NASCAR Tour-type Modifieds await their tire scuffing session at Bristol Motor Speedway
In 25 years of NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour competition, the series had never visited Bristol (TN) Motor Speedway until the landmark race in August 2009. Primarily a New England-based circuit, the Tour does have a rich history of venturing south. Virginia has held 44 all-time races, and the Tour has gone as far south as North Carolina on three occasions, but the UNOH Perfect Storm 150 was its inaugural visit to Bristol.
In a format first introduced at Martinsville (VA) Speedway in 2005, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour was joined at the "World's Fastest Half-Mile" by the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour for a combination race. The two tours were to run for one checkered flag and one purse, but drivers claimed chase points for their respective championship standings.
Quick to adapt and always eager to master a new track, Teddy Christopher unofficially shattered Bristol's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying record while turning laps in a February 2009 test of the concrete high banks. It was just the kind of white-knuckle ride Christopher was hoping for.
"It's crazy. It's intense," said Christopher at the time. "I've never been anywhere you can drive without lifting." Despite speeds and adrenaline levels being higher than normal, Christopher didn't anticipate the race would be run completely wide-open. "We will have to have some give-and-take," Christopher said. "I think it's going to be a very technical race."
Come raceday, 40 ground-pounding, fire-breathing Open Wheel monsters showed up, with 27 hailing from the Whelen Modified Tour and 13 from the Southern Mod Tour. Starting positions 1-30 would be set through time trials, while the remaining six positions were to be filled through the provisional process, making up a 36-car starting field.
Of the three early practice sessions Christopher was the fastest in the first two with laps of 14.951 and 14.957 in excess of 128 mph. In the third and final practice session 2007 Mod Tour Champ Donny Lia moved up the ladder with a top lap of 14.924. However, getting qualifying in was another story, told by Mother Nature.
The rain arrived just as cars had hit the track and lasted just long enough to force NASCAR and track officials to cancel qualifying for the UNOH Perfect Storm 150.
In addition to the heavier shock mounts, NASCAR also mandated that the mods run heavier hu
The starting lineup was set in accordance to the rule book, which meant NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points leader Ted Christopher would start on the pole. He was joined on the front row by NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour points leader George Brunnhoelzl III. Todd Szegedy and Andy Seuss made up the second row for the race, as Ryan Preece and Brian Loftin would be in the third row, followed by Donny Lia and Frank Fleming, and Rowan Pennink and L.W. Miller filling out the top five rows.
The rain would have sent four drivers home but track and NASCAR officials agreed to start all 40 entrants. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regulars drivers Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne who both had rides for the event started 38th and 39th, respectively.
The cars NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour cars, both divisions, are substantially different from their Sprint Cup counterparts or any other car for that matter. Today's cars are based on tubular chassis built by fabricators such as Troyer Engineering, Chassis Dynamics, Spafco, and Raceworks. Bodies are partial versions of passenger cars, largely fabricated from sheetmetal, with the front wheels and much of the front suspension exposed. A NASCAR Modified is 11 inches shorter in height and more than 23 inches wider than a Cup car. By rule, Tour-type Modifieds must weigh at least 2,610 pounds (with additional weight for engines 358 ci and larger) and have a wheelbase of 107 inches.
NASCAR mandated the beefier upper shock mounts in order to withstand the tremendous g-forc
Every racer knows that scaling the cars is critical to getting the right weight distributi
NASCAR star Ryan Newman is deep in thought prior to the race. He was one of two NASCAR Spr
The cars are powered by small-block V-8 engines, usually of 355 to 368 cubic inches displacement, although both larger or smaller engines can be used. Engine components are largely similar to those used in the Sprint Cup Series, but the Mod Tour engines use a small four-barrel carburetor rated at 390 cubic feet per minute, about half the airflow of previous Modified carburetors, which limits their output to 550 to 650 horsepower. On large tracks the engines must have a resrictor plate between the carburetor and intake manifold, reducing engine power and car speed for safety reasons.
The tire brand of choice is Hoosier. These 14-inch-wide massive tires consist of a compound that sticks like glue to the racing surface. For the Bristol event, however, Hoosier developed a special tire with a little harder compound for the concrete surface.
To withstand the g-forces associated with Bristol's high banks NASCAR required the cars to run heavy-duty hubs and heavy-duty upper shock mounts.
SAFETY The modifieds have undergone a number of safety advancements over the years. The 1985 death of racing Champion Ritchie Evans at Martinsville Speedway, along with other fatalities led to questions about the cars' rigidity. As a result, the straight framerails were phased out, and a new chassis design was developed with a step in the rails which could bend in hard impacts rather than passing the force to the driver.
After a severed wheel caused a fatality at an Indy Racing League race, NASCAR, in July 1999, required the Modified Series teams (and eventually all NASCAR teams) to add steel cables as tethers linking each front spindle to the chassis, the steel cables were later replaced with marine rope which weighs less.
The death of Tom Baldwin Sr. in 2004 led to more safety modifications, with HANS devices (or equivalent) and left-side headrests becoming mandatory. For the 2008 season, rear bumpers have been shortened in response to the 2007 death of John Blewett III.
If this drivers' meeting looks as crowded as a Sprint Cup driver's meeting, it was. In fac
The other NASCAR star to strap in was Kasey Kahne. Here the Budweiser-sponsored driver tal
Whelan Tour regulars Woody Pitkat (L) and Ed Flemke Jr. (R) were on hand for the race and
This season a metal plate was added onto the four door bars that run along the whole driver-side compartment. While the steering column is not collapsible, it does feature a scissor like drop down lever.
Many thought that these safety requirements would be put to the test on Bristol's super fast, unforgiving surface.
PRE-RACE DRIVER COMMENTS From Rookie to Veteran and from North to South, racers all seemed to have similar opinions as to how the race would go down.
Seventeen-year-old Erick Rudolph, who became the youngest winner on the NASCAR Whelen Modified tour in July 2009, came into the race with a lot of confidence. "The horsepower-to-weight ratio is really the biggest thing with these cars," stated the youngster. "The really big tires make these cars easy to move around."
The 2008 Featherlite Most Improved driver on the Whelen Modified Tour, Ron Silk, said, "This place is a thrill, it's faster than any other track we have raced on. This is going to be a lot of fun; hopefully we will put on a good show and get invited back."
With 69 career wins and nine total Championships, tying him with the late Ritchie Evans, Mike Stefanik was taking it all in stride during the three practice sessions.
"I have been here on three other occasions with the Nationwide cars and the trucks," said Stefanik. "I think there was a little misunderstanding between Hoosier and NASCAR, from what I understand [NASCAR] originally wanted a tire that would go the complete 150 laps, but they must have changed their mind and threw in a halfway break. We ended up with a really hard tire so the car was loose. We even had some small blisters on the right rear last night, but it was driving pretty well. Hopefully the track will rubber in, it usually does. It always gets easier on race day."
Southern series competitor Bobby Hutchins was quite intrigued with the Bristol concrete. "This is going to be quite a show," stated the accomplished NASCAR engineer. "With these new tires on the car it will be trial and error. However, we will get a scuff session for our tires. This is all new to me, in the South series we do not get scuff sessions, so we will see. The biggest thing is how the Camping World Trucks' tire rubber will affect our Hoosiers, it could make a difference."
Even 10-time NASCAR race winner Kasey Kahne weighed in, "It's going to get pretty wild. I will just have to watch what is going on and figure out how to get up in the field. This is definitely a little bit different, but it is a pretty fun car to drive, I mean I really enjoy it but I have no idea how things are going to go."
150 wild laps at Bristol What some looked at as being a possible crash fest turned out to be a great, fast-paced event right down to the checkered flag. With edge-of-the-seat speeds, these rockets on wheels thundered through 150 white-knuckle laps, with a halfway break, in just over one hour and three minutes. Only four caution flags would fly on this event including one from laps 131-137 for light rain. It was just the kind of clean competitive race you love to see.
At the drop of the green flag, Ted Christopher took off from the pole in his Al-Lee Installations Chevrolet and led the entire first half of the race. He got to the halfway break with Todd Szegedy and the UNOH/Wisk/Snuggle Ford right on his back bumper.
During the break virtually every car took on four tires and fuel as well as other assorted adjustments. When the green dropped for the money half of the race Christopher once again shot out to the point from the double-file restart. And again Szegedy was right there in second.
Erick Rudolph, the youngest winner in NASCAR Modified history at the age of 17, straps in
"Showtime" Jimmy Blewett, a regular on the northern modified tour is ready for action. Sta
The hard tire compound brought by Hoosier required NASCAR to schedule a halfway break for
A caution flew on lap 88 that set a chain of events in motion. This time on the restart Szegedy stayed right with Christopher running the top groove. The pair ran side by side for a handful of laps until Szegedy gave up the charge and dropped back in line. While those two where battling it out, Donny Lia in his Mystic Missile Dodge was gaining ground from the seventh starting position.
Shortly after Szegedy gave up the charge for the point, Lia moved in and dusted him off setting his sights on his old adversary Christopher. At lap 108 Lia mounted a charge and took the front spot away from TC for the next 31 laps, including the rain slowed caution laps. After the rain delay, Lia suffered a slight setback when he jumped the restart and was ordered by NASCAR officials to give the position back to the red No. 36 of Christopher.
That didn't stop Lia though. Just three laps after a clean restart, he blasted past Christopher and opened up a big lead, winning the race by 3.126 seconds.
After leading 110 laps of the event Christopher was relegated to Second followed by Ryan Preece in Third, top Southern Whelen Modified finisher George Brunnhoelzl III was Fourth, and Woody Pitkat rounded out the Top 5.
Szegedy faded to Sixth followed by Rowan Pennink, Ed Flemke Jr., and Burt Myers. Youngster Erick Rudolph rounded out the Top 10 after starting in the 21st spot. The race speed averaged just over 75 mph. Lia led 40 laps on his way to the big win and his share of the posted $91,575 purse.
"It was pretty intense, just an awesome race with Teddy there, we had such a good race car," said the race winner. "I just couldn't believe how good we were. They said I jumped the restart there, I guess I might have so I let him back by. Fortunately, I was able to get back by him."
Pre-race tire worries turned out to be a non-factor in the outcome of the race. "The tires where awesome," said Lia. "Hats off to Hoosier, we did not beat any tires up, and times did not fall off that much."
Bringing the Tour-type Modifieds to Bristol continues a tradition of showcasing race cars not normally seen on the half-mile eastern Tennessee track. Bristol management says it's all about giving the fans something extra and Lia couldn't agree more.
"This was a great race for the fans to watch, coming here for the first time, to Bristol," said the Long Island, New York, native. "Winning any race is special, but this one-Bristol-is a bonus."
The successful running of the UNOH Perfect Storm 150 along with other events like Frank Kimmel's Street Stock Nationals cements Bristol's standing as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking NASCAR tracks in the country.
A Little Nascar Modified History
The NASCAR Modified division was formed as part of NASCAR's creation in December 1947. NASCAR held a Modified race as its first sanctioned event on February 15, 1948, on the beach course at Daytona Beach. Red Bryon won the event and 11 more races that year. He would go on to win the first NASCAR Modified Championship that same year. The Strictly Stock division, which evolved into today's Sprint Cup Series, did not race until 1949.
Ryan Newman's day came to an early end as he was involved in four-car pileup on lap 4.
During the second half of the race Todd Szegedy (2) goes to the high side and puts some se
In the end, neither Szegedy nor Christopher could handle the second half onslaught from ve
The modern-day NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour began in 1985 with 29 races, and was named the NASCAR Winston Modified Tour. It switched sponsorship in 1994, and was renamed the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series. Two major changes to the tour came in 2005. Whelen Engineering took over sponsorship of the series, and NASCAR introduced a new Modified division in the Southeastern United States known as the Whelen Southern Modified Tour. That same year the two tours ran a combination race at Martinsville Speedway.
Lengendary Modified racer Ritchie Evans really put the division on the NASCAR fan map. The holder of a record nine NASCAR Modified championships, Evans won his last championship in 1985, the first year of the Winston Modified Tour. Driving cars built and maintained in his own shop, Evans won 12 of his 28 starts on the Tour, including five consecutive victories in July and August.
In October, the season ended in tragedy when Evans was killed in a practice accident in preparation for the final race of the season, the Winn-Dixie 500 at Martinsville. He had already clinched the title.