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   The Chrome Horn - NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour




It is a 31-mile drive from Stafford, Conn., straight across the state to the town of Thompson. From there, it's a 53-mile virtual straight shot down I-395 to the Waterford, along the Connecticut shoreline. Heading back to Stafford? That'll run 52 to miles to the northwest, back into the heart of what is clearly demarcated as “Modified Country.”

On a map, it's an upside-down acute triangle that perfectly cradles the epicenter of the NASCAR Modified universe.

One-half of the drivers entered in last weekend's CARQUEST Tech-Net Spring Sizzler for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour call The Nutmeg State home. Nearly all of the others come from the area a stone's throw across the sound to Long Island.

Eight of the 14 races on the Tour's schedule this season are in Connecticut in 2013. Two others? Yup, you guessed it. On Long Island.

It is an embarrassment of riches in terms of dedication, talent and passion among a relatively small slice of the American racing life.

“There's this idea among all of us that if you took the Top-7 or Top-8 Modified drivers in the Northeast and put us in a Nationwide (Series) car or a (Camping World) Truck, we'd do well,” said 2012 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby of Milford, Conn. “That's a chip we all share together. We all have different personalities, different ages and different styles, but we all feel that coming from the Modifieds and being the Modified champion really proves something. The Modified champion beat some really good drivers to be there.”

Statistics don't paint the entire picture of Modified racing.

NASCAR Asphalt Modifieds – the Tour and SK-type – are an anomaly in the stock-car racing world. They compete almost exclusively in southern New England and the Long Island region of New York, with a small pocket of them tucked away in the Carolinas. Drive just two hours north of Connecticut, and there are fans that – hard as it is to believe – aren't even sure what a Modified is.

They're low-slug, open-wheeled, 700-horsepower machines. In truth, they haven't evolved all that much from their early heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly when compared to how Late Models, Super Late Models or NASCAR K&N Pro Series cars have.

Then again, the cars themselves – while unlike anything else circling short tracks – aren't even what makes Modified racing so important to Connecticut and the outlying region.

The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour drew thousands for a standing-room only crowd to Stafford Motor Speedway last weekend, which is not unusual for the Tour at Stafford, Thompson International Speedway or Waterford Speedbowl.

When there isn't a Tour race, it's not as though there's a lack of Modified racing. Thompson, Stafford and Waterford each run a weekly NASCAR Whelen All-American Series SK Modified division on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, respectively, all season long. Fans, drivers and teams flock from one track to the next like a rolling summer caravan of Modified racing.

Seven Whelen Modified Tour drivers have full-time rides in the SK Modified division at Stafford this season.

“In southern New England, the fabric of racing is Modified racing. It's always about Modified racing,” said Shawn Courchesne, the founder of RaceDayCT.com, a website devoted almost entirely to Modifieds at the weekly and touring level in Connecticut.

“Everybody ends up in Modifieds at some point. It's the pinnacle here,” Courchesne said. “It's where they all want to be. Even now, some people would say the SK Modifieds have become as important as the full-blown Tour Modifieds to the fabric of it.”

In 2010, the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion came from the Modified ranks. Keith Rocco piled up gaudy statistics while running all three Connecticut short tracks en route to the title that year – and he's finished inside the Top-3 in the national standings in each of the last four seasons.

Like many Modified drivers of today, he grew up watching his father race the open-wheels an era ago.

“The competition level in the SK division is the big thing – at Stafford, there are 12 cars that can win every night, and I'm in it for the competition,” said Rocco, of Wallingford, Conn. “They're easy to work on, they're fun to drive, and having three tracks in Connecticut with close to the same rules is huge.”

To most observers, once you're a Modified driver, you're always a Modified driver. Mike Stefanik, for example, has nine career NASCAR championships – including back-to-back K&N Pro Series titles in the late 1990s – and made a run at the Camping World Truck Series. Still, he's a Modified driver. Ted Christopher has wins in virtually every kind of race car in the northeast – Modified, K&N Pro Series, Super Late Model, midget and Supermodified cars – but he's still a Modified driver.

Even Coby, the reigning Tour champion, didn't always see himself as a Modified guy. His father raced Modifieds at Stafford and Riverside Park in Agawam, Mass., but he retired not long after NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans’ fatal accident at Martinsville Speedway in 1985.

Coby's father , viewing the cars as too dangerous, vowed his son would never drive a Modified. So the younger Coby went Late Model and then Pro Stock racing at Stafford, winning the track's Pro Stock championship in 2000. Stafford eliminated the Pro Stock division following that season, and Coby had two options.

Raise enough money for a NASCAR K&N Pro Series ride... Or run a Modified.

“Modifieds are way more fun to drive,” Coby said. “We're more fortunate here in Connecticut to have cars that we get to race weekly that are actually fun to drive. You're not going to find too many guys that leave Modifieds and drive Late Models or Pro Stocks and say, 'Wow, these Pro Stocks are great.' It's just not going to happen.”

“The way Modifieds are, they are made to be raced, made to be run hard,” Rocco said. “Honestly, have you ever seen a Modified race where there wasn't a lot of passing and a lot of action? That's one thing about Modifieds that nobody can criticize.”

Because its participants and followers are so rabid about their race cars of choice, the fraternity is a tightly-knit one.

To those that storm the Connecticut tracks each week, there really is only one division that matters. Late Model drivers at Waterford Speedbowl – who are eligible to race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the big stage of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekends at the track each September in a Late Model invitational – often lament that fact that nobody seems to notice them.

“It's such a microcosm of racing, there's a certain type of respect around it,” Courchesne said. “It's very small in its scope in society, and I think guys appreciate that. It's a small family, and they feel like they have to take care of that family. It's a very unique situation.

“You can use the analogy that they're 'like family,' but even when they are family, they don't get out of each other's way. Ted (Christopher's) battles with his twin brother Mike on the track at Stafford were legendary. Even to some extent, Jeff and Keith Rocco were the same when Jeff started racing weekly at Waterford. Jeff's a kid who has been behind his brother's racing efforts his entire life, but when it came to competition between the two of them, he wouldn't give his brother an inch.”

It's most likely because in Modified racing, there's a code. That code – which is well-known in that 800-square-mile Connecticut triangle, despite never having been written down anywhere – is that Modified racing is not about points, championships or even winning.

It's about racing. Lap after lap after lap, no matter who it is or where you are on the track.

“In the other series, it can come down to who has best technology or the best connection to a Cup team,” Coby said. “Here, nobody is cheating, because NASCAR would find out or because we'd all find out. We're such a close group and we talk. You put Bobby (Santos), Keith (Rocco) or Ryan (Preece) in Kyle Busch truck, and they're going to run up front. I just feel that about all of us collectively as drivers.

“You know what you should do if you really want to let people know what Modified racing is here? Get the Top-5 Late Model drivers from the south and the Top-5 Modified drivers from the northeast. Put them in any kind of car anywhere you want. I guarantee that a Modified driver would have a shot at the win. I believe that.

“I think we all have that chip on our shoulders. That's our attitude.”

  Source: Travis Barrett / NASCAR
Posted: May 3, 2013

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