Column By: MARTY CZEKALA / RPW – OSWEGO, NY – The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is set to return to “The Steel Palace” of Oswego Speedway Saturday for the first time since the COVID pandemic.
For the first time since 1989, Oswego Speedway is given a second race, in addition to the traditional Labor Day Classic Weekend.
Obviously, this is a massive year for the Tour in the Empire State. Nearly 50% of the Tour schedule will be contested in New York. Three in Riverhead (one already complete with Doug Coby winning), two in Oswego, and the debut of Lancaster.
“New York is enormous for modified racing,” said Jimmy Wilson, series director for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. “You look at the history of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour schedule until the last 10, 15 years or so, there have been a lot more races out in upstate New York. Oswego has been on the schedule over the years on and off. We’ve been to Holland, Chemung Speedrome, Spencer Speedway, several racetracks out there. And it’s a critical area for the series, our sponsors, and our competitors to continue to have that solid geographic footprint. So, it’s strange how it coincides with COVID and how all of this went about. Still, we’ve been working hard for the last five or six years trying to put together, going into upstate New York more often than what we have in the past.”
The last time the Tour took to these hallowed grounds it was the Toyota Mod Classic 150 on August 31, 2019. Justin Bonsignore took the lead from Rob Summers with 85 laps left. Still, in the final laps, he faced a challenge from track favorite Matt Hirschman. Hirschman took a peek into turn three on the last lap, but Bonsignore slammed the door into turn 3 with a bit of contact to cut him off.
Bonsignore spoke with Race Pro Weekly on racing at Oswego and what he likes about racing there.
“I just love that all the history of modified racing and just everything that goes into that facility just makes it really special when we go there. To be a part of something that’s had history to it and been around for many years. But the track itself is just a lot of fun. It’s got a lot of character, it’s very old, it’s very worn out, it’s bumpy. You’ve got the boilerplate on both sides, and you’re almost touching the boilerplate at times. We’d go home and attire stuff, you know, they’re white walls from, from rubbing up against it. It just makes it a really tricky racetrack. It’s not that easy to pass on. So you’ve got to really work a guy over to set them up, and you can get a position on them,” Bonsignore said.
Bonsignore is in a very tight battle in points four races in. He is one point behind points leader Patrick Emerling. Doug Coby is third, just five markers back, but will not be racing due to Superstar Racing Experience commitments in Stafford. Eric Goodale and Kyle Bonsignore (Justin’s cousin) are tied for fourth, just 14 points back, and Tommy Catalano is 6th 19 behind.
“He’s always raced with a lot of respect,” Justin Bonsignore said about racing with Emerling. “He’s just another great modified racer and really good for our series. He’s accomplished a lot in the ROC (Modified Series) and other open shows. He’s definitely come into his own last couple of years, once he started dominated ROC. It seems like he’s become a top contender each and every place we go.”
It isn’t an Oswego race without Matt Hirschman. The traveling Modified driver makes his first Tour appearance of the year at a racetrack he has won several times. This includes a Tour win at Oswego in 2018 and winning the last three Race of Champions 250 events at Oswego before moving to Lake Erie Speedway. The previous two races of the Tour coming to Oswego have been between Justin Bonsignore and Hirschman, finishing in the top two.
“It’s quite a challenge because you’re at an event with full live pit stops. The majority of the racing I do is either no pit stops or a one-tire change. Doing 3-4 tires is a totally different challenge for our team. Going off our past history. I believe we should be a contender and a top 3 car. We’ve got to excel and try to do our best, and if we do, I’m confident we’ll be a contender,” Hirschman said.
Another big story entering the weekend is the entry list. Doug Coby’s #10 team is in the field this weekend, but Coby won’t be in the car. Doug will be at Stafford Motor Speedway for the debuting SRX, representing his home track, which he has won 12 Tour races there. Chase Dowling will fill in, with plenty of Tour experience, including his lone win in the 250 lap New Hampshire showdown in 2018.
Also on the entry list is 2013 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Ryan Preece. Now a regular on the NASCAR Cup Series, Preece has the weekend off as the Cup Series holds their All-Star Race. Preece could’ve taken the opportunity to compete in the last chance Open. Still, due to his #37 JTG Daugherty team acting as a Non-Charter team, Preece isn’t required to race in the Open. He will be making his fourth start this season in the Ed Partridge owned #6. He should be a contender to watch out for, as he won the Classic 150 back in 2017.
How about a few underdog stories? If you like hometown favorites, look no further than Ontario, NY’s Tommy Catalano. Only a 60-minute drive from his hometown, Catalano comes into Oswego with the best start to a Tour season by far. Catalano currently stands 6th in series standings and has three top tens this season. He is presently one away from matching his career-high of four top tens in a season back in 2019.
“We’ve struggled the past few years, but we just tried to stay extra prepared this year; stay on top of it,” Catalano said. “We’ve seen these tracks more than once now. So that definitely helps when we go to these places, we have a notebook. Although we haven’t had the best finishes at some of the tracks in previous years, it’s a notebook about what not to go with.”
Catalano also said the team’s leading goal this season was to get as many top tens possible.
Finally, if you want someone with experience at Oswego on many different occasions, look no further than Max McLaughlin. “Mad Max” has plenty of experience on Oswego when it’s covered in dirt for Super Dirt Week in the Big Block Modified Super DIRTCar Series. In addition, he’s trying his hand at Supermodified weekly racing at “The Steel Palace,” and in his 2nd start, took the CraZ8 to victory lane on a last-lap pass. The Supermodifieds will be on the undercard to the Whelen Modifieds, and McLaughlin will be pulling double duty. He is looking to join his father, “Magic Shoes” Mike McLaughlin, in winning a Tour race (Mike succeeded in the Mid-Summer 75 1988).
This season, there have been four different races and four different winners. Eric Goodale took the season opener at Martinsville, Patrick Emerling won at Stafford, Doug Coby claimed Riverhead, and Justin Bonsignore was victorious in Jennerstown. Do we see a variety of winners similar to the Cup competition and have five different winners?
24 drivers as of Wednesday will take the green Saturday night in the Steel Palace 150 lap event at 7:30pm ET on NBC Sports Gold Trackpass.