The snow has (finally) melted away in the Northeast with the color green beginning to appear on tree after tree all across the region, which can mean only one thing, it’s Big-Block season. This Saturday, the Big-Block Modified Super DIRTcar Series is set to get the green flag on the 2017 season championship. After the usual live winter preview that is the DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park down in Florida, Super DIRTcar will be led by a corps of 16 “Platinum Drivers” who are committed to running the full season across the Northeast, with the usual Canadian, Midwest, and Southeast excursions.
Leading the charge will be defending Series champion Matt Sheppard who will be back for year number two in his independently owned team as he seeks his fifth career title. Last year’s runner-up Stewart Friesen is hunting for his first title while seeking to win Rookie of the Year in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competition.
Beyond that is a mix of drivers of varying age and experience, some of whom are back in familiar colors and some who are not.
One of those is the Big-Block’s resident Aussie Peter Britten who was not retained by Heinke-Baldwin Racing after 2016. After efforts to secure a full championship ride were unsuccessful, he decided to make some magic of his own, starting his own operation which debuted in February down in Florida, where after some early troubles ended with a top five run. While the challenges will only get tougher, Britten’s love for the Super DIRTcar Series is what has kept him going.
“I’m strong believer in the DIRT Series, it’s the toughest racing you can have, it’s clean it’s fair, you want to be the best you got to race with the best,” Britten said. “I’m trying to put my own deal together to get going. Everyone knows how expensive racing is these days. It’s not an easy thing to pull off. I’ll do what I can, work as hard as I have to too make it happen. I’m bound and determined to have success this year.”
In addition, Britten has also found a home on Friday night’s in the Capital Region of New York driving for a familiar name.
“I got the call from Andy Romano, everyone that’s been around racing for a long time knows his name. Very pleased and proud to be a part of that team this year. The main focus will be to race Albany-Saratoga Friday nights, but we might branch off a little here and there, maybe run Fonda a little bit, who knows. We’ll keep it open and see what fits with what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, back at HBR the team has done a bit of downsizing with Britten’s departure, but is also bringing in new weapons, including new motors, new chassis from Teo and a new face with Matt Hearn taking over as crew chief for the team’s young gun, Max McLaughlin.
Unlike his dad Mike, Max has grown up in the Southeast, but has made progress in the last year adjusting to racing fulltime in the Northeast as he enters his sophomore season.
“I still live in North Carolina, but I’m never there. I’m fulltime in the shop. If you want to be in this game fulltime, your social life is out of the picture,” McLaughlin told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Racing is a lifestyle, you got to live it and dive in head first. But it’s a cool atmosphere over at HBR, at our shop we got Weedsport Speedway right in our backyard, when we want to test, we roll our racecars out right down to the track. Al Heinke has given us an incredible opportunity, incredible equipment, everything we need to run good. We just got to get the job done behind the wheel, got to thank him and get good finishes.”
Veteran New Yorker Jimmy Phelps is also back with McLaughlin for 2017, with the two forming a unique youth and experience duo, a relationship that has already proved essential for McLaughlin.
“We get along great, not only are we teammates, but we’re with each other every day, we get along well, we share information really well. He’s a huge help for me and I try and be as big a help to him, but he’s more of a help for me, he builds my shocks and he does a lot. I got a lot of respect for Jimmy and I’m glad he’s on the team.”
The respect between the two is very mutual, with Phelps himself saying that McLaughlin is poised for a breakout, which could happen sooner rather than later.
“You’re going to see big things from Max this year,” said Phelps. “He cut his teeth last year, got beat up a little bit here and there, but he got his feet wet all over the Northeast, it’s not easy and it takes time. But I’ve already seen huge improvement with him at Volusia, I think his mindset is good, he’s got some good help and a lot of confidence that he didn’t have going into last year. Without question, he’s already off to a really good start.”
Phelps also is happy with the new equipment the team is brining on, hoping to combine it with a good approach to get a rhythm going for the team early on and last all the way through to the fall.
“We want to try and build some consistency, we had some good nights last year and things went pretty well at the end of the season, but we struggled early. We’d have a few good runs then a terrible run. We need to eliminate those terrible runs. If we’re off, we need to hover around the top five or ten, instead of 15th. Hopefully if we stay around the top five more wins will come.”
After finishing top ten during both nights of racing in Volusia, the Series starts points racing at Fulton Speedway in Central New York, the same track Phelps calls home on Saturday nights and where he ran runner-up in track points last season.
“Good thing for us is that we get to get started in our own backyard which makes it even better. Hope it will help get a good start. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect. There’s so many good guys that run this series, we have a really good track record at Fulton, I don’t think we necessarily have any sort of advantage going in, but it’s nice to go somewhere you’re personally comfortable.”
While Phelps has some events eyed, it’s the Series as a whole that always gets him excited.
“I’m excited to get back to Eldora. That was a really neat experience. We didn’t have the results we were looking for. I think going in with a fresh look at things we’ll be better off, so that’s a big one. We always look forward to Brewerton (2016 track champion) at the end of the year. There’s always tracks we seem to run well at that we get excited about. Every Series race is exciting, there’s a few tracks that are challenging to me that I still dread a bit, but for the most part anytime you’re at a Series event there’s enough excitement that it really pumps you up.”
Phelps’ closest competitor from 2016 at both Brewerton and Fulton, Larry Wight, is set to return while throwing in some Sprint and Midget races with the goal of making another Chili Bowl run in January.
Wight’s Gypsum Racing teammate Pat Ward will also be along for the full series.
Eight-time champion Brett Hearn leads the list of veterans along with Billy Decker, Tim Fuller, Keith Flach, Danny Johnson, Mike Mahaney, and Rich Scagliotta.
There is also a sturdy rookie battle shaping up with Mike Maresca and Brandon Walters also committed to the full championship.
The 28 points race championship is set to tour through 24 tracks, 13 of which are in New York State, including Fulton Speedway, Weedsport Speedway, Five Mile Point Speedway, Outlaw Speedway, Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Utica-Rome Speedway, Airborne Park Speedway which just switched to dirt for 2017; Ransomville Speedway, Lebanon Valley Speedway, Brewerton Speedway, Mohawk International Raceway, Fonda Speedway, and Oswego Speedway which will truck in dirt for Super DIRT Week for the second year.
The Series is also set to visit Bridgeport Speedway in New Jersey, Eldora Speedway and Sharon Speedway in Ohio. It will go north of the border to Cornwall Motor Speedway, Merritville Speedway, Ohsweken Speedway and Brockville Ontario Speedway in the Province of Ontario; as well as Autodrome Drummond, Autodrome Granby, and Le RPM Speedway in Quebec. The Big-Blocks are set close out the season in North Carolina with the World of Outlaws World Finals on The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Be sure to follow the Super DIRTcar Series all season long on Speed51.com starting this weekend with coverage of the Highbank Holdup at Fulton Speedway.
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA & Long Island Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com