Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo by Nigel Kinrade Photography/ NASCAR
When I was growing up and my age was still in single-digits, not pushing the half-century mark that I am now, Northeast Modified racing had unofficial regions and rivalries- New England, New Jersey, New York, and a defined part of that last state- Long Island.
Charlie Jarzombek, Wayne Anderson, and Fred Harbach were some big names that garnered focus of Modified followers. They were part of the Island kingpins and when they traveled to big races, such as Martinsville VA and Pocono PA, away from the weekly bullrings those fans and competitors from New England and New Jersey kept their eyes on them.
Long Islanders did not always transition well from their tight, one-fifth mile oval located in Islip to the half-miles which were considered quite large in comparison. The drivers that transitioned well, like Jarzombek, received big respect.
Decades later, I became familiar with my 40s and racing‘s media work became my new role in the sport. I interviewed racing journalists on Speedway Report and asked them who the next crop of a Bob, Bill, or Steve Park was… who was the next Long Island star that would make a big impact on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour?
A short group of names kept repeating itself as the same answer from multiple radio show guests. One name on everyone’s list was Justin Bonsignore.
“You can’t hold a candle to those guys in the era that they raced in,” said Bonsignore humbly while exemplifying that respect earned by the Island talent in past generations. “They were the best. I’ve only heard stories. I’ve never really seen them race.”
Bonsignore came full-time on the NASCAR Modified Tour in 2010 and won his first series race in 2011. It was around that time that I asked my Long Island question on-air. Long Islanders could see the potential that was brewing.
“There have been a couple of past Long Island drivers and a couple of past Long Island owners but never a driver/owner combination that did it together,” Bonsignore said while giving the 2018 NASCAR Modified championship credit to the team he drives for, M3 Technology Racing.
Since 2011 he was won a tour race every year but one. In 2018 he won eight of his 20 career tour wins, including sweeping the four Thompson CT events, on the way to his first championship. Knowledgeable observers who regularly attended Long Island’s Riverhead Raceway knew what was coming, given enough time.
Bonsignore said, “After ’17 we sat down, my owner (Ken Massa)… we were in the market for a crew chief. We were without a crew chief and we made a change and brought Ryan Stone on board and with that change we went to LFR Race Cars and both of those things just jelled instantly with us.
“Ryan’s work ethic and dedication to the team was not to be matched. He did unbelievable preparing the cars. They were fast every week. They were reliable every week,” Bonsignore said.
Anderson and Harbach were two examples of longevity from the Long Island Modified talent. Bonsignore also has the vision of not being a one-title wonder with M3.
Said Bonsignore, “We had really good speed all season, so we’re going to just work hard on new set up designs and trying to tweak new things instead of getting complacent with what worked well this past year because setups are always an evolving deal. We’re going to try to stay ahead and keep a little bit of an advantage this year. We’re not going to change much. We do have some stuff that we want to try.”
New York and New England have rich pasts in pavement Modified racing. Long Island has its own proud history when it comes to writing chapters in open wheel chronicles.
The big names from the Island authored their own stories of racing excellence. Comparing the body of work from young and current racers to the established legends may not be fair… yet. Of the younger group that began competing at Riverhead, Justin Bonsignore is as good of a bet as anyone to set the bar high in today’s times for the next young fan dreaming of his own future Modified championship.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report live on Facebook Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT and uploaded on http://speedwayreport.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.