Diversity Of Experience Plays Out Every Race
Daytona Beach, FL — More than two decades into the youth movement in the upper levels of NASCAR racing, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour continues to exhibit a high level of age and experience diversity, one of the many aspects that make competition in the Tour unique.
During the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, 50-year-old Mark Martin registered five wins. This day in age, however, that is the exception and not the rule. Prior to Martin, the last driver to win a Cup race at 50 or older was Morgan Shepherd in 1993.
At the touring series level, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East has not had a 50-plus competitor reach Victory Lane since Dave Dion won at Oxford (Maine) Plains Speedway in 2005 and the last K&N Pro Series West race won by a full-time competitor with that minimum age was Bill Schmitt in 1992.
In the Whelen Modified Tour, however, 20-somethings like Bobby Santos and Ron Silk have to contend every week with drivers twice their age. Five drivers older than 50 ranked in the top 20 of the final 2010 standings, led by Mike Stefanik and Ted Christopher – both 52 – who finished right behind champion Santos.
Perhaps no race in 2010 typified the age disparity more than at Monadnock Speedway on July 17 when 18-year-old Erick Rudolph won the pole and led the vast majority of the race. Christopher, almost three-times as old as Rudolph, passed the third-year driver with two laps to go for yet another win.
Stefanik, who recorded a Whelen Modified Tour record 13 wins at age 40 in 1998, registered 21 top 10s in 43 races during the last three seasons. While that stretch included only two victories, the winningest driver in Tour history both in terms of races and titles won, Stefanik runs near the front every time out. This season he led all drivers in top fives (10), top 10s (12) and average finish (6.1) and finished just 27 points behind Santos in the championship standings.
With Christopher, a strong argument can be made that he is in the prime of his racing career. In the three seasons he has competed in his 50s, the ‘anytime, anywhere’ racer has recorded 11 wins, 26 top fives and 32 top 10s in 43 outings. The Whelen Modified Tour champion at 50 in 2008, Christopher has finished third in points the two subsequent seasons. The only comparable three-year stretch in his long career came at ages 46-48 when he recorded 13 wins in 53 races and finished fourth, second and third in the standings.
While Stefanik has been consistent in his 50s, Christopher has been at times dominant. In 2010 he became the first driver to win three-consecutive times in both the Spring Sizzler at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway and the World Series at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway. He’s won five of the last seven races at Thompson. Christopher’s led laps in 60-percent of his starts the last three years, and in 2010 he paced the field in one out of every five laps completed.
Although they may have not reached the heights of Christopher and Stefanik in recent seasons, cagy 50-somethings Ed Flemke Jr. (55), Jamie Tomaino (54) and Wade Cole (57) also continue to show the way for the younger generation.
So what does this mean for drivers like Rudolph and Ryan Preece (20), or even ‘tweeners’ like Silk (27) and Chuck Hossfeld (33)? Don’t wait around to inherit the throne. Not only is Stefanik consistently running up front and Christopher perhaps peeking, but neither have plans to give up their hobby anytime soon.
In 2010, Santos took the bull by the horns. At age 24 through all but two of the season’s races, Santos struck first with a win in the season opener at Thompson. And when Christopher countered the next time out with a Spring Sizzler victory, Santos answered with wins in the third and fourth events. In the final two-thirds of the season Christopher won three times compared to one for Santos while Stefanik whittled a seemingly insurmountable deficit to just single digits. Thanks to a win in the Stafford Fall Final on his 25th birthday, however, Santos closed strong and kept the veterans from adding to their legacies.
As the first driver in the 26-year history of the Whelen Modified Tour to capture the title in his first full-time season, and now the youngest to wear the crown, did Santos help to turn the tide toward a younger generation? Time will tell. The last example of a potential youth movement we have was in 2003 when Todd Szegedy became the Tour’s youngest champion at the time at the age of 26. Tony Hirschman and Stefanik – both in their late 40s at the time – then combined for the next three titles. In the previous decade, the only drivers to hold the championship trophy under the age of 43 were Szegedy and Donny Lia.
So as we close the book on Whelen Modified Tour 2010, what do you all think was more impressive: that the a pair of Baby Boomers are still the drivers to beat, or that an Echo Boomer finally knocked them off?
Sources: Jason Cunningham, NASCAR