Story By: PAUL LAMBERT / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – At just 23 years old, Tyler Rypkema had plenty of expectations on him for the 2020 season.
After all, not only was Rypkema running the Whelen Modified Tour full-time for the first time in his career, he made an equipment upgrade. After Mike Smeriglio retired from the Tour as a car owner at the conclusion of the 2019 season, it was Rypkema’s family who purchased two cars from Smeriglio as he sold off assets. The No. 32 Rypkema Racing team was set to go.
Driving the equipment that had won four of the last five Tour championships, you could say there was some pressure on Rypkema to perform.
Rypkema did just that: perform. He rounded out the season with four consecutive top-10 finishes, with a total of five for the year. In eight of nine races, Rypkema also finished better than he qualified. Most important of all, he kept his nose clean, finishing all nine races in 2020. That was enough to win him the 2020 Sunoco Rookie of the Year award.
“I’m ecstatic about it, really,” Rypkema said. “You grow up as a little kid and you watch Modified racing and you know that the Whelen Tour is the pinnacle. You can’t go anywhere and have any more competition than you do on the Whelen Tour.
“To go there and run well and gain a lot of respect from drivers, it’s really cool to be able to do this.”
The signature moment of the season for Rypkema? A very strong eighth-place performance at Jennerstown in July, after struggling in the opening three races of the season.
“To come to Jennerstown and have a really strong run, that gave us the confidence to carry on the rest of the season and show that it wasn’t a one-off, that we could duplicate that and try to do better yet,” Rypkema said.
The 10th Rypkema earned at the Musket 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September also stood out to him as a race to be proud of.
“That was huge,” he said. “Going to New Hampshire, that’s as demanding as you can possibly be on a car, on a driver, on a team in general. To go there and have several pit stops and have good pit stops and have a really strong car, that was huge for us. You don’t just go to New Hampshire and finish top-10 unless you know what you guys are doing.”
Rypkema’s offseason, while extended, wasn’t quite as long as other drivers on the Tour. He spent a week in Florida at the World Series of Stock Car Racing down at New Smyrna, where he performed admirably, finishing second in the Richie Evans Memorial 100.
There wasn’t much easy for Rypkema Racing to put forth a full-time effort this past season. A family-run operation, day jobs get in the way for crew members. Tack on the fact that a pandemic forced the shutdown of the racing season for three months, and there were a bunch of hurdles for the team to overcome. Despite all the challenges, the family made it happen, with a Rookie of the Year award to show for their efforts.
“I have to thank my guys for what they’ve done, and for my sponsors,” Rypkema said. “I couldn’t have done it without any of them. I was pretty happy with the way we turned things around.”
Whether the team is able to put together a schedule to run the Tour full-time again in 2021, Rypkema says they’ll be back in some form. And there’s plenty to be excited about in terms of what was accomplished this season.
“Aside from those first two races, I’m really proud of what we’ve done as a team,” Rypkema said. “We really rallied and we had a lot of strong finishes.”