The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is a racing series steeped in history. Whether you trace its roots to the beaches of Daytona in 1948, or the paved banks of Thompson, Conn., in 1985, there is plenty of history and tradition to go around. The present-day incarnation of that tradition will be on full display as the Tour heads to Thompson International Speedway to crown the 2009 champion.
The World Series of Speedway Racing presented by Xtra Mart – the finale for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour’s 25th season – will see two of the most notable teams in the history of the New England Modified racing battling for the trophy. Donny Lia, pilot of the No. 4 “Mystic Missile” Dodge owned by Bob Garbarino, will take a 26-point lead on Ryan Preece, driver of the No. 3 “Ole Blue” Chevrolet, of the famed Boehler family.
“It’s pretty cool – this being the 25th season [of the Tour] – and the two longest running teams going for the championship,” Preece said. “It just goes to show you that experience helps a lot to contend for a championship.”
The only two Modifieds that carry a nickname, the Nos. 4 and 3 have been around longer than any other teams. Garbarino fielded his first “Mystic Missile” in 1961, nearly a quarter of a century before the present-day Whelen Modified Tour was founded. “Ole Blue” dates back even further as legendary car owner and builder Len Boehler founded the team in 1957.
Garbarino’s dedication to NASCAR Modified racing through the decades was finally paid off in 2007 when Lia delivered the longtime owner his first championship. The No. 4 has featured a host of notable drivers in the seat through the years, but the pairing of Lia with the team in 2007 resulted in the perfect combination to bring home the trophy. Garbarino, who was recently selected as a 2010 inductee for the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame, has only the utmost respect for the No. 3 team.
“We’ve been parking alongside of them for a long, long time, and anything that’s in my truck they can have, and I think that goes the other way too,” Garbarino said. “I’m happy for them – I’m glad that they’re in the running for this whole deal.”
Garbarino reasoned that because the teams have been so close through the years, it will be tough for one to leave Thompson disappointed.
“I almost wish it was any other car in the pit area [in championship contention],” Garbarino said. “I consider those guys all good friends – and this won’t change the friendship at all – but somebody’s going to win and somebody’s not going to win.”
Now in their sixth decade of Modified competition, Boehler Racing Enterprises continues to be a stalwart. The cars built by Boehler – a 2004 NEAR Hall of Fame inductee – produced NASCAR Modified national championships in 1967-69 with Bugs Stevens behind the wheel. “Ole Blue” earned another three-peat in the mid-1990s as Wayne Anderson (1994) and Tony Hirschman (1995-96) captured the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour titles. And while Len passed away in 2001, his widow, Jan, and son, Michael, have sustained the family tradition.
Like Garbarino, BRE President and Manager Michael Boehler has mutual respect for the competition.
“Bob and his wife Joan are great, great people – they’re first class,” Boehler said. “They’re always the first ones there to lend a hand if something goes wrong. They’re positive, encouraging people, and they’ve given their life to the sport like we have. There’s not many of those families left that do that, so it’s just great that it’s the “Mystic Missile” against “Ole Blue” [for the title].”
The significance of the two teams competing for the title is not lost on the drivers either, even though they are only in the second year with the respective teams.
Following his win at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway on Oct. 4, Lia acknowledged the history of the two cars that will battle for the 2009 championship.
“The 3 car and the 4 car – they’ve been around forever – and are a big part of Modified history,” Lia said. “So for me, whether I was driving the car or not, I think it’s pretty cool that those two cars are going for it.”
While Lia is already part of – and will look to add to – the history of the “Mystic Missile,” the 18-year-old Preece is just in his second year behind the wheel of “Ole Blue,” and his third year of NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour racing overall.
“I’m really happy that the 3 car is where they are, and that we’re going for the championship together,” Lia said. “He’s a good kid, and he’s got a great future ahead of him. Hopefully we can hang on and win it, but if they do, that’s pretty cool.”
The young Preece is well-versed in Modified history. His grandfather – Bob Judkins – was a longtime Modified car owner.
Lia can clinch his second Whelen Modified Tour crown by finishing fifth or better at Thompson, but with Preece just 26 points out, there are a number of scenarios that will make every lap important in the season finale.
The World Series of Speedway Racing presented by Xtra Mart will commence with practice and qualifying for the Whelen Modified Tour on Saturday, Oct. 17. The 150-lap race is set to go green on Sunday, Oct. 18 at approximately 3:30 p.m.