Over the three-decade history of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, various standout drivers have come to the series as graduates from Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut.
Whether it was the late Ted Christopher, Woody Pitkat, champion Doug Coby, or current rising star Chase Dowling, the half-mile asphalt at Stafford has provided drivers a chance to mix it up with some of the best New England has to offer — and in the process — help prepare themselves for a move to the next level.
Right now, it seems like that Stafford experience is helping another rising star climb his way towards the top.
Ronnie Williams, who has 12 career Stafford wins and eight of them in the premier SK Modified division, has put together quite the striking beginning to his Whelen Modified Tour career. Although his finishes on the track haven’t necessarily shown the speed under the hood of the No. 21 Gershow Recycling/Empower Financial Chevrolet, Williams has already been a threat to visit Victory Lane this season.
“Chase (Dowling) and I raced together back in the SK Lights at Stafford, and we both moved to SKs at about the same time,” Williams said. “We were racing and winning against guys like Ted Christopher, Keith Rocco, Rowan Pennink, Doug Coby. You had all of these guys that were at the top of the tour and you were already racing against them. When I started on the tour, I kinda knew how they raced and how to race around them. Having their competition there (at Stafford) allowed for a faster learning experience, and now I am able to apply it.”
Williams, along with the rest of the Whelen Modified Tour competitors, will be back in action Thursday night when the Whelen Modified Tour makes their second of four appearances at the 0.625-mile Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park high-banks. The fifth race of the season comes as an outlier to the other three at Thompson, since this battle will only be for 125 laps, instead of 150.
Williams is hoping to redeem himself from a little misfortune during the Icebreaker 150 in April, where the Ellington, Connecticut, driver was fastest in practice, qualified on his first career pole, and was running second in the 150-lap race when the field hit the start/finish line for the white flag.
A move to the inside of eventual race winner Justin Bonsignore ended with contact between the two cars and Williams in the outside wall in Turn 1, ending his efforts to capture his first career checkered flag. Even though he finished 19th, he slowed plenty of speed throughout the weekend, and proved he could put himself in the right position to pounce towards the end of the race.
“I was telling one of the guys on the crew, the lap times in practice didn’t really mean anything to me, but it was good to see we were fast. When we won the pole, I knew we had some momentum, but there wasn’t much time to really think about it because the race came up so quickly. Even going to the race, I knew we were going to be fast, we were brought back a little bit and had a little bit of a power steering problem, we were fast at the end of the race,” Williams said.
“I made a decision to make a move on Justin going into turn one, and was it the right move? I don’t know. I’ll know for next time what to do, or at least try and know. The whole weekend was a really great confidence booster for us going forward.”
Off that confidence booster, Williams finished 14th at Stafford, but last time out, the No. 21 came home with a sixth-place finish at Massachusett’s Seekonk Speedway. Out of the four races the Whelen Modified Tour has completed this season, South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach Speedway was the one that was difficult for him, but the troubles didn’t only stem from his performance on the track.
“Myrtle Beach was definitely tough, I was happy to get out of there,” Williams said. “That day was just bad. I went to a Red Robin afterwards, and I asked for a chocolate milkshake, and they said their milkshake machine was down. I knew it was a bad day.”
Even though the combination with Bertuccio provided Williams a chance to take his career to the next level, the early stages of his days on the Whelen Modified Tour didn’t come without a struggle.
“It was definitely a totally different learning experience, even just going to the track and having an hour straight of practice, I wasn’t accustomed to that, or even the time trials, even though we did very well with them,” Williams said. “Last year, I went to like 15 different tracks I hadn’t raced at before. I’m getting acclimated to all of the new tracks, and trying to be fast at the same time.”
As he enters his 16th career start on Thursday at Thompson, winning a Whelen Modified Tour race would be the pinnacle of his young racing career.
“I’ve been watching Whelen Modified Tour races since I was young, I live a mile from Stafford, so every Friday night I went down there and watched racing,” Williams said. “It was always my dream to race on the tour. Winning is something I have always wanted to do, especially with the Bertuccio team. To win with them, that would be a special one to knock off my list.”