Time is On Donny Lia's Side at NHIS by Matt Kentfield and Bob Dillner
Time-Shortened Whelen Mod Tour Race Leaves Some Drivers Ticked
Of course, the vast majority of the race fans who head to Loudon for the Cup weekends are there to watch their Carls, their Jimmies, their Juniors and such, but a very vocal minority will pledge their allegiance to a racing series that has become known even in the Cup garage as being “THE Show” to watch during Cup Weekends at NHIS.
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour has put on such astonishing races at NHIS that even the most tried-and-true Cup die-hards have become fans of the open-wheeled groundpounders at the Magic Mile. Even the NEXTEL Cup crews and drivers can be seen on top of their trailers watching the Modifieds every time they’re on the 1.058-mile track.
However even if the Modifieds put on the best show of the weekend every time they’re at NHIS, they’re still a short-track series that must play second-fiddle to their big brothers on the NASCAR ladder. Sure, Modifieds are great, but they’re not the money-making beasts that the Busch, Truck and Cup Series are.
With plenty of passing everywhere, the Mod Tour race at NHIS is a fan favorite... (Jamie Williams Photo)
Twice every summer, the once sleepy little burg named Loudon, New Hampshire becomes the second-largest city in the Granite State. Fans from across the Northeast and beyond eagerly await the two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup weekends at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, just as they have since the sport’s top series began going there in 1993.
The “Minor League” Modifieds, which took the green flag shortly after 1pm, were banished to a rushed event in order to accommodate the NASCAR Busch Series event which was scheduled to go live on network television at 3pm ET. That gave about a two-hour window in order to get the race in, but with caution flags, it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t going to be enough time to get it all in.
WMT Officials warned the teams that the race could be shortened in order to ensure the Busch race start on time. On lap 74 of the regularly-scheduled 100-lap race on Saturday, word came down from NASCAR that the race was now at the 10-to-go point, meaning the New Hampshire 100 was now going to be the New Hampshire 85.
The call from Mother NASCAR made some drivers like Ted Christopher, who had taken on new tires in previous cautions, even more in a hurry to get to the front. While plenty of teams were forced into a hurry-up offense when the green flag flew; six laps of racing remained, one driver considered it just a continuation of a hot streak that hasn’t cooled a bit over recent weeks.
Donny Lia had the dominant car throughout what some drivers felt was Saturday’s Busch Series undercard event and had to hold off a hard-charging contingent of bustling cars, including Christopher and Eddie Flemke, to score his third-straight WMT victory and fourth in six starts on the year.
“Last year, we were within 10 laps (of winning) each race here,” said Lia. “We were right there in the lead draft with five or six to go. We blew up one race and overheated in the other. Those were both races that we could’ve won.
“I wasn’t thinking about that today, though. I was just focused on what was going on. The way our luck has been going, it’s been like a wave that keeps getting bigger. Hopefully it stays that way. I’m just very fortunate.”
While Lia considered himself fortunate at NHIS on Saturday, Ted Christopher considered himself anything but. Christopher set fast time in qualifying and was running near the front of the field on lap 35 when he brought his #36 to pit road for a change of left-side tires. From there, Christopher thought he would have 65 laps to get up to the front and began steadily working his way back up.
...but a number of spins, wrecks and incidents caused NASCAR officials to cut the event short this time around. (Jamie Williams Photos)
Then, when he got up to seventh, under the caution where NASCAR Officials decided to shorten the race, Christopher got an instant flashback to the most recent WMT event at Thompson Speedway. Christopher was battling through the field to catch Lia at Thompson on June 21st. The race was called shortly after halfway due to rain and negated Christopher’s charge for the lead. At New Hampshire Saturday, it was déjà vu all over again.
“This is two races in a row where you have a real fast car and we get the race cut short,” said Christopher. “Last week it rains a little and they cancel it and this week I’m running seventh with seven laps to go and now I gotta get to the lead. It’s like they tell you, ok, time to flip the idiot switch on and drive like a mad-man to get to the front. I got pretty far, but s--t, I ain’t Superman.”
The green flag was scheduled to drop at NHIS at 1:10pm ET, but actually came out shortly thereafter. Eight cautions for 38 laps slowed the race pace, but some drivers still did not appreciate not being able to run the advertised amount of laps on Saturday.
“I just can’t believe they shortened this race to do driver introductions (for the NASCAR Busch Series race),” said fifth-place finisher Todd Szegedy. “We spend a ton of money to come here and run a full race and to be honest with you; I don’t even care about the TV coverage. We got all these guys that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they do it voluntarily, so we deserve a full race. The only reason why a race should be shortened is if we are past halfway and it rains or is getting dark.
“I felt like I had a car that I could win with and I drove my butt off, but I finished fifth because they called the race. I understand that there’s a lot of power and money in this sport and I guess when the big guys (NASCAR) say this is what we’re doing, I guess that’s what you have to do. I’m speaking for everybody on the Tour, that’s unfair to us.
“I hope they never do it (cut the race short for the same reasons) again because that was wrong,” added Szegedy. “But, do they even care about this division? That’s my question. Let’s ask some of the big guys.”
“All they had to do is start the race a little earlier,” said Jamie Tomaino, who has been in a WMT car since the Tour began running at NHIS in 1990 and is a former champion of the series. “We weren’t doing too much but standing around here. Most of us have been here since Wednesday so an extra half-hour would have helped everyone out. Unfortunately they are the bosses, we’re only the workers and we don’t have too much to say in this situation.”
Even though some drivers weren’t pleased with the way things shook down at the end of the race, it would be hard to doubt the strength of Donny Lia’s Mystic Missile #4 car and team. Lia led 76 of the 85 laps and built up lengthy leads as the field diced it up behind them.
“I was going hard,” said Lia. “Those guys were running in a two-car draft or whatever it was – maybe a three or four car draft. It’s hard to beat that. The only time I’ve seen that and a guy maintain the lead was Teddy a couple of years ago with a car that was unbeaten. To go out there and do that was impressive.
“We were able to get out front and stay there. I know they might have been closing in maybe a car length or so, but it wasn’t much. I may have had maybe a little left, I wasn’t going all-out, but I was going pretty hard.”
Lia’s hot streak on the Tour and dominant performance at NHIS proved something to third-place finisher Eddie Flemke, who took the lead from Lia on lap 81 and battled with Lia and Christopher before Lia made the winning move around him with just three to go.
Donny Lia got to visit victory lane at NHIS for the first time in his career. (Leif Tillotson Photo)
“The best man won here today; Lia is on a roll and you can’t be embarrassed to finish second or third to him,” said Flemke. “He’s paid his dues. I’ve said it all along; he’s a diamond in the rough, but he’s gotten a couple bad raps. He’s been a little rough a couple times, but I’ve always said he’s got what it takes. You take him, add in Bob’s (Garbarino, Lia’s car owner) equipment and he’s always had good equipment, and you got something good. He’s just ready. And then you get a little momentum and look, there’s no stopping him. Lia is the real deal.”
Lia’s third straight win and fourth overall still doesn’t impress second-place finisher Christopher.
“It’s now four races where we have had the best car, but they have won, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. I guess you gotta ride the wave of luck and they got a major amount of luck that’s it.”
When it comes to the major amount of luck, Lia doesn’t disagree.
“I’m no better than any of them (the top-three finishers),” said Lia. “Obviously the car was good and luck is a big factor too. This is unbelievable, I’m on cloud nine.”
No matter what the circumstances of the finish were, Donny Lia’s name is now etched into the record books as a Whelen Modified Tour winner at New Hampshire International Speedway in a race during a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup weekend, which is a fact that he does not take for granted.
“To be able to come out here and run with all the other series at this racetrack, in front of all these fans, is awesome,” said Lia. “This is the most amount of fans we’ll ever race in front of all year by a lot. I’m just happy we can be here doing this. They could make this 50 laps and I’d be happy. It feels like I just won the Daytona 500 or something.”
Lia (#4) and Christopher (#36) battle for the lead. (NASCAR / Hodge Photo)