By KEVIN RICE
RIVERHEAD, NY- Saturday night will be race number 69 for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at Riverhead Raceway, when an expected field of 28 drivers takes the green flag for the “Buzz Chew 200”. While things are always changing to a degree over time, since the first NWMT event at Riverhead in 1985 was won by Jimmy Spencer, the clash between tour regulars from other parts of the country, versus the Long Island drivers remains.
It is what makes this event special. No other tour race can compare in that respect, with half the field made up of local drivers. The success of Long Island racers through the years is well documented. From 2015-19, tour events were won by Island racers. However, the past four races have been won by invaders, as Doug Coby and Patrick Emerling have learned to love the quarter-mile bullring.
Emerling says that he used to dread seeing the George Washington Bridge, but now Riverhead might just be his best track. For Coby, Riverhead was the site of one of his worst crashes, when a stuck throttle sent him full bore into the turn one wall in 2013. After some years with top five finishes, he has now won three of the last four events.
Three Long Island drivers are ready to give their hopes of victory on Saturday their best efforts. All three finished in the top ten when the tour last visited on May 14.
“There’s always stuff that you can take away from the last race that you ran,” said fifth place finisher Timmy Solomito, who led laps and raced among the top three for most of that event. “My dad always says you’re only as good as the last couple of laps that you raced. Definitely learned a lot. I think we’re in a better spot for this race.
“We showed up there, put it on the pole and led laps. We had the car to beat. Hopefully we’ve got the car back to where it needs to be and go out there and do it again. With the higher temperatures the track will probably be a little bit more greasy.
“They’ve been putting some traction compound down on it lately, so we’ll see what the temperatures bring, and what the setup does. I typically don’t change too much from week-to-week there, so hopefully we’ll be good and can hit the pre-race adjustments really good and be up front.”
Speaking of hot temperatures, the forecasted hot sunny afternoon, leading into a warm night for racing, seems to result in tempers flaring much easier than on cooler or wetter nights, like we have had way too often in recent years. Will that happen again? Very likely that there are plenty of race fans, which will fill Riverhead Raceway on Saturday night, who wouldn’t mind that one bit.
“I don’t think it matters what the temperature is outside,” Riverhead native Eric Goodale countered. “All it takes is for something to happen on the track to rub you the wrong way. It could be 20 degrees at the Icebreaker or 100 degrees at Riverhead. I don’t think the temperature matters.”
For Goodale, this is another opportunity to return to victory lane at his home track, as he did in 2014, and with a season that has him second in the season standings, with five top ten finishes in six races, he too has hopes of returning to victory lane on Saturday.
“I double-dipped on that one,” Goodale said of his Riverhead tour win. “To win at my home track, and for it to be my first tour win was pretty meaningful. We’re having a pretty good season so far. To tag one on at the home track would be pretty sweet. I look forward to racing here. Makes traveling very much easier, but just being home and having my wife and kids there certainly helps that feeling.”
It seems that for outsiders to win at Riverhead they first have to take their lumps and stick with it. Drivers like Coby and Emerling are just two who have conquered Riverhead from the outside. Ryan Preece, Jimmy Blewett and Ted Christopher are a few others that have done the same. Newcomers like Austin Beers, Tommy Catalano and Ronnie Williams are on the list of outsiders who have the potential to one day conquer Riverhead.
For the Long Island drivers, it is a bit easier, because they get to hone their craft in weekly Modified events, and the highest finishing driver from Long Island in May was Dylan Slepian, a relative newcomer to Modified racing.
In four NWMT Riverhead starts, the 27-year-old from Dix Hills, NY has not finished worse than 11th, and his most recent fourth place run gives him a different feel coming into Saturday.
“One hundred percent,” he said when asked if this event feels different than coming into the May event. “When you get some positive momentum behind you it’s huge. We learned a lot of stuff in Florida and we’re just building a bigger playbook for these tour events. We carry our heads just a little bit higher this time, and we have that much more data for big events like this.
We are really excited coming into Saturday. We have high hopes. At the same time, there are a lot of variables in a Riverhead tour race. I sat and talked with my crew chief Brian Magee and car owner Rob Pelis. Last time was so good, because you have to have a perfect day on the tour to finish well. That is what we are focused on this time.
“A lot of it is unloading a really fast car, and being fast right off the bat in the first couple minutes of practice. That kind of sets the tone for the whole day. You get a good qualifying draw and can have good confidence all day long. Confidence is really one of the biggest variables of all.”
Slepian’s accomplishment in May was with a home-built car. Having success in this fashion is a rarity in today’s Modified racing. His team can ask others for advice, but does it do them any good, or are they on an Island in more ways than one this Saturday?
“Some of the most fun that I have had in racing is working on this deal because you just have to think about everything,” he explained. “A Modified is a Modified in a lot of respects. They react similar to the store bought cars, but when you ask for help from somebody that is used to working on an LFR or Fury car, they’re going to give you notes and numbers that are only relevant to that type of car.
“Even with things like control arm links, and camber spacers, and really nitty gritty stuff. You just have to really take a step back and look at it from kind of a 10-foot view. It is really refreshing, and it makes everything that we accomplish a lot more exciting.”
Saturday night it will all play out once again. The locals versus the traveling teams. Will Coby win again? Or maybe Ron Silk breaks through for a first Riverhead win after seven previous top five finishes? Will Ronnie Williams, Tommy Catalano or Jon McKennedy finally conquer Riverhead?
Will Justin Bonsignore ride the Monadnock wave to another hometown victory, or maybe top local drivers from the May race in Slepian, Solomito, John Barker, Kyle Soper, Goodale or John Beatty Jr. reach glory at their local track?
When the sun sets on Saturday, with track temperatures some 30 degrees cooler than when cars were on the track for practice, we will find out who hits the right setup and drives that perfect race to take the 69th NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour checkered in the long history of an ultimate challenge. A challenge created because of the locals versus traveling teams setting that is Riverhead Racewa