In a time frame of less than three days, a three-time Late Model track champion went from not participating to winning in his third race since returning to running on asphalt. As of Thursday morning, Will Thomas had no intentions of going back to one of the tracks he cut his teeth at on Saturday, when the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series brought short track racing back to Lake Erie Speedway (PA) for the first time in nearly two years.
“We weren’t coming because we ran so bad at Lancaster,” Thomas told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Charlie Rudolph helped me a bunch when we got going and he went to the U.S. Open with us (last September). Then I thought I was a lot smarter than I apparently am and changed a bunch of stuff. When we went back to Lancaster (in May) we were just flat out terrible. I was just kind of down in the dumps and depressed about how bad we ran and just discouraged. I told my wife that I’m not going.”
The Sharpsville, Pennsylvania driver planned to continue with his dirt racing program at nearby Sharon Speedway (OH) until he received a call and was offered some assistance.
“(RoC Series owner) Joe Skotnicki called me Thursday morning and he said ‘are you kidding me?’” Thomas recalled. “’Are you telling me you’re not coming to this place? You helped build this house. You raced here forever.’ I told Joe, to be honest I don’t know these cars well enough and don’t feel confident doing it. He said ‘if I can find you some help would you come and do it?’”
Skotnicki enlisted the experience of Kenny Troyer, son of legendary Modified racer Maynard Troyer.
“I only spoke to Kenny one or two times in my life, so I called him Thursday about 11:00 a.m.,” Thomas continued. “I left work at Noon and went home to start working on it and he got there about 6:30, and we worked until about 3:30 in the morning. Kenny and Greg Aumann combined with my normal guys I’ve got that always come with me dirt racing and have been with me forever; it just really fit well. Those guys really led the program and there wasn’t much stress on me. It was a great day.”
Thomas was one of the faster Modifieds on the 3/8-mile since the initial practice, but was not a key contender for the top spot until later on. The 75-lap distance showcased a number of twists and turns, all a result of some intense and predominantly clean racing.
Daren Scherer drew the pole, but it was Jimmy Zacharias who gained the lead early. The Candor, New York driver, who was seeing the North East, Pennsylvania track for the first time on Saturday, was in command early, but his preferred lane choice on restarts ended up ultimately setting him back.
“It’s the chance I took, taking the outside,” Zacharias documented. “I knew I was a lot better than who was on the inside of me. The outside was the place to be at the beginning of the race so I was trying to do what was right for me. The third restart, (Daryl Lewis Jr.) was racing hard, we got into turn one and he locked up the brakes, and slid into me. We’ve all done it before and it’s nothing to be mad about. We came out of it alright and drove back to the front.”
Following the halfway point, a familiar face found his way to the lead. Matt Hirschman, whose team was a late arrival after loading up from Monadnock Speedway (NH) when the Tri Track Open Modified Series race was cancelled Saturday morning, looked to be the class of the field.
On a final 20-lap dash to the finish; however, something did not appear right for Hirschman. The Northampton, Pennsylvania driver was no longer pulling away from the field. It was at this moment when Thomas came to life, dicing to the inside of Patrick Emerling and Zacharias as they were held up on the outside lane by Hirschman’s ill-handling car. With just over 10 laps to go, Thomas went to the low side again and gained sole possession of the lead.
“It’s kind of surreal, to be honest,” Thomas said. “The Hirschman name and Modified racing are synonymous. That guy wins everywhere he goes. This is a hell of a field to win in and I’m just blessed enough to be the one fortunate enough to do it.”
Hirschman survived to finish in fourth, despite an escalating issue in the closing laps.
“The right rear tire was slowly going down so that progressively got worse, and the car changed drastically from what it was,” Hirschman explained. “It definitely caused us to lose speed and lose positions. I’m not sure if I would have been able to hold off (Thomas). He definitely was hooked up at the end. He just knows the track and hit the strategy and everything right. Not saying the tire cost us the race, but it’s sure disappointing because it cost us something.”
Emerling eventually made his way by for the second position and started to slowly close on Thomas in the closing laps.
“Basically, I was trying to get around some guys and got stuck up high,” Emerling conceded. “(Thomas) kind of came out of nowhere there. It’s good to have a first-time winner in the series and it’s a good points night for us. I was pretty happy with the outcome. I would have liked to get the win, but sometimes it falls into someone else’s favor. I don’t think I could have passed him, but I could have got to him.”
Emerling more than likely regained the points lead after fast qualifier Chuck Hossfeld ran into some issues trying to march through the field after a pit stop. The former RoC champion would finish 15th.
Another driver staying in the season-long points race is Zacharias, who rallied back to a third place finish, and remains optimistic about his first serious run at a RoC championship in a few years.
“We were actually second and I went to the outside of Hirschman not knowing he had a flat tire and was just along for the ride, and Will came underneath,” Zacharias said. “Once he got by me I tried falling into line. I tried crossing him over and I had a good run, but just got loose up off.
“The point system the way it is it’s anybody’s ballgame. We’ll go back to some of my home tracks like Chemung again and Holland where I’m really good at. Consistency is a big key. We have been the most consistent so far. We’ll see where it ends.”
The RoC’s first appearance at Lake Erie Speedway since 2005 drew rave reviews, and has competitors and fans alike hopeful that what was witnessed between the Modifieds and supporting divisions leads to more of the same on a more regular basis at the premier facility.
“I wish we would be coming back here many more times,” Emerling noted. “The racing, I felt, was phenomenal. There were a good two grooves and good strategy with passing people, so there’s a lot you can do there. It was a lot of fun.”
For Will Thomas, it is unknown when his next RoC or asphalt race will be, but an accomplishment like Saturday’s may sway some decisions in a different direction. In the moment, one of the track’s fan favorites from a few years back was simply soaking it all in.
“I’m just really excited and happy for all the people that support me week in and week out. It’s a hard life. All I do is try to sell steel every day and work on my racecars.”
The Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series takes a short break following a strenuous run of five straight weeks before heading back to Lancaster National Speedway (NY) for the Ole Boy Cup II 60-lap event on Thursday, June 30.
For an on-demand replay of Saturday’s Trackside Now coverage, click here.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
RoC Modified Return To The Lake 75 Results
1 7 9 Will Thomas 75
2 11 07 Patrick Emerling 75
3 2 71 Jimmy Zacharias 75
4 3 60 Matt Hirschman 75
5 13 95 Bryan Sherwood 75
6 12 65 George Skora III 75
7 4 10 Daryl Lewis Jr. 75
8 6 45 Kevin Timmerman 75
9 5 48 Sam Fullone 75
10 8 32 Tyler Rypkema 75
11 9 25 Mike Leaty 75
12 15 64 Amy Catalano 75
13 19 4 John Wilber 75
14 1 3 Daren Scherer 75
15 10 22 Chuck Hossfeld 75
16 20 20 Jody Buckley 75
17 22 39 Calvin Carroll 74
18 18 27 Andy Jankowiak 74
19 17 1 Chris Ridsdale 74
20 21 59 Karl Hehr 54
21 14 24 Dave Rigan 51
22 16 54 Tommy Catalano 41