In his first season competing full-time with the Valenti Modified Racing Series, Islip, New York’s Justin Bonsignore was able to pull out a championship driving for Spearpoint Racing, a team owned by legendary car owner Art Barry.
He came into the year thinking that the championship was a possibility, but as he said, thinking you can do it and then actually doing it are two totally different things.
“I knew the team had a lot of experience with the series and at all the race tracks we run at and the caliber team that this team is, so I figured we’d have a really good shot,” Bonsignore told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Week in and week out we proved we were one of the best teams.”
It was a breakout year of sorts for Bonsignore, one that many in the Modified world had been expecting for a while, but then started to wonder if it would ever come. But it came in a big way with Bonsignore scoring the MRS championship, one win, and 12 top-fives in 17 races. That’s in addition to the three wins on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, where Bonsignore was a championship contender until bad luck struck him with three races remaining.
“We definitely had a good year, me personally and both teams,” he said. “It was definitely a breakout year for me.”
Bonsignore appears to have solidified himself as one of the best drivers in Modified racing today. He’s strong at all tracks. He’s won a track championship on the 1/4-mile bullring of Riverhead Raceway (NY), but most of his NWMT wins have come at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, a big, fast 5/8-mile oval in Connecticut. But Bonsignore has always considered himself one of the best. He feels that he has to.
“If you don’t think you’re one of the best out there then you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “You have to have confidence, but not be overly cocky. I try to remain the right balance of both, but you always have to think you’re the best out there so you have it in your mind that nobody else talent-wise can beat you.”
Bonsignore had a great year on the MRS side, but it took a long time for him to finally get his first series victory. He’d been close. He had five second-place finishes before he finally visited victory lane at Airborne Park Speedway (NY) in early September.
“We finished second it seemed almost every week and if we didn’t finish second it was third,” he said. “It was pretty neat what we were doing every week, but it was starting to weigh on me not getting that win. We wanted that win to solidify ourselves and finally at Airborne we did get that win. I’m glad we were able to at least get one.”
Bonsignore went to the final race of the season at Thompson knowing that he just had to finish 15th or better to secure the championship. That appeared to be easily achievable for much of the race as Bonsignore ran in the top five, but then he got together with Dan Meservey with 10 laps to go and suffered a lot of right front damage.
“I made the move on Meservey once or twice and it didn’t work out,” he said. “I felt like I finally had a good enough run down the backstretch so I pulled out and I just really wasn’t expecting him to hold his position as much as he did. That kind of caught me off guard. It was purely on me.”
The race was red-flagged for close to an hour to remove Brian Schofield from his car after he was collected in the same incident. Schofield was air-lifted to UMass Worcester Hospital where he was treated.
The red-flag was a bit of a blessing for Bonsignore as the team, per VMRS rules, was able to repair everything on the car to make it virtually brand new. But at the same time the red-flag was almost a sickening experience for Bonsignore.
“It’s hard to put a word on what I was feeling, but I was really just down in the dumps,” he said. “You’re sitting on pit road and you feel like you let your whole team down and then you hear there’s a helicopter coming for another driver. It was fortunate for us that the red flag was so lengthy, but the reason for the length makes you feel worse. ”
Bonsignore restarted near the 19th position with 10 laps to go. He had four spots to gain. With the aid of one more restart, Bonsignore was able to pull it off. He finished 14th, one spot better than he needed.
When he pulled into victory lane he was visibly drained. He took his time taking his belts off. It took a little while before he cracked a smile. It was clear that the well-being of Schofield was at the forefront of Bonsignore’s mind. A few people poked their head into the window to talk to him, and one finally informed him that Schofield would be okay.
“They just kept telling me he was going to be alright,” Bonsignore said. “That was the only thing weighing on my mind. It was on my mind all through Sunday too. It’s tough. You don’t want to see anybody get hurt, and especially not when you’re involved with it.”
He just won the championship, but he didn’t really want to celebrate. He knew that wasn’t the respectful thing to do.
“You want to get out and have fun and celebrate with your team,” he said. “We deserved to celebrate together. But it just wasn’t right to get out and show my excitement knowing that somebody else was potentially really hurt.”
Bonsignore truly is happy with this championship and what he accomplished this year. He was able to express that a few days after the racing season ended.
But what has Bonsignore the happiest isn’t the title itself. It’s whom he won it with.
“It’s a real honor to be a champion in such a high level touring division and to do it with the Barry family means that much more,” he said. “To see Art’s face, after everything he’s done in our sport, to still be excited to win a championship with me, it was pretty humbling and I’m definitely very honored to be a part of that team.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Regional Editor (Long Island, CT and NJ) -Twitter: @RobBlount
-Feature Photo Credit: Speed51.com.