A decision to press forward through the summer months paid off for Tommy Catalano.
After missing the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour opener at South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach Speedway, Catalano made his debut at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in April, finishing 15th. At the time, his plan was to run select races in preparation for the 2019 season.
“It was more race by race, going into the year and missing Myrtle Beach, our plan was to run three of four races and get a hang of it. We were going to do it full out next year,” Catalano said. “After we got to the eighth race, where we were locked in to go for the Rookie of the Year and we could not do it next year, we decided we were going to make a run at it and try to do it.”
After 15 starts across seven months, Catalano is celebrating his decision. The Ontario, New York, driver clinched the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award on the Whelen Modified Tour, defeating Blake Barney by 26 points.
In his 15 races, Catalano scored a best finish of eighth at Seekonk Speedway in June, and also scored another top-10 at Oswego Speedway, one of few tracks on the circuit he was already familiar with. Before running on the Whelen Modified Tour, Catalano picked up multiple championships in the NASCAR Whelen All American Series in New York, including two in 2017. He also has been successful on the Race of Champions Modified circuit.
But, it was time to take his talent to the next level.
“I would say that it was definitely a fun experience and a little bit different than what we are used too,” Catalano said. “With the RoC, we are familiar with the tracks we go to, and it’s nothing like the tour. The biggest thing was being well prepared when we got there. We wanted to be ready to go and not show up scrambling.”
Although the early stages of the season didn’t exactly go the way he was looking for, Catalano wasn’t going to let that slow him down. In his first trip to Seekonk, Catalano started in the rear of the field, but worked his way through the pack in a race where pitting wasn’t an option. He scored the eighth-place finish, and in a sense, that was a turning point for the family operation.
“We were in the mid 20s all day, time trialed in the 20s, and in the race we really didn’t touch the car, and we ended up with a top-10 that day,” Catalano said. “Staying on course was a huge factor in pulling off the Rookie of the Year.”
When he mentions staying on course, he means the team used the same setup all day at the track, instead of trashing on the car and making wholesale adjustments.
“We never got off-course at the track. We went with something and whether it was good or bad, we stuck with it all day, we didn’t make huge changes at the track because in the past, that is what got us in trouble,” he said. “We made minor adjustments, but we didn’t start back over. That definitely saved us in some spots. There were a few tracks we struggled at.”
With the talent level on the Whelen Modified Tour at an all-time high, Catalano couldn’t let this award pass him by. Fourteen different Rookie drivers took the green flag this season.
“In the middle of the year, you get to the point where you want things to turn around and get better, and they did,” Catalano said. “In the end, it all paid off. We didn’t have a lot of funding, but we used what we had and made the best of it.”
For now, his plans for next season include returning to the Whelen Modified Tour, but his team is going to celebrate this accomplishment first.
“It’s definitely going to make us smile every time we see that,” Catalano said. “Hopefully we can build on that and next year’s goal is going to be to crank inside the top-10 in points.”
Catalano will be honored with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, Justin Bonsignore, and the rest of the top finishers and special award winners at the NASCAR Awards Charlotte on Friday, Dec. 7.