NASCAR MOD TOUR BANQUET FULL OF EXCITEMENT       By Matthew Dillner and Denise Dupont
Tour Champ Lia Joins Modified Greats On Stage & More
15 NASCAR Modified Champions together on stage during the 2007 Awards Banquet. (GETTY IMAGES)
LIA JOINS NASCAR LEGENDS ON THE MAIN STAGE

Donny Lia stood on stage to accept his Champions trophy, but before the presentation he shared the stage with some of racing’s great.  Lia shared the stage with several of Modified Champs from NASCAR’s past who were invited to the celebration by NASCAR . It just made the banquet night even more special for the 60th NASCAR Modified Champion and everyone in attendance.

“For me it’s surreal. I never thought my name would be on the same trophy or in the record books with all of the names on there. From Bobby Allison, Bugsy Stevens, Richie Evans and Jerry Cook. I’ve said it before and will say it again I have never considered myself a driver that would rank with those guys. To be a part of this and have my name on the trophy and be up there on stage with them is absolutely surreal.

“Meeting Bugsy Stevens and Bobby Allison and just getting to talk with those guys and guys like Jerry Cook was a great experience. Especially Bugsy Stevens, he’s a character and a half. Talking to Bobby Allison about Davey was also very special.

“It’s another experience that is something I will never-ever forget. Hopefully it’s not the only time I get to experience it. It’s just an awesome feeling to be a part of that. It makes you feel real good about what we accomplished this year as a team on the Modified Tour. They really make you feel like you accomplished something when you are up there.”
GARBARINO SPEAKS HIGHLY OF HIS CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVER

At times Donny Lia has been brash on-track. He has often been mis-understood off of the track as well.  Bob Garbarino admitted that when he first talked to Lia about getting into his racecar, he told Donny that ‘there were times he didn’t want him anywhere near his car.’  It’s amazing how much difference a year can make as the combination, thought by some to be an odd couple, gelled in amazing fashion bringing home the 2007 Mod Tour title.

Garbarino took the time to explain to all of those in attendance what he thought about his young driver.

“I saw someone who is very caring and concerned about what other people think about him,” said Garbarino of Lia.  “The emotional side I think was that he has been just so happy for everyone and not just Donny Lia. He was so happy that he could do something to make all these other guys happy. Ultimately, he’s a big part of that. He could have let these guys down in 16-races this year but he didn’t. He’s a very caring guy and wasn’t going to let that happen.
Donny Lia and Bob Garbarino pose for a picture with their 2007 Championship Hardware.  (51 Photo)
“He is very respectful with a lot of us that are older and have been around for a while. He’s the kind of kid that if he needs help I am going to help him whether it’s in that yellow car or anything else.

A lot of people said they saw ‘a new Donny Lia’ this year. I say you didn’t see a new Donny Lia, you saw the ‘real Donny Lia.”

NEW NAME BUT SAME PLAN FOR MODS AT NEW HAMPSHIRE

There is a lot of work to do for the staff at the track formerly known as New Hampshire International Speedway. Now that Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc have purchased the facility from the Bahre family, the “Magic Mile” will now be known as “New Hampshire Motor Speedway”. Head of Public Relations Fred Neergaard, who attended both banquets with some of the track's staff, admitted they had a lot of work to do but promised that the Modifieds and Busch East Series are going to remain a big part of NHMS.

“They are going to be the same as they have always been and probably be added to as years go down the road,” said Neergaard while in attendance for both the Mod Tour and Busch East banquets. 

Neergaard wants fans of the track to know that although there is a lot of change on the horizon, it’s all for the best for the facility and for the divisions it hosts.

“One thing I want to clear up is that Bob Bahre is not leaving the speedway. He is going to be with us as a consultant.  Everyone knows Jerry Gappens’ (new track GM) love for open-wheel racing. He started with Chris Economaki. He’s been a racer himself and a pit reporter. He has a love of the sport and knows where it’s based. He wants to see guys like Donny Lia and others come race at his facility. Austin Dillon won at his dirt track down in Charlotte so he’s excited to see him coming up to New Hampshire with the East Series next year.
Track officials say that the Modifieds and Busch East will continue to be an important part of racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Jamie Williams Photo)
“We have a responsibility that when the Touring series come to our track that we give them the spotlight that they deserve and really get fans excited to go see them at tracks like Stafford, Thompson, Waterford or any tracks that the Modifieds or East Series run. We want fans to go to the local tracks and support them. Without those local tracks we don’t have racing.”

A GOOD POINT FROM A WISE CHAMPIONSHIP OWNER

When asked how it felt to finally win a NASCAR Modified Championship after 46-years of trying, Bob Garbarino politely replied making a very valid point.

“I don’t think the time is the issue,” said Garbarino. “To me it’s about the people you do it with. I know I’ve been doing it a long time but it wasn’t like I spent 46-years winning a championship. I spent 16-races winning a championship.”

MODIFIED LEGENDS MAKE BANQUET A MEMORABLE ONE

When NASCAR asked all of the living Modified Champions to attend this year’s banquet, the Mod world was a buzz.  During the cocktail reception you could hear that buzz, as driver like Ernie Gahan, Mike McLaughlin, Bugsy Stevens, Jerry Cook and Bobby Allison joined more recent Tour winners like Todd Szegedy, Mike Stefanik, Jerry Marquis and Tony Hirschman.  The champions were a hit as they were introduced by Mike Joy and joined NASCAR’s 60th Modified Champion, Donny Lia, on the main stage.

Ernie Gahan, a New England racing legend, began his racing career in 1948 in his home state of New Hampshire. Ernie won over 300 feature races at over 60 race tracks from Canada to Florida during his twenty-eight years of racing.

Gahan had numerous track championships and, in 1966, the NASCAR Modified National Championship. He is noted most often racing and winning in the popular Stoney’s Diner red and white #50 coupes.”

“It is great just being here! It is nice to see some of the older guys,” said Gahan.  “We made a lot of friends. I would like to think that we made more friends then enemies. We all got a long. Nobody to this day really had any real disagreements or hated anybody. Cookie (Jerry Cook) and I had disagreements to start with but it was all water over the dam soon. That was the way that it was then. We had some real good times.”

Before joining NASCAR's major leagues, Jeff Fuller won the 1992 Winston Modified Tour championship, driving for Sheba Racing in the #8 Sunoco sponsored car.

“It feels great to be around all these past champions,” said Fuller.  “Whelen had the idea to do this and I think it was a fantastic idea since Modifieds are NASCAR’s oldest division. It has been a long time coming.”
Champions gathered are, top row from left, Mike Stefanik, Rick Fuller, Jerry Marquis, Wayne Anderson, Jamie Tomaino; Middle row from left, Jack Choquette, Bobby Allison, Donny Lia, Bugs Stevens and Tony Hirschman; Bottom row from left, Ernie Gahan, Jerry Cook, Mike McLaughlin, Jeff Fuller and Todd Szegedy.
Jeff’s brother Rick won the 1993 NASCAR Modified Tour title and was in awe of the gathering of Mod greats.
“It’s amazing how big this series has become,” said Fuller. “It is a really awesome seeing some of the guys in this room. Ten of the guys in this room represent twenty-five to thirty of the sixty years of Championships. It is amazing. How many did Mike Stefanik win? Bobby Allison is here. I just look around the room and think to myself, holy cow I am a part of it!”

Mike McLaughlin won the 1988 Tour Championship.  Nicknamed "Magic Shoes", McLaughlin was a perennial fan favorite, winning Most Popular Driver awards in 1992, 1993 and 1997. 

“I look back at the thirty plus years that I raced and overall the Modified Series and that point in my life was the best,” said McLaughlin.  “I had a lot of fun. It was just grass root, hard racing. But the money was not there for a lot of full time people, so everybody did it as a hobby.  We were serious about what we were doing. There was a lot of heart back then. Today it is big business. The higher you go the more money that is involved and big business it is”

Three-time NASCAR Cup Champion Bobby Allison took the Modified crown in 1962 and called those times some of the best of his life.

“This is really special for me,” said Allison of being at the Modified celebration.  “I was a champion at NASCAR Modified Series a lot of years ago, but it was important to me. And it always has been important to me. I feel really honored to be asked to be here.”

When Bobby Allison started racing each person worked on their own car. Bobby designed and built his cars from the ground up which generally does not happen today. 
Bobby Allison walks across the stage to a big round of applause.
“During 1959 I invented a split spring suspension for Modifieds and made room for quick changes. The new suspension provided us with lighter cars and better handling. There wasn't a large team that consisted of engine builders, chassis builders, aerodynamics engineers, etc.; there was only the man behind the wheel. The only help one would get would be either from relatives are friends in the racing business.”

RINGS ALL AROUND

The v4-Bunch are going to have heavier hands this week. Bob Garbarino ordered championship rings for all the members of the 2007 Championship team. Unfortunately, the rings didn’t make it on time for the Awards banquet. The veteran car owner said that he will be giving them to the guy this week.

“I really wanted to give everyone championship rings,” said Bob.  “Some of my guys don’t wear any jewelry. But when they look at it, tomorrow or five years from now, they can still feel that pride in accomplishment that they felt tonight. That ring will have their name on it and it signifies the 2007 championship.”
BUGSY STEVENS CONTINUES TO BE “THE SHOW”

If you grew up in Modified racing and had the chance to watch Carl “Bugsy” Stevens in his hay-day, you knew that he was much more than just a great racer. “The Bugman” was a character that thrilled fans on the track and entertained them off of it. 

Bugsy showed up the 2007 NASCAR Mod banquet a little-older and less agile than his racing days, but his sense of humor and whit has surely not faded with age. When introduced during the awards banquet, he strutted across the stage, evoking laughs and cheers from the Modified crowd.

Year ending banquets always provide plenty of fun and partying for drivers and teams, but Bugsy pointed out that the party-atmosphere at the track has changed in racing over the years.

“We were all hell-raisers,” said Bugsy of the way it used to be.  “We all enjoyed what we did. We all lived it and loved it and we loved the fans. It was our life. Today they don’t have the little camaraderie that we had. The guys now, they go to the racetrack in a big fancy truck and they go home after the race. We used to sit there and party with each other and raise hell and race the next night.”

RECORD-LONG SPEECH?

Long winded but sincere. Some in attendance joked that Donny Lia’s championship acceptance speech was one of the longest they had heard at a Mod Tour banquet.  Lia was both comical and emotional, but very reflective in a speech that touched on nearly everyone involved in his team and helping him get to where he is today. 
“I was just dreadin’ that speech,” laughed Lia.  “It probably looked like it too. I know I went pretty long but there were a lot of people I wanted to take time to thank. Now we will go and party and celebrate this championship and have a great time. It’s going to be great tonight.”

OTHER WHELEN MOD TOUR BANQUET NOTES

NASCAR Announced that the new spec engine, recently tested by Mike Stefanik and Todd Szegedy will be available as an option for the 2008 season.
Whelen announced it is extending its title sponsorship of both the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and Whelen Southern Tour through the year 2016.

Whelen decided to also do something special for Championship car owner Bob Garbarino.  Instead of the customary championship owner trophy, Whelen went ahead and gave the veteran car owner a duplicate of the newly designed champion’s trophy.

The Carey and Coffey ESPN Radio show broadcast live from outside the Uncas Ballroom giving several Tour drivers a chance to do intereviews before receiving their honors.

Richard Savary won the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for 2008.

Mike Stefanik, a six-time Modified champion took the POWERade Power Move of the Race Award.

Ted Christopher grabbed the Featherlite Driver Improvement Award.

Todd Szegedy picked up the trophy for finishing second in the championship standings, and Matt Hirschman received the third-place driver’s trophy. Szegedy was named the Most Popular Driver.

The Boehler Family was honored with the Dedication Award; Eric Sanderson received the Len Boehler Car Owner Award; Joe and Linda Brady were presented with the Whelen Modified Tour Women’s Auxiliary Award; Engine builder Bob Bruneau was honored with the Sportsmanship Award; and Ronnie Silk was honored with the Driver Achievement Award.

The Tour will hit two new stops this year, New York’s Spencer Speedway and Chemung Speedway have been added to the list of races in the Tour’s 2008 schedule.


Carl "Bugsy" Stevens strutted across the stage to entertain the crowd.
(Above) The Mystic Missile on display at Mohegan (51 Photo) / (Below) The Boehler family accepts the Dedication Award. (Rick Ibsen Photo)