Lee USA Speedway is a Matt Hirschman kind of track. And on Saturday night, it gave him a Matt Hirschman kind of race.
The calculating racer from Pennsylvania sprinted to the front, then paced the field to win the second Granite State Derby at “New Hampshire’s Center of Speed,” earning his sixth NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour win and his first since last year.
And for Hirschman, it was a long time coming.
“We just finally closed one,” Hirschman said in victory lane. “These races are tough to win, and I think we should have had five or six of them in recent years.”
Lee’s aged, abrasive pavement punishes tires and favors drivers who can manage their equipment over a long run, a specialty of the Northampton, Penn. Modified all-star. While the track rarely lands on Hirschman’s schedule, he has a 2014 Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series win at Lee and finished third in last year’s Granite State Derby after leading the first hundred laps.
That made this year’s Granite State Derby, the second of four NWMT events this year promoted by Josh Vanada’s JDV Productions team, a matter of unfinished business.
Defending race winner Doug Coby won the pole, but it only took three laps for Hirschman to charge from third on the grid to the lead. Coby settled into a rhythm in second, with Sam Rameau and defending Tour champion Jon McKennedy fourth. Clean racing through the pack kept the yellow flag stowed safely until Max Zachem spun down the frontstretch to bring out the caution on lap 69.
With just over a hundred laps left, Hirschman led the field into the pits for service, beating Coby and McKennedy back to the track. Anthony Nocella lost a left-rear tire after pitting, forcing the Massachusetts racer back to the pits and bringing an early end to his evening.
Hirschman brought the field back to green, but Coby faltered on the start, plummeting through the pack while McKennedy moved to second. The six-time champion fell out of the top ten, but with plenty of laps remaining and another pit stop likely, Coby’s freefall looked like a strategic gamble. Hirschman, on the other hand, was content to control his tire wear from the front, with Austin Beers working his way around McKennedy for second.
Beers fell back into McKennedy’s clutches as the laps wore on, with McKennedy making the pass for second with 25 laps left. As Hirschman picked his way through slower traffic, McKennedy closed to within a few car lengths of the lead.
But the late caution the crews were watching and hoping for never came.
And without that caution, McKennedy could only watch as Hirschman cruised to victory, 1.120 seconds ahead.
“A yellow would have been nice,” McKennedy said. “But I’m sure he had a little bit left, he was just maintaining that three, four car-length the last ten laps.”
Beers held on for third, over six seconds back. “We were struggling a little bit with forward drive there at the end, like most people were, I’m sure,” he said of his fade toward the end.
Rameau crossed the line fourth, matching his best career NWMT effort. Ron Silk, the 2011 Tour champion, finished fifth to move back into the points lead over three-time champ Justin Bonsignore.
Coby drove back to sixth at the finish, followed by rookie Jake Johnson and Kyle Bonsignore. Justin Bonsignore was ninth, one lap down, with Tommy Catalano rounding out the top ten.
Hirschman’s win thrusts him back in contention for the Whelen Granite State Short Track Cup, a triple crown of JDV-promoted NWMT races at New Hampshire bullrings. Doug Coby won May’s Duel at the Dog 200 at Monadnock Speedway. July’s Clash at Claremont at Claremont Motorsports Park completes the championship series. Hirschman finished fourth at Claremont last year to clinch the inaugural Short Track Cup without a victory; an eighth-place at Monadnock this year, though, leaves him at a deficit to Coby after two races.
Points have never been the top priority for Hirschman, though, at least not at the NASCAR level. While his father Tony earned five NASCAR Modified Tour titles, Matt has only run full-time a few seasons, most recently in 2013. Instead, the younger Hirschman has been renowned for trophy hunting, a successful path that has earned him the moniker “Big Money Matt.”
While fielding his own equipment to a long list of feature wins with the Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series, the Race of Champions Modified Tour, the SMART Modified Tour, and open-competition events, Hirschman has raced on the Tour for car owner Roy Hall’s Pee Dee Motorsports, winning four of his six NWMT checkered flags with the team.
To hear Hirschman tell the story, though, is to hear a story of missed opportunities. Opportunities like last year’s Granite State Derby, where he dominated early only to lose ground on pit strategy. Or Monadnock, where a lapped car blocked him in the final laps to allow Justin Bonsignore to steal the win.
“We deserve better than what the results have been, and a lot of that is on me,” he said. “I take the most responsibility for that. But today, we delivered.”
Hirschman has run four of the five Tour races this year, skipping a rain-delayed Riverhead Raceway contest to win a $7000 race in Pennsylvania. And there was to be no partying after the Lee win; Hirschman and his own car were headed north, with another half-dozen competitors, to Sunday’s Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series feature in Vermont.
Celebrations for Hirschman never last long. But that’s only because he usually has to move onto another one.
NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Granite State Derby
Lee USA Speedway
1. (60) Matt Hirschman
2. (79) Jon McKennedy
3. (64) Austin Beers
4. (06) Sam Rameau
5. (16) Ron Silk
6. (7) Doug Coby
7. (3) Jake Johnson
8. (22) Kyle Bonsignore
9. (51) Justin Bonsignore
10. (54) Tommy Catalano
11. (25) Brian Robie
12. (82) Craig Lutz
13. (46) Justin Brown
14. (34) J.B. Fortin
15. (32) Tyler Rypkema
16. (43) Matthew Kimball
17. (6) Woody Pitkat
18. (18) Ken Heagy
19. (26) Max Zachem
20. (01) Melissa Fifield
21. (92) Anthony Nocella