On a normal Saturday it would take less than a half hour to make the trip from Northampton, Pennsylvania to Mahoning Valley Speedway. That was not the case this past weekend for Matt Hirschman.
Initially setting out in the morning for the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Tour season finale in western New York, persistent showers continued to hamper Lancaster Speedway’s track drying progress and by mid-afternoon the event was forced to be postponed to a later date. Being the true racers they are, Hirschman and crew turned around and drove to the next one available on this particular day.
The team would make contacts closer to home to get the J&J Motorsports Modified loaded up and headed to Mahoning. Hirschman, in his red RoC driver suit rather than his usual orange one to match the No. 59 livery, arrived as his heat race fired off. As a result he was not able to start, but came from 11th to the fifth and final guaranteed transfer spot in the consolation race to start 20th for the 100-lap, $4,000-to-win feature.
He parlayed that into a “Big Money” feature win to match his nickname.
“It has definitely been a long day,” Hirschman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I’m just glad it worked out. The timing of the rain; if they would have waited any longer to cancel it really would have made it tough.”
Heat race winner Brian Romig jumped out to the early lead in the feature, but was pressured and then overtaken a few laps later by Nevin George. Zane Zeiner began climbing toward the front and reached second after a restart a quarter of the way through.
Meanwhile, Hirschman played his usual strategy of picking up a few spots early and then maneuvered his way past one after another to find himself in third shortly after halfway. With 30 laps remaining, Hirschman worked his way into second and set his sights on George. It would only take him six more laps to go around for the lead and go on to a convincing win over George and Zeiner in the remaining laps.
It definitely turned out to be a 10 hour round trip drive that was well worth it.
“I felt that the whole ride here that as long as I could start last that I could win one of these 100 lappers. In 100 laps, everybody’s car does what it’s going to do as far as handling and sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t.”
During the previous weekend, Hirschman made his first appearance at Mahoning since his 100 lap win in late July, but struggled to even crack the top 10 in that 50-lap race. Focusing on their RoC effort, they had not even touched the car all week until Saturday night. Some proactive adjustments in response to the change in weather played a major part in getting to the front.
“Before the race I knew it was going to be cold, so I said I’m going to tighten this thing up and lock it down tonight and it worked,” said Hirschman.
With it also being championship night at the quarter-mile facility, the focus was on two additional drivers in the field. Earl Paules ran in the top five the entire night in an attempt to chase down points leader Kris Graver. Paules’ winning bid eventually faded to a fourth place finish while Graver gradually moved up to sixth and sealed the deal for his first Modified championship. It was definitely a feel good story for one of the lower budget teams in the division as drivers one by one came over to congratulate him.
“For having a ’96 Troyer; I bought this car for $4,000 without a motor,” explained Graver. “We put the motor together ourselves and were chasing money to get from one week to another. During the year all we did was buy some decent tires. We tried to pinch every penny we could.”
The turning point of the season came in June when Graver won three weekends in a row and began to gain confidence in being able to pull off the championship in his second full season in the division.
“With the equipment I have compared to everybody else and people like Eric Beers, Earl Paules, Don Wagner, John Markovic; these guys have been racing forever, longer than I’ve been alive,” remarked Graver. “Racing against that and to be able to come here every week and do good and end up with this championship is amazing.”
At 21 years old, Graver becomes the youngest Modified champion at Mahoning and adds to his three previous championships in the past five years over his six and a half year racing career. He hopes that his continued accomplishments in a short amount of time, which includes more than 30 feature victories, can lead to some future opportunities.
“I’ll race anything anytime anywhere, and I’d like to try racing somewhere else other than here because that’s all I’ve been racing,” said Graver. “Hopefully this helps to get me in the right direction.
“I’ve got to hand it off to my crew, my sponsors, JRi Shocks for coming on with us. Probably within a 100-mile radius we are the only ones on an asphalt Modified with JRi’s. I can’t thank everyone enough who got me to this point, and hopefully this will take me somewhere.”
Despite coming up short of the Modified title, Paules was able to capture his third straight championship in the Late Model division. Additional champions included TJ Gursky with his third career Street Stock title, Kris’ uncle Kevin Graver Jr. in the Dirt Modifieds, Nick Baer in the Pro 4s, and Corey Edelman in the Hobby Stocks.
Mahoning Valley Speedway goes silent for two weeks before the third annual Octoberfast two-day extravaganza headlined with a 130 lapper for the Modifieds that pays $5,000-to-win.
–By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com correspondent – Twitter @Aaron_Creed.
-Photo credit: Speed51.com