The Race of Champions celebrated their 2016 season on Saturday night at the Genessee River Restaurant and Reception Center in scenic Mount Morris, New York. Champions in all four sanctioned divisions were recognized for their phenomenal years with additional awards being handed out to numerous deserving individuals.
One of the most decorated racers in motorsports during 2016 was “Super” Matt Sheppard, and the Race of Champions Dirt Modified Series was no different. The Waterloo, New York driver outdueled fellow competitor Vic Coffey for the title.
“It was an unbelievable year for us,” Sheppard told Speed51.com. “We were red hot on the RoC Tour, just the only thing that slowed us down it seemed like was Mother Nature.”
In addition to the various winnings for being champion, which included a RoC custom helmet, jacket from Hoosier Racing Tire, and fuel jug from Sunoco Race Fuels and Insinger Performance, Sheppard received the Speed51.com RoC Most Popular Driver Award. The award, voted on by thousands of fans, was an honor that means a great deal to him.
“I’ve won a lot of things in my life; popular driver was not one of them until now,” Sheppard commented. “It definitely does mean a lot to me, and it just shows that the fans are out there and they are rooting for us and we appreciate that.”
While Saturday put a cap on a stellar 2016, the focus now shifts to 2017 for Sheppard and all of his Dirt Modified cohorts.
On the Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series side, Patrick Emerling dominated the win column throughout the 14-race schedule, turning in some incredible statistics including a sweep of all four events held at Lancaster National Speedway (NY).
“This is a very hard series to win in and the fact that we did it as well as we did it’s just an awesome feeling,” Emerling noted regarding his championship effort.
The Orchard Park, New York driver’s closest contender was a veteran of the series with many victories and multiple championships to his credit, Chuck Hossfeld.
“Chuck was a tough guy to beat so the fact that we beat him is just incredible,” Emerling said. “He’s a guy I looked up to for many years as a driver and he’s a guy that I wanted to try to be as good as. The fact that we beat him, that’s awesome.”
Looking ahead to 2017, Emerling is nearly fully recovered from an off-season shoulder surgery and will be adding a new challenge into the mix to go with his usual schedule on asphalt. The team will be introducing a dirt car to the fleet as they continue their quest to win on as many occasions as they can.
“We’re probably going to run at Freedom Motorsports Park (NY) down the road from where my shop is,” Emerling indicated. “They’re opening up a class where I can just use my Modified motor and throw it in there. Possibly run Outlaw (Speedway) and a couple touring series that they have going on there, so we’re definitely going to be breaking into the dirt and hopefully we can collect a few there in our first year. That would be absolutely incredible.”
In addition to his schedule in the RoC, Emerling will continue to compete on a limited basis on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and will bring out the Sportsman Modified for some major local shows in Western New York at tracks such as Lancaster and Holland Speedway.
Brad Rouse was also honored as the 2016 RoC Dirt Sportsman 602 Series champion and Joe Mancuso was named the 2016 RoC Asphalt Super Stock Series champion.
Chuck Hossfeld may have come up one position short in chasing the 2016 RoC title, but did not go home empty-handed. The Ransomville, New York driver received the most votes on the asphalt side of the Speed51.com RoC Most Popular Driver award.
“I’m blown away about getting that Most Popular Driver award,” Hossfeld stated. “That just makes my night. This is a huge honor for me and for my whole team. It makes me feel great.”
Like Emerling, 2017 preparations have already begun for Hossfeld that includes a brand new Troyer Modified in which the team has already assembled, taken apart, and was in the process of having cleared this past weekend.
“We’ve already got things in the works to make ourselves better,” Hossfeld said. “I really believe that we will be a real contender for the championship. (In 2016) we did have some failures that took us out, but I can’t take anything away from what Patrick did. Look for us to be strong in ’17.”
In addition to the top 15 RoC Asphalt points finishers in attendance being invited up on stage to be recognized and receive their share of the point fund, a number of special awards were handed out by RoC owners Joe and Amy Skotnicki as part of the night’s festivities. The Hard Luck award went to Bryan Sherwood, who actually turned in some career best results in an up-and-down year, New Jersey teenager Calvin Carroll was named the 2016 Rookie of the Year, and longtime series official Jim Burleigh was recognized with the Spirit and Dedication award.
Sixth place points finisher, Daryl Lewis Jr., turned in his best season to date that featured his first ever podium finish in the series at Lancaster in August. For his efforts and much to his surprise, the Ontario, New York driver was given the Most Improved Driver award.
“More humbling than anything,” Lewis said. “To get something like that and run with these guys, like Hossfeld and Emerling, to run up front with them this year was really humbling. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.”
Lewis hopes to continue the ride into the new year with even bigger results from their effort.
“I hope we can just bring on the momentum that we had in 2016 into 2017,” the second-generation racer continued. “It’s a humbling deal, but I hope we can win a race. That would tie the knot and it would mean a lot to me and it would mean a real lot to my dad in general.”
Saturday night’s celebration marked the completion of the RoC’s first season under the ownership of Joe Skotnicki. While the series had to overcome various hurdles to get there, more of the same strategy that was introduced for 2016 will be utilized to keep climbing to reach benchmarks for 2017 and beyond.
A night of enjoyment for the drivers, teams, and family members was an occurrence that was exactly what many needed after an arduous year in short track racing, and was a highlighted accomplishment.
“Without question, tonight, because if you look back to last February nobody thought we would be here,” Skotnicki answered when asked what their biggest triumph of 2016 was, personally. “All of the people that are here, and that weren’t here, are going to receive their point fund checks and we can go forward and kick off another good season.
“It’s nights like tonight that make you realize how tight this industry really is and we just have to keep spreading the word and doing the right things. By those guys being here it shows our hearts are in the right place and the passion we have, and we’re going to try to continue doing the right things going forward.”
Additional partnerships and announcements are in the works in order to spread the footprint of Modified racing, including one that is expected in early February. Within the last week, it was released that Delaware Speedway in Ontario, Canada will receive guidance from RoC to start up a Sportsman Modified program.
The 2017 Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series campaign begins on Saturday, April 28 at Lancaster National Speedway.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com/MoJo Photos