Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo courtesy Mayhew Tools.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame has enshrined legendary nine-time Modified Champion Richie Evans and six-time Modified Champ Jerry Cook. Seven-time Modified titlist Mike Stefanik is on the Hall’s nomination ballot.
In recent years, the example of excellence in the Modifieds has been set by Doug Coby.
In 2017, Coby earned his fifth career NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Championship, with the last four in consecutive years driving for team owner Mike Smeriglio. The tallies separated Coby from the pack and elevated his numbers to Evans, Cook, Stefanik and Tony Hirschman. The quartet is the only ones to win at least five series titles.
Coby swung a golf club at a driving range with NASCAR’s six other Touring and Hometrack Champions the day prior to their awards banquet. Trading in his firesuit for a black buttoned-down shirt, he shared some laughs with media teammates on a cool, overcast day in Charlotte, NC.
“People are going to look at numbers and instantly try to compare you to whoever you are surrounded by. I’m surrounded by some of the greats of Modified racing,” Coby said.
Coby was quick to point out that time changes racing and it is difficult at best to fairly compare drivers.
“I always like to point out the different eras and the different technology and the different tires and racetracks and competitors,” said Coby. “I really don’t think you can compare any of us. I don’t think you can really even compare Stefanik in his glory years… where later in the game Richie had passed. There’s always got to be people in different eras that win championships and win races and I’m really just happy to compete against the guys I compete against and win against them. Wherever that puts me in the stat books… I mean it’s cool but it’s so hard to compare, that I don’t even try to do that.”
Coby’s stance on the difficulty of comparing drivers is spot on with so many variables in motorsports. To his credit however, his numbers raise him to the standard of being in the conversation with the Modified greats.
“If people look back at this era of racing and say that I was one of the best in this era, that’s really cool,” Coby said.
“Just like I would say that Richie, and Stefanik and Hirschman were all in different eras themselves. I think Richie was in his own era and then Stefanik and Hirschman were together, and now there’s the era beyond them.
“If people want to put me and Ryan (Preece) at the top of this era’s list, I think that that’s fair based on what we’ve accomplished. There’s going to be a time when my era ends and somebody else’s era picks up. It could be Timmy (Solomito), it could be Chase (Dowling), or it could be somebody who is running a lower division now. It just depends on who gets in good equipment and (has) good people and makes it work,” said Coby.
This year’s title run was the fourth straight for Smeriglio’s team. Coby and the group readily admit that it was not their best.
“In terms of performance this is probably our worst performance in a championship and I think my team agrees with that,” Coby said. “This is probably the worst we’ve run out of the four that we’ve won together.
“When you win seven races and five races and something like 15 poles in two years… those are dominant seasons- and those were 2015 and ’16. The last three finishes (in 2017) we had were 14th, seventh, and fifth. So it’s not like we went out there and won the last ten races. We won one race (Seekonk MA). We finished second five times. We only won two poles. We didn’t win a pole after Langley (VA) which was May,” said Coby.
The speed and competitive aspect of the Smeriglio team were not lacking during the season, but the finishing results were.
Coby said, “A lot of the reasons why we struggled in points were no fault of our own. We got wrecked at Thompson (CT) at the Icebreaker on the first lap. We got spun out after we led 146 laps at Langley… and finished 15th. We were battling for a win at Loudon (NH) and we were fourth coming to the white flag and we finished 11th. All of these things that really weren’t our doing.
“I think for those reasons, that’s why our team would say that this is probably the toughest, the most difficult and our worst performance but we still got the job done,” Coby said.
“We maybe have to improve on a couple of things: The tire changes- making them faster and then getting our car set up better on the soft right rear tire- that’s what we can do to improve,” said Coby.
“But there’s so many variables that go into every finish that you never know ultimately what is going to ruin your season,” Coby said. “It could be you. It could be someone else. It could be just being an innocent bystander. I think my team is happy 2017 is over. We’re clearing the slate and go to 2018 and the score is zero-zero and I think we’re looking to get back in our groove like we have for the last couple years.”
The following day at the NASCAR awards ceremony, Coby upgraded to a formal jacket and tie. NASCAR champions Lee Pulliam, Abraham Calderon, Alon Day, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, and Alex Labbe accepted their individual accolades. Coby’s turn at the podium brought words of poise, acknowledgment of his team’s hard-fought title battle, positive attitudes, and grace of the changing face of Modified racing.
Coby recalled the previous Super Bowl where the New England Patriots overcame a large deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots’ results were not up their standards through the game’s first three quarters. In the end, the team performed like they knew they could and secured another title. There is a certain parallel between the Patriots and Smeriglio Racing.
“We’re the team that everyone loves to hate,” Coby said. ““I’d rather be the guy with the bull’s eye on his back than the one swinging at it.”
Coby spoke to Ed Partridge’s TS Haulers team which won the Modified owner’s championship. Preece drove a majority of the Tour but missed events for his wedding and NASCAR Xfinity Series contests for Joe Gibbs Racing. Coby’s offered sincere words of appreciation to Partridge’s team and good wishes for Preece’s future as he moves up to NASCAR’s National level.
Longtime photographer Howie Hodge and champion racer Ted Christopher were remembered, as both passed during 2017. Coby praised Hodge for making him a better person and Christopher for making him a better racer.
As Coby drove golf balls at a driving range with fellow racers and journalists, he smiled and appreciated the people around him. As he spoke to a ballroom of 1200 racers and NASCAR industry members, Coby smiled and appreciated the people around him. As he casually hung out with his team following the awards banquet, Coby smiled and appreciated the people around him.
Coby’s championships that bring his number to those of Modified greats Evans, Cook, Stefanik, and Hirschman, come from years of experience. That experience seasoned him to handle this year’s rollercoaster finishes. Experience of everyone on Smeriglio’s team allowed them to focus on going forward through the disappointing times and claim a fourth straight title.
“We still got the job done,” said Coby.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://racersreunion.com/podcast-library . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.