Each offseason brings change on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, but when the 2014 campaign begins with this week’s Icebreaker 150 presented by Town Fair Tire, there will be a host of newcomers and familiar faces in different places at Thompson (Conn.) Speedway Motorsports Park.
Leading the sea of change are three past champions that are now with different teams than when we last saw them in last year’s Thompson World Series. The headlining transaction saw 2012 champ Doug Coby move to the No. 2 of Mike Smeriglio III Racing while 2008 titlist Ted Christopher has combined his own resources with those of Berkley Racing to return the No. 13 to the tour. Seven-time champ Mike Stefanik has reunitd with car owner Ed Marceau and will pilot a Chevrolet numbered 1 on a part-time basis.
In complementary moves, Matt Hirschman has returned to the tour for the first time since 2011 to replace Coby in the Darling Racing No. 52, and rookie Tommy Barrett Jr. supplanted Stefanik in the Our Racing No. 22. Bryon Chew also stepped out of his family’s No. 88 and tabbed Woody Pitkat to fill the seat for the coming season. Consequently, the Hillbilly Racing No. 79 that Pitkat left will have rookie Spencer Davis behind the wheel for a part-time northern slate while competing full-time with the Whelen Southern Modified Tour.
At least two new teams are set to join the tour for the first time in 2014. Keith Rocco, the 2012 Sunoco Rookie of the Year, plans to run all eight Connecticut races for car owner John Rufano in the No. 48 while Melissa Fifield will contend for top rookie honors this year in her family’s No. 01.
So if you’re heading to Thompson for Icebreaker weekend, print out an entry list and grab a program, and get settled in for the opening of the 30th season of Whelen Modified Tour competition.
The Race: The Icebreaker 150 presented by Town Fair Tire at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park will launch the 2014 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points season and will be the first of three tour events this year at the famed northeastern Connecticut oval.
The Procedure: The maximum starting field for the Icebreaker is 37 cars, including provisionals. The first 32 cars will have secured starting positions based on two-lap qualifying. The remaining five spots will be awarded through the provisional process. The race is scheduled for 150 laps (93.75 miles) and the tire change rule is three tires, any position.
The Track: A .625-mile high-banked oval that opened in 1940, Thompson was the first entirely asphalt track in the nation, and was the largest in New England for five decades. Thompson has played host to 123 Whelen Modified Tour races all-time, more than any other track, and is one of two facilities to welcome the tour in each of its now 30 years of competition.
Race Winners: There have been 33 different race winners at Thompson, led by Mike Stefanik’s 15 victories. Stefanik is also the defending winner of the Icebreaker 150 while Ted Christopher has the most triumphs in the event with four.
Pole Winners: There have been 41 different pole winners at Thompson, led by Tony Hirschman’s 13. Stefanik earned the pole for this race last year. Bobby Santos set the tour’s track qualifying record at 18.237 seconds (123.376 mph) on April 10, 2011.
THOMPSON RACE NOTES
Tour Set for 30th Campaign: The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour returns to where it all started to launch the 30th season of competition with the Icebreaker 150 presented by Town Fair Tire. Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park played host to the inaugural Whelen Modified Tour event on March 31, 1985; a race appropriately won by the “King of the Modifieds,” NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans.
Icebreaker History: The Whelen Modified Tour and Icebreaker weekend have a long history together that will now span all 30 seasons of the tour. Not only was the inaugural tour event part of the 1985 Icebreaker, but the mighty modifieds have opened their season at Thompson 17 times in the previous 29 seasons, including each year since 2002. This is the 40th Thompson Icebreaker overall.
Garage Grand Opening: As a centerpiece of Thompson’s multi-million dollar capital improvement project that began last fall, the multi-purpose racing facility built a 30-stall garage that will be utilized for the first time for an oval track race this weekend. Whelen Modified Tour teams will be the inaugural inhabitants of the garage in preparation for the Icebreaker 150 presented by Town Fair Tire. Thompson officials, in conjunction with Whelen Modified Tour officials and competitors, will mark this special occasion with grand opening ceremonies of the new building on Saturday morning just prior to the official start of Icebreaker race weekend.
Other TSMP Upgrades: In addition to the new garage, there are other various facility upgrades at Thompson that complement the oval as well as the revitalized road course. Among the highlights is a new timing and control tower, a new pro shop for fan and racing merchandise, and a pedestrian bridge that will be open later in the year.
Sharing the Wealth at Big T: Since a four-race winning streak posted by Ted Christopher in 2010-11, nine of the last 10 Whelen Modified Tour events at Thompson have featured a different driver in Victory Lane. During that span only Bobby Santos has won twice at “Big T”. The recent run of parity stands out across the history of the tour at the .625-mile speedway, where five different drivers have won at least four races in a row, and there have been 13 instances of drivers winning back-to-back races.
Christopher, Stefanik Shine in the Icebreaker: Ted Christopher tops the Icebreaker winners list with four while Mike Stefanik is tied for second with Rick Fuller at three. Christopher’s and Stefanik’s longevity on the tour has helped to build an extensive body of work, but both have remained highly-competitive in this event in recent seasons. Stefanik is the defending Icebreaker winner and has finished in the top five in the race four seasons in a row. In the last 10 Icebreakers, Christopher won four times and finished outside the top five just twice.
Fuller Honors Cancer Survivors: Rob Fuller has teamed with 15-40 Connection for a second season in a row, and in 2014 his No. 15 Chevrolet team will welcome different cancer survivors as honorary pit crew members. The non-profit 15-40 Connection, based in Westborough, Mass., raises awareness of cancer occurring in young adults ages 15 to 40. Survivor Dave McGrath will be with the team this weekend at Thompson. Now 39, McGrath was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 18.
HOME TRACKS: Rocco To Vie For Seventh Connecticut Title
Keith Rocco will once again run the Connecticut modified triangle full-time in pursuit of a seventh consecutive NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state title. The Wallingford, Conn., driver is set to defend his track championships at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park and Waterford Speedbowl, and will also vie for the title at Stafford Motor Speedway in SK Modifieds. Rocco, who intends to run all eight NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races in his home state, will also compete full-time in the NWAAS late model divisions at Thompson and Waterford.
LAST TIME OUT: Daytona
The 2014 competition season opened on Feb. 18 on the short track at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Here are some highlights from the non-points UNOH Battle At The Beach combination event between the Whelen Modified and Whelen Southern Modified Tours:
• Doug Coby capitalized on the late-race misfortune of dominant polesitter Ryan Preece to drive to Victory Lane. It was the second big-money, non-points NASCAR modified victory since 2011 for Coby, who represented the northern tour in the event.
• Preece led the first 147 laps from the pole, but a lap-down car made contact with him on Lap 141 that resulted in damage to his left rear wheel.
• Jason Myers crossed the line second to represent the highest-finishing Whelen Southern Modified Tour competitor in the race.
NEXT TIME OUT: Stafford
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will return to action with the 43rd Annual NAPA Auto Parts Spring Sizzler 200 on Sunday, April 27. Bobby Santos is the defending winner of the Spring Sizzler, an event that the tour has headlined each year since 1989, and 28 times overall. Practice and Coors Light Pole qualifying is set for Saturday, April 26 and the race will go green on Sunday at approximately 3:15 p.m.