As the year 2019 now gets down to its final hours, Speed51 is continuing its look back on a great decade of short track racing. Later this week, we will be revealing our list of the Top 10 short track drivers over the past 10 years, and to build things up, we’re examining some of the great short track debates of the past decade.
We’ve already looked at the great Northeast Dirt Modified rivalry of Matt Sheppard and Stewart Friesen, then this past weekend shifted the microscope to Southeast Late Model Stock Car stars Josh Berry and Lee Pulliam. Our third discussion brings us back to the Northeast, but this time to the pavement; specifically the ground pounding Tour-type Modifieds. The drivers that are front and center: Doug Coby and Matt Hirschman.
Unlike the Sheppard vs. Friesen discussion, these two mighty Modified pilots don’t have much in the way of a rivalry; the reason being that they hardly ever race each other. Bear with us though, as these two also represent the tips to the two sides of another truly heated debate in short track racing. NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour versus non-NASCAR touring series, in terms of competitiveness, prestige, and so on. We’ll talk about that more as we go along.
Making a Case for Doug Coby
One could also argue that Coby is one of the best success stories compared to where he started the decade. In 2010, he had no full-time ride, running where he could on both the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and Valenti Modified Racing Series. But, at the end of the season he got a ride in the final race of the season for the man who helped give him his big break.
After that one race, Coby teamed with Wayne Darling in the No. 52 for what was supposed to be a race-by-race basis on the Whelen Modified Tour. Instead it would become a successful three-year partnership, which would see Coby getting his first win in five years in 2011 before a dominating five-win championship run 2012, the first Tour title of Coby’s career.
Coby and Darling concluded their run together with a two-win, runner-up performance 2013. With Darling scaling back from 2014 on, Coby was tabbed to run one of the most coveted seats in that particular off-season, the No. 2 owned by Mike Smeriglio. While only winning once that year, the combination of Coby, crew chief Phil Moran, and many members of the 52 team won the title in what has been regarded as one of the most competitive Whelen Modified seasons ever.
That set the stage for the most dominating performances of the decade during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, with Coby scoring seven wins in 2015 and five in 2016, both producing championships. Though the domination came to an end in 2017, with another who’s who of winners, the consistency remained and Coby captured his fifth championship.
The lone speed bump of the decade for Coby would be the 2018 season, but despite this he would keep his season win streak intact with one win, ultimately finishing third position in the final standings. It all culminated with one final showing of might in 2019, with Coby finding victory lane four times and surpassing Tony Hirschman on the championship list with his sixth, leaving only Mike Stefanik and Richie Evans with more.
In this time, Coby took on a great corps of drivers on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, but also recognized the talent and competition outside the Tour. Competing seven times on the Tri-Track Open Modified Series from 2014 to 2017, Coby struck gold at Seekonk Speedway in 2016 on Open-Wheel Wednesday, beating a menagerie of drivers.
In early 2019, Coby also tested his mettle with the No. 2 team for the full five races at New Smyrna Speedway (FL) during the World Series of Asphalt Racing, capturing victory on the very first night.
Overall, the numbers add up to 36 wins on the decade, with 27 on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, along with the six Tour titles.
Making a Case for Matt Hirschman
While Hirschman technically represents the top of the “non-NASCAR” Modified drivers, we can’t begin our conversation on him without first bringing up the Whelen Modified Tour. In the prior decade, Hirschman seemed to be one of the future favorites after a two-win, runner-up performance to Ted Christopher in 2008. But, he would not have a full-time ride in 2009.
That said, Hirschman continued to bank on success with the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series, starting the decade off with a third-straight title in 2010. After a part-time effort in 2011 to run the Boheler Ole Blue No. 3 on the NASCAR side, Hirschman added two more RoC titles in 2012 and 2013, then once more in 2015. Hirschman was perfect in his full-time RoC championship runs in the decade, ending with four during the decade and eight overall.
During that time, Hirschman’s desire for championships through wins rather than consistency hit its stride. Soon after, he changed his racing schedule all together, focusing on the races that paid big purses throughout the Northeast, with the new Tri-Track Open Modified Series being his focal point. Running a combination of his usual Pennsylvania home tracks of Mahoning Valley Speedway and Evergreen Raceway, Hirschman hit the road even more, bringing home bundles of money to Northampton.
Having proven himself in big races such as the North-South Shootout, Turkey Derby, and the Race of Champions itself already in the first half of the decade and even earlier, Hirschman went on a tear the next four years, cementing the “Big Money” moniker that had sprung up. In those four years, Hirschman went on to win upwards of 60 races both on the road and in Pennsylvania.
In New England, during those four years, Hisrchman scored nine wins in 17 starts in the Tri-Track Series, with each race paying from $5,000 to $10,000 for the race winner. Hirschman completed a sweep of all four Tri-Track series races in 2017 and had a four-year championship streak come to an end in 2019, due in part to a scheduling conflict.
Hirschman along with the same stalwart team joined forces with southern Modified car owner Roy Hall to bolster their southern runs, plus get into their choices of NASCAR events. The combination has borne its own fruit, with Hirschman winning the North-South Shootout a sixth time in 2017, five wins over three years at New Smyrna’s World Series, including the 2018 title. Hirschman even took the Pee Dee Motorsports ride back to NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour victory lane in 2018 at Oswego Speedway (NH).
Riding for Bob Horn in Pennsylvania, Hirschman has gained many more home track victories, as well as titles at Evergreen, most recently in 2019.
Swinging back around to one particular marquee race, the oldest of them all, the Race of Champions, “Big Money Matt” is now the all-time wins leader in its now 69-year history. He has all seven of his wins in the past decade, with five in a row, a streak he looks to extend to six in 2020. He is also just the second driver to win the Race of Champions on three different tracks, an honor shared with Richie Evans.
Since 2010, Hirschman has around 100 Modified wins in a wide variety of races, and also against a wide variety of competition. This includes drivers that run regularly on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, but it also includes many notables that have not competed regularly on the tour.
Indeed, it is a most tricky debate. For one thing, we're talking about drivers that come from different areas of the Northeast: Coby from Connecticut and Hirschman from Pennsylvania. Although they're not an enormous distance away on a map, in terms of Modified racing, they're practically in different time zones. The paths they have taken are so different that you’d almost have to analyze every lap of hundreds of races just to get an understanding.
But, one thing is for sure: both of these remarkable drivers have achieved the status of living legends, with each one not done writing their stories and leaving us excited for what's to come next.
With the case for each driver now presented, who do you think is the best Modified racer of the decade? Is it Coby or Hirschman?
Vote below and also be sure to join the debate on our Five Star Race Car Bodies Facebook page and @Speed51dotcom Twitter feed.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51 Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Stats provided by: Third Turn, www.matthirschman.com
-Photo credit: Speed51