MODIFIED TOUR LEFTOVERS: STAFFORD by Mike Twist and Denise DuPont
A Win Well-Deserved, Restart Mayhem, Career Best Finishes and Much, Much More
A VICTORY FIT FOR A KING
Not only, was James Civali’s victory at Stafford Motor Speedway the first of his own NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour career, it was also the first victory for his car owner Don King.
King’s immaculate #28 cars have been a staple on the Tour for the past several seasons. He’s given young drivers like Civali, Doug Coby, Tyler Haydt and Jamie Asklar a chance in his cars and after several times of coming close to victory lane, he finally got the chance to go there with Civali.
The victory was very popular.
“If anyone in this whole pit area deserved a win, it was Don King,” said fellow competitor Eddie Flemke, a longtime friend of King’s.
“My hat’s off to Civali and Don King,” said John Blewett,
III. “They’ve been in need of a win for awhile.”
King was enjoying the fruits of his labor after the race.
“Don was ecstatic,” said Civali. “He’s been trying to win one for a long time. Now we got it for him.”
“I can’t even describe what this feels like,” said King. “It’s incredible. It has been a lot of years coming. With all of these rookie drivers, it’s been tough to win. I don’t even expect to win. But I know that I’ve got a driver now who can definitely win.”
King was also quick to deflect accolades to his young driver, instead of himself.
“He’s turned himself around,” said King of Civali. “I give him a lot of credit. He’s a good kid and he’s done a good job.”
BARRY A HAPPY RUNNER-UP
Ken Barry has had his share of bad luck in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour over his three seasons there as a driver. He came within one corner of winning a race at Wall during his rookie season, but has seen run after run end prematurely due to bad luck. At Stafford though, he excelled when the bad luck bug bit several other drivers. Barry finished a career-best second.
Don King's #28 team stand in victory lane at Stafford. (Hodge Photo)
guys wrecked on lap 60 our plan was to pit at lap 100 if a caution came out. But luckily, we did not need it. We had a good car tonight. A little bit tight at the end.”
One thing that Barry didn’t even try to do was to hold up a charging Reggie Ruggiero as the laps clicked down. When Ruggiero passed Barry to go after race winner James Civali, he didn’t put up much of fight. However, Barry was rewarded when Ruggiero spun himself out on the final lap.
“We pulled over,” said Barry. “What would you do if you have “The Reg” coming behind you with fresh tires and there are 30 laps to go at Stafford? I was not going to hold him up.”
Finishing strong wasn’t just good for Barry as a driver. It was also good for the Barry family as car builders. Ken grew up as the son of legendary car builder and owner Art Barry. The father and son combination build cars under the Spafco banner to this day.
“We’re a chassis builder, but as far as I’m concerned, we build our stuff from scratch,” said Ken Barry. “We’re one of a few on the Tour building our stuff and when you run well you always feel good about that.”
RESTART LOGJAM LEADS TO BIG WRECK, UNHAPPY DRIVERS
Up until lap 72, Tony Hirschman led every lap of the race at Stafford. In fact, he was having a close-to-perfect day up to that point – he set fast time, redrew the pole position and checked out on the field early. James Civali, Zach Sylvester and John Blewett, III were in hot pursuit just before halfway however.
The #16 team pits at Stafford. (Jim DuPont Photo)
John Blewett, III won the July Modified Tour race at Stafford and earned his first SK Modified win at the track within the past few weeks. After qualifying back in 21st this time around at Stafford, he was just hoping to be able to survive long enough to make it towards the front.
Blewett did that, but then got caught up in the big restart wreck. However, he wasn’t running with the squirrels of the race when that happened – he was right among the leaders.
“It was frustrating,” said Blewett. “I was worried about where we started. I knew that we were in an area where we didn’t belong. That’s where all of the problems usually happen. But it turned out that nothing happened until we got up front with the good cars. It’s hard to swallow when you go from 21st to third and you end up against the fence. We had a good car. It was good enough to go all the way without pitting. We had a car that could have won tonight and I thought that we could have tried to get another here. But I can’t blame anybody, I haven’t seen a replay. It’s just tough to swallow when you work that hard to get what you got.”
CIVALI WINS – FOR REAL THIS TIME
Although James Civali won his first Modified Tour race at Stafford, it was not the first time that he has been to victory lane in the series. Originally, Civali was scored the winner of the July race at New Hampshire International Speedway. But when the caution came out on the last lap and the scoring was rechecked, the victory has handed to John Blewett, III about 15 minutes after Civali enjoyed the spoils of victory.
But on a lap 72 restart, all hell broke loose. Hirschman was coming around for the green when his #48 was all of a sudden headed straight into the frontstretch wall. Blewett went up and over Hirschman’s car and 10 other racers were involved – including Jamie Tomaino, Ted Christopher, Jimmy Blewett, Eddie Flemke and Dick Houlihan. A red flag came out and although everyone checked out okay, their cars were heavily damaged.
But just what happened? That is a good question.
“I don’t really know what happened,” said John Blewett, III – the driver who possibly had the best view of things as they developed. “The #28 [Civali] jumped the start. The #48 [Hirschman] didn’t go and he clearly did. They threw the green anyways. I don’t know if Tony lit his tires up or got hit from behind. From my vantage point, all that I saw was him coming the wrong direction in front of me.”
“I was the leader,” said Hirschman. “I’m supposed to start the race – not the guy on the outside. He was forging ahead like he was starting the race and I wasn’t ready to go. He was going ahead and I was getting pushed from behind. They tell you to start coming out of turn four and we weren’t even close to that point. He was surging ahead and I don’t know, I got lifted up and turned. The thing went like a top, turned right and crossed in front of everybody.
“Tony held off on the gas like he did not want to go yet so he checked up,” said Ken Barry, who was also in the thick of things. “Then I checked up. Then he started to hit the gas so I started to hit the gas. Then he lifted up again or he spun the tires. He started off twice and the second time was the end where the whole field all piled up.”
“I was laying back about a wheel,” said Civali. “When we got to where we restart the race, we were still rolling. The guys in back of me starting bumping me and wanted to go. So I started to pick up the pace and Hirschman also started to go. But I had a little bit of a run because I was getting pushed. I was ahead, so Hirschman stopped. I lifted and the guy behind me lifted because I didn’t get hit. Then Hirschman took off.
“I think that he might have got in the gas too hard when I lifted and he spun the tires. He either did that, wiggled or got hit drilled from behind. It was just one of those things where we were just jockeying a little bit and things went bad.”
JUST WHEN BLEWETT THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE…
Tony Hirschman's #48 gets turned after a restart with the #28 of James Civali. John Blewett's #66 goes up and over and other cars get collected in the mess. (Howie Hodge Photo Sequence)
James Civali (Hodge Photo)
After NHIS, Civali was gracious in defeat.
“After not winning Loudon even though we were leading with a couple of laps to go, it didn’t really matter,” said Civali. “We ran fantastic there for our first time and we knew that as well as we have been running all year that we might get one. You just have to get one when you can get one. You can’t try and go out there to win every week. Everything needs to be right. When you end up leading with 50 to go, you start to think that it might be your night. But when it breaks, it’s just one of those things.”
James Civali’s first “real” career win at the Stafford came after holding off one of the Modified Tour legends, Reggie Ruggiero – and it wasn’t easy.
“We’ve been running pretty well for the last four weeks,” said Barry. “We just haven’t had anything to show for it due to bad luck, a screw-up on my part or something like that. We finally got everything put together in the right order.
“Hopefully, this is a turning point and it gets ride of some of this bad luck – with crank triggers breaking and things like that. Stuff like that gets old.”
Stafford wasn’t all about luck for Barry and his #21 team though. The right pit strategy and some heads-up driver put him in where he finished.
“We planned on pitting at lap 60, and then the car was good so we decided to ride it out. When Tony and those
Ken Barry's #21 races with the Reg's #41. (Jim DuPont Photo)
“It was a top 10,” said Flemke. “We went backwards in the points, but that’s okay. Mike [Stefanik] got a good jump now, but second through eighth is very close. It’s going to be interesting. It has been an interesting year and a good year for the tour.”
The combination of a wreckfest in the first half of the race and the great competition for the win over the final 50 laps, was definitely something that Flemke noticed.
“This was an ugly night. But you’re going to have them. It was a good race though.”
James Civali crossed the finish line as the real winner this time out. (Howie Hodge Photo)
“I knew he was a little better than me and he was catching me pretty quick. Our car was starting to go away at the end it got a little frayed. I tried to get away but I knew that he was coming. I just tried to hold him off. I thought that I could hold him off and make him use his tires up. And I think that I did. “
The two cars weaved through lap traffic as they quickly lapped the field of cars.
“You come up on lap track so fast; they do not know exactly which way to go. I just had to keep going. I could not lift. We got a win and that is what Don King, the car owner, wanted this season.”
Civali was so busy driving his racecar, he didn’t even have time to keep track of his laps.
“I never knew it was the last lap. I saw Reggie spin and I was holding on going by lap cars. I am really tired. That was a long race. After the caution, I was running that rails to get ahead as far as I could.
“I had tried to make him work real hard and I think that he burned the rear tires right off trying to run me on the outside. I saw him stick his nose underneath me which I was worried about. I saw lapped cars coming up. I knew I had to pull my car up even with him in the turns or it was over. So I tried to hold him on the outside. I did not know if he hit the gas too hard trying to come underneath me or if he just lost something. We never touched. I figured that he might try to push me up if he could not make it, but he did not. He never hit me. He ran me clean.’
How does a young driver hold off a veteran like Ruggiero, while also conserving his own tires?
“When you are in front you can take control and make them try to make moved to go underneath you and go hard on the outside. When you are in front you can somewhat keep you car solid and not go sideways. At thirty to go it was like I have to hold this guy off for 30 laps. It is impossible. I knew I was going to have to make him work for it to hold him off. There was no time for any emotions. During the last 15 laps I was just driving. I did not even know that the checker was coming out until I drove right by it. I never saw two to go. I never saw one to go. Reggie ran me clean. He never drove in
Kirk Alexander's #71. (Jim DuPont Photo)
me to turn me out of the way. When he got on the other side of me I just ran him as hard as I could. The guy is coming too fast there is no way that I can hold him off. He was coming up on them so fast I just keep him out on the outside.
“Reggie’s car was a lot better then mine. I knew if I held him to the outside he could not get in front of me. I still cannot believe it!”
VICTORY EARNS PRAISE FROM SOME LONG TIMERS
James Civali’s victory didn’t just earn the hearts of the fans, it also earned the respect of a few longtime Tour personalities – veteran driver Eddie Flemke and veteran promoter Ben Dodge.
“He might as well have won Loudon,” said Flemke. “So basically he’s won two races in his rookie year – one for real. They ought to be proud.”
“This type of close competitive racing is what the modified sport was founded on,” said Dodge. “A couple of seasons back some folks counted out James Civali saying that he was a little bit too aggressive. He was not focused when he should be focused. But Civali proved at Stafford and NHIS that he has a ton of talent and he is going to win a ton of races. He has done it here at Stafford.”
In 2005, Civali caught heat for over-aggressive driving on a few occasions. He was even suspended by NASCAR after a major incident with Dave Dion in a Busch North event at Stafford. The young man has rebounded from that graceful and has driven like a seasoned veteran this year.
“A lot of people say that he needed to pay his dues, but I think that he has,” said Flemke. “I don’t think that he was anywhere near as bad as people made him out to be last year. The players involved made a difference. It was like good cop and bad cop. If he had done that to Kelly Moore [a Busch North driver with a reputation for being aggressive himself], it would have been bad but not as bad because it would have been a black hat vs. a black hat. Where it was Dion [a fan favorite in Busch North/Busch East], come on. We can all say that we don’t do that [judge], but if someone tangles with a guy that you like, it’s hard to be objective.”
A PODIUM FINISH FOR PASTERAK
It’s hard to say whether Chris Pasteryak was more excited or relived after finishing third at Stafford. The rookie driver avoided trouble on a night when most veterans couldn’t, and he finished a career best (to date) third in the feature.
“I’ve relived that I wasn’t in any of the wrecks that happened right in front of me,” said Pasteryak. “I’ve got a nice car to bring to Thompson now. To finally have a decent run in a Tour car is great. I knew that we were kind of capable of it if we could get the right strategy together. To have it happen makes for a good night.”
Chris Pasteryak in the #5. (Jim DuPont Photo)
Avoiding the wrecks around him wasn’t easy, but it did help ensure a good finish.
“It’s tough when you are driving, you ride around and feel like you are just a load out there. But to have all four wheels on it and finish in the top five. That’s a good night.”
Stafford is said to be one of the toughest tracks for a young driver to master, but Pasteryak has adapted pretty quickly to the tricky oval – even with no previous experience there as a driver.
“I never ran here weekly. A good run at Thompson will make me even happier. I’ve always struggled there, but I’ve taken to this place a little quicker.”
Pasteryak wasn’t just the driver of his #5 ride either – he was also key in setting the car up for the race.
“I set the car up tonight and made sure I gave it what it needed. We climbed to eleventh in the Spring Sizzler and the fuel line broke off which was my fault. Last time here I did not free up the car enough for time trials. Tonight I just made sure that I gave the car what it needed.”
ALEXANDER JUST WANTS TO RACE
Kirk Alexander is the two-time defending champion of the True Value Modified Racing Series. He drives the #43 car there and also runs a partial NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour schedule with the #71 ride.
Alexander has been absent from TVMRS competition in the past few weeks though. After a wreck at Monadnock, his team sat out the Beech Ridge event, as well as the Star Speedway race that was held on the night after Stafford.
“The [#43] car is not quite done yet. We are waiting for parts. We are not going to make it to Star.”
But Alexander was happy nevertheless. He just wants to race and competing at Stafford filled that need for speed.
“I like to race so it does not matter what race it is,” said Alexander before strapping in at Stafford. “I feel comfortable and I have a good car. It should be real good.
“We qualified 19th tonight in the field of 26. The track tonight feels really decent. Not too slick. It is only a little tricky here. You go out and you practice and you want to have a good car. There are only time trials so it is a little different. Everybody was struggling tonight. There were a couple of fast cars in practice that are starting behind us even.”
Alexander was one of several drivers to get caught a Stafford wreck. The he had engine problems. He ended up finishing 18th.
TOP 10 FINISH FOR FLEMKE
Eddie Flemke survived to finish seventh at Stafford. It was a respectable finish, but not a good night in the points for the driver of the #10 Modified.
AT THE TRACK, REG IS A RACER AND NOT A CAR BUILDER
Reggie Ruggiero is partners with Eddie Flemke in Raceworks – the shop that built James Civali’s winning car for Stafford.
But it was Ruggiero the racer, and not the car builder, who battled with Civali over the final 50 laps of the race. In fact, Ruggiero didn’t even think about the fact that he was running wheel-to-wheel with one of his creations.
“Nah, I was just trying to win the race,” said Ruggiero.
STEFANIK HAS A GOOD POINTS NIGHT
Fifth-place meant a good points night for Mike Stefanik. With seven races to go in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season, Stefanik now enjoys a 101-marker margin over second-place points man Ted Christopher.
That’s not to say that Stefanik and his #16 team were satisfied with their finish though.
“It really was [a good point night],” said Stefanik. “We just really weren’t that thrilled with our car through the whole feature. We just fought an understeer condition. It wouldn’t cut good and we never could get it to drive right today. It wasn’t from a lack of effort. I’ve got a great team, they worked hard and we had a great pit stop. But I just couldn’t do anything with it. We had good track position, but I just couldn’t pass anybody. So I missed the wrecks and brought it home fifth.
“You’re going to have nights like this. We aren’t happy
with fifth and I don’t want anyone to think that we are, but some of the points guys had tough nights tonight and we finished. We’re just going to keep working on our own program and race our car, that’s all that we can do.”
FIRST TOP FIVE FOR MATT HIRSCHMAN
Three of the top four finishers at Thompson were rookies, which was somewhat ironic considering that most veterans somehow managed to find trouble to get into during the 150-lap race.
Matt Hirschman was one of those young drivers who showed maturity beyond his years. Then again, he’s a Hirschman so it shouldn’t have been any surprise that he ran a smart race, avoided the mayhem and earned his best career Modified Tour finis - a fourth.
“We had a couple of close calls,” said Hirschman. “In the big wrecks in the middle of turns three and four, I steered so many different directions that I’m not sure myself how I got through there. We kept it clean and that’s what we need to do.
“This is my first top five and the first one for this team also. It’s good to get that top five. We’ve been close
and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do over the past couple of races, but things just haven’t got our way.”
Conversional wisdom might say that Stafford would not be the place for Hirschman to post his first top five run. After all, it’s a tricky place where he had never raced before joining the Mod Tour. But the Pennsylvanian took right to the track – pretty much instantly.
“Stafford’s been good to me this year. We’ve had three top 10s in three races. My Dad always told me that this has been one of the toughest places to get a handle on, but we’ve run pretty well. I like it.”
THE REG MAKES MOST OF A LIMITED SCHEDULE
Before the race, and before his battle for the victory with James Civali, Speed51.com, had a chance to speak to Reggie Ruggiero, who brought us up to speed on how his racing has been going lately. The hard-nosed racer and fan favorite from Connecticut has been running most of the Modified Tour events in 2006, but has taken a few shows off with his Dick Barney #41 team.
“The car has been going good,” said Ruggiero. “We have not had any mechanical problems. We are not in the hunt for the points so we decided not to run the last three races. Waterford got rained out and we did not go to Riverhead and Holland. Starting off today the car is real fast. We will see what happens. It took a couple of years for us to get going together and now things are going good.”
Reg ran well in the time trials clocking in with the fourth best lap. After the eight-car redraw he started close to his time position in the 16th annual 150 New England Dodge Dealer race at the Stafford ½ mile track.
“We are starting fifth tonight. We had a fast race car so all we have to do is finish the race.”
Reggie survived the many caution laps and was able to come to the front and show the fans that the modified cars still provides one of the best shows in racing.
The #41 team plans to attend most of the future tour races this season.
“We will be going to Martinsville and most of the tracks except for Waterford.”
At NHIS Modified Tour race in July Reggie run was good in the #41 car, but a final lap caution period kept The Reg to a finish of third and out of a possible last-lap fight for the victory.
“I really wanted that race to end under green,” lamented Ruggiero. “We needed that extra lap.”
THOSE WHO LOADED UP EARLY
Qualifying for a NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Stafford is tough. Cars come out of the woodwork to enter the event and with only 31 starting positions available, there are always some worthy teams loading up early.
This time around, those drivers were Stafford SK Modified regulars Eric Berndt and Frank Ruocco along with Tour competitors Wade Cole, Danny Sammons, Carl Pasteryak, Joseph Hartmann, Dennis Charette, Glen Tyler, Jake Marosz and Roy Seidell, Jr.
OWEN TOPS “21” FIELD
Todd Owen won Stafford’s SK Modified “21 means 21” race on Friday. Owen took the lead after battling with Jeff Malave and Woody Pitkat early on.
As Owen won the event, veteran Modified personality Ben Dodge told the young man’s story.
“Todd Owen went to Riverside Park to race when he was 15 years old and said this is what I want to do,” said Dodge. “This is just the beginning for him. The paddock area is full of Whelen Modified owners that are looking for the next hot gun or top shoe and Todd Owen has that
written all over his fire suit. Reliable is just the beginning of the story for Todd Owen.
Tenacious Todd Owen showed some powerful moves through the 21 means 21 event.
“We had a bad right front during the heat race,” said Owen. “The car just would not go. We put last week’s old tires on and wanted to keep them on for the feature. All the top guys had tough starts tonight. We just wanted to have a good finish in both of the races we are in tonight. “
In the history of the speedway, there has only been one driver to win both the preliminary “21 means 21” race and the feature race for the SK. When Todd was asked if he could match the accomplishment of Todd Szegedy from a few years back, he said:
“Hats off to Todd. That is an awesome accomplishment. Maybe with the same first name you never know. I would just like to have a good night. And bring the car home with all the wheels turning.”
Owen barely had enough time to breathe after his win. As soon as the ceremonies in victory lane completed, he jumped into the #90 late model car for the 30 lap feature. He started fourth in the event and was contending for the lead spot throughout the race. Owen finished the Late Model race in fourth position.
CANNONBALL MAKES SPLASH IN SKs
The forty lap SK race this week ended in a green-white-checker situation after a caution occurred in lap on lap thirty-eight and it was Kenny “The Cannonball” Horton who was blasted into victory lane.
Horton made a pass with his #19 in the last lap to take the win over Chris Jones.
“Chris Jones is a great driver,” said Horton. “We were up there touching each other a few times. He touched me to get by for the lead and we went bumper to bumper for me to get by him. Teddy [Christopher] was out there also. What a great race.”
“Earlier in the season, I told [friend and fellow competitor] Frank Ruocco that the next time I win, I quit I am retiring. I can’t do this any more there is too much stress. There is more stress here then there is in business.”
So was that a retirement statement? Hardly.
“No I am not retiring,” said Horton. “I am racing the tour race right after this. Billy the kid you do a great job and great power. Thanks to Junior Wood my crew chief and my whole crew.” Horton reclaimed the lead after the restart in the last lap.
Jones finished second after leading the race up to the caution.
“We got together at the end but no one got hurt,” said Jones. “That is good clean racing. I am really happy with my car. It came up just a little but short tonight. It was a little bit tight. We were just one spot short tonight.”
Ted Christopher finished third after competing for the lead before the last caution.
“I had a good plan to get Chris down in turn three, because he was pushing up there,” said Christopher. But the caution came out and there goes my strategy.”
After the race there was contact between Christopher and Bo Gunning. When TC was asked on what happened he said: “That typical Bo, right?
Last week’s SK winner, John Blewett, finished ninth.
Eddie Flemke (Howie Hodge Photo)
The #59 of Matt Hirschman. (Hodge Photo)
The #9 team of Jake Marosz loads up early. (51 Photo)