes from Long Island. The Riverhead Raceway became the latest track to announce plans for reopening following COVID-19 global pandemic shutdowns. The Management at Riverhead Raceway announced a revamped schedule for the 2020 season Wednesday with the track set to open on Aug. 1 and run to Oct. 31. The track will open with a seven-event racing NASCAR Advance Auto Weekly Racing Series card headlined by a 50-lap Tour Type Modified feature.

Riverhead was originally scheduled to host the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour on June 20 and Sept. 19. The Sept. 19 event remains in place with the June 20 event being rescheduled to Oct. 17. Riverhead will host open practice days on July 18 and July 25 and will host 16 NASCAR racing events through Oct. 31

That’s about it for this week from 11 Gardner Drive, Westerly, RI 02891. Ring my chimes at 401-248-1307.