Modified racing under the NASCAR banner has traditionally taken precedence in the Northeast short track community, but when you look beyond that there is so much more to the whole, including race tracks, events, teams and drivers. It is from this part of the Modified world that Jon McKennedy has competed in and excelled in during his career. During the 2016 season, McKennedy displayed just how far he has come as a driver.
McKennedy took the Northeast by storm this season, winning the championship in the Valenti Modified Racing Series for the fourth time in his career while collecting eight VMRS race wins en route to the title. He also ventured outside the VMRS during the year, competing in the “Big Money Shows,” most under the banner of the Tri-Track Open Modified Series. But McKennedy’s adventure began before the season even started in the Northeast.
In March, the driver from Chelmsford, Massachusetts made the trip all the way to historic Hickory Motor Speedway (NC) for the traditional Easter weekend show which featured the first race for the new Southern Modified Racing Series. In a show that brought Modifieds from all over the Southeast, as well as a few other from up North, McKennedy nailed down a victory that helped get the ball rolling for the season that was to come.
“It was neat. Hickory was a cool track, unique track with a lot of history. That started off our season and gave us some momentum,” McKennedy told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We came out of there with the win with some good competition, Modifieds from all around. It seemed like from there on we were a contender to win at every track this year, whether it would be with PASS down south, the Valenti or the Tri-Track. It turned into a great season.”
McKennedy returned south a month later collecting another SMRS win at Ace Speedway (SC). When combined with his VMRS triumphs, the win total hit 10 overall for McKennedy in 2016. While it was more than he realistically predicted at the start, it was with his team’s goal of racing to win. At the start of the season, winning was the only goal with no championship in mind.
“We were just picking and choosing to start off the year and see how things went and right off we started running pretty well with everything,” he stated. “Next you know I was leading the points for the season. At that point we decided to finish the year out and run for another championship. We were still able to run the open shows that we originally wanted to, it didn’t really conflict. We had some good sponsors step up with Exit Reality and Sage Bank, they gave us the funding we needed to race more than we expected.”
While McKennedy’s luck was bountiful for the most part, there were some races that he wishes he could get another crack at, especially in the races outside series competition that had a lot of cash on the line.
“I look back there’s a few races that kind of got away from us a little bit, the Tri-Track at Seekonk (MA), $10,000 to win. We were a top contender all day there, elected to pit a little past halfway. I was the only car to pit. When I came out to a field of 25 cars, I knew I had my hands full to come back through. Concord (NC) was another good race, we ran up front, led laps, had a miscue on pit road, car fell off the jack and we lost several spots. Disappointed, that was a race we really wanted to win and we were legit contenders.”
While all race wins are something to celebrate, it is the ones where the competition is at its best that are the ones to special for McKennedy. While the bulk of the VMRS schedule is in Northern New England, the Valenti Modifieds do make five stops in the center of “Modified Country,” the State of Connecticut, with three of those events at Stafford Motor Speedway. Those races see the VMRS regulars clashing with the best of the track’s elite SK Modified division.
“All the races are special, it means something different each time. But I think a big win for us was probably the MRS win at Stafford in September. In a way it was almost like a Whelen Tour race, you had a bunch of the Tour guys in that race and guys that race SK’s at that track weekly. Ted Christopher, Rowan Pennink, Keith Rocco, guys like that. To win that race was great with the competition.”
McKennedy’s 2016 VMRS title adds to the ones he scored in 2009, 2010, and 2012. This time around he noted the dominance that went along with it, especially considering that his No. 29 team is one of the smaller Modified operations in the Northeast.
“Each title is a little different. We seemed to have enough momentum this season and had enough wins. It seemed after mid-season we had a big enough cushion where it wasn’t too stressful,” McKennedy commented. “I felt like as long as we could stay out of trouble we’d be fine, even if we had a few races where we’d have some issues. In past years whether in the Modifieds or Supermodifieds it seemed like it would always come down to the end, this one was different with the point lead towards the end. It allowed us to be aggressive with strategy and not worry about losing points. It’s a small team up here, small group, and small budget. To win the fourth is pretty cool and we’ve done a lot out of a little. Big thanks to the guys and girls that help me, all my sponsors.”
Going forward into 2017, McKennedy’s plans are as of now, undecided. His biggest hope moving ahead is that teams all over the land will take note of what has been accomplished both in 2016 and throughout his career, which would allow him to take the step up to another level.
“If the opportunity is right, I’ll be willing to take the ride. At this point I don’t really know what we’re doing, still waiting to hear back on sponsorship stuff and hopefully a ride will come along in the next month or two and we’ll go from there. I want to move my career forward but funding is holding us back, hopefully we can catch a break and get a ride that fits. I’ve established the good name for myself the last few years and won in everything I’ve been in. The big break hasn’t come yet, but I’ll keep on trying and hopefully something big comes out of it.”
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA & Long Island Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/Rick Ibsen