All through the winter and even up until practice began, everyone in the asphalt Modified community expected that the 2009 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour season would not start without Matt Hirschman being there.
When the green flag waved for the season-opening Icebreaker this past Sunday at Thompson International Speedway (CT), Hirschman was in fact there. But his suit was on a hanger and his helmet was in its bag instead of on his head. Hirschman wasn’t in a racecar when the race began. He was sitting in the grandstands watching through the catchfence.
Hirschman brought his gear to the track. Even asking him if he did bring his helmet and suit was asking a stupid question that you already knew the answer to. But the young Modified upstart, who won over a dozen races in various places last year, did not have a ride for the event.
“You always bring your bag to a racetrack,” said Hirschman. “At this point where I’m at, you always need to be prepared because you never know what can happen over the course of a weekend…or a year…or maybe even for next season. You just have to be prepared for anything.”
Despite being visible in the pit area all weekend, Hirschman didn’t even hear any offers to get back on the Tour anytime soon at Thompson.
“Not really. There was nothing direct that anyone talked to me about doing on the Tour. We’ve got our plan for the year and right now, there is nothing in it about running on the Whelen Modified Tour.
“There weren’t a lot of teams that made changes this year or a lot of drivers who swapped rides. There are only really a few opportunities out there. The economy isn’t helping things either.”
If money wasn’t so tight in the racing world right now, there would be a pretty good chance that Hirschman wouldn’t have been at Thompson for the Modified race anyways. A two-race trial ride with the NASCAR Camping World East Series team of Gillett-Evernham Motorsports resulted in finishes of fourth at New Hampshire and sixth at Dover last fall for Hirschman. It looked like that would lead to a big career move in 2009, but then the recession hit close to home.
“That is what killed the stock car stuff at Gillett-Evernham. I had a good opportunity there and the budgets got cut. People got cut too and I lost what I had going there.”
Hirschman isn’t tossing away the idea of ending up in a racecar down south yet though.
“I haven’t given up on anything. I’m still a racecar driver and I’m going to race. As things turn around, hopefully there is a team that knows what I did and will give me an opportunity. With the Modifieds, (I’m) going to keep going out and winning races. That will keep my name out there and I don’t think that anyone is going to forget about me in Modifieds. As far as the stock cars, I don’t know if things turn around I’ll have a shot or not.”
One might think that being at Thompson would have been agonizing for Hirschman this past weekend. To see the Modifieds racing without being in what might be too hard to watch for many racers, but Hirschman could stomach it. He would have rather been out there, but watching it wasn’t so bad either.
“I just watched the race from the grandstands. Certainly I would like to be out there. But it’s not killing me like a lot of people seem to think it would be. I’ve been coming to the Icebreaker since 1989. I’ve watched it as a kid, crew member and a crew chief. I’ve raced in it, but now I’m just back to observing and that doesn’t bother me. I like to watch the races.”
One incident that happened with Hirschman over the weekend gave him some fresh perspective on the whole situation of not having a ride. On Saturday, there was a very public altercation in the pit area between Hirschman and his former car owner Ed Bennett. It turned heads and reinforced to the young driver that racing at all costs just isn’t worth it for him.
“The situation that I was in isn’t one I miss,” said Hirschman. “I don’t regret not being in a car especially since my former car owner and I had a little incident here on Saturday. He smacked me from behind when I wasn’t expecting it, so I turned around and returned the favor and knocked his glasses off. It got broken up quickly, but I didn’t come here for that. I’ve moved on from last year and things like that look bad for both of us.
“That made me realize that I don’t regret being here without a ride because I could be racing for someone who you don’t want to be racing for. This Modified deal is a family sport. On the teams that run well, you aren’t just friends – you’re like family. I was driving for someone in that situation who wasn’t my friend and wasn’t someone who I really liked. That’s not what this Modified community is about and I don’t need that. I just want to move on.”
Hirschman knows that he has plenty of time left in his own career to move on and find the right opportunity.
“I know that the day will come when I am back out there. I hope it’s a short amount of time, but if it’s not until next year so be it. I’m 26. Teddy [Christopher] won today and he’s over 50. I’m basically half his age and it’s proven that you can win after 50. Teddy does it, [Mike] Stefanik has done it. My Dad [five-time Tour champion Tony Hirschman] won past 50, Reggie [Ruggiero] won past 50 and Jamie [Tomaino] was awesome today and led laps. The sport isn’t going away and I have a lot more time ahead of me than behind me in my career.”
Hirschman’s plan for 2009 involve driving his own #60 Hirschman Speed Modified and the orange J&J Racing #59 Modified on the RoC Asphalt Modified Tour and in as many open shows as he can fit in. Taking one or both of those rides to the NASCAR Tour wasn’t something that was out of the question for this year, but to do that full-time carried a price with it that Hirschman wasn’t prepared to pay.
“There is a little bit to switch around. But there is a possibility that we may do that because I want to run some of these [Tour] races. But I just wasn’t in a position to run this whole series and give up everything I’m doing now. I want to keep doing that and do this. To commit to these 14 races would have taken all of our budget and then some. I already raced in New Smyrna and the Frostbite race [at Orange County Speedway in North Carolina]. I’m sure that I’ll be doing 25-30 races this year and I didn’t want to cut that out. I probably wouldn’t be happy. I don’t want to race once a month. It’s not that I can’t bring a car here. You may see us do that. But it’s that I just don’t want to give too much up to do it.
“I’d like to have a ride here in addition to the two cars that I’m running. That’s why I came here. To represent myself and Hirschman Speed. We’ve got customers who are here racing and it’s always good to be around and talk and just be around. That’s why I was here.”