Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
In 2017, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will travel through a season of change.
“It’s borderline what the Tour schedule used to be before the Southern Tour existed,” said Current Modified champion Doug Coby.
Following the conclusion of the 2016 season, NASCAR combined the Northern and Southern Tours into a single series with races above and below the Mason Dixon line. Primarily each tour stuck to its geographical region with two champions being crowned for the past 12 seasons.
Modifieds have always been a part of NASCAR since the sanctioning bodies’ formation in 1948. The division has evolved over time in regards to format, with a Southern Tour added in 2005. A single-series concept will return in 2017.
“We used to go to Martinsville, we used to go to South Boston, before I raced on the Tour,” said Coby. “For a lot of people it (2017 schedule) is really no different than the way things used to be in the past.”
NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour Champion Burt Myers said, “I think that NASCAR had to make a business decision that was going to work out best for them, and I understand that.”
The 2017 Tour will kick off at Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina, a traditional southern short track that has been around for close to 60 years. I visited the track for the first time last November for the annual Myrtle Beach 400. Upon walking through the tunnel and up close to the paved surface I thought that this was “my kind of track.”
Being located close to the Eastern coastline, the asphalt has a sandy grit-like feel that will eat away at tires, very reminiscent of Darlington SC, Rockingham NC, and Pensacola FL. A face palm type of pavement for a team owner who is paying his tire bill, but a hand-wringing type of pavement for a race fan anticipating strategy and a driver’s car control skill.
The 400’s Late Model and Modified doubleheader positioned planned stoppages during the features. This led to conservative driving in each race’s first half, yet more competitive racing following each break.
Every driver that I spoke to beforehand on that day said they were planning on riding before the break. The exact structure of the 2017 NASCAR Modified opener has not been announced.
Coby and Myers joined fellow Touring Series Champions Todd Gilliland (K&N Pro Series West) Justin Haley (K&N Pro Series East) Anthony Kumpen (Whelen Euro Series) Cayden Lapcevich (Pinty’s Series) and the Whelen All-American Series national champion Matt Bowling in Charlotte during December for NASCAR to honor their titles.
“I love starting the season in a warm climate earlier than the (Thompson, CT) Icebreaker,” Coby said. “I think that’s great for us to get everybody down to Myrtle Beach and most people will be able to take some vacation around that too. The Icebreaker is usually pretty challenging with weather, so it is nice to get somewhere warm and that leaves a little bit of a gap where if it goes well at Myrtle Beach, that maybe in 2018 and beyond we can get a couple of other southern shows earlier in the season.”
Coby said “I would love to be going south in March, April and the beginning of May. Then go back to New England when school gets out and the Saturday night shows really are awesome in New England in July and August. I think it is a good start and anybody who has complaints about it, has to remember this is just getting started (combining tours) and we have to see where it goes. I’m optimistic that we’re going to be getting some new venues that build the Modified brand into communities that haven’t seen us before. Myrtle Beach has seen the Southern Modifieds, they’ve seen the PASS Modifieds, but they haven’t seen the Northern Modified teams come down and race there.”
Beyond the attraction of Myrtle Beach, where do teams stand on traveling race-to-race all season?
“Being a Southern team, it is going to be difficult to make the majority of the races,” said Myers.
“I’m going to have to sit down and look at my budget and look at my numbers… look at what’s on the table as far as NASCAR’s end of things,” Myers said. “The feasibility is a whole lot of it too. Our (pit crew) guys are volunteers and for me to ask five or six guys to take two days off of work to drive 14 hours up the road is tough. So I have to figure out if I can take care of those guys at the same time, go up there. I’ve got to crunch numbers and make sure that it’s going to work. My sponsors- I feel like – would be very disappointed if I didn’t run Bowman Gray (Stadium in Winston Salem NC) weekly. That’s where a majority of my sponsorship comes from (and) rightly so. I’m not committing to anything at this point.”
Coby has a finger on the pulse of not only his own team but the health of the Modified Tour overall as compared to NASCAR’s other regional tours.
Coby said, “The Northern Modified tour has the most teams that have started every event on the schedule, for the last five or six or more years, of all of the NASCAR Touring Series. I think (there were) 17 teams that started every race last year. In some of the other series there were seven or eight teams that managed to get to all of the races.”
“I think you’re going to see the core of the Modifieds , the 12 to 17 teams that go to every race are going to go to every race,” said Coby. “We’ve always gone to wherever they told us to go. They send us to Bristol- we go. They sent us to Canada- and we went. There’s a following that we’re always going to have. It’s a matter of getting those teams that aren’t those 17 that follow every race to get to those races. How do you get guys who know they are going to be part time anyway, how do you convince them to go to those southern races? Because the goal shouldn’t be to have 23 cars, where it’s 17 (cars) and then we add six that just go part time. The goal should be to get 30 cars at every race. There’s going to be some challenges for some people and I’m sure some people won’t do those Southern shows. I’m sure the Southern teams won’t come and do the Northern races. That’s just how it goes.”
At this point, the feeling is that there are more Northern teams willing to come South for those events than Southern teams able to travel North in order to chase the unified Modified title.
Myers felt strongly about committing to a Southern Modified tent pole- the Bowman Gray Stadium- as a foundation to build his 2016 schedule around.
“The races that don’t conflict with my previous commitments, I feel like we can try to make. At this point my gut tells me we’ll do Bowman Gray and then whatever other races we can get, we will,” said Myers.
“The (other modified) tours in the past have done a really good job of not scheduling races on top of each another,” Myers said. “If Bowman Gray is not running and the NASCAR Tour is not running and the PASS Series has a race, we’ll be there. We’ll have to compare the schedules and see what it looks like. Anybody that knows me, we’ll be at most of them. There’s not going to be many weekends that we are not racing.”
Myers is leaving the door to run the 2017 Modified Tour wide open. However other factors need to fall in line in order for that to happen.
“This year, we didn’t tear up very much at all,” Myers said. “The cost to run Bowman Gray is not near what it is (compared to touring). You don’t have to travel; you only have to buy four tires a week. Pit passes are less than they are everywhere else. It’s a lot more feasible. It’s a lot more economical. On top of that, what sponsor doesn’t want exposure in front of 12,000 people every week? It works for us at this time. I don’t know what is going to happen this winter. I have to sit down and talk to my sponsors and see what they have in mind. I may go to my sponsors and they say ‘Yeah, let’s go do it (run the Tour).’ We’ll just have to see what’s available.”
Like Myers, Coby is aware of the expense and return ratio on the Tour’s cost for his own team. In a December press release, NASCAR announced “close to $500,000 in year-end point fund money” would be offered competitors.
Coby said, “I haven’t looked at the numbers. My car owner (Mike Smeriglio) obviously, being an accountant, he’s very much into numbers and he’ll know what the cost benefit ratio is. If you’re increasing the point fund, that helps us. We’re hoping to be winning the championship again next year so if it pays more money, that’s exciting to us. It’s something more to chase and there’s more on the line which is good for the series for the competition and ultimately whoever wins the points whether it’s me or not me, it should pay more.
“You race to win. Races should pay more to win. Points championship should pay more to win,” said Coby. “There were a lot of numbers in that press release which is something new. Typically NASCAR hadn’t touted numbers. There’s competition from some other Modified series from both the north and the south which people think are better alternatives to the NASCAR Tour. Maybe it’s time for people to start realizing how much money we do walk away with when we win a championship on a NASCAR Series because there is no other touring series that can have a race at some track, whether it’s a track down south like Hickory or Caraway or a track up north that they’re paying ten grand to win. They don’t have a point fund that pays close to a hundred grand to win it. That’s something to consider and I think if that’s what NASCAR’s angle is, to float that out there, I think that’s good.”
Modified fans and supporters have been eager for forward steps in the division for years. The dissolving of the Southern Tour has resulting in the absorption of those allocated funds into a single tour and boosting the payouts.
From the Myrtle Beach kickoff, to the return north for the Icebreaker and Spring Sizzler, then the swings back into Dixie, the NASCAR Modified Tour will be one of change- hopefully towards the positive- and will certainly not be a season of stagnation.
Stalwarts of Modifieds reminisce of days gone by with more marquis events and bigger purses. We cannot go back but we can go forward. Perhaps this is a step toward merging the snap and sparkle from years ago with the progression into the 21st century.
2017 NASCAR WHELEN MODIFIED TOUR SCHEDULE
|3/18||Myrtle Beach Speedway||Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
|4/2||Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park||Thompson, Conn.|
|4/30||Stafford Motor Speedway||Stafford, Conn.|
|5/13||TBA||TBA (southern race track)|
|6/14||Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park||Thompson, Conn.|
|6/24||Riverhead Raceway||Riverhead, N.Y.|
|7/14||New Hampshire Motor Speedway*||Loudon, N.H.|
|7/15||New Hampshire Motor Speedway||Loudon, N.H.|
|7/22||New London-Waterford Speedbowl||Waterford, Conn.|
|8/4||Stafford Motor Speedway||Stafford, Conn.|
|8/9||Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park||Thompson, Conn.|
|8/16||Bristol Motor Speedway||Bristol, Tenn.|
|8/26||Seekonk Speedway||Seekonk, Mass.|
|9/2||Oswego Speedway||Oswego, N.Y.|
|9/16||Riverhead Raceway||Riverhead, N.Y.|
|9/23||New Hampshire Motor Speedway||Loudon, N.H.|
|10/1||Stafford Motor Speedway||Stafford, Conn.|
|10/5||Charlotte Motor Speedway*||Concord, N.C.|
|10/15||Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park||Thompson, Conn.|
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://www.zeusradio.com/racersreunion-radio/. Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.