The tight quarters of Riverhead Raceway are tough for any race car driver to navigate successfully.
Behind the wheel a modified — a car that can sometimes have more power than the rear tires can handle — it can really be a handful.
But for veteran driver John Fortin Sr., a three-time champion in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Riverhead, it seems to have come naturally.
And Saturday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Miller Lite 200 is going to give him the chance to showcase his talent against some of the toughest modified competition on this side of the country.
Fortin will return to the Whelen Modified Tour and make his 42nd career start and his 22nd at the New York oval.
He is ready for the challenge.
“It’s on my bucket list, as a kid, I wanted to win a Whelen Modified Tour race,” Fortin said. “I’ve been close — I’ve finished up there — but just could never get that victory. It’s all about the prestige of being able to win there against the big teams on the tour. We don’t have full-time guys in the shop, we only work a few nights a week. I’m kinda sorry the last two years that we didn’t run. I figure that I don’t know how many more years I am going to be able to race.”
This year is actually going to be the final competing full-time at Riverhead for the Holtsville, New York, driver as part of the weekly modified class. At 55-years-old, Fortin is ready to stop the weekly grind of competing at the bullring, pick and chose his future races and spend time at home with his family.
And with the list of accolades he’s collected over more than 20 years, he deserves the chance to step away under his own terms.
“I just got tired of chasing the points, it’s difficult to race every week, and I’ve never had any big time sponsors with me,” Fortin said. “I’ve done it out of my pocket a lot. It’s also going to give me time to do some other things in my life. I’m a die-hard racer and I will always own a modified — even if my son isn’t racing — someone will be driving my cars. I’ve taken a few races off before, but not because I wanted to do it. I want to get out in the world, I want to travel a little bit. I want to race, but just not for points.”
His Riverhead experience also started long before he got behind the wheel of a modified, so he knows the track well. After spending some time in the grandstands, Fortin competed in the Figure 8 division, winning multiple championships there in a class that requires a completely different mindset.
“The difference between the two was the Figure 8 races really get you up on the wheel, because you deal with the X (in the middle of the track), turning both ways, you really have to know what is going on,” Fortin said. “I feel that as a modified driver, running the Figure 8 made me a better race car driver. I very rarely wreck a car because I am up on the wheel, and my reflexes are good. And at 55-years-old, I still can get it done.”
In the midst of his career, Fortin also competed in tour races at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, Stafford Motor Speedway, New London-Waterford Speedbowl, Martinsville Speedway and Nazareth Speedway.
Would he consider taking a trip outside New York after this year, since he won’t be running for points?
“Sure,” Fortin said. “I’d like to go to Thompson, I’ve run there a few times, but I have much better equipment now. In my career, when I had money, I didn’t have a crew. And when I had a crew, I didn’t have any money. Right now, I have the best equipment I’ve ever had behind me. I’d like to go to some other tracks — especially Stafford — I was always horrible there. I would just like to go there and get a top-10. That would be like a win for me.”
Even though he has been running weekly this season, with two wins already to his credit, Saturday’s Whelen Modified Tour race provide a different challenge with a different tire compound. He’s watched Justin Bonsignore, a former Riverhead regular gone Whelen Modified Tour racing, dominate the series in 2018, winning six of the first 12 races and opening a 75-point advantage in the championship standings.
“We were lost the last time because the tires changed, but we are making a lot of changes to the setup,” Fortin said. “I’m hoping we will be right there. Justin (Bonsignore) is on a roll (on the Whelen Modified Tour), he’s been kicking everyone’s butt out there. We’ve had a lot of good drivers come out of Riverhead over the years. The place breathes some good race car drivers.”
And, if Fortin can pull his No. 84 John’s Tree Removal Chevrolet into Victory Lane on Saturday, his career will end with him accomplishing his ultimate goal since he was a kid.
“It’s like the (Monster Energy NASCAR) Cup Series, their Daytona 500, this is our big race,” Fortin said. “This would make my career complete. It’s not that I had a bad career because I didn’t. If I do win it, I can tell you right now I will be an emotional mess. I love what I do. I wish I wasn’t at the end (of my career), because I still feel like I can do it.”