On a day that saw toterhomes lined up throughout the pit area, it was the little team that could stealing much of the spotlight Saturday at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl (CT).
Max Zachem and his small family-owned team, which shows up to the race track with their Modified in an enclosed trailer, turned heads with a career-best second-place finish in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour New England Cycle Center 161.
“It means the world, you’re racing against guys that have full-time crew, crew chief and guys that have been racing the Tour a long time, it means a lot,” Zachem told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “My entire team has a 40 hours a week job, never mind working on the racecar with me. They devote a lot of time from their families to come race with me and I can’t thank them enough for what they do.”
Zachem hails from Preston, Connecticut, just a short drive up I-395 from the Speedbowl and considers Connecticut’s shoreline oval to be his home track. He first started racing at the track in Legends Cars before moving to Tour-Type Modified racing in 2010 on the Valenti Modified Racing Series.
Things came full circle for Zachem Saturday night when he led his first career lap on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, challenged for the lead in the later stages of the race and finished runner-up to former NWMT champion Ron Silk.
“It’s awesome, coming home. Bruce Bemer, Shawn Monahan, can’t thank them enough for what they have done for this facility,” said Zachem. “This is a beautiful race track to come to. I’ve been coming here for a long, long time. It’s awesome, we had a great Tour race here.”
After five seasons of consistency in MRS competition, Zachem and his family team made the big step up to the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2015, where the going was tough much of the season. His best finish of the season was a fourth-place run that also came at Waterford.
On Saturday night, Zachem put in a near repeat performance, both battling for positions and avoiding calamity to get to the top five at the race’s midpoint. That’s where he found his biggest competition in Jimmy Blewett, who he battled with throughout the second half of the race.
“It was fun racing with Jimmy Blewett tonight, we could run side by side,” said Zachem. “Yeah we rubbed, but that’s racing, and it was fun. You battle back and forth like that it makes for a fun night.”
Zachem even gave leader Ron Silk a challenge on a late restart when Silk bobbled Zachem led the lap at the line and held even with Silk for a lap on the outside before settling into second. The sophomore driver was pleased to have even a brief shot at the top spot, but was even more pleased at just being able to mix it up with the top teams and drivers.
“I went a little harder than I normally did, which is unusual. I’m more of a patient-type driver like last year, but it worked out really well,” said Zachem. “We had a good shot for three laps and then the right rear got a little too warm and made the car free. We had a great car, I can’t thank my volunteer crew enough, they do an awesome job. We run against all these big teams and we’re the little team coming here to run this Tour and very happy with what we did.”
Zachem believes that the No. 20 team will be able to compete near the front on smaller tracks like Riverhead, Monadnock, and Seekonk coming up later in the season, but no matter what it will always be a tough fight against the big dogs on the Tour.
“At little racetracks, yes. We need help to go to some of the bigger places,” explained Zachem. “You need a full time guy to run this Tour. Look at Doug Coby and Phil Moran, how they jell right from the get-go. Bill Michael with Justin Bonsignore, Danny Watts and Ron Silk, that’s a great team we got on board. There’s a lot of great race teams on this deal.”
One big tool that the larger budget teams have had since last season has been the introduction of the Yates spec engine which has seen much success since early 2015. Zachem, like many smaller teams, still runs an open motor and credits both his engine builder and race team with keeping up with the times.
“It all has to do with Billy and Curtis Mathis at Billy the Kid Performance Engines. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be able to do what we could do,” explained Zachem. “We work hard at it. We have what we have and it makes it fun going to the race track knowing that we are still competitive even though we have the smaller budget. It gives us a little sense of pride.”
With three races completed so far this season, Zachem sits third in the championship standings only behind two-time defending champion Doug Coby and Icebreaker winner Timmy Solomito. Despite the odds, Zachem feels that the competitors and fans of the Tour have been able to get a glimpse of what can be and he is ready to continue the battle with what he has.
“I know I can do it. We got a great race team. What we are doing with our little team is awesome.”
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, MA, LI); Twitter – @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com/Rick Ibsen