Big-Blocks Finally On Track…The 26th year of racing in Florida for Northeastern Modifieds officially kicked off at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville with a strong turnout of DIRTcar Big-Block teams assembled for the DIRTcar Nationals By University of Northwestern Ohio. Of the 43 cars signing in for the Wednesday lid-lifter, three-quarters of the field were Winter Nationals veterans, with seven past tour point champions and 10 drivers owning feature race victories in gator country. Six stars were among an elite group having more than a dozen Syracuse Super DIRT Week Rite Aid 200 triumphs to highlight their personal list of career accomplishments.
Snow Sidelines Sibling Showdown….The Fortes, Mark Jr. and Ryan, were not among those that made the race day roster. Although each had plans to head south just days before, blizzard conditions that have locked down the Northeast sector of the country forced the Blue Anchor, N.J. brothers to stay home and protect their 25 greenhouses. “If we didn’t stay home and keep the snow off the roofs they would collapse and we’d be out of business,” relayed elder sibling Mark from his residence that same afternoon. While the Fortes were scratched, unexpected arrivals Eric Acquaro from downstate New York and Central New Yorker Willy Decker filled the void to produce the 4th largest car count (tying the 2004 total) in Florida Tour history, with 56 (2006), 46 (2003), 44 (1998) the only higher listings. Accord Speedway regular Acquaro was the lone small-blocker to register, although Decker has been a solid contender in the Big-Block ranks at Brewerton Speedway, capturing the track points crown in 2007.
Modified Pilots Address Media…Top-3 overall 2009 Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar Big-Block drivers Brett Hearn, Matt Sheppard and Jimmy Phelps answered questions in the turn one VSP Hospitality Center prior to hitting the track for their opening act. Hearn responded to questions regarding his future goals, promotional plans and return trip to The Dirt Track @ Charlotte in November. Sheppard talked about personal and team expectations in 2010 after a record-setting campaign last summer while Phelps made remarks about kicking off the season in Florida and what it will take to pass the final hurdle in his career goal of securing his first Mr. DIRTcar title.
Radio Waves Provide Evening Ride For DIRTcar Big-Block Stars…Helping to preview the return of the mighty Big-Block Modifieds to the Sunshine State, registered Florida DIRTcar Nationals drivers Dale Planck from New York and Billy Pauch from New Jersey were lined up to participate in “live” interviews on Tuesday night. The two-hour call-in show aired on local station WNDB Radio featured both Big-Block Modified and Late Model stars, with Planck and Pauch penciled in for a pair of 15-minute sessions. Each were contacted to help fill the on-air void after rain curtailed all trackside activity, marking the third time in the past four trips south that unwanted precipitation cancelled practice day. The Mod Squad was stationed outside the turn four go-cart track early in the week before most relocated Wednesday to a spot adjacent to the notorious gator pond that looms prominently below the backstretch pit area.
Higgins Finds New Home…Relocating to Raleigh, N.C. just one week ago, Central New York open-wheel pilot Chris Higgins from Syracuse is one of the first drivers to declare his presence at the season-ending World Finals, Nov. 4-6. Currently residing with his parents just over two hours east of The Dirt Track @ Charlotte in Concord, Higgins continues his search for a house for himself and girlfriend Theresa while his brother John still lives in New York’s Salt City confines. “We’re hoping to find a way to get some hot laps in at The Dirt Track some time during the summer,” said Higgins, 25, who continues to suffer from a debilitating auto-immune disease. He owns 15 career DIRTcar Sportsman feature wins and finally claimed his first Big-Block victory last May at Can-Am Motorsports Park. “Right now the only definite is the Series opener at Hagerstown in March, after that it will be hit and miss the whole year. We’ll maintain the car at home but maybe even hit a few shows back up north if the schedule allows.”
JB Motorsports Three-peats In Florida…For the third straight winter JB Motorsports will feature a pair of rides for ‘Super Matt’ Sheppard and owner Jeff Brownell’s son Jeff Jr. A staple on the Super DIRTcar Series with a tour-best seven victories last season, Sheppard climbed to within four points of perennial power Brett Hearn on the overall Hoosier Tire-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar points chart in 2009 and is still in search of his first checkered flag in Florida. Scheduled to steer the no. 29 Xtreme Lubricants/Bicknell team car this week, Brownell Jr. turned over the driving chores to fellow New Yorker Vic Coffey after suffering from flu-like symptoms on Wednesday. Coffey qualified for the feature go yet was caught up in the early red flag incident to wind up 25th out of 26 on the final scoresheet. Sheppard crosses the line sixth.
French Quarter…An all-time high total of four Big-Block Modified drivers representing Quebec signed in for the DIRTcar Nationals, with new teammates Mario Clair and Michel Choicoine along with the father/son tandem of Wallace and Dexter Stacey making the haul all the way down to Florida from the Canadian province. 2007 Hoosier-VP Racing Fuels Mr. DIRTcar 358-Modified champ Clair and third-year DIRTcar Modified chauffeur Chicoine will share the GMCI Express garage this season while the Staceys will tour the north country for a number of special events that dot the summer agenda. A long-time friend of Alan Johnson, Wallace offered his #66 Bicknell ride to ‘A.J. Slideways’ in the DCN opener after the patented no. 14J mount developed mechanical problems in warm-ups.