As it has for 48 years, the Thompson Speedway Icebreaker will jump start the New England racing scene over the weekend, albeit without the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for the first time in 36 years.
Several stars and cars from The Tour will race for 125 laps on Sunday afternoon but without NASCAR sanctioning in the first race for the Thompson Speedway Open Outlaw (Tour Type) Modified Series — which essentially replaces NASCAR on the iconic track’s schedule.
Meanwhile, the Whelen Modified Tour will also open the 2021 season on Thursday night, making its first trip in 11 years to venerable Martinsville Speedway in Virginia alongside the NASCAR Cup Series. Amongst those expected to compete in both races are NASCAR champions Doug Coby, Justin Bonsignore, Ron Silk, Ryan Preece and Bobby Santos III.
With the Valenti Modified Series and Tri-Track Open Modified Series, it’s a frequently changing landscape in Modified Country, but NASCAR is taking every step to ensure that the Whelen Modified Tour remains the pinnacle of the discipline.
It features a purse and bonus structure intended to reflect that status.
Nearly every event pays over $10,000 to the winner. There are bonuses for ($1k, Mayhew Tools) winning the pole, ($600, Hoosier Tire) for leading the most laps, ($500, Hoosier) for most positions gained from qualifying, ($500, Hoosier) for the best new team that advances the most position from their starting spot, ($400) for the halfway leader and numerous other bonuses for the top-25 car owners across every event.
Additionally, all events are one-day shows this season, a cost containment measure with NASCAR hoping to get through the waning days of the pandemic and begin laying the future foundation for the Whelen Modified Tour.
So, on one hand, Tour Type Modified racing appears generally healthy with nearly 40 cars showing up to New Smyrna Speedway for the World Series of Asphalt in February and 40 entered into the NASCAR opener on Thursday at Martinsville.
At the same time, Thompson’s decision to run Open shows instead of NASCAR and Stafford Motor Speedway internally entertaining a similar direction over the winter indicates several red flags that need to be addressed once the pandemic ends.
NASCAR Tour director Jimmy Wilson was diplomatic when asked about this dynamic by Short Track Scene last month.
“When you think of Tour Modifieds, you think of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour,” Wilson said. “It’s great to see the other tours and open shows have success because it only strengthens it, and creates more teams who want to move up the ladder and have another avenue to race before racing with us — so it’s great in general that Modified racing is as healthy as it is.
“COVID has meant that some track have been forced to look at things a little differently. It’s something that I feel like isn’t going to last forever. Some things are going to come back around. We have a very strong, robust 2021 schedule. It’s allowed us to move into some new markets that will only make us stronger in the future.”
Wilson is especially excited about the races at New York International (Lancaster) Raceway, Oswego Speedway and Beech Ridge, Maine that will expand the series blueprint further north.
From a team standpoint, the NASCAR Tour is certainly the place to race with its iconic stops on the schedule and purse structure, says 2013 champion Ryan Preece.
“A majority of the races if not all of them are $10,000 to win, which is a great step,” Preece said. “That’s something the other tours have stepped up with — paying more money. The Whelen Modified Tour has worked hard to provide purses throughout the field, and for the teams who show up, and that’s great.
“At the end of the day, for me, the Whelen Modified Tour is like the World of Outlaws in dirt, it’s the big series.”
That’s to say nothing of every race having a live stream on NBC TrackPass or every race airing tape-delayed on NBCSN.
The three Cup Series companion races also encourage participation from Cup stars like Preece and Ryan Newman, who bring an additional spotlight onto the discipline. Perhaps Kevin Harvick will one day make good on the promise to make a start in a Tour race as well.
“It’s really awesome that NASCAR is giving us the opportunity to race at Martinsville and Richmond,” Preece said. “These are iconic tracks that put on great racing and are basically like a showcase for our kind of racing.
“The fans will tune in to see a guy like Ryan Newman race, and really enjoy the show we put on, and then hopefully tune into the other races.”
But again, something feels amiss not having the Whelen Modified Tour compete at Thompson.
The Outlaw Open Modified Series is the brainchild of PASS’s Tom Mayberry and ACT’s Cris Michaud, who are co-promoting the Thompson Speedway oval track events this season. They took over promotional duties last season and have successfully operated touring divisions during their tenure.
All of that is to say that if they feel the Open Modified show is better for business, and certainly the Icebreaker’s entry list reflects it, then it probably is.
Right now, it appears as if neither NASCAR nor the ACT-PASS alliance need each other, even if the Whelen Modified Tour schedule feels incomplete without Thompson.
“The nature of the sport is always, ‘doors don’t close’ in racing,” Wilson said. “We weren’t able to put something together and we’re disappointed that we’re not going to Thompson. It’s a great facility. We love the track, the people. We put on great shows and the history that you have there. Most definitely the door is open there for 2022 and beyond. Hopefully things will come around and it’ll be a natural fit again for them and NASCAR.”