One Racer Celebrated at Banquet, While Another is Remembered
Usually an end of season banquet is fairly predictable.  People get dressed up, a meal is served, speeches are made and sponsors are thanked.
The parallels between the Hirschman and Baldwin were evident and best described by a touching moment before the banquet even began.  It occurred in the hotel lobby during check-in when Tommy Baldwin, Jr. arrived at the hotel, spied Hirschman and ran over to him.  Baldwin lifted up his shirt and looked to be flashing his friend, but instead revealed the #48 Hirschman T-Shirt that he was wearing to support the champ.

Later, he publicly commented on Hirschman’s role in the sport.

“You will go down as one of the best Modified drivers of all-time,” Baldwin told Hirschman in front of the packed house.

Meanwhile, Tom Baldwin will go down as one of the best Modified personalities ever.  He was voted as the Most Popular Driver for the second year in a row and the room gave his son a standing ovation when he was up to accept the award.  Baldwin was mentioned during countless speeches during the night.  He was remembered for both his wide-open style of racing and his tough exterior, but more so for his big heart and willingness to help his fellow competitors.  His 2004 award was accepted by his son, who remembered hearing about the previous year’s honor for the first time.
While all of that was true for Saturday night’s NASCAR Modified Series banquet at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, there were plenty of surprises in store as well. 

The most significant news of the night were NASCAR’s announcements of a short track purse increase, alignment with the southern-based SMART series, their own version of a North South Shootout, a 2005 schedule and more.  Speed51.com will have more on these changes on Tuesday of this week.  It’s good stuff, but it doesn’t begin to tell the personal stories of a special night.

When it came down to the competitors themselves, many fitting members of the Modified community
“He called me about 15 minutes after walking off the stage last year,” said Baldwin, Jr.  “This was the biggest award that he could ever win.  It was bigger than a championship because you know how my Dad liked to be popular.  This is a great award in his honor and we are going to put it in a brand new trophy case that we are building in his shop.”

Another driver who walked away from the 2003 banquet impressed was Hirschman.  He used this to help motivate him entering the 2004 season.
were honored, but the night largely belonged to two men.  One was on stage and the other, sadly, was not.  Tony Hirschman collected his fourth NASCAR Modified championship and was sitting at the head table of the Mohegan Sun ballroom.  Meanwhile, the late Tom Baldwin was watching from up above as his son Tommy, Jr., who is now a NASCAR Nextel Cup crew chief, accepted the most popular driver award on his behalf.  The elder Baldwin was killed in a late season wreck at Thompson Speedway (CT)
Tom Baldwin, Jr. accepts his father's Most Popular Driver Award.
“They bailed me out a couple years back,” said Hirschman.  “I was ride hopping and those two guys gave me a ride.  I brought them into this series.  I really appreciate how they helped me out when I was in need.  It’s paid off.”

2004 will be noted for a great point battle between Hirschman and Eddie Flemke.  The title fight went down to the last race with Hirschman finishing in the money during the World Series at Thompson while Flemke had trouble in that race.  All year long, the two teams raced with respect and both Hirschman and Flemke acknowledged that during the banquet.  Despite finishing second, Flemke was not disappointed.  After all, it was a career best point finish for him and he won the Thompson 300 as well.
Hirschman collects a unique looking trophy for his championship.

Donny Lia won his Bud Pole Award in only his second full season of racing on the Mod Tour.
The #48 car of Tony Hirschman is on display in the lobby of Mohegan Sun.  It is not a showcar or a back-up car.  The #48 team only used one car all year long and this was it. (Howie and Mary Hodge Photos)

“We didn’t lose this championship,” said Flemke.  “We just didn’t win it – that’s all.”

Another high point of the evening was a touching presentation to Wade Cole as he was honored with the Len Boehler Car Owner award.  The low budget racer only qualified for six events in 2004, but his dedication did not go unnoticed.

“This was a total surprise,” said a speechless Cole.

The banquet’s emcee, Mike Joy was so moved by Cole’s selection that he threw into the mix 200-gallons of free
Sunoco Racing Fuel.  Joy is the co-owner of the Sunoco Race Fuels distributor for New England.

“So many racecars today go down the road in enclosed trailers looking like a load of furniture,” said Joy referring to Cole’s open hauler.  “When kids see your truck going down the road they can see that’s a racecar and that makes a difference in the sport.”
Wade Cole accepts his surprise award in an example of how the underdog sometimes does come out on top.
“We finished fifth last year and we came here to see Todd’s car [2003 champion Todd Szegedy] on display out front and I thought that if I could win one more championship, this would be the place to do it at,” said Hirschman. 

With three championships under his belt at that point, it was definitely something within reach for Hirschman.  But a few years ago, when he was out of a ride, the shot at another championship looked bleak.

Enter a racing family out of New York City.  The Kehley family, led by Bob and Tom, were known for the racecars that they fielded for years at tracks on Long Island and in New Jersey.  They hooked up with Hirschman, found a sponsor in Kamco Supply and joined the touring Modifieds.  Now, they are champions together.
During the course of the banquet, a new race award was conceived and announced for next season.  It was the idea of Tommy Baldwin, Jr. and NASCAR’s Don Hawk and will be in effect when the Tour Modifieds visit Thompson for the April 10th Icebreaker.  It was inspired by the late Tom Baldwin.

“The one thing that my Dad always was, was a hard charger,” said Baldwin, Jr.  “But, I got to looking at the program and there is no hard charger award.  So next year, on behalf of NASCAR, Don Hawk and myself there is going to be a Tom Baldwin Hard Charger Award.  It’s going to be $500 a race and on top of that, I will personally give $500 on behalf of that driver’s name to the Victory Junction Gang for every event.”
Baldwin’s father was a true Modified racer.  He didn’t care about moving up in the sport, just staying where he loved the people and the racing.

“He let everyone know that he was the show,” said Baldwin, Jr.  “He drove his heart out and he loved the series.  I tried always bringing him up.  I tried to get him into a Busch car and he just wouldn’t do it.  He loved the Modified Tour.  I truly believe he died doing what he wanted to do and I’m not ashamed of that.”

Tom Sylvester won the Sportsman Award due in part to lending Doug Coby his team’s back-up car for the first event at New Hampshire.  Coby ran the car from the back of the field to third place before a part broke.  Meanwhile, Coby was named as the Most Improved driver for the Season.  His strong run in Sylvester’s car had to be a contributing factor to that selection, as well as strong runs in cars owned by Don King and Curt Chase.

Another touching presentation was to the husband and wife photography team of Howie and Mary Hodge.  They received the Donna Park and Smiley Waterman awards for their years of recording and preserving images of the Modified Series.

There was no shortage of other winners at the banquet.  Here is a full listing.

2004 NASCAR Modified Series Award Winners

2004 NASCAR Modified Series Champion – Tony Hirschman

Championship Car Owners – Bob and Tom Kehley

Championship Crew Chiefs – Matt Hirschman and Frank Gaspar

Auto Meter Rookie of the Year – Ken Barry

Bud Pole Award Winner –Donny Lia

Most Popular Driver – Tom Baldwin

PowerAde Move of the Race Award –  Jamie Tomaino

Most Improved Driver – Doug Coby

Len Boehler Car Owner Award – Wade and Beth Cole (in memory of Walt Cole)

Sportsmanship Award – Tom Sylvester

Sonny “King” Richards Dedication Awards – Bob Garbarino and Art Barry

Donna Park Award – Mary Hodge

Smiley Waterman Award – Howie Hodge