During the 2005 season, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour pilots Ted Christopher, Doug Coby and Donny Lia were all in regular Stafford SK rides. Zach Sylvester joined that group late in the season as well. Several SK competitors are also dipping their toes into the Modified Tour pool as well. Eric Berndt, Jeff Malave and Frank Ruocco all entered Tour races in 2005.
There are several reasons that the Tour drivers take the time, effort and money to run Stafford weekly. Ted Christopher has said repeatedly that he just wants to race. Some of the younger guys were just looking to gain experience and exposure.
TRACK HOTSHOES AND TOUR INVADERS MIX IT UP AT STAFFORD by Mike Twist
SK Modified Division Resembles Glory Days of Mod Racing
There once was a simpler time in racing when everything wasn’t about a series or tour. There were plenty of touring racers but they rarely stuck to a mere schedule of 15-20 annual events. If you had a sportsman car, you ran it as often as you could stand for the largest purse you could find. If you were a Modified racer, you did the same thing. Sometimes it even took changing an engine in the track parking lot to turn something that was legal at one track to something that was legal somewhere else.
During this golden age of racing, there were certain facilities that attracted the top names out there. Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway for example was one of several weekly homes for guys like Richie Evans, Bugsy Stevens and Ron Bouchard for many years even though those guys chased national points in NASCAR Modifieds.
Over time, things got more specialized and drivers used the weekly classes as a springboard to go Tour racing. A SK Modified at Stafford is now just a cousin to the machines run on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Yet still, the old days of big names drivers using Stafford as a weekly racing home seem to be making a comeback.
A few familar touring names raced SKs at Stafford this past season. (51 Photos)
“Ted loves to race and I love to race,” said Tour driver Doug Coby. “It’s one of those things where things where the more that you race, the better driver you become. You’re also in the news more and more people notice you. I think that’s why you see people like myself, Donny and Eric race. Ted races more than one car because he can and he loves doing it. I think there’s a little difference there.”
“It’s all for experience, laps and seat time,” said Donny Lia, who drives on the Tour and won a race in the #47 Wisk/Snuggle SK last season at Stafford. “I think it helps you as a driver. It’s giving me more laps at Stafford and that helps me at Stafford.”
Some of the guys racing weekly at Stafford already have one foot in the door of making it to the Modified Tour. A few others aspire to get there and believe that the track is an excellent place to learn their craft.
“I’d like to do something in an SK before I move up,” said 20-year-old Keith Roucco who graduated to the division
The pits were full in the SK Modified division at Stafford in 2005. (51 Photo)
after winning the Sportsman championship at Waterford Speedbowl. “I’m learning about passing. I’m pretty good on the time charts, but passing is another story. This is a good place to learn, but it’s a hard place as well.”
“My goal is to make it full time on the Tour,” said Jeff Malave. “It’s seat time, but I really do it to race. I love racing.”
Unlike the “Busch-Whackers” in the top levels of NASCAR, there isn’t much controversy about the Tour guys running Stafford. More often than not, they actually get beat by the track regulars and everyone seems to enjoy the mixed fields. Christopher and Lia were both players in the title fight at Stafford for most of the season, but the championship was ultimately decided among the weekly regulars as Lloyd Agor held off Todd Owen and Willie Hardie to take the crown.
“Racing with Teddy, Donny, Doug and last year [Chuck] Hossfeld and knowing that you can beat them is a big confidence booster,” said Eric Berndt.
“They are all excellent drivers and we put on good shows,” said Malave. “That’s what brings the fans out.”
“I’ve raced against them years ago on the Tour year ago and financially we can’t do that right now,” said Agor. “They’re the same as we are, they put their pants on and go to work every morning just like we do.”
“I love it,” said Hardee. “I race for the competition and the more competition that comes out, the more that I like it. It says a lot when you beat those guys. They are all real good drivers and it brings up the level for everyone.”
“It’s great competition and that’s why they come here,” said Frank Ruocco. “These are all names that you hear year after year. On any given night, if you have a good racecar, some
Eric Berndt (L) and Stafford Motor Speedway's Matt Buckler. (R). (Howie Hodge Photo)
good luck and you keep your head together, you can beat them.”
The talent pool in the SK Modifieds is deep. Although car counts are only around 20 at any given race this season, the cars that show up every week are good ones. 13 different drivers have won in the division in 2005.
“It takes a lot of the right breaks here to do well and I think that there are probably 12 cars that can win on any given night,” said Coby.
“There probably isn’t a car out here that isn’t top notch,” said Berndt. “Everyone has a good motor and a good chassis. Our practice times show that. Everyone’s times are close, so doing well is a matter of Lady Luck being on your side.”
“You have by far the best competition here,” said Frank Ruocco. “There are 15-18 cars that can win here on any given night. We’re happy to be a part of it.”
Having that many good cars puts driving skills at a premium.
“Everyone’s so equal, that it’s hard to pass out there,” said Keith Ruocco. “You need to have an edge out there and it’s hard to find that edge.”
There are major differences between driving a Tour Modified and a SK.
“This is totally different than the Tour,” said Berndt.
And sometimes that isn’t a good thing. The cars are pretty equal and some races turn into wreckfests. Rough driving penalties are common in the division for example.
“A lot of people won’t agree with me on this, but the problem with an SK is that they are too easy to drive,” said Donny Lia. “You don’t have a lot of power, so you just mash the throttle. Anyone can get in and drive one. If you have a great motor and a good handling car, you can go out there and win under the right circumstances without being a great driver. That’s why it’s so hard to win [because most of the field is capable of winning]. It’s IROC racing. A lot of these guys would get into a Tour car and it would just be too much power for them.”
The SK-type Modifieds also run at two other Connecticut tracks, Waterford Speedbowl and Thompson International Speedway. Those guys who choose to race at Stafford do so for varied reasons.
So are the good old days of racing coming back to Stafford. Is the track once again the place to be on Friday nights if you’re a Modified racer?
“Everybody knew ten years ago that Stafford was the place to be,” said Berndt. “You would get recognized a little bit and further your career.”
“This is just as good, it’s just a different era,” said Malave.
“Everyone who compares the old guys to us say that we couldn’t shine their shoes,” said Coby. “It’s a different era, a different age, different rules, different technology and different cars. They were getting away with a lot more things because nobody knew what they were doing. Things have changed quite a bit.”
And to some, the past is something to be appreciated, but comparing modern day racing to it doesn’t serve much of a practical purpose.
“I wasn’t around then, I have no idea what they were doing,” said Lia. “I like this kind of racing. When you can race hard and it’s not dirty and that’s why I’m here. I just want to do as well as I can every race.”
“This is where I started and it keeps my Grandfather happy,” said Berndt. “This is the racing that he likes and he owns all my cars and pays the bills. He’s been racing and owning cars since the 1960’s.”
“I love Stafford Speedway,” said Frank Ruocco. “My kids love coming here. Friday night in very convenient, they run right through the races “
“It pays $1,800 to win here,” said Coby. “That’s probably the highest weekly feature purse of any track in the Northeast. I don’t care how many cars show up. If they only want to have 20 cars show up, that’s fine with me because I’ll have a better shot at it.”
Tour Guys Moonlighting: The #47 was driven by Donny Lia in 2005 and the #8 had Doug Coby and Zach Sylvester wheel it during the season. (Howie Hodge Photo)