Thus, it would be understandable if some skeptical fans raised an eyebrow or rolled their eyes when the rebirth of the SMART Modified Tour was announced last fall. While the original SMART Modified Tour enjoyed a successful run between 1989 and 2004, these are different times.
Six races later, however, things are different this time. The SMART Modified Tour has only seen one field with fewer than 15 cars, with as many as 25 cars showing up at its 2021 season opener at Caraway Speedway. Another strong field is expected Saturday at South Boston Speedway, with 21 entries announced at time of this writing.
It’s also a high-profile cast of drivers taking part in the series. Yes, you have the longtime standouts of the Southern Modified scene, names like Burt and Jason Myers, Tim Brown, John Smith, Brian Loftin and Jeremy Gerstner. Even in the leanest times for Modified racing in the region, they have been consistent presences in this world.
Now, they are joined by the likes of 2000 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Bobby Labonte, who has jumped headfirst into the Modified waters during the next act of his racing career. This weekend, NASCAR Cup Series full-timer and former NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Ryan Preece will also be in the fray.
This has all generated a buzz we’re not used to seeing for Modified racing in the South, especially for a race not taking place at Bowman Gray Stadium.
So what is different this time? When posed that question on The Bullring, James Civali pointed to leadership.
I think we’ve got a great guy running it. Chris Williams is doing a lot of great things for us. He’s a great, honest guy that is standing by his word. It’s hard to do that in every situation. Things fall apart, sponsors fall apart, people don’t show up, it doesn’t all work out. Chris is a really good guy, he’s pushing hard and I think he has a good thing going.
The series has also done an exceptional job of promoting itself on social media and otherwise, helping to generate that buzz for events. From the biggest names to the independents, each driver has a spotlight on them each week as entries are announced.
The races themselves are also friendly for competitors. A two-segment format gives teams an opportunity to utilize an extra tire or make adjustments for the run to the finish. The first six races have seen five different winners – Brian Loftin, Joey Coulter, John Smith, Matt Hirschman and Caleb Heady.
Meanwhile, teams who are dialed in for the first half of the race still have plenty of reason to battle for the lead, with bonus money on the line for the top three racers at the stage break.
The series is also going to venues that are getting a rare taste of ground-pounding Modified racing. When the SMART Modifieds went to Florence Motor Speedway, it was the first time Modifieds had been to the South Carolina track. The same will be true when the series visits Dominion Raceway in September. Meanwhile, tracks like Dillon Motor Speedway, Carteret County Speedway and Motor Mile Speedway have gone years since seeing a Tour-type Modified event.
The SMART Modified Tour is taking Modified racing to venues that haven’t seen it in several years (if ever), such as Carteret County Speedway, Dillon Motor Speedway, Florence Motor Speedway and Motor Mile Speedway.
Of course, it must be noted the role the COVID-19 pandemic has played as well. Namely, there has not been a racing event at Bowman Gray Stadium since the conclusion of their 2019 racing season. The track has already announced a postponement of its 2021 season opener due to ongoing restrictions in North Carolina.
Still, the SMART Modified Tour has created a 2021 schedule that should allow teams to compete at Bowman Gray should racing resume there this year. In fact, the series is largely taking a break during the spring and summer months to allow its teams to focus entirely on Bowman Gray should they choose, ramping up its schedule in the fall after the Bowman Gray Stadium racing slate concludes and makes way for football season.
That level of cooperation is often lacking in short track racing, regardless of car, classification or region. It’s a refreshing sight, and one that should benefit SMART and Bowman Gray alike.
Only time will tell if this momentum can carry into the rest of 2021 and beyond. However, the SMART Modified Tour is off to a very promising start, one that should have Modified fans of the south very excited.
-Zach Evans, Speed51 Content Supervisor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo