JAN IS ‘THE MAN’ IN 57TH ANNUAL SUNOCO RACE OF CHAMPIONS by Jim Blacroch
Leaty Wins at Oswego Once Again
The 57th Sunoco Race of Champions took center stage at the Oswego Speedway (NY) on Saturday afternoon. 50 Modifieds jammed the pit area in anticipation of the event. The format, which was similar to last season’s event, featured time trials for all Modifieds teams with the top-12 from time trials advancing directly into the 200-lap feature. The remainder of the field was set by four qualifying races and two last chance B-Mains.

For Williamson, N.Y.’s, Jan Leaty, it was nearly a perfect day. He qualified well within the top-12, redrew the pole and the scored his second triumph in the annual classic. It was also his second consecutive victory at Oswego.
Jan Leaty in victory lane.  (Paul Cooper Photos courtesy of GATER Racing News)
Leaty’s first win in the Sunoco Race of Champions came at Oswego in 1996 and he followed it up in 1997 with a car owner victory and he finished second to Tony Hirschman, who piloted Leaty’s second car to the victory.

On Saturday night, Leaty used a little different strategy to capture his second victory as a driver in the prestigious event. Leaty, who started on the pole, ultimately, had to hold off Matt Hirschman to capture the victory, but early on he chased Pete Brittain, who racked up over $13,000 in lap money leading the first 133 circuits.

“I wanted to have a good side by side start, but I think I played a little too nicely,” began Leaty. “We had a pretty quick yellow, but I was pressuring him before that yellow and may have got by him, but it didn’t work out that way. I wasn’t just riding behind him either, because of the lap money this event pays. I wanted to get by him, but he was pretty strong.”

Pit strategy is a key to victory in the 200-lap event at Oswego. In years past, it was a
survival of the fittest test and typically the last car to pit for tires made a dramatic drive to the front in the closing laps of the 200. For the past couple of years, pitting at or around the halfway point and utilizing a strong handling car has seemingly been the key and several drivers utilized different strategies on Saturday night, which Leaty used to his advantage.

“Our plan when we started the race was something around halfway, but that changed as strategies played out. Several cars pitted between the cautions on lap 72 and 80,” began Leaty recalling his race strategy. “Then there was another caution on lap 106, but that was too soon. I thought it would be better if they had another hard run on the tires and we got the caution when we needed it, so I started thinking that a caution on lap 140 would be ideal.”

The caution that Leaty was looking for came when young Erik Rudolph made an abrupt right turn and took out himself and Eric Beers as they slammed the outside of the turn two wall. The hit was so violent it actually shook the plywood down from the billboards hanging outside the race track. It was just past lap 130 when this happened.

“Yeah, we were blessed. The caution came out right as we needed it,” explained Leaty. “I was starting to fade a little and the guys that had pitted for tires had several hard runs on them, plus the field was thinned out to. I tried the same exact strategy a few years ago and I didn’t get a caution until too late in the race. This time the caution flew exactly when we needed it and it put me in a position to drive back to the front.”

Leaty’s biggest challenger of the night was Northampton, Pa.’s, Matt Hirschman. Hirschman, who finished second in this race last season, was seeking the big prize once again and he definitely had a fast car.

“If Matt came out of the pits in front of us, then the story would definitely be different,” explained Leaty. “He was fast, but our group, we’ve got such a great group of people, got us out first. It’s pretty incredible to think about, but that was definitely a major contribution to winning this race. We’re a team and we all work that way. I’m really fortunate in that aspect, I’m very thankful.”

Once the race went back to green, Leaty’s concerns were getting to the front, avoiding carnage and keeping Hirschman behind him. All of which were pretty big projects that offered scares at one point or another.

Leaty was able to keep Hirschman at bay, but when Jim Storace, Earl Paules and a lapped car came together, Leaty was looking at things from a different perspective. It was about lap 170.

“I saw it live and just prayed that they didn’t collect me,” Leaty recalled Paules’ move. “Paules tried to make a move to the bottom and push the lap car up into the car on the
outside. I could see the sparks and was off the gas, somehow I got through and if things would have gone differently I could have been in a pileup. When things are going your way, they go your way and that was one of those times.”

Avoiding that incident put Leaty on Wilbur Hebing’s tail. Hebing, who was racking up lap money to the tune of over $5,000, had been in control of the event since Leaty and Hirschman had pitted.

“I didn’t want to give Wilbur any confidence, so I went right to work on him,” Leaty began explaining his pass for the lead. “But he was slipping and sliding and I really didn’t want to hook wheels and crash, or anything of that sort, so I let him settle down and then I went back after him.”

As the duo started the 183rd circuit Hebing slipped his Kenny Troyer owned Chevrolet in turn two, allowing Leaty to put his machine to the outside entering turn three and complete the pass heading into turn one.

“He slipped just enough and it gave me enough room to get my left front to the outside of him in turn three,” explained Leaty. “That’s my deal, it stuck and we got the lead.”

Leaty brought Hirschman with him and the two battled it out over the final dozen laps.

“I saw him coming, but I knew my car was still pretty good,” Leaty offered. “I just kept it on the bottom, if he could go to the outside, then he could have it. He made a couple of cracks at it, but he didn’t have quite enough to get the job done.”
Leaty led Hirschman to the checkers with Hebing coming home third. JR Kent and Chuck Hossfeld rounded out the top five.

Before adding in the lap money, Leaty’s victory was worth $10,000.

“It’s pretty cool to have this place only abut 50 miles from home,” Leaty quipped from victory lane. “I need to thank Sunoco, the Toals, everyone associated with putting this race on. This is a big night for us. The team did a great job all day, all season. This is a pretty special victory for all of us.”

Matt Hirschman of Northampton, Pa., captured the pole award. Paules, Rick Kluth of Hilton, N.Y., Tommy Ferrell of Neptune, N.J., and Woody Pitkat of Stafford Springs, Conn., captured the heat races. Chris Finocchario won the consolation event.

Do you have to be ‘40’ to drive one of these things?
In the Bones Bourcier biography about Richie Evans (titled Richie) there is a chapter titled “You’ve got to be 40 to drive one of these things…”

Jan Leaty is probably a good example of that. On Saturday at Oswego, Leaty exuded that kind of patience, it was almost like watching a teacher show the pupils how it’s done, but Leaty is not the type of drive to take that kind of credit. In fact, he’d probably shy away from it, but he’s been a student of this game for more then 25 years.

He recognizes that it’s the autumn of his career and since mid-Summer he’s been on a streak that most racers never get on. He’s won DART Race of Champions Tour races at Spencer and Oswego, another win at Lancaster and then the Race of Champions itself. If it where a movie, the script would be similar to the feature film, ‘For the Love of the Game’, in which Kevin Costner starred as a Major League pitcher in his final game. Leaty loves Modified racing, even though he doesn’t do as much of it anymore.

“Life changes, your priorities, everything, but that doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy doing it,” explained Leaty standing in the dimly lit Oswego pits following the event. “This has been a very special year, we’ve been very good. We’ve had one other year like this and that was 1989 when I won the NASCAR regional title in their weekly program. On the other hand, I’ve had years where I couldn’t do anything right. So the spectrum can change.”

Leaty spent several years chasing the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour across the country and what most folks never recognized was that he probably traveled the most distance to a high percentage of the New England based races with his team based in the Greater Rochester, New York, area. In that time Leaty captured the Spring Sizzler at Stafford, wins at New Hampshire, Thompson, Flemington and nearly suffered career ending injuries in a qualifying run at New Hampshire. He’s seen it all, but through it all has remained one of the classiest competitors to ever sit behind the wheel of an asphalt modified.

“We’ve been fortunate to be involved with some great people over time,” stated Leaty. “I’m not going to run more races, but I’m not ready to stop. Especially, after a year like this. I really enjoy it. I also enjoy racing with my son, Mike and spending time with my family. Racing is consuming, but there are a lot of other things in life as well.”

Leaty’s son Mike captured the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship at Spencer Speedway this past season.

In 1996, Leaty won the Challenge of Champions event at Flemington and the Race of Champions at Oswego in its first year at ‘The Steel Palace’. It was a controversial time for the event and in an interview article, Leaty was quoted as saying, “it felt good to win both races, it felt good to beat all of the competitors that would have been at one or the other.”

In 1997, Leaty came back with Tony Hirschman driving his second car and they finished one-two in the event with Hirschman winning.

After Saturday night’s win, the question was asked of Leaty as to which victory meant more. It was the typical question with a thoughtful answer.

“In 1996 it was the first time we came here for the Race of Champions,” stated Leaty. “1997 was pretty big too; I mean to finish first and second in this event is pretty cool. That was special, but they always say that your best win is your last, so yeah it’s definitely special. Is it the biggest in my career? I don’t know, there have been some pretty big ones, but with the way the season has gone, this just caps it off. I mean, it’s really been a special season with the way the car has performed.

Leaty continued. “We haven’t torn up any equipment, we’ve just been able to come back to the track unload and go fast. That means a lot. The Race of Champions Tour is as competitive as ever. Take a look around and there are plenty of good cars, so just to be competitive it positive, but to perform like we have it just incredible. We’ve been fortunate and blessed. Everything has just gone our way and it doesn’t happen like this very often, so yeah, I’m going to enjoy it. I’m not done racing yet either, so who knows what other races we might win, but this is the one we always point to.”

Whatever win is the biggest for Leaty; it’s certainly a special win. Since the Sunoco Race of Champions has moved to Oswego Speedway in Central New York only Eric Beers and Tony Hirschman have been able to take the trophy out of the state to Pennsylvania and it so happens that it stayed on the same road, the famous Mud Lane, the two times it left New York, because Hirschman and Beers are neighbors.

So Leaty continues to carry on the great tradition of veteran asphalt Modified drivers from New York that have won the Race of Champions on more then one occasion. He joins the likes of Dutch Hoag, Richie Evans and George Kent as one of the drivers from the Empire State to hoist the famous trophy more than once. (Chuck Hossfeld and Sege Fidanza have also won the event twice).

When the books close on Leaty’s career, which doesn’t seem like it will happen anytime soon, he will certainly be one of the most accomplished asphalt modified racers to come out of the Western New York region.

What else happened? News and Notes from the 57th Annual Sunoco Race of Champions

Matt Hirschman, who finished third, will probably miss the final combination event, which is this weekend at Lancaster Speedway in New York, due to a conflict with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Still Hirschman has racked up an impressive record in this season’s DART Race of Champions Tour events and on Saturday night at Oswego, he finished second for the second straight season.

“Tonight, we just got beat,” offered Hirschman. “I know last year was aggravating to get beat, but this year, Jan just beat us. We might have been a tick quicker than Jan or equal to him, but we followed him all race and just couldn’t get around him. I got outside of him once, when we were running for second, but I got too wide and didn’t want to knock the wall down, so I had to lift. I just needed to get by Jan at some point tonight and I didn’t get it done.”

Wilbur Hebing came home third. He pitted on lap 72, leading several other drivers down pit road at that point.

“It just wouldn’t turn at the end,” grinned Hebing. “I didn’t need any of those late cautions, because the car was actually pretty good, but that last one cost us, because the car wouldn’t turn after that. I really thought I had something before that. It just didn’t work out, but how can I complain. We lead some laps, picked up a great deal of lap money and just lost to two of the best asphalt modified drivers in this division. Finishing third to them isn’t all bad.”

Chuck Hossfeld finished fifth in an oil soaked racecar. JR Kent, who finished fourth had a leak and it definitely showed across Hossfeld’s own machine.

“The leak didn’t help things, but we also had some rack problems,” stated Hossfeld. “It was strange, I’ve replaced the rack a couple of times and it was still strange. I don’t know, we’re going to have to fix it before we get to Lancaster for the US Open.”

Eric Beers was seemingly the only other driver with an opportunity to win the 200-lap event, but young Erik Rudolph had different ideas. Beers, who has been having a year the opposite of Leaty, was on his way around Rudolph when the duo crashed hard in turn two.

“I’d just like to know if he was thinking,” quipped Beers. “I was out there and then he started racing us hard. For a long time, I ran behind him. I could have hit him, I could have done a lot of things, but I raced him with respect, gave him some room, then he just flat crashed us. I really believe we had an opportunity to win the race. I went to the outside and there wasn’t much there, so it changed our strategy. The guys performed a great pitstop and he only took two tires, so he was in front of us and getting looser each lap. I knew I had to pass him and when he started slowing down I thought it was our opportunity. I guess he wasn’t going to be passed.”

The situation was one that nearly looked blatant. Unfortunately, there are only two people who really know what happened. Obviously, Beers was upset following the incident, but it brings back the great debate of the age a competitor should be allowed to compete in a car as potent as an asphalt modified or any ‘true’ racecar for that matter. Rudolph is tremendously talented, but is any 16 year old ready to step up and maintain the maturity and concentration level that it takes to compete in such a grueling event? It is a great debate and in this instance, only a race was lost, but could the consequences be greater the next time? One has to wonder.

Marylin and Don Toal once again contributed great dividends to the event as they collected nearly $24,000 in lap money which was split between Pete Brittain, Hebing and Leaty. Brittain collected nearly $14,000 while leading the race from lap 1-133.

“We had a good car,” reflected ‘Pistol’ Pete Brittain. “I can’t thank Marylin and Don enough, the contribution of all that money is incredible. Terry (Zacharias) gave me a good car and we had a good run. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t get back to the front and we ended up sixth.”

The next and final DART Race of Champions Tour Race is this coming Saturday and Sunday at Lancaster Speedway near Buffalo, New York with the running of the traditional US Open. It has become public knowledge that this could be the final Stock Car Race ever at the ½-mile oval which has been open for over 40-years. Jim Reid the promoter of the facility released a letter to competitors, fans and employees stating the financial situation of the track, looking for a buyer and/or investors, if none are found, the 2008 season looks to be in jeopardy at the challenging speed plant.


RACE REPORT RACE OF CHAMPIONS DART ASPHALT MODIFIED TOUR COMBINATION RACE # 2
57TH SUNOCO RACE OF CHAMPIONS
FINISH

1.Jan Leaty
2.Matt Hirschman
3.Wilbur Hebing
4.JR Kent
5.Chuck Hossfeld
6.Pete Brittain
7.Buck Catalano
8.Billy Putney
9.Daren Scherer
10.Lee Sherwood
11.John Markovic
12.Rick Zacharias
13.Phil Slater
14.Tommy Farrell, III
15.Eddie Hawkins
16.TJ Potrzebowski
17.Larry Fisher
18.Jimmy Zacharias
19.Bobby Holmes
20.Jim Storace
21.Earl Paules
22.Zane Zeiner
23.Eric Beers
24.Erick Rudolph
25.Chris Finocchario
26.John Bennett
27.Rick Kluth
28.Woody Pitkat
29.Tony Hirschman
30.Sege Fidanza
31.Patsy Catalano
32.Rusty Smith
33.Greg Furlong
34.Bill Mislin
35.Bob Reis
36.JR Swansbrough
37.Chris Zacharias
38.Tommy Kinsella
39.Mike Leaty
40.Doug Reaume.

DNQ’S; John Wilbur, Rich Kuiken, Jr., Mark Tychoniewicz, Ken Canestrari, Matt Clemens, Chris Risdale, Andy Szapacs.
LAP LEADERS; Brittain ( 1 – 133 ), Hebing ( 134 – 182 ), J. Leaty ( 183 – 200 )
LAP MONEY WON; Brittain $13, 914, Hebing $5,090, J. Leaty $ 2,750
DART MACHINERY AWARD SET OF HEADS $1,200 VALUE; Brittain
GATER RACING NEWS DRIVER BONUS DRAWING $500; Canestrari
HOOSIER RACING TIRE HARD CHARGER AWARD; Slater ( 38th to 13th )
HOOSIER RACING TIRE HARD LUCK AWARD; T. Hirschman ( 8th to 29th )
GATER RACING NEWS BEST APPEARING CAR & CREW; Hossfeld
AREA AUTO RACING NEWS HARD LUCK AWARD; Tychoniewicz
NEXT RoC DART EVENT – Sunday September 30th – Lancaster Motorsports Park – 100 lap US OPEN - $5,000 to win – Combined Race # 3 – Final Point Show






Leaty (#6) passes JR Kent for the lead.
Leaty (#6) holds off Matt Hirschman for the victory.