51 Leftovers: Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway
The 2011 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Season Begins
By Mike Twist
TC Leads the Tour Standings….But Not For Very Long

After his victory in the Icebreaker at Thompson International Speedway (CT), Ted Christopher was the apparent point leader for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.  After winning the title in 2008, Christopher couldn't help but know that coming out of the box strong in the season-opening event of 2011 might prove to be a big advantage towards capturing another crown.

“It's only one race, but it's a start isn't it?” Christopher said with a smile.

That smile, or Christopher's point lead, didn't last very long though.

An unapproved carburetor booster was found on Christopher's #36 Modified and NASCAR responded with a package of penalties that includes the loss of 50 driver and owner points.  This knocked Christopher down to the seventh position in the standings and moved Rowan Pennink into the top spot.

Still, the title picture could be much worse for TC.  Defending WMT champion Bobby Santos, who was tabbed by the media as the preseason favorite for the 2011 title, exited the Icebreaker early with mechanical problems and now sits 32nd in the standings after one event.

Pennink Pedals Hard, But Can't Catch Christopher

The fastest car on the track in the closing laps of the Icebreaker might have belonged to Rowan Pennink, who started in the seventh position.  Pennink chased down eventual winner Christopher as the race needed the 150-lap mark, but he just didn't have enough time to quite get to the leader, who had already pulled away to a strong advantage over the field.

“We had an awesome car, we just got a little behind there,” said Pennink.  “We had to pit to pull a piece off the nose because the car was running a little hot.  But the car was awesome and I really have to thank the guys for that.  It came right back through the pack there, but we just didn't have enough time to get to Teddy.” 

Pennink finished second to Christopher - just over 6/10th of a second behind him at the finish line.

Preece Leads, But Not at the Right Time

Ryan Preece spent 16 laps pacing the field in the Icebreaker and his car was near perfect for those laps.  But it wasn't quite as perfect down the final stretch of the event and Preece ended up with a fourth-place finish.

Still, it was a good way for Preece to make his debut with the #11 Modified team that he is driving for this season.

“The day was good,” said Preece.  “It was up and down.  We were good at the beginning and then it tightened up on the second run.  I was just riding and waiting for the pit stop.  When the pit stop came, we went back out and I think we went from seventh to third in five laps.  The car was hooked up.  When we got out front it was hooked up.”

But then came an unplanned intermission….and Preece's car just wasn't the same after a second-half red flag for a multi-car wreck. 

“After that red flag, I don't know if the tire stagger shrunk or what, but it hurt us a little bit.  We definitely had the car to beat early on, but you know how it goes.  This is a 150 lap race and not 100.” 

Silk Has a Hard Wreck with a Soft Landing

The nastiest incident of the WMT feature, which was filled with two red flag periods and 12 cautions that lasted for 61 laps, involved several cars on the frontstretch at the lap 101 mark.  The wildest ride in that incident belonged the Ron Silk, who stunned the ground by getting airborne with his #6 Modified and then landing on all four wheels.

Silk was not injured and commented after the race that it didn't even seem like a hard hit from inside the car.

“It surprised me that I didn't feel much of anything.  It was a pretty soft landing, so that's pretty good,” said Silk, who led for 40 laps earlier in the race.  “They were going a little too hard there after the pit stop.  I don't understand why so many cars that aren't good all weekend, the ones that don't practice well or qualify well and race in the back, they feel that on lap 90 or whenever the leaders pit that they can stay out and get more out of their tires than the leaders do.  One of those cars got Szegedy into the fence and caused that big wreck.”

Although the day ended badly for Silk, the time that was spent out front shows that his T&S Haulers team is in pretty good shape for this season after a bit of a slump on the Tour in 2010.

“I think that we'll be good this year,” said Silk.  “We were good at the end of last year and we made some changes over the winter to make it even better.”

Beers is Back in the Top 10

Also having a bit of a slump in seasons of late has been Eric Beers.  The Pennsylvania wheelman has won races on the Tour behind the wheel of the famed #3 'Ole Blue Modified of Boehler Racing Enterprises, but he has also struggled in recent seasons while driving for various teams.  In 2011, he's behind the wheel of the Dave and Laura DeLange-owned #45 Modified.  They came out of the box strong at Thompson with a sixth-place finish.

“We've got all the right pieces here together now,” said Beers.  “We've got a real nice engine here from Bob Bruneau. It was a Ford that we got last week.  It might have been good to have come here and practiced.  If we had practiced, maybe we could have gotten a lot of stuff ironed out that we changed around today.”

That sixth place finish could have been even better for Beers if the race had played out a little bit differently.

“After the stop, she woke right up,” said Beers.  “We definitely didn't need the caution at the end.  I had a left front shaking all race and it shook real bad on that last run.  I don't know if it picked more stuff up or not, but what are you going to do?”

Another Hirschman in 'Ole Blue

Matt Hirschman made his debut in the “'Ole Blue” #3 Modified of Boehler Racing Enterprises at Thompson.  He finished ninth in the race for a team that he watched his father drive for as he was growing up.  Tony Hirschman won the 1995 and 1996 WMT titles while driving for the team, at a time when Matt was barely a teen.

“We've been friends with these guys for years,” said Matt Hirschman.  “Working with them was great.  The car was comfortable.  I would have liked to show a little more speed, but it was our first time out.

“During the race, we just got tight at the end.  I know that I can do a better job and that they can give me a better car.  At the end there, we were a sitting duck.  We just couldn't get through the corner as well as we needed to.

“There's room for improvement, but overall it went well.  I like working with these guys.  I'm looking forward to [the rest of] the season.  I think we'll be contenders.”

The Thompson race was a family affair for Matt.  His father Tony was in attendance, as well as brother Tony, Jr. who had spotted for the NASCAR Sprint Cup entry of A.J. Allmendinger at Texas Motor Speedway the night before.

“He flew from Texas to get here…the whole family is here for my first time out,” said Matt.

Rookie Emerling Takes Home a Top Ten Finish

The race might have been an ugly one at times for rookie Patrick Emerling.  Although he worked to stay out of trouble in the event, many of the early race cautions were caused by multi-car wrecks that happened around him.  Still Emerling, kept at it and came back to finish a respectable tenth in the final rundown at Thompson.

“A top ten was my goal and what I was aiming for, so it was pretty cool to get that in my first race at Thompson,” said Emerling.  “The car was pretty decent.  We didn't qualify too well, we kind of messed it up a little bit there.  Then, in the race we kept making changes.  Towards the beginning, I got sideways and walled it.  That bent some stuff, so every time we pitted we toed it in more and more and then took a couple of spring rubbers out.  After that, it ran pretty good and came on strong at the end.”

Ted Christopher's #36 gets a good look over in tech.  (51 Photo)
Ryan Preece's #11 Modified.   (Rick Ibsen Photo)
Rowan Pennink's #93 Modified.  (Rick Ibsen Photo)
Ron Silk (#6) and Todd Szegedy (#2).  (Rick Ibsen Photo)
Matt Hirschman  (Jim Dupont Photo)
Patrick Emerling talks with a crew member.  (Jim Dupont Photo)
Tony Hirschman (Left) talks to Eric Beers (Right).   (51 Photo)