J.B. Fortin is on a mission.
When the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour returns to the track for the first time in a month on Saturday at Riverhead Raceway, Fortin will be in front of his hometown fans, at his home track. The Holtsville, New York, driver ran weekly in their NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Modified division before making the move to the tour, scoring his first win last season.
“I may have won my first race at Riverhead last year, but I had a lot of second-place finishes before that,” Fortin said. “I always said that I didn’t want to start on the pole and win a race. I didn’t want to win that way. I would get passed, and try to pass the guy back, but it can be hard to get back by someone. Last year, I started eighth and there was a wreck in front of me and when I passed a few of them, I had the outside pole, took off, and by lap 12 or so I had the lead and led the whole rest of the race.”
His mission is to score a solid finish in his second tour race at the quarter-mile bullring this weekend.
His experience of carrying the checkered flag wasn’t one that he took for granted. His driving career may have started in go-karts, where he won multiple races, but, he’s been in racing since he was born. His father, John Fortin Sr., is a multiple-time champion at Riverhead, and he learned a lot from his father before getting behind the wheel.
“I started working on race cars when I was seven or eight years old because my dad was racing,” Fortin said. “I would follow my dad’s crew chief around the shop to see what he was doing, and I would just about run into him every time he stopped. After go-karts, we decided to save some money up, and when I turned 16, I got behind the wheel of one of my dad’s modifieds.”
He might have had trouble taking off at first, driving an older chassis with old tires instead of brand new stickers, but, Fortin learned how to drive an ill-handling car. His experience in a modified was definitely one that took him by surprise at first.
“A lot of the guys that are winning went from a go-kart, to a stock car, then to a modified,” Fortin said. “But I went from a go-kart to a modified, so the learning curve really got to me for a while. I just wanted to go out there and get a win like I had been doing. To learn these cars and be able to go fast in them, it’s really difficult.”
After multiple full-time seasons at Riverhead, Fortin decided over the recent offseason that it was time to take his career to the next level.
“It was about mid-season last year when I won the race, and over this winter, I was doing some soul searching trying to figure out what I wanted to do next,” Fortin said. “I built a brand-new car for this year, and I decided that instead of going to Riverhead and risking smashing up a brand new car because of the tight racing they have there, I talked to my guys and decided that I wanted to go for the Rookie of the Year on the Whelen Modified Tour. If you are going to start out in any series, you want to win that.”
Fortin has been to five different tracks in his first six races, and all of those five were tracks he had never driven on before. That was yet another learning curve for him to overcome.
“We decided to see how it would go and if we could run full-time, we would, and it’s going that way right now,” Fortin said. “I haven’t been able to buy some practice tires and that’s been hurting me a little bit I think. Stafford, Thompson… we went to some of these places for the first time, but I expect to be a little bit better there going back. I should have ran better than that at Wall, because I had been there before. But my biggest goal is that every track I go to for a race, I want to complete every single lap, even if I end up a lap down. I want to finish all of the races.”
Fortin sets the car up himself and makes the calls at the race track from inside the cockpit. Saturday, at his home track, he’s hoping to give the fans something to cheer about. He isn’t the only Riverhead regular planning to run the race. Others include Roger Turbush, Tom Rogers Jr., John Fortin and Mike Rutkoski. Timmy Solomito, a former Riverhead regular who sits 12th in the Whelen Modified Tour championship standings, competed in two Whelen All-American Series races in June. A few other Whelen Modified Tour regulars tested their cars during weekly practice rounds in preparation.
The major difference going into this year? Riverhead paved a spot in turns three and four, and Fortin says it’s made a difference.
“I did a little bit of a test run a few weeks ago, trying some new stuff, and I think I might have hit on something,” Fortin said. “It would be nice to get a good run. If I can get a top 10, that would be awesome. With Riverhead being my home track, I have thousands of laps there, and all of my sponsors are from Long Island and a lot of them are going to be there. It’s going to be cool.
“When I was out there testing, I think the paving is going to make for an interesting race, I ran there full-time for five years and it took me at least 25 laps to get back in the line because it changed everything. It’s definitely different.”
After a month off, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour returns to competition on Saturday at Riverhead Raceway.