RPW Column: Looking Back A Bit: Final Week Of March

Column Compiled By: PHIL SMITH / RPW – WESTERLY, RI – Sixty years ago in 1963, Mr. Modified Ray Hendrick won a 100 lap NASCAR Modified event at South Boston in Virginia.

Fifty-five years ago in 1968 Southerner Runt Harris won a 35 lap NASCAR Late Model Sportsman event at the South Boston Speedway in Virginia.

Fifty years ago in 1973 opening day at Seekonk was rained out.

Forty years ago, in 1983, Greg Sacks rebounded from a blown engine at Martinsville as he won the New England season opening IceBreaker at Thompson. Sacks took the lead from Richie Evans with three laps to go in the 83-lap contest. George Kent finished second as Evans faded to third at the checker. Ray Miller and John Rosati rounded out the top five. Evans, who started on the pole, was forced to pit after suffering a flat left rear tire on the second lap. Sacks, who started on the outside pole, led until lap 46 when Evans re-took the lead. Evans clearly had the fastest car but his hard charge to the front took its toll on his tires. Cale Yarborough was the Winston Cup winner in Atlanta.

Thirty five years ago, in 1988, Riverside Park opened their season with a 100 lapper, which was won by Reggie Ruggerio. Mike Stefanik in the Jack Koszela 15 finished second with Stan Greger, third. Rounding out the top five were Long Island invader Tom Baldwin and Marty Radwick.

Thirty years ago in 1993, Riverside Park opened the season to a packed house of 8675 spectators. Famed car owner Bob Judkins suffered a heart attack and was unable to watch as Jerry Marquis took the win over Bruce D’Assandro, Chris Kopec and Mike Stefanik. In Winston Cup action at Darlington, Dale Earnhardt won out over Mark Martin. Robert Pressley won the Busch Grandnational event. The racing world was saddened when news spread that defending Winston Cup Champion Alan Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash on April 1 while heading to Bristol Tennessee.

Twenty five years ago in 1998, Riverside Park had the traditional New England opener. Reggie Ruggiero started 25th as a provisional. Working the Park like only Reggie could, Ruggerio marched his way to the front and took the lead from Cris Kopec on lap 108 and never looked back as he romped to victory. Pole sitter Mike Stefanik led the first 40 laps before giving way to Kopec. Stefanik, who ended up third behind Ruggerio and Tony Hirschman, was running in second spot on lap 187 of the 200-lap contest when Ted Christopher slid up, causing both to spin. Christopher lost a drive shaft and was done for the day. Dan Avery and Ed Flemke Jr. rounded out the top five. In Winston Cup action at Bristol Rusty Wallace dominated until running over debris and hitting the wall. Jeff Gordon inherited the lead and eventual win. Elliott Sadler was the Busch Grandnational winner. On a sad note, Tim Flock who was a pioneer in the sport back in the 50’s died after a long battle with cancer.

Twenty years ago in 2003 In Busch Grandnational action at the Texas Motor Speedway NASCAR pulled one of its biggest officiating blunders when they penalized Brian Vickers for passing before the starting line on a re-start. Joe Nemachek took the win. Videotape clearly showed that Vickers did not pass before the line. NASCAR held their ground, as the word from the Big Red Trailer was that he “Intended to Pass”. In SMART action at the Caraway Speedway in North Carolina, Jay Hedgecock took the win. Ryan Newman won the Winston Cup event that was run at the Texas track.

Fifteen years ago in 2008, the Thompson Speedway held their second of two practice sessions on Saturday in somewhat blustery conditions. According to Howie Hodge the following Whelen Modified Tour Series drivers were on hand to shakedown their cars: 0 – Danny Sammons, 3 – Ryan Preece, 10 – Ed Flemke, 11 – Anthony Sesely, 17 – Glen Reen, 21 – Richard Savory, 28 – James Civali, 32 – Tom Abele. Jr., 46 – Eric Beers, 58 – Kevin Goodale, 90 – Renee Dupuis, 93 – Rowan Pennink and 99 – Jamie Tomaino.

Kenny Barry, pinch hitting for Todd Ceravolo, got in some decent runs in the Dick Ceravolo owned Sunoco Modified. The Ceravolos’ suffered engine problems the week previous and had installed a new power plant.

Denny Hamlin overtook Jeff Burton on the 427th lap and went on to win the Goody’s 500 Nextel Cup event at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. For 389 laps, the race looked like it would be another victory for Hendrick Motorsports at the track it has dominated, winning eight of the previous 10 races. Hendrick drivers led 371 laps, but Hamlin and fellow Virginia native Jeff Burton made decisions under the next-to-last caution that allowed them to move up front. And Hamlin ruined Burton’s decision to stay out while the rest of the leaders pitted. Jeff Gordon rallied to finish second, followed by Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Johnson had won three straight at Martinsville heading into the race.

Dennis Setzer assumed the lead when Kyle Busch had to brake to avoid a crash in front of him Saturday, then held on through numerous restarts to win the Kroger 250 Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway. The victory was the first for Dodge since the late Bobby Hamilton won at Mansfield in 2005, and the truck Setzer won in is co-owned by Hamilton’s widow, Lori. Don Lia scored his first top ten as he finished ninth.

Ten years ago in 2013, The 2013 northeast racing season got its official start as the Waterford Speedbowl hosted Budweiser Blastoff. Budweiser Blastoff Weekend marked the beginning of the 63rd consecutive season of racing at the shoreline oval.

After drawing 128 cars for practice on the week previous the Speedbowl drew 197 cars, including 30 Valenti Modified Racing Series cars and 26 SK Modifieds. It was cold and blustery but dry none the less.

Sunday’s winners included Steve Masse of Bellingham, MA in the 100-lap Valenti Modified Racing Series event, the popular northeastern tour’s 10th anniversary season opener. In NASCAR Whelen All-American Series action Keith Rocco of Meriden scored wins in both the SK Modified® and Bob Valenti Auto Mall Late Model division races, the second consecutive season he has opened the year with wins in each division. Corey Hutchings of Salem was the Street Stock winner and Garrett Denton of Hope Valley, RI won the Mini Stock feature. Todd Bertrand of Suffield took down a popular win in the Northeastern Midget Association race.

Keith Rocco scored a convincing win in the SK Modified portion of Blastoff 2013. Rocco started third in the 26 car starting field. By lap seven he was in the lead. One of the few that didn’t pit for fresh rubber, Rocco held off Ron Yuhas Jr who finished second. Rob Janovic finished third with Craig Lutz and Ted Christopher rounding out the top five. Eleven of the 26 original starters completed the 63 lap distance. The win was Rocco’s fourth consecutive Budweiser Blastoff weekend win and 45th career victory in the division.

Ten cars were collected in a massive wreck with less than ten laps to go. During a restart with nine laps remaining Nicole Morgillo took over second spot after roughing up Rob Janovic in a dive under-elbow job which moved him up and out of the racing groove. Janovic maintained motion as Ted Christopher went by and subsequently made contact after trying to pass the young lady on the low side. The two made contact and Boom!, Morgillo hit the wall. Morgillo was credited with 12th finishing position. A post race video clearly showed that Teddy had the line and Nicole came down to block.

In Valenti Modified Racing Series action Steve Masse took the lead with four laps to go and went on to take the series opening 100 lap win. Todd Annarummo finished second with Anthony Nocella, third. Rowan Pennink and Mike Holdredge rounded out the top five. Sixth through tenth were Louis Mechalides Mike Willis, Jr., Norm Wrenn, Dana Smith and Keith Rocco. Of note was the fact that Tom Barrett Jr was displaced out of a top ten finish after he was put to the rear for spinning Chris Pasteryak on the 98th lap.

There was a total of 33 cars on hand. The Valenti Modified Racing Series next visits New Hampshire’s Monadnock Speedway on Saturday evening, April 20th.

Saturday’s main events at the Speedbowl saw Randy Churchill of Oakdale winning the evening’s NASCAR Whelen All-American Series SK Light Modified race, Keith Rocco of Meriden scoring the honors in the NEMA Lite touring series race, and Chris Turbush of Riverhead, NY won in the visiting New England Truck Series. In INEX racing, Dana Dimatteo of Farmington claimed the win in the opening day Legend Cars feature and New Jersey driver Alex McCollum won the Bandolero feature.

Other winners included Jon Porter of Canterbury in Super X-Cars and Wayne Shifflett of Preston in the X-Cars. Rocco’s NEMA Lite win was later dis-allowed as it was determined that the car in which he drove was under weight and had illegal fuel. Mike and Ted Christopher must have felt a little bit older after the running of the legends feature. Mike Christopher Jr, son of Mike and nephew of Ted finished 15th in his debut race.

Waterford native Tom “Sid” DiMaggio, a long-time track enthusiast, will receive one of the John Wentworth Good Sport Awards from the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance during its annual Gold Key Dinner on April 28. DiMaggio has devoted countless hours compiling statistical data at the Speedbowl, which culminated in the launch of a website – www.speedbowlhistory.com – as well as a documentary film project that will be released in 2014.

Racedayct reported that a group of creditors still owed money from a debt reorganization plan arranged through state bankruptcy court have moved to have foreclosure action taken against the owner of the Waterford Speedbowl. Speedbowl owner Terry Eames confirmed following the conclusion of BlastOff that a foreclosure action was filed on March 27. The State of Connecticut Judicial Branch lists the plaintiffs in the action as Rocco Arbitell, Peter Borelli as the Committee of Sale.

Eames said the action will not effect in any way the current day-to-day operations of the Speedbowl.

“It doesn’t really change anything in the near term,” Eames said. “It’s going to take some time to play out. At that track it’s business as usual. We’ll get through it.”

The action adds to a long list of legal financial issues faced by ownership at the Speedbowl over the previous seven years. In July 2007, Arbitell, a Southbury businessman and local racing supporter, along with his business associate Borrelli, stepped in to offer Eames and his ownership group, 1080 Hartford Road LLC, financing to avoid a foreclosure action being taken then by former mortgage holder Washington Mutual Bank. The deal with Arbitell was announced a day before the track’s auction date for a foreclosure in 2007.

In May 2008 Arbitell brought his own foreclosure action against the ownership group after former track operator Jerry Robinson failed to pay the Speedbowl’s property taxes. Facing another pending foreclosure auction, Eames and 1080 Hartford Road LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2009.

A debt reorganization plan was accepted by bankruptcy court in January 2012 and the ownership cleared bankruptcy not long after that. “They found some technical default with how we had performed under the [debut reorganization] plan,” Eames said. “… At the end of the day these people haven’t been paid and they need to get paid and they will get paid. It’s just taking longer than any of us had wanted to deal with this, but they’ll get taken care of and we’ll keep going.”

In NASCAR Sprint Cup action at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson led a career-best 346 laps Sunday and pulled away on a restart with eight laps to go for his eighth career victory on the shortest track in the Sprint Cup Series, taking over third place on the career victories list on NASCAR’s oldest track.

Five years ago in 2018, A Test and Tune session was scheduled for Saturday, March 31, at Thompson. The hills in northeastern Connecticut came alive with the sound of racing engines. Among those testing the waters was Jacob Perry, third generation racer who has made his bones in the Mini Stocks and is taking a step up to the open wheeled Modifieds. Ryan Preece, Woody Pitkat and David Arute were also on hand.

In Modified action south of the Mason-Dixon line, Matt Hirschman was the class of the field during Saturday’s Southern Modified Racing Series event at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

Hirschman initially started fourth after the redraw, which saw fast qualifier Jeremy Gerstner draw the pole alongside Andy Seuss. When the initial green flag waved Gerstner tried to maintain the lead, but contact with third starter Danny Bohn sent both around to bring out the caution which would wave again during the second attempt at the start, this time for an incident involving Kodie Conner and Jamie Tomaino in turn three that led to a brief red flag for cleanup.

Gerstner and Bohn dropped to the tail of the field for a complete restart, handing the top-two spots to Seuss and Hirschman. Once the cleanup was completed the field took the green flag to start the race for the third time, with Hirschman getting the jump on Seuss to take the lead.

Hirschman continued to lead the way until the third caution of the race waved on lap 28 when Tom Buzze spun on the backstretch. The caution didn’t phase Hirschman, who retained the lead during the ensuing restart over Seuss.

The race would run green to the end from there, with Hirschman cruising to a comfortable victory over Seuss in the 75-lap affair aboard the No. 60 PeeDee Motorsports modified. John Smith finished third and was followed by Jason Myers and Gerstner.

After months of speculation, rumors, and questions regarding the New London-Waterford Speedbowl grandstands and whether or not the track would really open, there is now an official answer. For the last several months, Speedbowl management has been meeting with Waterford town officials to discuss proposed improvements at the shoreline oval. Among the topics being negotiated were the existing grandstands. There have been many rumors surrounding the exact plan for the structure. Well, after lengthy negotiations, the town has agreed to sign off on the existing structure for the 2018 season. There are a few minor improvements that need to be made to certain sections before opening day and Speedbowl management has a crew in place to begin these minor repairs, which are expected to take about a week to complete. In an agreement with Waterford Planning and Zoning, along with the town fire marshal, once the repairs are complete, the town will then reinspect the sections needing minor repair to ensure the repairs were performed. This comes on the heels of which has been a rumor filled off season, to say the least.

Throughout the entire 2018 season, Speedbowl management will continue to meet with the town to discuss the on-going plan for improvements to the entire facility, which include major changes to the physical appearance of the Speedbowl. This will be spread out over the course of the next five years. Also, contrary to popular opinion, there is an active lease in place at the Speedbowl. Whitney Farms Racing LLC will oversee and operate the day to day racing operations and all that go along with running the race track. The Speedbowl looks forward to seeing all their loyal fans and racers on opening weekend May 4th-May 6th.

NASCAR’s top divisions had the weekend off to celebrate Easter.

Last year, 2022, After a more than month-long break following the opening round of the 2022 season in February at the New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour shifted back into high gear this past Friday night as the tour invaded the Richmond Raceway for the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 150.

Twenty eight modifieds were on hand for the event which had a sparse crowd on hand. The only pre-race casualty was that of Anthony Nocella who suffered engine failure.

Justin Bonsignore started from the pole and led early, but pit strategy shuffled him out of the lead and into the pack for much of the race. Tommy Catalano was the star of the race, taking multiple turns at the front of the field as he appeared destined for his maiden Tour win. Catalano had the handles and the speed as he was the class of the field.

With two thirds of the race in the books, Bonsignore found himself in second spot and began to close in on Catalano. With ten laps to go Bonsignore made his move for the lead as it appeared that Catalano’s tires had started to lose their grip. He led the rest of the way for his first Tour win of the year and 32nd of his career. Catalano finished a respectful second with Chuck Hossfeld, third. Kyle Ebersole and Tyler Rypkema rounded out the top five. Sixth thru tenth were Eric Goodale, Jimmy Blewett, Jon McKennedy, Donny Lia and Ron Silk.

There was never a dull moment as there was action a plenty. On lap 12, Bonsignore’s cousin Kyle Bonsignore took the race lead on the high side in turn 1. Bryan Dauzat would bring out the first caution with a flat right rear tire.On the restart, the two Bonsignores battled for the lead, while longtime NASCAR Cup Series competitor Ryan Newman worked his way to third. A lap later, Newman would follow Justin Bonsignore, who moved to the lead, into second around Kyle Bonsignore.

While Newman and then Tommy Catalano would apply pressure to Bonsignore under this green flag run, the three-time series champion would keep his composure and held the point until the caution flag flew again on lap 51 for a spin from Jeremy Gerstner in turn four. Under this caution, Justin Bonsignore would have issues on pit road, which would drop him to ninth in the running order.

On the restart, Newman would work his way to the lead with a rear-tire only call on pit road, but it was short lived as Catalano swooped by two laps later. From here on, Catalano would assert himself as the guy to beat, while Bonsignore was bogged down in the field. Catalano would lead 69 of the next 79 laps of this race, only interrupted for 10 laps by Max McLaughlin, who snagged the lead on a lap 97 restart.

Catalano would retake the lead from McLaughlin on lap 107, but Bonsignore came to life and was reeling Catalano in as the race drew to a close. In turn 4 with 11 laps to go, Catalano got loose and Bonsignore shot to the inside lane to take the lead.

The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season resumes May 14 at Long Island New York’s Riverhead Raceway. After two events Eric Goodale and Tommy Catalano are tied for the point lead with 80 points each. Tyler Rypkema sits in third spot, just one point back. Jon McKennedy, who, despite having to make an extra pit stop after dragging his gas can out of the pit, sits in fourth spot, just four spots out of the lead. Rounding out the top five is Ron Silk, eight points out of the lead. Sixth thru tenth include Jimmy Blewett, Craig Lutz, Austin Beers, Justin Bonsignore, 20 points out of the lead and JB Fortin.

In SMART tour action at the South Boston Speedway on Saturday afternoon, thirty modifieds were on hand for the event that celebrated the late Ray Hendrick and the Tant /Mitchell Flying 11 that he drove to over 700 wins.

Matt Hirschman left little doubt of his ability and his effort as he scored an impressive win in front of a near capacity crowd. Starting eleventh after a re-draw, Hirschman worked his way to the front and took the lead following a restart with 51 laps to go in the 99 lap contest. Pitting a short time later, Hirschman pressured leader JD Fortin who was obviously blocking. Hirschman finally put Fortin away for the lead on lap 60. The caution flew again on lap 72 for a spin by Gary Young. Most of the front runners pitted for fresh rubber.

Tom Buzze led the restart with Jonathan Brown and Caleb Heady following. By lap 78 Brown had taken the lead as Hirschman moved into the top three. Brown led thru lap 89 when Hirschman shot by for the lead.

Hirschman led the final 10 laps to score the win, the 205th of his career. Jonathan Brown finished second and was followed by Caleb Heady, Bobby Labonte, Tom Buzze, Burt Myers and Danny Bohn.

The SMART tour moves to the Franklin County Speedway this coming Sunday.

The IceBreaker at the Thompson Speedway was also scheduled for last weekend but the finicky New England weather had other ideas. With weather for Sunday looking far less than favorable, the decision was made Saturday to postpone Sunday’s Icebreaker 125 schedule to Saturday, April 9th. This coming Saturday the rescheduled $10,000-to-win Icebreaker 125 will roll alongside the Thompson ACT-type Late Models, SK Lite Modifieds and Limited Sportsman. There was feature racing on Saturday.

Starting off feature racing action on Saturday was the first event for the Sunoco Modifieds in 2022. The 30-lap sprint proved coming off Thompson’s Turn 2 straight and true is no easy feat with all four cautions resulting from spins coming off the East corner of the track. Newton, Connecticut’s Stephen Kopcik kept the lead from the initial green before Jon Puleo drove his No.7 to the bottom coming out of Turn 2. Puleo would lose the lead with another bonsai move from Kopick when Stafford Speedway super star Todd Owen started pressuring the duo at the halfway point.

The final caution on lap 26 bunched up the field, leaving Kopick with a rearview mirror full of Owen and fellow standout Mike Christopher, Jr. With Christopher in second, Kopick drove on the defense as the two swapped lanes again and again in the final five laps. Coming down to the checkered flag, Christopher threw one last, desperate shot to the bottom of Turn 4 underneath Kopick, but it was too little, too late. Stephen Kopick would claim the Sunoco Modified’s Icebreaker victory with Wolcott’s Christopher in second and Somers’ Owen in third. Troy Talman and Puleo rounded out the top five. Keith Rocco finished sixth.

In other Saturday action at Thompson, Todd Bertrand was the NEMA Lite winner, DJ Shaw was the PASS Super Late Model winner, Jarred Roy was the Mini Stock winner and Gerard Giordano was the Pro Truck winner.

In NASCAR Cup action at Richmond, Denny Hamlin became first driver over 30 years old to win a NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race in 2022. While younger drivers like Ryan Blaney and William Byron made their statuses known at the .75-mile Virginia short track by combining to lead more than half of the race’s 400 laps, the ending belonged to Hamlin. The 41-year-old Cup Series mainstay passed Byron with five laps remaining after a savvy pit call by crew chief Chris Gabehart to put on fresh tires with 46 to go, while Byron’s team took the risk of trying to maintain the lead while nursing 76-lap older tires to the bitter end.

In Xfinity Series action at Richmond, Ty Gibbs moved John Hunter Nemechek up the track on the final lap and got by to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway. It is Gibbs’ third victory for the season. Gibbs and Nemechek, both driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, dueled for the lead in the final five laps and had contact. On the final lap, Gibbs made contact with the back of Nemechek’s car and dived to his inside.

Nemechek, who finished second, told FS1: “Him and I will settle it Monday. I don’t want to say too much and get myself in trouble. Just kind of drove through. He didn’t even try to make the corner there. Racers never forget, that’s for sure.”

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