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Tri-Track Open Modified Series

Opinion: SBM 125 Has Inspired Options for Tour Mod Faithful

What started as a one-off open-competition race has evolved into a new approach for the top drivers in Tour-type Modified competition.

The SBM 125 has been a signature event of Star Speedway's schedule over the last ten years. The race's effect on New England's rich Modified ecosystem may extend far beyond the New Hampshire town of Epping. (Jeff Brown photo)

For a tenth time, the biggest Tour-type Modified race of the week is the one at one of New England’s shortest tracks.

Tonight at Star Speedway, over forty teams are expected to attempt to qualify for SBM X, the tenth running of the Tri-Track Open Modified Series’ original event.

The SBM 125 was born as a race to put the Epping, N.H. quarter-mile back on the map. But over the last ten years and nine races, the SBM 125 has cleared a unique path for independent Modified sanctioning in the Northeast.

A path that, at times, has shown little dependence on the tours from which it derived.

Tonight’s 125-lapper, the third and longest event on the Tri-Track calendar, is part of a six-race championship program. While most eyes will be on victory lane and the $65,000 purse up for grabs, there is a bigger picture, one that will be settled in October at Seekonk Speedway in Massachusetts.

But the inaugural SBM 125 was unencumbered by bigger pictures.

The inaugural SBM 125 was a collaborative effort between the Webber family, the longtime owners of Star, and racing journalist Kevin Rice. The Webbers were interested in a marquee event to rebuild Star’s image after a lease arrangement to operate the venerable track had crumbled. Rice had a vision for an old-school open-competition race drawing from the multitude of weekly and touring “small-block Modified” programs throughout greater New England.

The first-ever SBM 125, held on June 4, 2011, welcomed teams and drivers from NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour, western New Hampshire’s Modified Racing Series, the Race of Champions circuit from New York and Pennsylvania, and weekly programs like that of Riverhead Raceway on Long Island. One of those weekly drivers, Star’s own Jon McKennedy, beat a sixteen-car field that included the likes of Doug Coby, Ryan Preece, and the late Ted Christopher.

Jon McKennedy, who has two wins in the SBM 125 including this 2014 victory, easily won May’s Tri-Track prelude to the SBM 125. (Jeff Brown photo)

Over the next few years, the SBM 125 became one of Star’s signature races, a Tour-type Modified equivalent of the Supermodified-centric Star Classic held every fall. Additional support came from Modified superfan James Schaefer, the “Long Island Mod Maniac,” and with Rice and Schaefer promoting the event, car counts and purse money for the open show increased.

In 2014, the SBM 125 was the cornerstone of the all-new Tri-Track Open Modified Series, a points championship anchored by three big-dollar open-competition Tour-type Modified shows. Star was left off the five-race Tri-Track schedule in 2015, but returned in 2016.

And the SBM 125 has been part of the Tri-Track schedule ever since.

Even though Star Speedway moved on from Tour-type Modifieds as a weekly class several years ago, the SBM 125 has been a rallying point for Star. The race still complements the track’s rich open-wheel heritage, a heritage forged by midgets and winged Supermodifieds. From the moniker to the lap count, the SBM 125 is securely Star’s race, an event that would feel inappropriate if held at any other track.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Preece, a graduate of the Modified scene, was in the inaugural SBM 125 and still participates when his schedule allows. Preece’s presence was even felt in 2017, when fans cheered upon news that he had picked up a NASCAR Xfinity Series win in Iowa. (Jeff Brown photo)

And while the SBM 125 has been Matt Hirschman’s personal playground, other drivers have been able to shine, too. Jon McKennedy’s two wins raised his profile in the open-wheel community. Ryan Preece’s support of the race in recent years adds huge credibility to what outsiders might see as a strictly local event.

The greater legacy of the SBM 125, though, may very well be the opportunity the race has inspired in the Modified diaspora.

Within New England, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour has long been the most visible champion of the discipline. The “Tour-type” descriptor points to NASCAR’s Tour as the archetype of the Modified platform. But despite the Modifieds’ status as NASCAR’s oldest and most regionally-focused touring division, the cars are hardly a NASCAR exclusive.

Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut has its thriving SK Modifieds, and nearby Thompson Speedway’s own local program is headlined by the similar Sunoco Modifieds. Former Tour racer Jack Bateman broke from NASCAR in 2004 to start the Modified Racing Series, a regional touring program with shorter features and fewer long road trips.

But disparate rules packages often kept weekly Modifieds and MRS Modifieds and NASCAR Tour Modifieds in their own walled gardens most of the time, with little opportunity for crossover.

The SBM 125 changed that.

The SBM 125 was a proof of concept that an open-competition race with a solid purse could draw from those walled gardens and present a competitive environment for all. From the SBM 125 came the Tri-Track Open Modified Series, giving those racers multiple opportunities to step out of their walled gardens.

Since then, a multitude of opportunities have popped up to give Modified racers competitive alternatives to the established tours.

Promoter Gary Knight organized a $15,000-to-win event at Monadnock Speedway in 2016, setting the groundwork for his own ten-race Modified Touring Series in 2017. Veteran promoter Josh Vanada was next to test the waters with his own series in 2019. Vanada’s Bullring Bash Quarter Mile Challenge promised events at Vermont’s Thunder Road and New Hampshire’s White Mountain Motorsports Park. Neither series was long-lived; the MTS lasted one season, while only one of Vanada’s three scheduled races took the green flag.

Stafford, meanwhile, added open-competition Modified events to its schedule in 2018, with four such events for this year. And with no NASCAR Tour events on their 2021 schedule, Thompson Speedway lessees Cris Michaud and Tom Mayberry organized the Outlaw Open Modified Series to sanction major events at the big oval. April’s annual Icebreaker was an Outlaw event, as will be October’s World Series, in which the Thompson 300 returns to the schedule for the first time in over ten years.

And while Jim Schaefer and Tri-Track founding partner Dick Williams are no longer involved with the series, they remain committed to the cause, backing a $10,000-to-win one-off Modified race last summer at Claremont Motorsports Park in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley.

Granted, there are a lot of moving parts involved between the teams, tracks and sanctioning organizations of Modified racing. And considering the unrest and doubt that has persisted between supporters of Modified racing and NASCAR’s vision for the Modified Tour, it is impossible to say some of these developments would not have happened if not for the SBM 125 opening the door.

But the SBM 125 did open the door.

And eleven years later, with big stars in the pits and big money on the line, the SBM 125 has been a success on all fronts.

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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.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. James Osterhoudt

    July 26, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    Yes it has taken 10 years for the Whelen drivers to catch up. There is still one they have an incredibly hard time TRYING to beat!

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