The Stafford Motor Speedway kicked off their season with the 42nd annual Carquest Spring Sizzler a few weeks back.
The ‘Sizzler’ is still the most hyped and biggest races of the year for the speedway and many of the competitors on the NASCAR Whelen modified tour who still want their names added to the list of impressive drivers who have won, one of modifieds racing most prestigious events and oldest races.
The race started in 1972 when racers Dick Berggren, Bruce Cohen and Lou Boyd promoted a race to raise money for their own race team with big bucks and a short distance bringing out the best drivers from across the country.
Past winners include modified legends, Richie Evans, Maynard Troyer, Reggie Ruggiero, Mike Stefanik, Mike Ewanitsko, Fred DeSarro, Eddie Flemke, Sr, Tony Hirschman, Jerry Marquis and Ted Christopher.
When the green flag flew on this year’s edition a total of 26 cars took the starting field. The purse was for a field of 33 starting cars.
Something is sadly wrong with this scene. When the modified tour started in 1985, it was a schedule of races scattered throughout the northeast, with several races south of the Mason-Dixie line.
The idea was to put together a series of high paying races with a set schedule to determine the NASCAR National modified champion.
The day before the Sizzler, I posted on Facebook, “26 cars for the Spring Sizzler. What a shame. What has happened to the tour I covered for so many years?”
I received an avalanche of responses including one from Bruce Cohen, one of the original trio. Bruce wrote, “As one of the original founders of the Sizzler, this is very sad.”
Now, a lot has changed from the first Sizzler to today. At first, it was an open competition race of just 80 laps which was later changed to 100 laps and then the current 200 laps.
Unfortunately, the purses decreased as the laps increased. The Sizzler then became a part of the modified tour and only cars running the tour would enter and compete.
Less than 10 years ago, the Sizzler and other modified tour events were averaging near 50 cars per event. What happened? Well, the economy continues to stink and many sponsors that were part of the tour have disappeared as their advertising money shrank.
I spoke with Mario Fiore, 2001 modified tour car owners champion and he told me that when they had Gulf Oil as a sponsor back in the early 90’s, he received $150,000 from Gulf and that they also received various parts, brakes, shocks and wheels from various product sponsors without paying. He also said he had two full time employees working on the car and after paying the driver his percentage of the winnings, it was a wash.
Tony Hirschman, III, the son of five time modified tour champion, Tony and past Sizzler winner, said “Guests on the Speedway Line Report (a local auto racing show on WATR 1320) were voicing concerns about the direction of the tour for a long time. From (poor) officiating to flash races (short races-shorter purses) to spec motors. Little by little, we lost great teams and drivers. The purse would continue to decease and the expenses continue to rise.” Tony, III, is now the spotter for Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch.
Phil Smith, a writer for Area Auto Racing News and racing historian said the cost of the engines, tires, fuel and traveling cost have driven out the backyard racer.
Many have placed the blame squarely on NASCAR, the sanctioning body for the modified tour. Many have said the lack of television time has hampered companies that would sponsor a car IF it was on television more than twice or three times a year.
Yet NASCAR continues to say that everything is fine with the modified tour. Clearly, everything is not fine and at the current rate, once the most popular touring divisions in the northeast will be just a footnote in the NASCAR record books.
This is the same division that gave Jimmy Spencer and Brett Bodine their rise to the Sprint cup series. It is the division that sent Mike McLaughlin, Jeff Fuller and others to a career in the now Nationwide series.
Zack Sylvester, a former driver says ‘It’s NASCAR and their bright ideas.”
NASCAR’s schedule for the modifieds in 2013 is 14 races with 8 races in Connecticut. Four at Stafford, three at the Thompson Speedway and one at the Waterford Speedbowl.
That leaves 3 high paying (and national televised races), 2 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and one at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.
Throw in 2 races at Riverhead Raceway on Long Island and one event at the Monadnock Speedway in southern New Hampshire and that’s it. Years ago, the tour schedule was a minimum of 20 plus races.
The traveling is nowhere near what it was 20 years and even compared to 10 years ago but the teams, and importantly, the fans are leaving.
Now while the Whelen modified tour numbers are down, there is another modified racing series. It is called the Valenti modified racing series.
Where the modified tour has generally been known as having the best drivers and teams, now many of these same drivers are competing on the VMRS.
While the purses for the Valenti series are smaller than the tour, their events are one day races compared to many two day events for the tour. No added expenses such as hotel rooms.
The licensing fee for the drivers and crews are much, much lower for the VMRS compared to the NASCAR tour.
Throw in the Race of Champions circuit in New York and Pennsylvania and the modified division as a whole is strong but one must be concerned with the health of the Whelen modified tour because from this seat, it’s like watching the dinosaurs dying and that to me is a shame.
Everyone in the media has been writing about the demise of the modified tour and generally even teams still supporting the tour acknowledge that something must be done to save the oldest form of race cars under the NASCAR sanction.
If NASCAR doesn’t care, who should?
Brian Danko has been covering Auto Racing for over 30 years for various magazines & and racing papers including Area Auto Racing News. His weekly column can be seen "In The Print Editions" of The New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.
Copyright © 2012-2013 Brian Danko & SpeedwayLineReport.com, New Britain Herald & The Bristol Press.