In the end, passing on a prize bonus helped pave the way for “Big Money” Matt Hirschman to win Wednesday night’s Tri-Track Open Modified Series Flamingo Motorsports 100 at Star Speedway.
Hirschman’s victory, his third win in three Tri-Track events held this year, also clinched the TTOMS title for the Northampton, PA native with one race remaining in the season.
The Flamingo Motorsports 100 was the second appearance for the TTOMS teams at the Epping, NH quarter-mile, after July’s sixth annual SBM 125. The 100-lap event was a late addition to the schedule, booked amidst concerns that Connecticut’s New London-Waterford Speedbowl would not open for 2017. It was Star’s second attempt this year at a rare weeknight race, July’s Thursday-night PASS Super Late Model event having been rained out.
This time around, weather cooperated with a comfortable evening under pink and purple skies. The pits responded with respectable car counts in the three weekly classes in attendance, plus twenty-one tour-type Modifieds representing the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour (WMT), the Valenti Modified Racing Series (VMRS), the Race of Champions Modified Series (RoC), and the new EXIT Realty Modified Touring Series (MTS), along with a handful of local tracks.
Two of the favorites were drivers who missed July’s SBM 125. Ryan Preece, who made the most of his “night off” by driving a Joe Gibbs-prepared car to a NASCAR Xfinity Series win in Iowa, was back with the Ed Partridge-owned #6 Modified. Star graduate Jon McKennedy, who had a scheduling conflict with his ISMA Supermodified title chase, was back in the lineup in his #29 MTS entry. Preece and McKennedy joined a star-studded entry list highlighted by July winner Hirschman, Rowan Pennink, Woody Pitkat, Anthony Nocella, and Les Hinckley III.
That said, a few heavy-hitters normally chasing the Tri-Track events — Steve Masse, Chris Pasteryak and Jeff Rocco among them — were not in attendance. Perhaps the midweek race was difficult to schedule around, or they preferred to work on cars for their next touring events. The Tri-Track rules allow a team to count their best three races toward the title, so this may have been a mulligan for many, especially with Hirschman being so dominant in the first two races.
Preece, Hinckley and Max Zachem won the three qualifying heats for the feature. A post-qualifying redraw moved Matt Hirschman to the pole with Ryan Preece starting second. In the pits, TTOMS promoter Wayne Darling offered an extra $1000 to the winner’s purse if either Preece or Hirschman would elect to start in the rear of the field. Early Twitter chatter indicated that only Preece would take the gamble. Fans in the stands were only told of the bonus as the field assembled on the frontstretch, leaving them to wonder if both leaders would take the risk.
Hirschman declined to take the bonus and led the field to the green flag, immediately jumping into the race lead. Max Zachem, driving the Todd Ceravolo #16, settled into second for the early laps. At the other end of the field, Ryan Preece worked through traffic, trailed by Jon McKennedy, who withdrew early from his heat race and also started in the back. Hirschman set a torrid pace, lapping into the back of the field as the race approached halfway.
A spin by VMRS competitor Dylan Rock brought out a timely yellow flag with 53 laps remaining. Tommy Barrett was the only driver not to pit under the caution, opting to save his tires for a later stop. Hirschman left the pits in second, followed by Hinckley, Pennink and Pitkat. Preece and McKennedy restarted on the cusp of the top ten.
Barrett ceded the lead to Hirschman on the restart, but the yellow flew quickly as Anthony Nocella and Max Zachem made contact and went off-course on the backstretch. On the following restart, Rowan Pennink settled into second behind Hirschman as Barrett dropped through the top ten. Ryan Preece used the slow #9 as a pick to move up to fourth behind Woody Pitkat.
But Preece’s hopes of winning from the back, and claiming the $1000 bonus, went astray in a few laps. Andy Jankowiak made a bid for fourth place, and as he completed the pass, he and Preece locked nerf bars in turn two. Jankowiak and Preece went spinning off the turn to bring out the caution flag at lap 60. Preece was forced to the pits to check for suspension damage, and while he rejoined the field after minor adjustments, the car was never good enough to contend.
At the front of the field, Hirschman and Pennink continued to hold down the first two positions, with Les Hinckley working his way to third ahead of Woody Pitkat. Tommy Barrett, who made his pit stop under the yellow flag for Preece’s spin, worked his way back into the top five. Late caution flags for spins by Andy Jankowiak and Richard Savary bunched the field back up, giving Pennink and Hinckley a fighting chance.
Hirschman was stout on restarts, though, quickly securing the lead for himself as Pennink settled into second. On the final restart, Hirschman pulled away from Pennink, leaving him to battle for position as “Big Money Matt” cruised to an uncontested victory. Even with Tommy Barrett assuming the lead through pit stops midway through the race, Hirschman was scored as the leader for all 100 laps.
Behind Hirschman, the battle for second turned controversial. Coming off turn four on the final lap, Barrett and Pennink made contact racing for second, spinning Pennink into the infield grass. Barrett crossed the line second and joined Hirschman and Les Hinckley on the frontstretch following the checkered flag. After some deliberation (and a silent PA system), Barrett was penalized for rough driving and ushered away from the frontstretch. Hinckley advanced to second place, and Jon McKennedy was called from the pits to join the frontstretch crowd as the third-place finisher.
Woody Pitkat finished fourth, with Jon “Johnny Kay” Kievman of Deerfield Beach, FL fighting his way to fifth place. Ryan Preece was credited with fourteenth in the 21-car field. Rowan Pennink, who was fined for post-race contact with Tommy Barrett’s #9 car after the checkered flag, finished sixteenth, with Barrett scored in seventeenth, the final car on the lead lap.
In Victory Lane, Hirschman explained that passing on the bonus money was a business decision. With the Tri-Track title on the line, a win would clinch the title and the $5000 point fund. By comparison, the extra thousand to win was not worth the risk in the long run. (It bears considering that Hirschman’s car was merely average in traffic in July, only coming to life after significant adjustments and a well-timed pit stop.) Preece, with no such guarantee and therefore nothing to lose, had the luxury of taking the gamble. In the long run, the safe bet won out.
In an era when most major races are part of a larger sanctioning body or schedule, the Tri-Track Open Modified Series has found a way to balance the security of a points system with the excitement and the unrestricted battleground of open-competition, “run what you brung” racing. The Webber family and Star Speedway planted the seed with their first SBM 125 in 2011. Since then, it has been exciting to see the concept grow in prestige and in scale. Auto racing has been embracing “throwback” promotions over the past few years, and the Tri-Track program is more than a throwback in aesthetics. It represents a throwback in practice.
The Tri-Track Open Modified Series’ final race of 2017 is the Haunted Hundred at Seekonk (MA) Speedway in late October. Even with Hirschman clinching the championship early, there are still points positions and prize money up for grabs. With the other touring series wrapping up their schedules a week or two prior, this should be an open date on the schedule for most of the region’s top Modified competitors.