The 69th Annual Race of Champions 250 is still four days away for the Modified teams of the RoC Modified Series, but already many have already picked their driver to beat: Matt Hirschman. This isn't surprising given the fact that he's a six-time winner overall, a winner of four consecutive Race of Champions, and the winner of the two most recent versions of the race held at Lake Erie Speedway in Western Pennsylvania.
This past Monday, Hirschman spoke about the Race of Champions on Speed51’s Morning Bullring. First, he talked about how his current winning streak hasn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this historic Modified event in any way.
“Always excited and looking forward to this race. It’s the biggest race really of the year for me and just the history of it being the longest running tradition next to the Indy 500," Hirschman said. "It just means a lot and it’s something great in the fall every year. Certainly, one you prepare extra hard for and we’re in the process of doing that for this coming weekend."
After winning the Tommy Druar/Tony Jankoiwak Memorial after its resumption on September 13 at Lancaster National Speedway (NY), just two days before the traditional U.S. Open 125, Hirschman and crew decided to keep the red No. 60 in the shop back in Northampton, PA this past weekend. But they were not taking any time to get some rest.
“The way the schedule worked out this year, having the U.S. Open at Lancaster a week earlier instead of back-to-back weeks with the Race of Champions, left this past weekend open. We’ve been preparing, it’s a 250-lap race and it requires a little extra maintenance. This is one race where you’re going to check things twice, this is the one you do it for. You want to give yourself the best opportunity with this kind of money and prestige on the line.”
With a prize set at $12,500 once again for the race winner since moving to Lake Erie in 2017, "Big Money Matt" has earned quite a bit of the green stuff at the 3/8-mile facility. The track, a favorite among many drivers including Hirschman, has been one that fits every standard of what he considers to be a great race track.
“Lake Erie is one of my top five favorite tracks to go to. It’s a race track that produces some great side-by-side, multi-groove racing, so it’s also really fun too. It races like a normal short track, but it’s also state-of-the-art too. Most of the places we go to, not to knock them, because some of favorite race tracks are places some people would use a four-letter word in front of hole to describe them. Those are my favorites, but Lake Erie races like them, but is also top notch. You look forward to passing cars and you know you’re going to have to do that with the way the strategy and the pit stops and things work out.”
While the race has previously been held at Chemung Speedrome (NY) and Oswego Speedway (NY) this decade, the Race of Champions has always been a tough race for even the best drivers to win. One major factor: pit stops over the long race distance.
“The way the pit rules work, you can only take one tire at a time. At some point, regardless of where you start, even out front, I got to come through the field to win it in the end. There’s no way you’re going to stay out front all race and it’s going to work out that way. It gets a little wild in the mid to late stages, and we’ve come from very deep the last two years to win it in the end.”
The other key factor: the competition, which Hirschman feels is tougher compared to the last few years in the RoC Modified Series alone.
“Usually we get some outsiders that come out to try it out. But, just the core group alone of the Race of Champions Series is very solid. This year Patrick Emerling and Andy Jankowiak have both won multiple races. Then you got veteran guys who are capable of winning it; Chuck Hossfeld, Eric Beers, guys that have won it before. There’s no way it’s going to be an easy win for anyone.”
It is the continued difficulty that Hirschman feels has kept up the long-standing tradition that this race has built since first running at the late Langhorne Speedway (PA) back in 1951. A tradition that he is proud to follow in.
“For the Hirschman family, it’s been ten times total, and it does mean more than anything else I’ve ever won. I’ve had success in a lot of big races, and kind of made my name in some of them, like the North-South Shootout and things like that. This race was tough on me earlier in my career, there were some missed opportunities, probably a few where we had the best car and didn’t win after some misfortune. Recently, we’re making up for some lost wins earlier, winning four-straight and doing it at three different race tracks.
It has been an incredible ride, we’re going to try for five-straight. To have your name on that trophy, the trophy alone is legendary, all the names of every winner is represented on that trophy going back to 1951 when it started. Dutch Hoag had won five races. A lot of all-time greats have won the race, my father being one of them, Mike Stefanik in 1990, the late 80’s at Pocono on the 3/4-mile when my memories started, that was the heyday when you’re talking 60 to 80 cars. It’s gone through some transitions, but it’s still one of the great races of Modifieds.”
Speed51.com will be on hand at Lake Erie throughout Race of Champions weekend delivering updates and race highlights on the Speed51 Network.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51 Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51Photos.com