On one of the hottest nights of the summer, Jake Johnson managed to keep his cool.
In only his fifth start with the Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series, Johnson fended off challenges from veterans Woody Pitkat and Max Zachem to earn his first Modified victory in Saturday night’s SBM 125 XI at Star Speedway.
Just like that, a Modified star is born.
“It’s a huge win for me,” Johnson said, “but you know, it’s a huge win for everyone.”
The SBM 125 is one of Star Speedway’s signature events, introduced in 2011 as part of a renaissance for the Epping, N.H. quarter-mile. The success of the early SBM 125s not only opened the door for the return of open-competition Modified racing in New England, but laid the groundwork for what would become the Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series.
And Saturday night, it was a proving ground for a young racer making the transition from fendered cars to open-wheel ground-pounders.
The Rehoboth, Mass. teenager started second alongside Chase Dowling, swapping the lead with the Thunder Road feature winner in the early laps. Dowling marched back to the front after a few laps, and under a long green-flag run, he appeared to have the strongest car.
Johnson closed back in on Dowling in lapped traffic, waiting for an opportunity to arise. As Dowling struggled to get around Joey Jarvis, Johnson made a bold move around the two, taking the lead and leaving Dowling trapped behind slower cars. Johnson distanced himself from the field when Derek Robbie’s backstretch spin on lap 73 slowed the race for the first time.
The caution flag figured to be a big break for Matt Hirschman, who was within a few cars of going a lap down. The six-time SBM 125 winner had started shotgun on the field, courtesy of contact from a competitor in their heat race, and had committed to the tire-management game. The full field came into the pits for mid-race adjustments under the yellow, with Hirschman emerging in ninth.
But officials balked, docking Hirschman a lap for speeding in the pit area and burying his chances for a seventh win.
Matt Galko and Woody Pitkat brought the field to the green flag, with Johnson restarting third and Dowling fifth. A lap later, Austin Beers spun in turn four, stacking up the pack and bringing out another yellow. With the help of the choose cone, Dowling lined up second for the restart.
Galko’s time at the front was brief as he washed up the track on the restart, dropping through the field as Johnson and Max Zachem went to the point. Dowling found himself battling for third with Dylan Izzo and Pitkat when contact between Richard Savary and Matt Swanson brought out another caution.
Choose-cone decisions over the next few restarts kept both Zachem and Pitkat swapping second and third, but Johnson was in full control, breaking free of the second-place battle as soon as the green flag was in the air. Under green-flag racing, Zachem settled into second with Johnson continuing to show the way.
The final yellow flag of the evening flew with two laps to go, as Chris Pasteryak was caught up in a wreck while battling for sixth. Zachem took the high road to line up outside of Johnson for the restart, with Pitkat third and Ryan Doucette fourth.
But Zachem had no answer for Johnson, who took off like a shot and left the inside line open for a hard-charging Pitkat. With the battle for second place up for debate, Johnson cruised to a convincing victory.
With his win, Johnson became the fifth different winner of the SBM 125 in its 11-year history, joining 2019 winner Ron Silk, 2018 winner Todd Patnode, and multi-time winners Jon McKennedy and Hirschman. At only nineteen years old, Johnson is by far the youngest driver to win the event.
And in victory lane, Johnson was thankful for the opportunity.
“I’ve really got to thank my dad for spending a ton of hours on this,” he said. “I’ve gotta thank Ryan Stone. Without him, we would never be here.”
Pitkat won the second-place shuffle, coming up just short of challenging for his first Tri-Track victory since 2015.
“I really wanted to win this one for my dad,” Pitkat said. “We lost him two weeks ago today, so I was thinking of him. Just was driving as hard as I could, took the outside when I had the opportunity to. We just missed it a little bit on the pit stop.”
Zachem ended the evening in third, his best-ever Tri-Track finish and his first top-five run since 2014.
Doucette held on for a surprising fourth, with Dowling fading to fifth in the closing laps. With Hirschman finishing 21st, though, the 2021 Tri-Track title runner-up closed the gap on “Big Money Matt” for the series championship.
Anthony Nocella, a first-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour winner at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last week, was sixth, with Dylan Izzo wheeling Bob Horn’s familiar #50 to a seventh-place finish. Ronnie Williams, Austin Beers and Les Hinckley rounded out the top ten.
Saturday’s schedule was a moving target through an afternoon and evening that tested the limits of hydration. Officials bumped the day’s schedule back by one hour, hoping to reap the cooler temperatures of the early evening. During practice, sealant on the track melted away to expose the scoring wires, forcing a break to patch the sealant. A planned consi was scrapped, with all 29 cars advancing to the starting lineup after heats.
Johnson was hot in the heats, winning the third qualifying race, and he carried that momentum to the feature.
Fans can be forgiven for not counting the young racer among the early favorites. Before last fall, Johnson’s focus had been on fendered cars, racing American-Canadian Tour-style Late Models and Pro Stocks at his home track, Seekonk Speedway. Johnson graduated to touring racing in 2018, taking the checkered flag in his ACT Tour debut at Thompson Speedway before losing the win at the tech shed.
Johnson ran a limited slate of Pro All Stars Series events in 2019, leading eleven laps in the Oxford 250 before being eliminated in a hard crash. Johnson’s 2020 schedule was further reduced, and a stuck throttle in Oxford 250 practice that summer curtailed even that itinerary.
But Johnson became the subject of an offseason fairy tale that December. Running third in the closing laps of the Snowflake 100, the Pro Late Model prelude to the Snowball Derby, Johnson dodged last-lap chaos as Stephen Nasse and Bubba Pollard made contact racing for the lead. Johnson crossed the line second, but after what seemed like hours of deliberation, Nasse was penalized for his role in the incident, handing the big win to Johnson.
Johnson ran another limited PASS Super Late Model schedule in 2021, finishing second at Hudson Speedway and earning two top-ten finishes at Oxford Plains Speedway. It was a surprise, then, when Johnson arrived at the season-ending Haunted Hundreds at Seekonk not with a PASS Super Late Model, but with a Tour-type Modified, a type of car he had very few laps in.
In his first Modified race of note, Johnson wheeled the Ryan Stone-prepared car to a third-place finish. And while Johnson still runs the Super Late Model, finishing second earlier this year at Thompson, an open-wheeled future beckons.
Johnson has finished no worse than 12th in Tri-Track competition this year, with top-ten runs at Thunder Road and Seekonk. And at the wheel of the legendary “Ole’ Blue” for the Boehler family, Johnson has made four NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour starts, finishing fifth at Lee USA Speedway and seventh at Monadnock Speedway.
As Johnson learns, he only stands to grow more comfortable with the Modified. And he has already figured out how to win.
Johnson may not have been on the short list to win this week, but he certainly will be in the future.
Unofficial Results, Monaco Modified Tri-Track Series SBM 125 XI at Star Speedway:
1. (15MA) Jake Johnson
2. (88) Woody Pitkat
3. (20) Max Zachem
4. (55D) Ryan Doucette
5. (9CT) Chase Dowling
6. (92MA) Anthony Nocella
7. (50I) Dylan Izzo
8. (25) Ronnie Williams
9. (3) Austin Beers
10. (06) Les Hinckley
11. (89) Matt Swanson
12. (02) Mike Collins
13. (25NH) Brian Robie
14. (49) Chris Young
15. (76) Kirk Alexander
16. (50M) Carl Medeiros, Jr.
17. (5) Chris Pasteryak
18. (6) Matt Galko
19. (27) Derek Robbie
20. (55CT) Teddy Hodgdon
21. (60) Matt Hirschman
22. (50K) Matthew Kimball
23. (24) Todd Patnode
24. (07) Kyle Bonsignore
25. (21) Richard Savary
26. (06MA) Sammy Rameau
27. (4NH) Tommy Barrett
28. (04) Joey Jarvis
29. (55B) Robert Bloxsom III