The Race of Champions Asphalt Modified Series may be in a period of silence at the moment as far as on track action, but there is plenty happening in and around the race shops as 2017 heads towards a big two-race finale.
First up, a week from this Sunday on September 24, the RoC Modifieds head to Lancaster National Speedway near Buffalo, NY for the 125-lap U.S. Open, a staple event for the series every year. However, as big as that event is, it’s still the warm-up for the biggest of them all six days later on September 30, as the 67th Race of Champions 250 takes the green flag for the first time at Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Speedway.
Since the series’ last race at Lancaster on August 19, each team has taken a period of rest, but most of the time has been spent on work. That has been true for Tyler Rypkema, who is focused on ending his breakout season on a high note.
“We took a lot of stuff off of the car and went through the rest of it just to be prepared for these last couple of races,” Rypkema told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “They are longer, so your car endures a lot more, it goes through more wear and you have to be up on your game and have your car up to snuff these last two races.”
After shocking the Modified world with a win at New Smyrna Speedway (FL) back in February, Rypkema has remained competitive, running consistently and collecting his first RoC victory at Lancaster back in June. While he wants to win again, he’s not prepared to go too overboard to do it.
“It’s going to take a lot; a lot of things are going to have to fall into place to get a win in any race on the RoC,” Rypkema stated. “Given the right circumstances, I think we will. We should be able to get one out of there. If we’re lucky, maybe two. We’ll just take it as it comes to me, if we don’t have a car to win, we’re not going to go crazy to try.”
While the U.S. Open is longer than most on the schedule, the RoC 250 is substantially longer than any event on the RoC calendar. Despite it being a greater challenge, it is one that Rypkema has grown to enjoy taking every season.
“I like the long-distance races when they give you tires that separates it a little more, it puts strategy into it. You get more passing and it creates a better race for the fans. But you got to have a good handling car to be quick at the end, but there are a lot variables to it.”
Another driver that has had a breakout season is Tommy Catalano, who captured his first track championship in the Sunoco Modifieds at Spencer Speedway. But while he too has had consistency, he is still trying to break into RoC victory lane. While these last two races are the most difficult to win, he feels that it could very well happen if everything falls into place.
“I think we definitely got a good shot these coming weeks,” Catalano said confidently. “We’ve been close, we’ve been on the podium. Hopefully these extra weeks will give us that extra little bit that we’ll need to be able to click off everything we need to put one of these wins together. Hopefully that will be what we need to move up that one spot and get that first win.”
While he and his family team have also been looking ahead with prep work, they’re also doing some racing elsewhere, to take a little break from working at the shop.
“We’re taking a little break this weekend to go run a Sportsman race up in Delaware, Canada, but the prep is going good,” Catalano explained. “But we’re hoping that by early next week, we’ll have everything finished up and we can concentrate on tidying up and making sure everything is perfect.”
As for what the key to winning is, especially for the 250, it is all about nailing the correct strategy.
“What’s going to be huge for Erie is planning the strategy of when to go and when not to go. I think we have an idea of when to pit and when we are going to handle all of that,” Catalano said. “If it all comes together, hopefully it will play out in our favor and we’ll have a shot at winning it.”
On the other side of the spectrum, now a veteran, but still young driver Patrick Emerling is poised to show the young guns that he is still at the top of the competition. He acknowledges that a certain part-timer and former champion may be the toughest to beat, but that the young crop shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Matt Hirschman is on roll this year, he didn’t really run with us last year,” Emerling said. “A lot of other guys have stepped up their game, getting better and better, they got more experience, they’re better at what they do. Now they’re coming after us.”
Emerling has been in the news this week as he told Speed51 on Tuesday about his one-off deal to race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 23, while also going for his second NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour win of the season the same day. All this before heading to Lancaster for the U.S. Open the next day.
“I have the RoC car and I have the Tour car, so we are going to hustle back from Loudon, swap the cars and race at Lancaster the next day. This won’t be the first time we’ve done it, head straight back Saturday after the Tour race and race again Sunday.”
While Emerling is going for a second straight U.S. Open, he is still going for his first RoC 250. All at the same time he is going for back to back RoC Modified Series titles. While he hasn’t shown the same domination as 2016, he feels that his No. 07 team is stronger than ever.
“I feel pretty good, Mike (Leaty) and I are one and two in points. I have a bit of lead, but we’ve had some bad luck this year,” Emerling stated. “Got wrecked pretty good at Lancaster the last time out. We also had two or three flat tires this year. We’ve had more speed this year than last year when we won 7 of 14 races, but sometimes things go your own way and sometimes they don’t.
“I think we’ve been doing a better job, but there’s other factors involved. Last year, we had some dumb luck go our way, this year they’re not. But we’ve been getting better and it’s just about getting it to click and having luck on your side.”
Be sure to stay with Speed51.com for coverage of the U.S. Open and Race of Champions 250.
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA, RI & Long Island Editor – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com/MoJo Photos