Mod Tour Sees First Signs of Spring at Thompson Test  by April Barker
New Cars, New Rides and More Come Out to Prep For the Upcoming Season
Todd Szegedy's #2 team had two cars in two different color schemes at the test.  (April Barker Photo)
The Icebreaker, season opener for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, is still over a week away, but drivers and race fans got a sneak peek of the action last weekend as “any safe racecar”[as defined by the tracks’ technical inspectors] had the opportunity to take to the track for the Thompson Speedway’s first open practice of the season.

For the majority of the Modified Tour drivers that showed up on Saturday, this was simply a chance to shake down their car, dust off the cobwebs, and satisfy a need for speed that went unfulfilled over the winter. 

The turnout of Mod Tour regulars was modest, but the pit area was still full of drivers and teams from various divisions looking for a chance to work out any bugs and secure some peace of mind before the Icebreaker and the fast-approaching 2007 racing season.

Many familiar cars lined the pit area, although some had new faces behind the wheel. 

The #4 Mystic Missile hit the track with a new driver in the seat. With Jerry Marquis moving over to the #00 Joe Brady-owned machine in 2007, Donny Lia takes over as pilot of the #4.

Lia said he was tired of pulling double duty as car owner and driver for his own #18 ride, so when the opportunity to drive the #4 came up, everything just “fell into place.”

“I had been wanting to cut back my racing operation for a couple of years now,” said Lia. “I’ve never been able to focus as much as I wanted to on driving.  I was always worrying about a race team and all the responsibilities that come along with running a team.  It’s hard to separate yourself and get in the car and focus on driving.

“There was one conversation after another and at the end of the day, things fell into place and it just worked out.  It should be an excellent opportunity for myself and I’m thankful that it worked out.”

Based on Lia’s reaction to his car’s performance in practice, it sounds like he made a good decision.

“This is probably one of the best racecars I’ve ever had at Thompson, so I’m really excited,” Lia said. “I have all the confidence in the world that we’ll be able to run up front and be able to win races.  I’m really looking forward to the season.”

Reigning Modified Tour champion Mike Stefanik didn’t get much track time, but didn’t seem very concerned.  Problems with his racecar’s throttle kill-switch system kept Stefanik in the pit area for the majority of practice, but he says he feels good about the laps he was eventually able to put down.

“That’s why we came here, to shake out any bugs,” said Stefanik.  “We shook out what we needed to shake out and I think it was typical new car gremlins, but I’m happy with the car.  The motor is really good.  The times are respectable considering what we had.  I’m looking forward to coming back in a couple weeks.”

Dick Houlihan said he also wanted to make sure any mechanical issues were taken care of before the day of the Icebreaker.
“Our main thing was to come here and make sure we didn’t have anything leaking, make sure the transmission worked right and the brakes worked right,” said Houlihan.  “It really wasn’t so much how good the car was, it was just making sure everything electrical was good and everything was running right.  The bonus was the car feels exceptionally good.  It’s just a good peace of mind really.”

Houlihan was in good spirits after practice, even saying his car may be the best he’s ever had for the season opener.

“I’m actually very happy.  I think out of all the times we’ve come here for the Icebreaker, this is probably the best car we’ve had for a practice,” said Houlihan.  “First time out, the car was really pretty much flawless on old tires.  I was really, really happy with it.“

Todd Szegedy made up for the modest showing of Tour regulars by bringing two cars to the track.  The red Wisk/Snuggle machine got the most track time. Szegedy said that’s the car they plan on running in the Icebreaker.  The #2 team also brought their blue car so they could “shake it down and make sure the engine’s running good.”  They’ve also got a third car in their stable this season.  Car owner Michael Smeriglio

Lia got to take his first spin in the Mystic Missile at the test. (April Barker Photo) 
bought Todd Bodine’s #50 Modified that was run at Loudon last September from Don Barker.

The absence of last year’s crew chief Phil Moran is another change for the #2 team.  Moran is down in North Carolina working as a chassis shop foreman for Bill Davis Racing and serving as crew chief for Tim Brown’s Southern Modified Tour effort.  Despite these changes, Szegedy remains confident.

“I think we’ll be good,” Szegedy said.  “We’ve still got a lot of the same core, so I think we’ll be just as good as we ever were….We just want to make some improvements over last year.  We were good everywhere we went last year, but we could have been a little bit better.  So that’s why we’re here today, to make some changes and get the car a little bit better than it was.”

A few drivers admitted to seeking out other ways to fulfill their need for speed over the off-season.

“I’ve been out on my rice rocket getting the need for speed,” said Stefanik. “So I guess (getting back into the car) wasn’t as intimidating as when you sit out all winter and then (your racecar) feels a lot faster.”

Dick Houlihan hasn’t raced since the Fall Final at Stafford last October.

“I’ve been doing a lot of couch racing though and watching all the races on TV,” Houlihan said.  “Once in a while I actually play a video game…Everybody says it’s good for you, so I try it, but it doesn’t work for me. “
Other drivers didn’t realize how much they missed being at the track until they got into their car on Saturday.

“You don’t realize that you miss it until you get in,” said Lia.  “I’ve been pretty busy with other things so I didn’t realize how much I missed it until we fired the motor up this morning and the blood got flowing.”

Todd Szegedy wasn’t worried about what it would feel like to get up to speed again, but he did have some other concerns.

“Once you get back in the car, it’s just like riding a bike.  But you gotta get used to being in the seat…and hopefully shed some weight from the winter so you can fit in it.”
And what about the guys that didn’t show up to practice their cars on Saturday?  Are they at a disadvantage?

“You hope you have a little bit of an advantage, but most of the guys that don’t’ show up, they don’t have to show up,” said Houlihan.  “They’re that good, they really know what’s going on with this division.”

“The guys that aren’t here and the guys that run up front every week, we’re not going to have any advantage (over them),” said Szegedy.  “We’re not necessarily looking for an advantage over anybody else, we’re looking for ourselves, for our tests, making subtle changes to see if we can get better comfort out of the car.  Guys that run good, like Tony (Hirschman) and (Jerry) Marquis and all them guys, they’ll be fast when they come here.”

Those that didn’t come out for last week’s practice- drivers and fans alike- have one more chance to take on Thompson before the Icebreaker.  Thompson Speedway will hold another open practice this Saturday, April 7th.

Mike Stefanik won last year's Icebreaker.  He used the test as a shakedown run for his #16.