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Short track stars shine on big track in Northeast Classic

Modified and Street Stock features rounded out a full day of short track racing on the “Magic Mile.”

Woody Pitkat pits for service during the halftime break of the Northeast Classic's Tour-Type Modified open feature. Pitkat was one of several drivers to race multiple legs of the five-feature afternoon. (STS/Jeff Brown)

The American-Canadian Tour and the Pro All Stars Series were the center of attention in this weekend’s Northeast Classic, but the two touring series were hardly the only attraction on track.

Anthony Nocella, Danny Cates and Ryan Waterman each tasted victory as part of Sunday’s five-feature spectacular at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Anthony Nocella celebrates his win in the Tour-Type Modified open. (STS/Jeff Brown)

In addition to ACT and PASS’ own flagship divisions, the fourth running of the event included feature races for Tour-Type Modifieds, Sunoco 604 Modifieds, and the R&R Race Parts Street Stock Open Series.

Initially planned for early 2020 but postponed to the 2021 season, the Northeast Classic maintains short track racing’s presence at New England’s biggest oval, filling a void left as NASCAR’s own regional presence has waned.

Modifieds, of course, hold a special place in NHMS lore, present since the early days of the Loudon, N.H. oval and often regarded as the best race of any weekend. While most of that legacy and lore are carried on the shoulders of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, big-league NASCAR’s stamp of approval is hardly necessary to showcase the discipline’s big-track potential.

And for the first time, Northeast Classic attendees were treated to a pair of Modified features. A open-competition Tour-Type Modified showdown was sandwiched between the PASS and ACT races, while the new-for-2024 Sunoco 604 Modifieds made their NHMS debut following ACT’s victory-lane festivities.

Anthony Nocella, Jon McKennedy and Austin Beers, all drivers with NASCAR Tour experience at NHMS, were the frontrunners in the second half of the day’s Tour-Type Modified open. (STS/Jeff Brown)

Even without a touring banner flying, fifteen drivers turned out for the 50-lap Tour-Type tilt, many with trophies earned at the “Magic Mile.” Leading the charge were Anthony Nocella and Jon McKennedy, who shook free of front-row starter Matt Swanson to battle out front. McKennedy, in his race-day debut for a new team after a Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series rainout at Thompson Speedway, kept Nocella honest after a midway pit stop. But Nocella, a 2022 NWMT winner at NHMS, parried back to take the lead with only a few turns remaining. McKennedy tried to mount a final charge, but Nocella beat the former NWMT champ to the line to claim his first Northeast Classic victory.

NWMT regular Austin Beers, racing for Connecticut’s Jensen family, locked down third in the final stretch, with Swanson fourth and Ronnie Williams rounding out the top five.

While most of the cars and drivers in the Tour-Type feature had prior laps at Loudon, the new-for-2024 Sunoco 604 Modifieds were making their debut on the one-mile oval. A twist on the established flagship class at Thompson, the division adjusted its rules package over the offseason to distinguish itself from Stafford’s own trademarked SK Modified program. Only seven of the crate-engined cars made the trip to NHMS, with one eliminated in a grinding heat-race crash.

The six that remained, though, raced under a blanket for their 20-lap feature, dicing for the lead and testing the limits of the draft. Danny Cates and Tyler Barry put on a show out front, but Cates would get the better of Barry in the end, taking the checkers as Barry and Josh Carey rounded out the podium. Tyler Jarvenpaa was fourth at the line, while contact in turn four resulted in a last-lap crash for Scott Zilinski and Modified newcomer Jeffrey Battle.

Danny Cates leads the Sunoco 604 Modified field off turn four as Scott Zilinski and Jeffrey Battle make contact at the tail of the pack. (STS/Jeff Brown)

The afternoon’s program concluded with the season’s first event in the R&R Race Parts Street Stock Open Series, with 23 of the weekly warriors taking the green flag for a 25-lap feature. Connecticut veteran Ryan Waterman shot out to an early lead, but Charlie Baldwin’s car came to life midway through the race as he shaved away Waterman’s advantage. A timely lapped car gave Baldwin the opening he needed, as he stole the top spot and drove off from the field.

With three laps to go, though, Baldwin slowed in a cloud of smoke, making his way to the infield. Waterman vaulted past Baldwin’s slowing Camaro and into the lead once again, handily winning his second consecutive Northeast Classic. Jimmy Renfrew, Jr. was a distant second, while Shane Gendron crossed the line third.

Charlie Baldwin (#2) eclipsed Ryan Waterman in the late laps of the R&R Race Part Street Stock Open Series feature, but Waterman went the distance to take his second straight NHMS win. (STS/Jeff Brown)

The three features rounded out a day that saw Eddie MacDonald pick up his thirteenth NHMS win in a 50-lap PASS Super Late Model feature, and ultimately awarded Derek Gluchacki his third straight ACT Tour Northeast Classic trophy after an off-site engine inspection for three of the top five finishers.

Waterman’s Street Stock win was worth a cool $2,000. (STS/Jeff Brown)

Conspicuously absent from the day’s lineup, though, was a race for Mini Stocks. The defunct North East Mini Stock Tour was one of the first grassroots tours to visit NHMS regularly, both on the track’s oval and road course layouts. With NEMST closing following the 2022 season, the ACT-backed Mighty Mini Stock Series filled the void in the 2023 Northeast Classic, but the series did not return for this year’s edition.

That said, another division might have been one too many. Already postponed by a day due to inclement weather, Sunday’s schedule was moved up with heats starting at 10:00am to beat a predicted bout of afternoon rain. And sure enough, as the Street Stocks vacated victory lane, showers rolled in to dampen the grounds.

As an event, the Northeast Classic is challenging to measure. With infield access wide open and NHMS’ spacious grandstands, plus healthy crossover between spectators and crew members, it is hard to put a figure on actual fan attendance. NHMS does not promote the Northeast Classic like they do the big NASCAR weekend, though where ACT and PASS are leasing the property, perhaps they are contractually limited in what they can do.

Danny Cates was thrilled to find victory lane at NHMS. (STS/Jeff Brown)

But to judge on attendance is to miss the point.

For the drivers, it represents a unique opportunity for local racers to compete at New England’s most prestigious track. NHMS is the Northeast’s Daytona, one of few national-level tracks that can roll out the red carpet for grassroots racers in their grassroots equipment. With the demise of what was the NASCAR Busch North/East Series, and with only one NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event each year where once there were three or four, the real opportunities are extremely limited for a local racer to compete at NHMS.

The Northeast Classic is that opportunity. It’s an opportunity that still means a lot to them.

Eddie MacDonald, Derek Gluchacki, Anthony Nocella, Danny Cates, and Ryan Waterman walked away with the day’s biggest trophies. But for so many in the pits, the journey was the reward.

And New Hampshire Motor Speedway is one of few places where that is the case.

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Jeff Brown is a contributor to Short Track Scene. A native of New Hampshire and a long-time fan of New England racing, Brown provides a fan's perspective as he follows New England's regional Late Model touring series.

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