In the eyes of Modified enthusiasts and perhaps many new fans acquired, Saturday evening’s 67th Annual Race of Champions and its change to the progressively-banked 3/8-mile Lake Erie Speedway (PA) paid off. The prestigious event featured endless passing throughout the field, unique strategies and a familiar winner over the course of the less than two hours it took to complete the 250-lap feature.
Matt Hirschman battled his Northampton, Pennsylvania neighbor Eric Beers early on and then patiently waited until he needed to before taking the lead from Binghamton, New York series regular Daren Scherer with 38 laps remaining.
It was a record-tying fifth Race of Champions weekend main event victory, matching Dutch Hoag’s accomplishments on the dirt at Pennsylvania’s former Langhorne Speedway in the 1950s and 60s. Not only is winning such a competitive event only once a tough task, but each of the successful racer’s most recent feats took place at a variety of facilities offering differing characteristics.
“Just to think about it, three consecutive years, three totally different race tracks, different set of circumstances as far as pitting, different weather scenarios, all those things that go into it; to win the same race three years in a row is just incredible,” Hirschman told Speed51.com powered by JEGS.
The No. 60 team used strategy after a yellow flag flew with 100 laps remaining to work in their favor in order to find a way to be in contention near the conclusion. The rules for this long-distance race allowed teams to only change one tire per pit stop; however, they were permitted to make more than one pit stop per caution period.
Teams could put on up to four new tires throughout the distance, and Hirschman and a few others elected to change a max of three.
“Our first stop wasn’t a good one,” Hirschman admitted. “We got behind a few guys and then it was a matter of just watching the flags and seeing if we could get all three tires done.”
The strategy of Hirschman and some of the earlier frontrunners meant that they would have to restart toward the rear of the field, since several in front of them stopped for only one or two fresh tires. Nevertheless, there would still be plenty of time to maneuver toward the lead.
“We kind of dug ourselves a little bit of a hole and I thought it was going to be very unlikely this race was going to go (green) all the way to the finish,” Hirschman noted. “With that in mind, I wasn’t going to make a big charge immediately.”
While acknowledging their performance was not flawless by any means, his prediction would be correct on this day. On a restart with less than 50 circuits to go Hirschman began to make his move as he dove low to nearly make a three-wide bid for second before ultimately gaining the lead.
“That was going to be the most critical restart for me based on the strategy I was on,” Hirschman explained. “That was the first time all night I worked the bottom like that. We had a tire advantage over some of the guys in front of us and you don’t want to get stuck behind somebody that’s out there on older tires and lose spots to guys that have all the tires, because it’s going to be tough to get them back. It was definitely go time and I hustled it for everything I could get. We were good when we needed to be.”
In the second position at the finish was series veteran Mike Leaty, but it turned out to be a more than meaningful runner-up result. The Williamson, New York driver was involved in a race within a race, a battle for the 2017 RoC Asphalt Modified Series championship. He entered with an eight point advantage over defending champion Patrick Emerling and two-time winner in 2017, Andy Jankowiak, a close 33 behind.
“It’s the biggest accomplishment of my career for sure,” an ecstatic Leaty said. “Where do I begin? This is my best finish in the Race of Champions, this is the championship; it’s more than I could have ever dreamed of.”
The L2 Autosport group went winless for the first time in the series since 2010, but consistently put in a total team effort consisting of numerous podium finishes, only one finish outside the top 10, and years of hard work. That effort continued into Saturday evening when early on it looked like their championship hopes may have been all but over with Emerling and Jankowiak running toward the front of the field and Leaty trying to figure out an unusual set of circumstances.
“It was a miracle because I’ve never raced so long in my life with zero oil pressure,” the son of two-time RoC event winner Jan Leaty commented. “I think something was going on with the oil pump. There was one point in the race where the motor started to act a little funny and I actually dropped down off the backstretch and started to slow down and the yellow came out. I was actually thinking about coming in the pits. I don’t know if I was going to that lap. I was going to slow down and drop to the back and kind of feel it out. Then the yellow came out and it was the break of a lifetime.”
During the closing stages, Emerling’s car was noticeably ill-handling and a late pit stop was not able to solve their problem, resulting in a disappointing 16th place finish. Jankowiak worked his way up to second and appeared to be a challenge for Hirschman, but was forced to surprisingly pit during a late caution after realizing a tire was flat. The Tonawanda, New York driver raced back up through the field, but would be caught up and hooked with the spinning car of former Lake Erie track champion Scott Wylie, relegating him to the end of the lead lap with an 18th place finish.
At the same time with nothing left to lose, Leaty drove his heart out to become a contender once again.
“I was in the back, but I knew I had such a fast race car that I just couldn’t give up,” Leaty noted. “Even when I went to the back and made all those pit stops, every single time I came back on the race track I just drove right back by everybody and I was just taking it easy. I was just trying to maintain a little track position. The car was just so good I could just pass everybody at will almost. This is extra special, we’re going to savor this right now, and then we’re going to think about next year in a few weeks.”
Danielsville, Pennsylania’s Austin Kochenash led laps and turned in a phenomenal third place run. Beers had a learning experience, eventually settling for fourth after being the apparent car to beat early on. It was his first long-distance RoC start away from home track Mahoning Valley Speedway (PA) in many years with the DeLange Racing Team. Scherer tied a season best fifth after leading the middle stages of the event.
Beers commended the clean racing that took place over the 250 laps and applauded the move of the event to a first-class facility like Lake Erie.
“All the people running the show here are doing a fantastic job,” Beers added. “All the guys that are racing are good racers. We drove by a couple guys and a couple guys drove by us, and I don’t think there was a scratch on the car. That’s a testament to how good these guys race. It was a lot of fun.”
Race fans can find on-demand Trackside Now coverage of Saturday’s action by clicking here.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com
67th Annual Race of Champions 250 Finishing Order:
|14||24||34||John Fortin Jr.||250|
|17||17||10||Daryl Lewis Jr.||250|
|24||20||65||George Skora III||102|