Story By: SCOTT RUNNING / STAFFORD SPEEDWAY – STAFFORD SPRINGS, CT – Those who regularly follow the SK Modified® division at Stafford Speedway most likely are very familiar with Todd Owen, driver of the #81 Cooker Construction Chevrolet.
Owen made his Stafford debut in 1996 and has been racing full-time at the Connecticut half-mile facility in the SK Modified® division since 2003. Owen won SK Modified® Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and finished in the top-10 of the points standings for 17 consecutive years dating back to his rookie season, including 3 runner-up finishes. Owen comes into the 2020 season eager to repeat his performance of last season that saw him end up tied with Ronnie Williams for the track championship with Williams holding the tie-breaker following the final race of the season. Fresh off of a career season that saw him score 4 wins we sat down with Todd to take a look at how he began his career and how it has evolved over the years.
Owen got his first taste of racing through his father, who sponsored a car at the old Riverside Park Speedway.
“My father sponsored a modified car at Riverside Park so I was around racing as a kid but I wasn’t that close to it,” said Owen. “I started helping out as a shop gopher when I was around 14 and when I was 16 and got my driver’s license, I bought a Strictly Stock and started racing at Riverside.”
Riverside Park Speedway
With no prior racing experience under his belt, Owen dove head first into his rookie season at Riverside.
“I didn’t have any go kart or quarter midget experience, I guess I got a late start in racing if you look at when kids are getting started nowadays,” said Owen. “Thanks to my father’s business, Tom Owen Transport, I was able to drive a car long before I actually got my driver’s license. Maybe I had a little bit of an advantage there, but I still knew nothing about race cars when I first got started. My father sent me to a 3-day school in Florida that was a lot of classroom time, learning about race cars more than it was about driving. I was like a kindergartner going to a trigonometry class. You can have stuff thrown at you all day long but I had no idea what the guy was teaching us about. The biggest struggle for me was learning about race cars and how to make them go fast. Today you can buy a car and go fast but I had to learn my own ways to make the car faster with the setup. I remember the first time I went to the racetrack we bought four left side tires because I didn’t know any better that there were left and right side tires. I didn’t know how to change oil or anything like that, I had to learn everything about the car. Luckily through my father’s background I had good people around me and the harder you want to work and the harder you went looking for people to help you, the more help you could get.”
Surrounded with good crew help, Owen not only won Rookie of the Year honors but he was able to win a race during his rookie season.
“My first season at Riverside I won Rookie of the Year and won a race,” said Owen. “After I found the right people and had made some friends I was able to win late in the year. It was awesome to win. Riverside was some tough competition and I remember there were 40 Strictly Stocks showing up to race every week. We raced on Saturdays and Sundays so we probably ran about 50 times a season. It really felt like we had accomplished something when we won that first race. I think the hardest thing I learned is the fact that just because the car rolls off the track one week doesn’t mean it’s ready to go racing the next week. We had no tools, no equipment, no nothing, so everything was a struggle.”
After several seasons in the Strictly Stock division, Owen made the move up to Late Model competition at Riverside. Just as he did in the Strictly Stock division, Owen immediately found success in the Late Model division.
“After 2 or 3 years racing Strictly Stocks, I moved up to the Late Model division and we had success right away,” said Owen. “I almost won my first race and we won Rookie of the Year and I think we finished around 8th in points. We had the right people and the right motor combination. That was a deal where the guys on my team weren’t sure I was ready to move up but I thought I was so it was a bit of a gamble but it all worked out for us. My father passed away 4 races into that season and life changed dramatically for me after that. I was 19 at the time and losing my father was like losing a partner so I was all on my own. I went from having a Snap-On Toolbox to having a mortgage payment.”
Despite losing his father, Owen went on to win the Late Model championship in 1996 but he would soon be looking for a new place to race with Riverside Park shutting down following the 1999 season. It was during this time period that Owen first met Butch Shea, who he would later become partners with in building modified chassis.
“I ran Late Models for 2 years and won the championship in 1996, and during that time I met and became friends with Butch Shea,” said Owen. “Butch built cars for Ed and Eddy Carroll and I started working with him. That was my first job out of high school and I was getting paid to work on racecars, so that was fun while it lasted for about 4 months until I had to find a real job with Cooker Construction and I’ve been working for them for about 27 years now. It was sad to see Riverside go but at the same time if you’re a racer you just move on to the next race track. Instead of focusing on what is not here anymore, try to focus on what the future holds. It was cool that I got to run both Stafford and Riverside during Riverside’s last season and I can say I won races at both tracks in the same weekend.”
With Riverside closing down Owen needed a new track to call home. He dabbled in Stafford’s Late Model division, making 5 starts in 1996 with a best finish of 12th. When Larry Litwin came calling prior to the 1999 season with an opportunity for a ProStock ride at Stafford, Owen’s decision was made for him.
“Before the 1999 season Larry Litwin from Cable Construction came to me and said he wanted to put a ProStock car together for Stafford,” said Owen. “I had built a Late Model for Stafford and ran 5 races in 1996 but he came to me and put together a car with the best of the best equipment. He had done some research about me and he told me he wanted to go racing and win races. I came into the ProStock division at the same time as Doug Coby and I’m pretty proud he mentioned me on Stafford’s Bottom Shot Podcast as one of his toughest competitors. We had some real battles in the ProStocks.”
Owen won 3 races as a ProStock rookie at Stafford in 1999 and he won 4 times and was the runner-up in the ProStock standings to Coby in 2000. Following the 2000 season, Stafford dropped the ProStock division and Owen was once again left looking for somewhere to race.
“I remember I was pretty mad,” said Owen. “Stafford dropping the ProStocks basically put Butch Shea out of business and I really loved the ProStock cars. At the end of the year the question was do I build an SK or go race somewhere else? I had just built a brand new ProStock car before the season ended so I had a brand new car that never raced, which was a double kick in the butt. I went to race at Thompson and Monadnock in 2001 and 2002. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have just built an SK and gone racing with that but at the time I didn’t really like the SK’s and I thought the racing was terrible.”
Despite his misgivings about racing in the SK Modified® division, when Brad and Linda Hietala from Reliable Welding and Speed came calling in 2002 with an offer to drive a team car to Brad’s #9 car, Owen took the opportunity and the rest is history.
“Brad and Linda Hietala came to me and asked me to drive a team car to Brad in the SK Modifieds®,” said Owen. “I had always bought parts from Brad and Linda and they had seen the drive and motivation I had to go racing and that’s how I got started in the SK Modified® division. I came to Stafford for the first time in 2002 and tried to qualify for the last 3 races but only made the Fall Final. There were 50 something SK cars trying to qualify every week back then so just making the race was a feat because I wasn’t in the handicap.”
While Owen had found almost immediate success in his full fender experience, he would find the open wheel world of SK Modified® racing much more difficult. Owen won Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 but wouldn’t find victory lane until the fourth race of the 2005 season, a span of 44 races. Owen did record runner-up finishes in the points standings in 2004 behind Ted Christopher and again in 2005 behind Lloyd Agor.
“The SK’s were a struggle for me,” said Owen. “That was the hardest transition I’ve ever made in racing. I had driven a modified a few times at Riverside but it was nothing like racing an SK at Stafford. I’ll tell anyone who races that the SK Modifieds® at Stafford are the toughest division in racing because everyone has the same stuff and goes the same speed. I had won races in every division I had ever been in my first season until I got to the SK‘s at Stafford. It was tough but challenging. I finished second in points my second year behind Teddy and we were a consistent car and I finished races every week. Back then, if you just finished races, you were doing something. I remember James Civali won a few races that season but he also crashed a few times and we finished in front of him in the standings.”
Owen’s first SK Modified® win came early in the 2005 season. He was able to win a second race later that season to put himself in a prime position to claim the championship at the season ending Fall Final. Owen was where he needed to be to claim the championship when his transmission broke with only 10 laps left in the season.
“That first SK Modified® win felt awesome,” said Owen. “The one cool thing about that win was Brad [Hietala] and myself built that car brand new for me to race at Stafford, so that was the first car that I welded together and had my hands in. At the time we were the only ones doing cars like that. I felt like that was pretty exciting to win in something that I put together. Brad always told me that it was extra special any time you can win in a car that you put together. I should have won the championship in 2005 but I broke the transmission with 10 laps to go in the Fall Final. I was one restart away from winning the championship. It was devastating. We had changed over to the Richmond transmission that season and a lot of guys were having issues with dog rings. It never cost me a race that year but we broke pieces numerous times that season. I had changed the dog rings right before that race just to be sure it was fresh and I think I shifted the car maybe 3 times during the race.”
Owen would win 2 more races in 2006 but he soon found wins hard to come by as from 2007 through 2015, Owen only managed to win once in 2012. Owen’s performance was consistent but he wasn’t quite at the level to be a weekly contender for wins.
“After the 2005 season we were performing about the same year after year and I felt like my program was going downhill and the biggest thing was myself,” said Owen. “I wasn’t in a good spot and for the next several seasons I worked on getting myself better. I wasn’t having fun coming to the track and racing and I wasn’t having fun in life in general. You have to be in the right frame of mind to be successful in racing and I was in a downward spiral. In 2015 I made a change in my personal life and we started going back up. If you look at stats before 2015 and wonder what was going on or was something wrong with the car, it was all me. The last few years have been great and I’m still racing the same cars and equipment. 5 years ago I had 1 car and now we have 10 cars out there so there’s a lot more going on. In 2014 I was pretty much done and didn’t want to continue on racing. I pretty much didn’t want to even get out of bed at that point. I had reached my bottom and one day I got a call from my goddaughter who left me a voicemail and told me that no matter what she loved me and that was all I needed.”
With Owen looking to get his on track performance back into winning form, he called on his old friend Butch Shea.
“Things eventually got to a point where I felt like I needed to make a change and go back to my own number 81 in 2012 and Butch started helping me out with the cars,” said Owen. “I kind of dragged him back into the sport that he had walked away from. He had been helping me during the season with some stuff over the phone and after coming to a race to watch me in person he told me “You’re no Kyle Busch, but you don’t suck that bad” and he was going to start helping me out with the car. I took what he said as a compliment and we ended up making some changes to the car at the end of 2011 and at the start of 2012 and I saw some huge improvements with the car design and the 2012 season was the first season that we used the car design that we’re using now.”
After winning once in 2012, Owen didn’t win another SK Modified® feature event until the middle of the 2016 season. Owen would win once more in 2016 before not winning again until 2019, where he scored a career high 4 wins. With his car back on a winning track, Owen has started to branch out and not only build cars, but rent them as well.
“I like helping young drivers and helping them out gives me a lot of gratification,” said Owen. “I started with Cody Gneiting and he decided he didn’t want to race anymore and walked away and then David [Arute] was the next one. We saw an ad for a car and I originally started helping him with installing the engine and seat at my shop for him to make his SK Light debut. Once David decided he wanted to move up to the SK Modified® division, he wanted to use one of our cars so we put a car together for him and Josh Wood with Josh’s car now being the car that Tyler Leary drives. My old Reliable car was just sitting around in my shop and Bryan [Narducci] was driving David’s Limited Late Model car at the time so we figured we’d throw something together and let Bryan take it out and see what he could do. Now for 2020 we have Josh Carey and Derek Debbis coming in as rookies, so we’ve gone in four years from helping a couple of people to where we are now. Looking at the future, the rental business, helping younger drivers out, and building cars is something that I really enjoy. It’s something that I can do that I won’t make a living from it but it’ll help me with my race team. I figured if I built some cars that would help me to race because sponsorships are a lot harder to come by then they used to be. When I first started I didn’t know how to weld anything and now people see my welds and they think it’s great work. Anything you want in life is worth working hard for. I think it was 2014 or 2015 we built our first in house brand new car from scratch. We don’t want to be in the chassis building business, we pick and choose who we want to deal with. We’re not looking to go out and sell 100 cars. We’re up to 10 cars now and that’s a lot to take care of.”
Between SK Modified® and Open Modified cars for himself, SK Modified® cars for Bryan Narducci, Tyler Leary, and David Arute, and SK Light cars for Norm Sears, Derek Debbis, and Josh Carey, Owen was ready to enter the 2020 season at full speed but the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily put his racing plans on the back burner.
“With so many cars now I wanted to really be prepared and going into 2020 I was the best prepared I’ve ever been for a season and then the Covid-19 pandemic happened,” said Owen. “I don’t like to set unrealistic goals for myself so I don’t want to say if I don’t win the championship then it’s going to be a bad year. The goal for this year is to have another good season and finish consistently in the top-5. If we can do that the wins will come for us. I like winning but I like finishing second and third too.”
In racing, almost every driver has sponsors and crew that have helped them get to where they are and Owen is no different. Owen quite possibly has the longest running sponsorship out of anyone at Stafford with Steve and Debbie Barnes from Cooker Construction partnering with Owen for the past 27 years.
“I first met Steve and Debbie Barnes from Cooker Construction with my father in a coffee shop when I was 16 and just starting out racing,” said Owen. “They wanted to give us a couple hundred dollars to buy tires and I’ve worked for them for 27 years now so it’s kind of like I’m with them and they’re with me. I definitely wouldn’t be here today without their help and they’ve helped me race ever since my father passed away which has been 27 years now. Steve and Debbie have been like family to me and they’ve been with me through all the ups and downs I’ve had. Donny Wood from R.A.D. Auto Machine, he’s a great engine builder and he’s become a close friend now. I don’t like to list crew guys because if you miss one person they get upset so everyone who is on my team and who has been on my team and obviously Butch Shea, I wouldn’t be where I am now without everyone’s help.”
For more information, visit www.staffordspeedway.com, checkout Stafford Speedway on Facebook or Twitter, or contact the track office at 860-684-2783.