FIRE AWAY - Q&A With Matt Hirschman by Matt "Duke" Kentfield
"Big Money Matt" Responds to Criticism and Looks to the Future
51: Alright Matt, let’s get right to the point. It has been more than a week since Ed Bennett, one of your Whelen Modified Tour car owners, told you after the Thompson World Series event that your driving services were no longer needed with his part of team. What are your feelings about what happened after the race at Thompson?
Hirschman: We went into the day 35 points out of the championship race and it came down to two teams in the last race that had a shot at winning the championship. So it was a big day for our team, even coming out in second. It was a great experience for all involved. We had a battery failure during the race and ended up finishing 25th, but we still finished second in points. We gave up a good finish and it would have been an interesting race until the last lap with the championship at stake.
Matt Hirschman took Ed Bennett's #59 to victory lane at Chemung earlier in 2008. (Jeff Martz Photo)
I was driving one of Wayne Darling’s cars in the race, but after the race, in the pit area, Ed pulled me aside and said he was going to part ways with me and that I did a great job for them, but there were some things he wasn’t happy about and he had other options and other opportunities to do something different. He brought my driver’s seat to the track and told me there. I just think the timing was bad. Considering what kind of day it was for all of us, I don’t think it was the way the day should have ended. He didn’t have to bring my seat to the race track and hand it to me there. But I still accepted it and it was something that I think has been coming. So, it wasn’t a surprise to me. I don’t think it had to be that way, but that was kind of how the day ended there. But, it was Monday when the real drama started.
51: I’m sure you’re talking about that article that came out. An article by Shawn Courchesne of the Hartford Courant had quotes from Ed Bennett about your attitude and your personality. What is your reaction to some of the things that Ed said about you in that article?
Hirschman: Anybody that knows me, and knows Ed for that matter, knows what the truth is and what type of person I am. But I think his motive was beyond that. I think he was trying to hurt my image in the sport in general and hurting any possibilities of moving up to future opportunities. I think that’s really what his motive was. For someone I raced for four years with and someone that I had success with recently, it was a real slap in the face. It was totally uncalled for, the things he said. Whatever his opinion is, that stuff didn’t need to be put out in the open. We could’ve parted our separate ways and that could have been it. He said in his story that I’m about myself and I’m for myself, but I think he basically wanted to draw a lot of attention to himself. With a lot of the stuff he said, I think he should look into the mirror and think about what he said.
Right now, just in this season alone, I have raced for six different teams and I haven’t had a problem with any of them. I’m parting with Ed Bennett’s team, but I’m actually only parting with two people because he has as many racecars as he does crewmembers. The rest of the team, when we raced together, is made up of members of the Darling team and the former members of my father’s #48 team. Out of all those teams and all those people, I really only had a problem with one person and I’m really only parting with two people. It was really made out to be a lot bigger deal than it really was. And it’s unfortunate that it had to be that, or that he wanted it that way. But it really isn’t near as big of a deal as it appears.
He questioned my commitment and stuff like that in the story and let me say this… Ed is a hands-on car owner. He maintains his cars, sets them up and drives the truck and trailer to the track. He makes the commitment financially and from a time-commitment standpoint. But once he gets to the racetrack, he seems to have other priorities. He was deeply involved with the #90 team of Renee Dupuis. During the course of a race weekend, he’d switch it back and forth from my channel to her channel and he was making all of the calls for her team. He spends as much time in her pit as he does mine. So, for him to question commitment or priority on my part, like I said, he really just needs to look in the mirror.
When we first started working together, he was very helpful to my career. That’s the kind of person he is. If he likes you, he can be very helpful and very supportive. But he doesn’t like many people. It got to a point where he no longer liked me and that’s where our friendship disappeared and it became just a racing relationship. It was still one that I still did all my part communicating so we could go there and make sure we had the best possible run that we could. The second-to-last race we ran together was at Chemung. It was an event where I had experience at that track and I gave him all of my information from my experience racing the RoC series. I communicated all of that information to him and we went there and communicated all the information we needed to throughout the course of the day. We swept the whole day. We were the fastest practice lap, we won the pole, we won the heat race and we won the race. Where is there bad communication there?
In addition to Bennett's black #59 cars, Hirschman split time on the Tour driving Wayne Darling's white machines as well. (51 Photo)
51: Have you had any communication with Ed since that article came out to try and clear the air at all?
Hirschman: No, I have no need to ever speak to him again as far as I’m concerned.
51: What about Wayne Darling, the owner of the white cars you raced on the Tour this year? Have you had any conversations with him about that whole deal to find out where he stands on everything?
Hirschman: We have spoken, but we haven’t really talked about that or what our future is going to be. Once the season ends, I need to wait and find out what other things I have going on - see if there is going to be anything further with Gillett Evernham, for example. And then we’ll just have to sit down with them and discuss what is going to be the best option for both of us, but we haven’t discussed that yet.
51: I’m sure you’ve talked a lot with your dad (former NASCAR Whelen Modified Champion Tony Hirschman) and the rest of the family about the situation. Your dad has driven for a lot of different racecar owners through the years. Has he ever seen a situation like this? Has he ever said anything about whether it was him or anyone he raced with in his day, that had a situation fall apart like this and then a team owner kind of going on the attack on a driver like that?
Hirschman: He hasn’t said much, but I know he isn’t happy. He has been around the sport long enough to where he can compare it to some others. But I don’t think he can say that anyone has ever done him as wrong as what I feel Ed did me. But like I said, he’s not happy about it. I think he’s been around long enough to see things like this happen, but I don’t think he has been done that wrong before.
51: In your couple of starts you’ve had with Gillett Evernham in the Camping World Series, has that organization or Ray Evernham himself given you any feedback as far as what your feedback is like and what type of racecar driver you are?
Hirschman: There were a lot of positives that came out of those two runs with them. They were real impressed with my abilities both on and off the race track. They’ve complimented me on how I present myself and how I carry about my business. I worked well with the group. They were happy with my feedback on the cars and they were happy with my ability to race and to race among others. I was taught to show people the same respect that you would want to be given and that includes on the racetrack and off the racetrack and the experience we had with them was nothing but positive. They seemed to really like what they saw in me.
Matt Hirschman scored two strong finishes in the Gillett Evernham #9 Dodge on the Camping World East tour - fourth at New Hampshire and sixth at Dover. (51 Photo)
51: You know what other people, such as the media, the Gillett Evernham organization and others in the Modified circles, say about what kind of racecar driver you are. But what kind of racecar driver does Matt Hirschman think Matt Hirschman is?
Hirschman: If you look at my background, I think you’re looking at one of the most well-rounded people in the sport, especially in Modified racing. I grew up in the sport and got involved as young as I could as a spotter and as a crewmember and eventually I won two championships with my father’s team as a Crew Chief. Now I’m winning races as a driver and winning championships and I also own my own car. So I bring all of that experience and all of that knowledge from all those different views of the sport. I think it shows on the race track when you watch me race. I feel like I know what the right way is and what the wrong thing is just by my experience watching. I think my stats and my accomplishments speak for themselves for the course of just the season and in the past. There is also the respect that you gain from your fellow competitors and I’ve had good relationships with a lot of people. I think you have to look at that along with what you do on the race track.
51: You mentioned the crew chief and the spotter stuff you’ve been doing before you stepped into the fulltime driver role. Was your eye always on driving racecars even when you were working with your dad? Was that always your goal or was there a time when you would have been just happy turning wrenches for your dad or other people?
Hirschman: As a kid growing up, I was asked a question in school, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said I wanted to be a racecar driver. That’s what I always said - the answer I always gave. Even when I was in those different roles, I still was looking at it like, one day that is going to be me out there. All those experiences helped me get where I am today, but I always envisioned the day I was going to be the one behind the wheel. Where we are right now, a lot of those dreams are coming true and a lot of those experiences that I wanted to have are all taking place.
51: Anytime the mainstream racing media mentions what you’re doing, they say you’re a young, up-and-coming kid that’s working his way up there to the big time. Then they mention your dad being a multiple-time Modified champion, but since he never made it to Cup or the Big Three or anything like that, most people outside of the Northeast don’t necessarily know who Tony Hirschman is and how good of a driver he was. Do you feel like you need to make it to Cup and make a name for yourself in one of the top-three series in order to have a successful career, or would you be happy running the short tracks for the next 25 years of your life winning as much as your dad has?
Matt Hirschman (black and purple coat, second from left) helped his dad Tony celebrate his 1995 Tour Championship driving for legendary car owner Len Boehler (front left). (51 Photo)
Hirschman: I never really envisioned or dreamed much beyond the Modified. That’s what my goal always was and what I always dreamed of doing. And now that I’ve gotten to this point where I am now, I would definitely try and make the most of any opportunity I got beyond this. But if it wouldn’t work, I would still be happy. I wouldn’t mind being the next Tony Hirschman, the next Mike Stefanik or the next Ted Christopher. I know to have an opportunity beyond this, the time has to be now or very soon. But I wouldn’t have a problem doing this the rest of my life. That’s what I planned on doing and that’s what I will do if nothing changes.
51: Where do you see 2009 taking you? Have you had many more discussions with the Gillett Evernham people or anything beyond that doing full-fendered racing?
Hirschman: It’s pretty wide open still. The season isn’t over, both at the Modified level and the Gillett Evernham level. As the season closes here, I think things will come together and I’ll know exactly what I’ll be doing next year. With all of the positives that
came out of my runs and my experience with Gillett Evernham, future opportunities or at least something further is very realistic and it’s a real positive feeling going forward with them. But, I don’t know if that will be something that will take me out of the Modified at least for next year. So I think it’s something that’s pretty wide open now, but I don’t think it’s going to be too long before I know exactly where I’m at for next year. I think with all the positives going for me right now, this parting with Ed Bennett is nothing more than a bump in the road and I think we’re going to be fine without him. It’s just a matter of seeing what next year is going to include.
51: It seems like wherever you win, there are always victory lane photos and your dad is there, your mom is there more often than not and sometimes your brother is there. Talk about your family and the support they have given you throughout your career and now that you’re on the verge of doing bigger stuff, how important is it to have that family support with you?
Hirschman: It’s very important. When I was growing up, we always did things as a family. We traveled together and raced together. When it was my dad out there, we won together as a family and we lost together as a family. That’s the kind of support we gave him and that’s the kind of support they’ve given me since I’ve started racing. There are times when we were in different directions when we were both racing and my mom would have to choose who to go with. She would try to go to as many as she could. Then we raced together with the Whelen Tour and now this year my dad hasn’t been racing and he has attended a lot of my races, but not all of them. So they give me a lot of support.
I think the biggest benefit from being a second generation driver is the amount of respect and the good relationships my father has built over the years. That has been the biggest help to me. People always ask me if my father coaches me on the racetrack or if he tells me how to time trial, how to race or how to compete for championships. He really doesn’t. That is the stuff I had to learn more on my own. All those good relationships and the respect he has earned over the years has been a big benefit to me. This situation we have right now is a real disappointment because those that know me and know my family know the real story. But it’s those that don’t that have made it look real bad for all of us. And that’s kind of where the disappointment comes in from the events this past week or two.
Hirschman congratulates Ted Christopher on the hard-fought title battle. (Howie Hodge Photo)
51: You mentioned gaining the respect of the guys out on the racetrack. There’s a picture out there of you congratulating Teddy (Christopher, Whelen Tour Champion) in victory lane at Thompson. Do you feel like you’ve earned the respect from guys like TC and do you consider yourself to have good relationships with most of the drivers on the Tour now?
Hirschman: Yeah. This season I didn’t have one run-in with a single driver on the Whelen Tour all season. Out of the course of the season, I’ve ran over 40 events and I had one on-track incident. Jan Leaty and I tangled going for the lead at a RoC race at Chemung. We had words after the race. I had words for him because I didn’t think it should have happened. That day we got together on the racetrack, but we’ve already gone wheel-to-wheel after that and there was never going to be any payback or anything like that. Just that one day, we had different views on what happened and what should have happened. That kind of stuff is going to happen when you race as many races as I am and as competitive as I am. That’s part of the sport and you’re going to have that.
I try to race people the way I would like them to race me. I’ve raced people like Teddy Christopher, who a lot of people have problems with or don’t feel like you can race with, and Teddy and I like racing against each other. I really just like to race, and for the most part, I pretty much get along with everybody and I also feel that I’ve earned that respect off the racetrack. If you talk to people in the media and just overall, I think I’m well respected in the pit area. From the business standpoint, with our business, I’m working and communicating with racers every day of the week, whether it’s my own teams or customers of mine. I’m working and communicating with people all the time and it’s kind of funny that communication and my lack of input and ideas is something I was criticized for. All I’m ever doing is communicating with people and sharing ideas and input.
51: Someday there is going to be an argument, and I know you and your dad have raced together in the past, but what do you think, if there was a match race between you and your dad in equally prepared cars, who is the better racecar driver right now?
Hirschman: It depends on the time, the place and the situation, but I have enough confidence right now that I would go head to head with him. I’d say in a lot of places right now I could win. We kind of had a little thing, this year. I won all three races at Oswego, but I couldn’t make the Race of Champions, which was the final one. He ended up going there and winning the race. We set his car up the same way we set mine up and he went there and broke the track record. We were like, ‘Well, he has the track record there now,’ but I said, ‘If I was there, I would have topped it again.’ It’s all friendly stuff, but at this point right now, there are a lot of places where I could beat him. It would be a good, clean battle, but I have that confidence that I could beat him. I think he’d even agree that I’d give him more than he would probably want to handle.