With a new year comes another opportunity for the Modified drivers of Long Island to continue to add to their long racing legacy. But, while some wait for Riverhead Raceway to open in May, or for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour to roll of in March at South Boston Speedway, there are a few that are not content to wait for the weather in the Northeast to warm.
This week, three members of the Whelen Modified Tour’s “Long Island Gang” are set to make one of the greatest pilgrimages, not just in Modified racing, but all of short track racing. It is the journey south to Florida and New Smyrna Speedway for the five-night Tour-type Modified portion of the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing.
Of these three, the driver with the highest marks in past World Series is Eric Goodale, with five overall victories, including four in the Tour-type Mods. While raising a growing family in recent years, “The Wolverine” has missed two of the last three years, staying home in 2019. As for his return in 2020, that is a decision that was made some time ago.
“I’d say I probably made it about halfway through Speedweeks last year and my wife looked at me goes, ‘I don’t care what’s happening next year, you’re going. I don’t think I can take anymore of this,’ with me being home and getting updates, and watching all the action from down there. So, we knew last February that we were going,” Goodale told Speed51.
Of his four Tour-type Modified victories at New Smyrna, two have been in the two marquee races, the John Blewett III Memorial 76 in 2015 and the Richie Evans Memorial 100 in 2012. The significance of those wins, along with the aura of running at the “Winter Home of the Modified Racing,” are what continue to draw Goodale south.
“There is some special characterization about winning those extra-distance races that pay homage to two great guys. It certainly feels good when you see family members and friends of them come up and congratulate you after the race, it’s pretty cool.”
Up north the past two years, times have been tough on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour for the Riverhead native, being shut out of victory lane. Just one win in any race next week will be a huge triumph for the No. 58 team.
“I’ve struggled the last two years on the Whelen Modified Tour. We’re in a winless drought, so any race you can win is big, don’t ever take a win for granted because you never know when you’re ever going to be back in victory lane. In the last two years, I’ve learned that.”
One use of the World Series, especially for Tour-type Modified teams, has been to use the multiple days of practice and racing as a bit of a test session for the upcoming season. This has become a favorite for many Whelen Modified teams since the ban on pre-season testing in the previous decade. But for Goodale, there is more to gain than track time for their equipment.
“We need to get our mojo back, we showed a lot of speed last year after switching manufacturers and the races just didn’t pan out exactly the way we wanted to,” he stated. “We picked up a lot of speed the last quarter of the year, so we’re kind of riding high hoping that continues. Really, I love being at New Smyrna, turning the wrenches every day before we start the season at South Boston in March.”
While Eric Goodale has already put his name into a prominent spot in World Series history, young gun Craig Lutz is only starting to get his name in the books. While he made his New Smyrna debut in 2018 with the No. 46 Jeff Goodale owned team, in 2019 Lutz came down south as a crew member, while Jeff made a brief return to driving.
Last fall, Lutz scored a major career milestone, his first NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour win at Stafford Motor Speedway in the Fall Final. He returns south now with confidence and a desire for improvement.
“New Smyrna is a fun place to run, very lucky to have a chance to run again. I’m looking forward to it. The win at Stafford, any time you win as a team, especially on the Tour which we had been trying for so long, definitely gives you a boost of confidence,” Lutz explained.
Naturally, the Miller Place, New York native is looking forward to gunning for some wins over the five races, but he’s just happy to get the opportunity to get out of the cold once again.
“How much better could it be? It’s cold up here, go down to Florida where it’s warm, and you get to race five days in a row. Very grateful for the opportunity. In 2018 we went down there in our first year, we didn’t know what to expect, but by the end of the week we were a top five car. Hopefully we can get in there and start off that way and pull off a win by the end of the week.”
For the World Series, Lutz will be driving his family-owned car, but will have many from the Goodie Motorsports No. 46 that will be with him for the 2020 Whelen Modified Tour season. The big goal for the week will be team building.
“We’re going to be running my car, but it’s most of my Tour team, so it’s mostly the same for us,” he explained. “We’ve been really busy, building new cars for the Tour, and hopefully we’ll come out of the box strong this year. I don’t know how much of this week dictates the season, this is a separate deal for us just to get the guys out of the cold, working together at the track and knocking the rust off before the season starts at South Boston.”
From one of the young guns to the young at heart, Dave Sapienza enters 2020 with renewed health and enthusiasm. Following a crash at Wall Stadium Speedway last May, Sapienza was on the sidelines for much of 2019, making his return at Riverhead Raceway in September on the Whelen Modified Tour before also appearing at the Turkey Derby at Wall Stadium later in the year.
While not technically 100 percent, “Sap” feels more than ready to take on the year ahead.
“I feel pretty good, my back is still a little sore, but heck with it. Once I’m in the racecar I’ll be fine.”
Last February, Sapienza made his first major run at the World Series, starting three of the five races and coming away with some solid results. Even then, he was feeling good about his chances if he were to return in 2020.
“We were real fast; I was really happy. I was only going to run the two big races, but we went out and ran Tuesday night just shakedown and play around, but I got caught up with Hirschman and whoever got tangled up, broke a tie-rod. Luckily the car wasn’t hurt too bad, we finished third in the 76 and sixth in the 100. Not bad for an old guy, huh?”
The confidence in the entire No. 36 team as a whole is high as well, following Bobby Santos’ win with the team at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the Musket 250 last September. For New Smyrna, Rob Fuller is providing some extra guidance for the 36 camp as they ready themselves to take on the full year. One big recommendation that Sapienza is taking from Fuller is running all five races during the week for the Tour-type Modifieds.
“I’m going to run the whole week. I got to because Rob brought to my attention that I missed all those races last year,” Sapienza said. “All those other drivers are 10 to 15 races ahead of you. I didn’t race other than the Turkey Derby. He said, ‘You need to race every day, I don’t care who you are, when you’re out you need to get back on your A-game.’ Look at the guys that take the winter off, they need the practice when they get back in the car.”
Above all, Sapienza is just excited to get the show on the road.
“I’m really excited about the Tour. We have another new car on the program, I feel better, I’ve still been going to the gym and stuff. Yes, my back still hurts, but that ain’t going to keep me from racing.”
The first Tour-type Modified race of the 2020 World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing rolls off on Monday, February 10 and will run every night through Friday, February 14.
Live updates, photos, behind-the-scenes videos and more can be found throughout the week on Speed51.com.
-Story by: Connor Sullivan, Speed51 Northeast Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51 / Rick Ibsen