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Northeastern short-trackers find a needed outlet in simulator racing

With real racing on hold, a throwback iRacing league keeps the passion alive

NEP Busch North @ Stafford
Thanks to Cory Casagrande (52) and Zane Ferrell (77), a number of Northeastern racers and supporters are using iRacing to get their pandemic racing fix, living out the days of the NASCAR Busch North Series through Casagrande and Ferrell's iRacing league. (Jeff Brown screencap)

With spectator sports sitting idle under the danger of a worldwide pandemic, auto racing has been uniquely able to fill the void, with simulator racing providing an outlet for fans and competitors alike. But satisfying the need for speed is hardly limited to the sport’s top professionals.

On Thursday evenings, a close circle of Northeast short track racers and supporters has taken to digitally rendered replicas of their usual haunts, swapping paint and stoking their competitive fires through their own private iRacing league.

And in the process, the NEP Busch North Series pays tribute to one of the Northeast’s most beloved racing organizations.

NEP Oxford Plains 2020

The availability in iRacing of some of New England’s most legendary short tracks, like Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine, made a Busch North Series throwback league a possibility. (Jeff Brown screencap)

Super Late Model racers Cory Casagrande and Zane Ferrell formed the fledgling league in the offseason. Casagrande, a Pro All Stars Series and Granite State Pro Stock Series competitor, and Ferrell, a regular at western Pennsylvania’s Jennerstown Speedway Complex, were looking for winter entertainment before the racing season got underway in April.

“I just got back into iRacing after some winter-time boredom and we both just hated doing official races,” Casagrande said. “Our goal was to keep the series very small with only our close friends racing with us.”

LOOKING BACK: Ryan Kuhn dominates Northeast eClassic

The NEP league, named for Casagrande’s New England heritage and Ferrell’s Pennsylvania roots, ran a few iRacing events over the winter, using the familiar Super Late Model platform. But the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in early 2020, and the ensuing efforts to slow the spread of the virus, hinted that the already-long Northeast offseason could grow longer.

Casagrande, from Stafford Springs, Conn., had even hauled his completed car to a racing expo in western Massachusetts in mid-March, only for the expo to be called off hours before the doors were to open. Casagrande and team had to load up and head back home.

“For the first time in a long time, I had my car ready about two months before the season actually started,” said Casagrande. “When COVID-19 started cancelling things further out, Zane and I decided we needed something to keep ourselves entertained and competitive, since there are no other sports happening.”

The iRacing platform has no shortage of league opportunities for restless racers, and Casagrande was already looking for a change from their earliest races. “Last season we ran Super Late Models,” he explained, “and it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable type of car to race in the game.”

NEP Watkins Glen 2020

While the Busch North Series’ heritage is securely rooted in short track racing, the series was at home on road courses as well, and Casagrande and Ferrell opted to include Watkins Glen on their league’s schedule. (Jeff Brown screencap)

So the league administrators put out a request for ideas. But instead of merely suggesting a car to race, one racer suggested a theme.

“Dylan Kopec, a longtime friend and Modified driver, came up with the idea to run a Busch North-type series at short tracks with the ARCA car. As soon as he said that, we were sold. We knew that’s what we needed to do to run some cool throwback schemes.”

The NASCAR Busch North Series stands as one of the Northeast’s best-loved and most-missed racing series. Now branded as the ARCA Menards Series East, the division is a development battleground for raw talent and rising stars with eyes on NASCAR’s national touring series.

But in its heyday, the Busch North Series was purely regional. Formed in 1987 to replace the defunct NASCAR North Tour, the Busch North Series was modeled on NASCAR’s second-tier national Busch Series, with some cost-friendly rules changes. Visiting tracks from Maine to western Pennsylvania, with occasional “combination races” with the Busch Series, the series became the Northeast’s most prestigious level of competition before transitioning into a development division in the mid-2000s.

With financial backing not only from NASCAR, but from manufacturers and major national and regional sponsors, the Busch North Series was a viable option for New England short track racers seeking the ultimate challenge. Drivers like Kelly Moore, Dick McCabe and Brad Leighton achieved their greatest success with the series, while others like Dave Dion and Mike Stefanik added to their legacies. Other drivers, like Ricky Craven, Steve Park and Martin Truex, Jr., stopped through the series on their way to greater goals in racing.

“Being a Northeastern guy, you have to recognize some of the Busch North Series,” Casagrande said. “My own personal tie was my cousin Charles Lewandoski, who ran in the series, and I remember going to watch races in middle school and going to the shop to see his car.”

NASCAR’s sanctioning and promotion gave the regional series a national aura. “Growing up, the Busch North Series was the closest thing to [NASCAR’s] Cup Series you could find at the local level, and I used to love how loud they were compared to other race cars.”

With the ARCA Menards Series car, virtually identical to the Busch North platform, available in iRacing, it seemed like a perfect fit, while introducing a new challenge for even experienced iRacers.

And as entries grew for the NEP Busch North Series, Casagrande found that his reverence for the past was not misplaced. “I think when we came out with the rules and the throwback idea, it got the guys more excited than a normal iRacing league would,” he said.

Matt Shinoski WGI 2020

Western Pennsylvania iRacer Matt Shinoski leads Modified star Matt Swanson into Watkins Glen’s Turn 11. (Jeff Brown screencap)

“The guys” are Casagrande’s and Ferrell’s networks of friends in the racing community. Most in the league are drivers themselves. Casagrande, his brother Kyle, and cousin Lewandoski are all regulars, as are Ferrell and fellow Jennerstown racer Anthony Aiello. John Peters, Wyatt Alexander and Evan Beaulieu hail from Maine’s competitive Super Late Model community. Dylan Kopec and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour racer Matt Swanson represent the open-wheel ranks. Stafford Motor Speedway racer and promoter David Arute and Street Stock competitor Mike Hopkins carry the torch for the Casagrandes’ home track. Defending GSPSS champion Joey Doiron and series regular Luke Hinkley are recent additions to the league roster. Even former Busch Series driver Danny O’Quinn, Jr. is in on the fun.

The short-track media mavens have not been left out, either, with social media promoters and track photographers John Miller and Tom Morris trading cameras and laptops for steering wheels on Thursday nights. Not that Morris strays too far from his usual at-track duties; Casagrande tapped him to handle scoring for the all-important championship standings. “We brought in our friends Tom and Kenny [Kibbey, the league’s race director] to help with how we were running things as it started to grow more than we anticipated,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, a few of the league’s racers have direct ties to the Busch North era. Matt Swanson’s father John was a Busch North regular in the mid-1990s. Matt Kentfield’s family worked for several years on the cars of Connecticut veteran Tom Bolles. Lewandoski made 24 starts in the series before moving to North Carolina, where he runs a performance shop. Lewandoski is not Casagrande’s sole link to the series; his girlfriend’s father, Bruce Haley, won the third-ever Busch North standalone feature at Oxford Plains Speedway in 1987.

“I like having guys in the league that share those memories,” Casagrande said. “The series definitely holds a special place in a lot of their hearts.”

Even the league’s eight-race schedule draws from the Busch North history books, with races at Thompson Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Oxford Plains Speedway, Watkins Glen International, and Stafford Motor Speedway. However, with most of the series’ other stops over the years unavailable for iRacing, Casagrande had to be creative. “We figured we’d give guys a break with only one road course,” he said, regarding the absence of Lime Rock Park from the schedule. The league’s next three events are at USA International Speedway, Lucas Oil Raceway and South Boston Speedway, tracks that Casagrande and Ferrell felt fit the spirit of the league. “The other ones were essentially based on what we thought would be fun tracks with this type of car. South Boston was on the [East Series] schedule, so that played a small role.”

After caution-plagued events at Thompson and NHMS, though, the challenging confines of Oxford and the hills and twists of Watkins Glen gave reason for concern, as drivers adapted to the heavy ARCA/K&N car. “I thought that would be a major issue,” Casagrande admitted. “But then you look at the way things used to be: big horsepower, heavy stock cars on small tracks, guys had to save their tires and drive more carefully. After our first few races, the guys got used to it and seem to be racing really well.”

John Peters NEP 2020

SLM racer John Peters debuted his Mike Stefanik tribute (with his own sponsors, of course) in victory lane at Stafford Motor Speedway last Thursday. (Jeff Brown screencap)

John Peters has been the star of the season thus far, dominating races and riding a three-race win streak to the top of the points standings over Kopec and Ferrell. But the quality of the competition, and the respect shown between racers, has Casagrande “extremely happy” with the direction of the growing league.

“We’ve got a good group right now,” he says, “with a few new guys coming in and out, but the core is good and our races have improved miles from our first show.”

The quality of the competition is important for another reason: the final three races of the NEP Busch North Series’ inaugural season will be streamed live on YouTube through VidaneTV. VidaneTV has provided live streaming for several similar leagues in the Northeast and beyond, including leagues for Hudson (N.H.) Speedway, New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway and the regional East Coast Winter League.

It’s a measure of success that Casagrande never anticipated.

Cory & Matt 2019

Cory Casagrande and writer Matt Wiernasz chat before a GSPSS race last July. While he’s glad to see his iRacing league succeed, Casagrande can’t wait to get back to the real thing. (Jeff Brown photo)

“I would say our main goal was to get fifteen guys to show up every week,” he says. “That has turned into over twenty starters every week, and we topped it out so there would be only thirty registered at a time. We play the game to have fun with our friends first and foremost, so we weren’t really interested in the concept of sending ten or twenty guys home every week. Fortunately we got some good kids who are all ‘racers,’ not in the sense that they all drive stock cars, but they are all a big part of short track racing in some way.”

But a Super Late Model still sits idle in the Casagrande Motorsports shop, and no level of league success can overcome the desire to turn some real laps.

“Obviously, there is nothing like the real thing,” Casagrande says. “We are racers and we always want to race, but sometimes you have to improvise. When you can’t even go to the bar on a Friday night, you have to dig to keep yourself occupied.”

The next three NEP Busch North Series iRacing events will be streamed Thursday evenings (April 30, May 7 and May 14) at VidaneTV’s YouTube channel. Qualifying is scheduled for 8:15pm with the features to follow immediately.

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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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