Commentary

Star Speedway’s SBM 125 VI: Modified Night In America

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Saturday afternoon, an hour east of Des Moines, Iowa, a Modified driver from Connecticut drove the race of his life. Ryan Preece had two races to show what he could do with a top-notch race car. He finished second to teammate Kyle Busch in the first one. And in the second, Preece dominated, leading 141 of 254 laps on his way to victory on a televised national stage.

Star Speedway, 7/29/17 (Jeff Brown Photo)

Andy Seuss (70) battles Steve Masse (13) in qualifying heats for the SBM 125 VI.

Twelve hundred miles east in Epping, New Hampshire, Preece’s peers took a break from heat races to crowd around a television in the back of a hauler. They watched their fellow competitor wheel a race car to an emotional victory. And then, well out of range of television cameras, they went back to work, preparing for their own race later that evening.

The race at hand was the SBM 125 at Star Speedway. Conceived as an open-competition feature for Tour-type small-block Modifieds, the SBM 125 features drivers from NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour, New England’s Valenti Modified Racing Series and EXIT Realty Modified Touring Series, the Race of Champions circuit in New York and Pennsylvania, and from the weekly ranks at local short tracks. In essence, it is Modified racing’s all-star event, a battleground for the best to showcase their skills.

If Ryan Preece had not been in Iowa, he would have been here.

In five previous SBM 125s, two drivers have split the spoils. Jon McKennedy, a local who cut his racing teeth at Star, won the inaugural event and the 2014 running. The other three races went to Northampton, Pennsylvania’s Matt Hirschman, dubbed “Big Money Matt” for his penchant for winning high-stakes events. The second-generation Hirschman entered this year’s SBM 125 on a streak of such victories, including a Wednesday win in the previous Tri-Track event at Seekonk Speedway.

Star Speedway, 7/29/17 (Jeff Brown Photo)

Matt Hirschman (60) could only break the top ten by halfway in the SBM 125.

McKennedy was missing from the night’s entry list. With a solid position in the ISMA Supermodified points standings, the Chelmsford, Massachusetts driver headed to Ohio, missing his first SBM 125 since the event’s inception. Among the thirty-two entries were NWMT veterans Woody Pitkat and Rowan Pennink, VMRS point leaders Anthony Nocella and Jeff Gallup, MTS standouts Steve Masse and Chris Pasteryak, RoC stars Hirschman and Andy Jankowiak, and teenager Dillon Steuer, whose father Chuck towed from Long Island to compete in the first SBM 125.

To win his fourth SBM 125, though, Hirschman would have to climb from fourteenth on the starting grid. Steve Masse brought the 27-car field to the green and took off, looking positively dominant over the first green-flag stretch of the event. Masse’s only serious competition came from Richard Savary, with Todd Annarummo, NASCAR Modified star Woody Pitkat and Chris Pasteryak rounding out the top-five. Hirschman had looked merely average, hovering just inside the top-ten and calling for major adjustments to his #60.

Star Speedway, 7/29/17 (Jeff Brown Photo)

Hirschman leads Pennink in the closing laps.

A caution on lap 73 allowed nearly the entire field to pit for adjustments. Matt Galko was the only lead-lap car not to pit, and behind him the field was jumbled: Pasteryak exited the pits in second, followed by Annarummo and Hirschman. Masse and Savary would restart outside the top-five.

Through a series of incidents and restarts, Hirschman worked his way past Annarummo, then Pasteryak, finally clearing Galko to take the race lead. Rowan Pennink climbed to second, but as the laps wound down he could not run down “Big Money Matt.” After running mid-pack for the first half, Hirschman was untouchable in the final 23-lap run, cruising to his fourth SBM 125 victory. Pennink held on for second over former Star Modified regular Josh Cantara, VMRS star Anthony Nocella, and NASCAR Modified veteran Woody Pitkat.

Star Speedway, 7/29/17 (Jeff Brown Photo)

Matt Hirschman and family celebrate on Star Speedway’s frontstretch.

Hirschman’s fourth SBM 125 trophy was his second straight Tri-Track Open Modified Series victory, his second straight SBM 125, and his seventh straight win behind the wheel of a Modified. So far, it has been a banner year for the driver who has spent the last several years chasing trophies over titles.

Perhaps more importantly, the night was another great evening for the SBM 125.

The SBM 125 was born in 2011, when Tour-type Modifieds were a weekly mainstay at Star Speedway. For track owner and promoter Bobby Webber, Jr., it was an opportunity to create a new marquée event for a track that was still rebuilding after a few challenging years. Not only was it a throwback to the days of big-purse open-competition events, but it was a celebration of the track’s own Modified stars along with those who turned out to compete. That it was won by home-track star Jon McKennedy was rather fitting.

Star Speedway, 7/29/17 (Jeff Brown Photo)

Les Hinckley III (06) faces a challenge from Josh Cantara (71ME). Cantara, a former Star Speedway regular, finished a solid third.

With the devoted promotion of Webber and Kevin Rice, the SBM 125 returned as an annual event. As car counts rose from year to year, so did the profile of the drivers involved. Weekly competitors like McKennedy and Josh Cantara were going wheel-to-wheel with Mike Stefanik and Ted Christopher. Additional interest came from Modified superfan Jim Schaefer, the “Long Island Mod Maniac.” Not only was the SBM 125 a throwback in format, but it became a celebration of Modified racing, with tributes over the years to departed Modified heroes like car owner Chuck Montville and photographer Howie Hodge.

Since then, the SBM 125 has become part of the larger Tri-Track Open Modified Series, which extended the spirit of the original event to include high-stakes open-comp events at nearby Lee USA Speedway and Massachusetts’ Seekonk Speedway. Even after a one-year hiatus in 2015, even with the loss of the Lee event and the addition of races at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut, the SBM 125 has remained the series’ main event.

While short-track racing has its season-long championships, in many ways it is truly defined by the marquée events: the Oxford 250, the Snowball Derby, the All-American 400. They are particularly special within their own circles, but they draw interest from outside, and most drivers would gladly trade a track title or a season championship for that big race trophy. While Modified racing in New England still has its notable events, most are dates on the NASCAR schedule, points races toward a greater goal. The SBM 125 is not that. It is a marquée event all its own.

And Saturday night’s race, an all-star race under the lights on the eve of a Modified star’s coming-out party in Iowa, had a great feeling about it.

Call it Modified Night In America.

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About Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional late-model touring series.

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