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Meet Stafford Speedway SK Modified® Veteran Todd Owen

(Stafford Springs, CT)—Those who regularly follow the SK Modified® division at Stafford Speedway most likely are very familiar with Todd Owen, driver of the #81 Cooker Construction Chevrolet.  Owen made his Stafford debut in 1996 and has been racing full-time at the Connecticut half-mile facility in the SK Modified® division since 2003.  Owen won SK Modified® Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and finished in the top-10 of the points standings for 17 consecutive years dating back to his rookie season, including 3 runner-up finishes.  Owen comes into the 2020 season eager to repeat his performance of last season that saw him end up tied with Ronnie Williams for the track championship with Williams holding the tie-breaker following the final race of the season. Fresh off of a career season that saw him score 4 wins we sat down with Todd to take a look at how he began his career and how it has evolved over the years.

Childhood Influence

Owen got his first taste of racing through his father, who sponsored a car at the old Riverside Park Speedway.

“My father sponsored a modified car at Riverside Park so I was around racing as a kid but I wasn’t that close to it,” said Owen.  “I started helping out as a shop gopher when I was around 14 and when I was 16 and got my driver’s license, I bought a Strictly Stock and started racing at Riverside.”

Riverside Park Speedway

With no prior racing experience under his belt, Owen dove head first into his rookie season at Riverside. 

“I didn’t have any go kart or quarter midget experience, I guess I got a late start in racing if you look at when kids are getting started nowadays,” said Owen.  “Thanks to my father’s business, Tom Owen Transport, I was able to drive a car long before I actually got my driver’s license.  Maybe I had a little bit of an advantage there, but I still knew nothing about race cars when I first got started.  My father sent me to a 3-day school in Florida that was a lot of classroom time, learning about race cars more than it was about driving. I was like a kindergartner going to a trigonometry class.  You can have stuff thrown at you all day long but I had no idea what the guy was teaching us about.  The biggest struggle for me was learning about race cars and how to make them go fast.  Today you can buy a car and go fast but I had to learn my own ways to make the car faster with the setup.  I remember the first time I went to the racetrack we bought four left side tires because I didn’t know any better that there were left and right side tires.  I didn’t know how to change oil or anything like that, I had to learn everything about the car.  Luckily through my father’s background I had good people around me and the harder you want to work and the harder you went looking for people to help you, the more help you could get.”

Surrounded with good crew help, Owen not only won Rookie of the Year honors but he was able to win a race during his rookie season.

“My first season at Riverside I won Rookie of the Year and won a race,” said Owen.  “After I found the right people and had made some friends I was able to win late in the year.  It was awesome to win.  Riverside was some tough competition and I remember there were 40 Strictly Stocks showing up to race every week.  We raced on Saturdays and Sundays so we probably ran about 50 times a season. It really felt like we had accomplished something when we won that first race.  I think the hardest thing I learned is the fact that just because the car rolls off the track one week doesn’t mean it’s ready to go racing the next week.  We had no tools, no equipment, no nothing, so everything was a struggle.”

After several seasons in the Strictly Stock division, Owen made the move up to Late Model competition at Riverside.  Just as he did in the Strictly Stock division, Owen immediately found success in the Late Model division.

“After 2 or 3 years racing Strictly Stocks, I moved up to the Late Model division and we had success right away,” said Owen.  “I almost won my first race and we won Rookie of the Year and I think we finished around 8th in points.  We had the right people and the right motor combination.  That was a deal where the guys on my team weren’t sure I was ready to move up but I thought I was so it was a bit of a gamble but it all worked out for us.  My father passed away 4 races into that season and life changed dramatically for me after that.  I was 19 at the time and losing my father was like losing a partner so I was all on my own.  I went from having a Snap-On Toolbox to having a mortgage payment.”

Despite losing his father, Owen went on to win the Late Model championship in 1996 but he would soon be looking for a new place to race with Riverside Park shutting down following the 1999 season.  It was during this time period that Owen first met Butch Shea, who he would later become partners with in building modified chassis.

“I ran Late Models for 2 years and won the championship in 1996, and during that time I met and became friends with Butch Shea,” said Owen.  “Butch built cars for Ed and Eddy Carroll and I started working with him.  That was my first job out of high school and I was getting paid to work on racecars, so that was fun while it lasted for about 4 months until I had to find a real job with Cooker Construction and I’ve been working for them for about 27 years now.  It was sad to see Riverside go but at the same time if you’re a racer you just move on to the next race track.  Instead of focusing on what is not here anymore, try to focus on what the future holds.  It was cool that I got to run both Stafford and Riverside during Riverside’s last season and I can say I won races at both tracks in the same weekend.”

Stafford Speedway

With Riverside closing down Owen needed a new track to call home.  He dabbled in Stafford’s Late Model division, making 5 starts in 1996 with a best finish of 12th.  When Larry Litwin came calling prior to the 1999 season with an opportunity for a ProStock ride at Stafford, Owen’s decision was made for him.

“Before the 1999 season Larry Litwin from Cable Construction came to me and said he wanted to put a ProStock car together for Stafford,” said Owen.  “I had built a Late Model for Stafford and ran 5 races in 1996 but he came to me and put together a car with the best of the best equipment.  He had done some research about me and he told me he wanted to go racing and win races.  I came into the ProStock division at the same time as Doug Coby and I’m pretty proud he mentioned me on Stafford’s Bottom Shot Podcast as one of his toughest competitors.  We had some real battles in the ProStocks.”

Owen won 3 races as a ProStock rookie at Stafford in 1999 and he won 4 times and was the runner-up in the ProStock standings to Coby in 2000.  Following the 2000 season, Stafford dropped the ProStock division and Owen was once again left looking for somewhere to race.

“I remember I was pretty mad,” said Owen.  “Stafford dropping the ProStocks basically put Butch Shea out of business and I really loved the ProStock cars.  At the end of the year the question was do I build an SK or go race somewhere else?  I had just built a brand new ProStock car before the season ended so I had a brand new car that never raced, which was a double kick in the butt.  I went to race at Thompson and Monadnock in 2001 and 2002.  If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have just built an SK and gone racing with that but at the time I didn’t really like the SK’s and I thought the racing was terrible.”

Despite his misgivings about racing in the SK Modified® division, when Brad and Linda Hietala from Reliable Welding and Speed came calling in 2002 with an offer to drive a team car to Brad’s #9 car, Owen took the opportunity and the rest is history.

“Brad and Linda Hietala came to me and asked me to drive a team car to Brad in the SK Modifieds®,” said Owen.  “I had always bought parts from Brad and Linda and they had seen the drive and motivation I had to go racing and that’s how I got started in the SK Modified® division.  I came to Stafford for the first time in 2002 and tried to qualify for the last 3 races but only made the Fall Final.  There were 50 something SK cars trying to qualify every week back then so just making the race was a feat because I wasn’t in the handicap.”

While Owen had found almost immediate success in his full fender experience, he would find the open wheel world of SK Modified® racing much more difficult.  Owen won Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 but wouldn’t find victory lane until the fourth race of the 2005 season, a span of 44 races.  Owen did record runner-up finishes in the points standings in 2004 behind Ted Christopher and again in 2005 behind Lloyd Agor.

“The SK’s were a struggle for me,” said Owen.  “That was the hardest transition I’ve ever made in racing.  I had driven a modified a few times at Riverside but it was nothing like racing an SK at Stafford.  I’ll tell anyone who races that the SK Modifieds® at Stafford are the toughest division in racing because everyone has the same stuff and goes the same speed.  I had won races in every division I had ever been in my first season until I got to the SK‘s at Stafford.  It was tough but challenging.  I finished second in points my second year behind Teddy and we were a consistent car and I finished races every week.  Back then, if you just finished races, you were doing something.  I remember James Civali won a few races that season but he also crashed a few times and we finished in front of him in the standings.”

Owen’s first SK Modified® win came early in the 2005 season.  He was able to win a second race later that season to put himself in a prime position to claim the championship at the season ending Fall Final.  Owen was where he needed to be to claim the championship when his transmission broke with only 10 laps left in the season.

“That first SK Modified® win felt awesome,” said Owen.  “The one cool thing about that win was Brad [Hietala] and myself built that car brand new for me to race at Stafford, so that was the first car that I welded together and had my hands in.  At the time we were the only ones doing cars like that.  I felt like that was pretty exciting to win in something that I put together.  Brad always told me that it was extra special any time you can win in a car that you put together.  I should have won the championship in 2005 but I broke the transmission with 10 laps to go in the Fall Final.  I was one restart away from winning the championship.  It was devastating.  We had changed over to the Richmond transmission that season and a lot of guys were having issues with dog rings.  It never cost me a race that year but we broke pieces numerous times that season.  I had changed the dog rings right before that race just to be sure it was fresh and I think I shifted the car maybe 3 times during the race.”

Owen would win 2 more races in 2006 but he soon found wins hard to come by as from 2007 through 2015, Owen only managed to win once in 2012.  Owen’s performance was consistent but he wasn’t quite at the level to be a weekly contender for wins.

“After the 2005 season we were performing about the same year after year and I felt like my program was going downhill and the biggest thing was myself,” said Owen.  “I wasn’t in a good spot and for the next several seasons I worked on getting myself better.  I wasn’t having fun coming to the track and racing and I wasn’t having fun in life in general.  You have to be in the right frame of mind to be successful in racing and I was in a downward spiral.  In 2015 I made a change in my personal life and we started going back up.  If you look at stats before 2015 and wonder what was going on or was something wrong with the car, it was all me.  The last few years have been great and I’m still racing the same cars and equipment.  5 years ago I had 1 car and now we have 10 cars out there so there’s a lot more going on.  In 2014 I was pretty much done and didn’t want to continue on racing.  I pretty much didn’t want to even get out of bed at that point.  I had reached my bottom and one day I got a call from my goddaughter who left me a voicemail and told me that no matter what she loved me and that was all I needed.”

With Owen looking to get his on track performance back into winning form, he called on his old friend Butch Shea.

“Things eventually got to a point where I felt like I needed to make a change and go back to my own number 81 in 2012 and Butch started helping me out with the cars,” said Owen.  “I kind of dragged him back into the sport that he had walked away from.  He had been helping me during the season with some stuff over the phone and after coming to a race to watch me in person he told me “You’re no Kyle Busch, but you don’t suck that bad” and he was going to start helping me out with the car.  I took what he said as a compliment and we ended up making some changes to the car at the end of 2011 and at the start of 2012 and I saw some huge improvements with the car design and the 2012 season was the first season that we used the car design that we’re using now.”

After winning once in 2012, Owen didn’t win another SK Modified® feature event until the middle of the 2016 season.  Owen would win once more in 2016 before not winning again until 2019, where he scored a career high 4 wins.  With his car back on a winning track, Owen has started to branch out and not only build cars, but rent them as well. 

“I like helping young drivers and helping them out gives me a lot of gratification,” said Owen.  “I started with Cody Gneiting and he decided he didn’t want to race anymore and walked away and then David [Arute] was the next one.  We saw an ad for a car and I originally started helping him with installing the engine and seat at my shop for him to make his SK Light debut.  Once David decided he wanted to move up to the SK Modified® division, he wanted to use one of our cars so we put a car together for him and Josh Wood with Josh’s car now being the car that Tyler Leary drives.  My old Reliable car was just sitting around in my shop and Bryan [Narducci] was driving David’s Limited Late Model car at the time so we figured we’d throw something together and let Bryan take it out and see what he could do.  Now for 2020 we have Josh Carey and Derek Debbis coming in as rookies, so we’ve gone in four years from helping a couple of people to where we are now.  Looking at the future, the rental business, helping younger drivers out, and building cars is something that I really enjoy.  It’s something that I can do that I won’t make a living from it but it’ll help me with my race team.  I figured if I built some cars that would help me to race because sponsorships are a lot harder to come by then they used to be.  When I first started I didn’t know how to weld anything and now people see my welds and they think it’s great work.  Anything you want in life is worth working hard for.  I think it was 2014 or 2015 we built our first in house brand new car from scratch.  We don’t want to be in the chassis building business, we pick and choose who we want to deal with.  We’re not looking to go out and sell 100 cars.  We’re up to 10 cars now and that’s a lot to take care of.”

Between SK Modified® and Open Modified cars for himself, SK Modified® cars for Bryan Narducci, Tyler Leary, and David Arute, and SK Light cars for Norm Sears, Derek Debbis, and Josh Carey, Owen was ready to enter the 2020 season at full speed but the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily put his racing plans on the back burner.

“With so many cars now I wanted to really be prepared and going into 2020 I was the best prepared I’ve ever been for a season and then the Covid-19 pandemic happened,” said Owen.  “I don’t like to set unrealistic goals for myself so I don’t want to say if I don’t win the championship then it’s going to be a bad year.  The goal for this year is to have another good season and finish consistently in the top-5.  If we can do that the wins will come for us.  I like winning but I like finishing second and third too.”

In racing, almost every driver has sponsors and crew that have helped them get to where they are and Owen is no different.  Owen quite possibly has the longest running sponsorship out of anyone at Stafford with Steve and Debbie Barnes from Cooker Construction partnering with Owen for the past 27 years.

“I first met Steve and Debbie Barnes from Cooker Construction with my father in a coffee shop when I was 16 and just starting out racing,” said Owen.  “They wanted to give us a couple hundred dollars to buy tires and I’ve worked for them for 27 years now so it’s kind of like I’m with them and they’re with me.  I definitely wouldn’t be here today without their help and they’ve helped me race ever since my father passed away which has been 27 years now.  Steve and Debbie have been like family to me and they’ve been with me through all the ups and downs I’ve had.  Donny Wood from R.A.D. Auto Machine, he’s a great engine builder and he’s become a close friend now.  I don’t like to list crew guys because if you miss one person they get upset so everyone who is on my team and who has been on my team and obviously Butch Shea, I wouldn’t be where I am now without everyone’s help.”

For more information, visit www.staffordspeedway.com, checkout Stafford Speedway on Facebook or Twitter, or contact the track office at 860-684-2783.

STAMPED: Bonsignore Marks His Ground As Title Favorite in 2020

By: Kyle Souza / Photo: Nate Smallwood/NASCAR

Talk about making a statement.

Justin Bonsignore made his presence felt Sunday when the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour 2020 season took the green flag at Jennerstown Speedway, three months delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earning the pole award, and leading all 133 laps en route to the victory in the Morocco Welding/Wade Cole Memorial presented by Dunleavy Truck and Trailer Repair, Bonsignore made it clear he is going to be the favorite for the championship.

And that should come as no surprise. At the start of 2018, Bonsignore teamed with Ryan Stone (crew chief) for the first time, and since then, the combination has sparked success on a new level. Bonsignore has won 15 of 33 races teamed with Stone, including seven at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut. He’s climbed from well outside the top-15 on the Whelen Modified Tour all-time wins list to eighth, just one away from tying Doug Coby and Mike Ewanitsko, who have 28. Bonsignore’s 27 career wins have all come since the start of 2011, and he’s just 32-years-old.

LOOK BACK: Bonsignore’s Championship Season in 2018

He won 12 races before teaming with Stone, but the combination has clearly become one of the most potent in the garage area, right at the top with Phil Moran and six-time Whelen Modified Tour champion Doug Coby. Bonsignore dominated 2018, winning the title, and after a bit of slow start to 2019, finished just a few points from back-to-back titles.

“Ryan’s dedication to working on the cars,” Bonsignore said of how it’s happened so quickly. “He eats, sleeps and breathes racing. He’s at the shop everyday, even with the pandemic, he’s been there non-stop, working on the cars, the trailer, the pit equipment… he’s a difficult person to deal with during the winter when aren’t racing because he wants to go to the track everyday and race. He puts his mind to it, and he’s one of the smartest minds that modified racing has. When we come off the track, we just make small adjustments. When I give him a 1-10 scale on what the car is doing, he’s knows right away what adjustment he needs to make. I leave it up to him, and he knows the right balance, to keep me calm during the race, and keep our team going. He’s a great leader.”

While defending champion Coby opened his tenure as owner/driver with a seventh-place effort, Bonsignore took the early leap in the championship standings in what is going to be a shortened 2020 season due to COVID-19. There were 17 races on the original Whelen Modified Tour schedule, but that mark is a bit higher than teams expect to happen. Some events have been postponed, while others, including stops at Martinsville Speedway, Iowa Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July) have been outright cancelled.

Sunday’s Fathers Day stop at Jennerstown was the first time the tour visited the Pennsylvania track since 2006. The track was on the schedule for May 23, but the race was postponed to August 22, and this race was added to the calendar. Due to restrictions put in place by NASCAR, no fans were allowed through the grandstands and the pit area was limited with 8 people per team for the Masks were required when social distancing wasn’t possible. It was a totally different feel compared to just a few short months before, where Bonsignore earned the checkered flag in the 2019 finale at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.

FOLLOW BONSIGNORE: Twitter | Team Facebook

“It was great to be back at the track, seeing all the crew and all of the other teams and the friends you make in the garage area,” Bonsignore said. “It was definitely different to wear the mask all day and stay social distanced while trying to do all the work. I think NASCAR did a good job. If you needed a break from a mask, they were more than willing to work with you. Anything we need to do to get back racing, we will do it.. that’s the type of people we are. We’re racers.”

The race aired live on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold, but with no fans in the stands, Bonsignore said he could immediately sense a different feeling at the track, especially during his celebration. Bonsignore’s tradition after a victory is to spin around at the start/finish line after the race, take the checkered flag, and do a polish victory lap.

FULL JENNERSTOWN RESULTS

“It was weird,” Bonsignore said. “I grabbed the checkered flag and that was probably the first time that it really struck that there was no fans. I figured I would stick with my tradition, but the biggest thing was when I got out of the car without my crew guys there behind me in victory lane, I get out, stand on the door, and look at the stands and it’s completely empty. It was a weird situation.”

Bonsignore started the day off near the top of the charts in practice, won the pole after going out late in single-car qualifying, and dominated the race without challenge. He had not taken a lap on the track prior to a short practice session Sunday morning.

“Ryan brought an unbelievable race car, we unloaded really well,” Bonsignore said. “When he brings a car that is so good, even at a new race track for me, I’m able to get up to speed quickly. The second run of the day we went to the top of the board, and it just builds your confidence, I don’t have to do as much learning the track and the groove. With only 40 minutes of practice, it makes your nerve on edge… but all of those go away when you go to the top of the board.”

HIS CAREER: Deeper Look Into Bonsignore’s Year-By-Year Stats

Bonsignore’s eyes now turn towards the remainder of the 2020 championship chase — which is a bit unclear to this point. They know they will return to the track on Saturday, July 4, at White Mountain Motorsports Park in New Hampshire, a track not sanctioned by NASCAR — which will mark the inaugural tour visit to the banked-oval.

“I’ve looked into it a little bit, I watched some videos from a race they had there last year, but I’ve never been there,” Bonsignore said. “From what I see, it look cool. It kinda looks like a Monadnock Speedway, but both of the turns look like turns one and town at Monadnock. It looks like a fast-paced track. We always run well at the quarter-miles and doing well at Jennerstown takes the nerves off going to White Mountain. With everything going on in the pandemic, it’s unfortunate we lost a few marquee events but we’ve gained some tracks and I’m hopeful this will build a better schedule for us. I’m excited to go there.”

Mahoning Valley Speedway to begin season on June 13; Test and Tune resumes this weekend

Photo: Walter Smith

(LEHIGHTON, PA 6-1-20) The wait will soon be over for fans and racers of Lehighton’s Mahoning Valley Speedway as the management team of the paved ¼-mile track is excited to announce that Saturday, June 13 at 6:00 pm the 2020 season will at last get underway.

The night’s line-up will feature the John “Peepers” Yerger Tribute, the first event of the Mahoning Valley Speedway Hall of Fame Series (MVSHoFS) plus Street Stocks, Hobby Stocks, Pro 4s and Rookie Hobby Stocks.

Sunday, June 14 at 2:00 pm will be the rain date if needed.

Yerger, at 90 years young, remains a solid fixture at Mahoning Valley. The legendary pavement specialist, who began his career in the late 1950’s at Allentown’s Dorney Park Speedway, won his first race in 1963 at the Park, was triumph in the early ‘70’s at Mahoning Valley and also took victories at Evergreen Raceway, his last happening there in 1978.

As a car owner he enjoyed great success with a slew of top talent wheeling his trademark No. 77 and No. 777 cars including such icons at John and Terry Markovic and Ronnie Dunstan to name a few.

The feature winner will earn $2250 with $500 for 10th.

Sportsman Modifieds are also welcome to compete in this show provided they run with Modified wheels and tires. The MVSHoFS will also comprise the Street Stocks and Hobby Stocks.

The entry fee is $25, $20 and $15 for the Modifieds, Street Stocks and Hobby Stocks respectively.

The track will also be resuming Test and Tune this coming Saturday and Sunday, June 6-7 from noon to 4:00 pm. Test and Tune as well as the start of the regular season had been on hold since March 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the two remaining Test and Tune days drivers in the Modifieds, Street Stocks and Hobby Stocks will resume the quest for the overall fast time and the opportunity to have a guaranteed pick for the Opening Night redraw in those relevant classes.

On March 14 defending 2019 Modified champion Bobby Jones debuted a brand new car and was able to lay down the fastest lap, going 10.335-seconds.

Brandon Christman, who is a rookie Street Stocker, unveiled his No. 41 Camaro and then beat out the all-time wins leader in Street Stock victories, Todd Ahner, for the quick time of the day with the division. Christman clocked in at 11.811-second lap. In the Hobby Stocks sophomore driver Jesse Bollinger topped of the speed charts with a 12.180-second lap.

Test and Tune is open to all regular track classes as well as any other types of racers.

Pit gates will open at 10:30. Car inspections will take place starting at 11:00. There will be a mandatory Rookie Hobby Stock orientation at 11:15.

Sign-ins will be from 10:00 – 11:15. Transponder cost is $6. A driver’s license is required to rent a transponder. Pits are $10 per person and $25 per car. Main grandstands will be open to the public and free admittance.