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Embracing The Old & Building The New, Smart 75 Modified SMART Tour At Florence Motor Speedway

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“ This is crazy man…” – rookie Caleb Heady

EMBRACING THE OLD & BUILDING THE NEW

Smart 75 Modified SMART Tour Round Two At Florence Motor Speedway

THE WORKPLACE-

By Billy Weatherman | Oval Track News

The management, teams, and their drivers shook off the new last week in the season opener at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, NC, and now it was on to round two at “The New” Florence Motor Speedway in Timmonsville, SC. Everybody knows that touring racing isn’t easy, as you don’t have the luxury of a home base, and the journey to a championship means traveling down the long road of hard work. And so the road brings us here, just a hop skip and a jump from NASCAR’s Darlington Speedway, and it turns out as fate often has it, that this was the perfect location for the second round of the tour, as I found this track exudes the meaning of hard work, for it knows it well. And there was no better place for the SMART Tour to be for round two on it’s 10 race schedule.

As I headed out on my 2 hour and 45 minute trip from my home, I wondered about what the Florence Motor Speedway experience would be like. I’ve been to many tracks around the east coast, big ones, small ones, banked ones and flat ones, NASCAR super speedways to little dirt karting tracks. But I’d never been to what was once Florence I-95 Speedway. And so wanting to give you an honest report, I didn’t research it beforehand. I wanted to report exactly what we experienced without being spoiled by the marketing propaganda that surrounds any business venture. The only thing I knew really was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored a victory there in the late 90’s, that it was in the sandy flat of South Carolina near Darlington, and that a former track partner and promoter named Stacy Higgins stated, and was planning, to build a drive in and tear out the pavement that was laid after the 1987 season, and return to dirt track racing as the track was originally when built in 1982. Other than that, I didn’t know what to expect.

Honestly, when I arrived at the 4/10’s mile track. I wasn’t sure I was at the right place. There was an 80’s era short track race sign before the entrance, but trees covered any sight of the place, and the road was a sandy dirt entrance that left me thinking I was at the maintenance entrance or hopefully for me, the entrance to the pits. But after driving past it, I suddenly found that this uninviting sandy dirt entrance was the only entrance in, and my curiosity grew. I even thought for a moment, “What have I just gotten myself into?” and those thoughts didn’t cease as I came up the road and up to the track. The press box had some siding coming off, there was a little ⅕ mile clay oval dirt karting track off to the right, and being honest, the place looked like it had been neglected a bit, if not now, sometime in the very recent past. But as I approached the ticket booth, and track security, I was met by a very welcoming

and friendly staff, who gave me all the info I needed, and pointed me in all the right directions. As I moved about the infield pit area, my initial impression began to change. And then when I settled into a seat in the grandstands, where we always watch qualifying and the races, as I am first and foremost just a race fan, it hit me. And I knew from that moment forward why drivers and fans come to this place. And I can honestly say to you now, that if you are ever in this area, you need to watch a race here. It’s a great place to watch racing. I researched the place later and found

that the story of “The New” Florence Motor Speedway, despite being built in the late 80’s, has an amazing story to tell. But in short, Steve Zacharias, after 10 years at Myrtle Beach Speedway, now finds himself in the middle of the hard work of rebuilding a track that almost came to naught. And it would’ve been a shame, because what I found was my favorite kind of track. Florence Motor Speedway is blue collar racing at it’s finest. And if you want to find victory lane here, you’ll have to work for it!

THE WORKERS-

Burt Myers, #1, and his team worked hard last week for a second place finish that finds them on top of the tour regulars going into round two. John Smith, #24, who worked his way from the back of the field to a great third place finish, is just a few points behind Myers, and has shown that his new team is fast and very capable of running up front and winning races. They will both need a great day today to hold off Bobby Labonte in the #25, who owns the track record, and has shown he’s here in this series to win races. Any racing fan knows you can’t count out a Hall Of Fame driver that still has the will to win. Those guys will all have to watch for Jeremy Gerstner in the 55 and Gary Putnam in the 77 as both of these veterans have shown great speed, and are working hard to keep themselves in contention, not only for wins, but the championship as well. 10 time Bowman Gray Stadium Modified champion Tim Brown, #83, will need to do some heavy lifting if he wants to right the ship after last week’s bad luck, but it’s early in the season, and he has the time to make up some ground. But he’s going to need to start that lifting this week in order to move up the leaderboard, as the middle of the field is full of cagey veterans, all working hard to make a run to the front. Jason Myers in the 4 machine and Brian Loftin in the 15 showed great speed in race one, and will be looking for the luck they will need to make up for points lost last week. The tour ran a race here at FMS last year preparing for their first full season that saw Loftin winning, so we know he knows his way around this place, and I look for them both to be strong here today. Also, Brandon Ward makes his first appearance in the Joey Coulter/Randy Renfrow owned #2 that also saw victory lane here last year with Joey at the wheel. And that brings yet another powerful entry to the field that must be dealt with by anyone who has hopes of visiting victory lane in this race. I will also have my eye out for rookie contender Caleb Heady in the 7NY machine as he showed grit, and was named our Blue Collar of the race winner last week, to see if his momentum and confidence leads him to a great run today. Today’s event is a short 75 lap feature, so the drivers will need to go hard early if they want a shot at this one. The die is cast, and the SMART Tour management and crew have all worked hard to put on a great show today. And so for the teams and their drivers, it’s time to put on the gloves and get to work in the Smart Chevy 75

Smart Modified Tour
SMART TOUR MOD DRIVER JEREMY GERSTNER WORKS TO GET HIS CAR RIGHT FOR THE Smart Chevy 75

THE PAYOFF~

The show would start with the popular Allison Legacy Series. Drake Williamson in the #88 would start on the pole. But Jacob O’Neal in the #03 would give Williamson a fierce fight for the lead in the first half of the race. Williamson would be able to hang on and win the Allison Legacy feature. Jacob O’Neal would come in second, with popular series driver Camryn Rice in the #06 coming home 3rd.

Later in the day, the Super Trucks would take center stage with Cody Kelley in the #5 machine starting on the point. He would enjoy the lead for only a short time before Strom Altman in the #7 truck would storm past him. Cody kept on him for a little bit, but it wasn’t enough. Strom would take the victory, with Kelley in second, and the #00 machine of Jody Measmer coming home third. After the race, the #63 of James Krakeel would come close to disaster after almost spinning off of the banking, but he was luckily able to pull it back on track. To note here, Florence Motor Speedway has no outer walls around 2/3rds of the track. Only the front stretch, out of fan safety, has an outer barrier. That was also new to me so I asked one of the local fans if anybody ever goes flying off the track, and he said, “It happens”, like it was a common thing there. So I asked next, what do they do, send the rollback and pull them up? And he answered, “They usually just drive back up”.

Next up were the Mini Stocks. Mini Stock legend A.J. Sanders in the #24 would start on pole. Second place starter Kevin Jackson in the #21 would put up a great fight for A.J., but nobody could stop the veteran from once again dominating. A.J. would take the checkered, with Jackson coming home 2nd and Mike Stafford in the #6 finishing with a strong third. I asked A.J. if he was planning on winning them all, and he promised me he would do his best. Two stops on the SMART Tour has me seeing A.J. doing what I’ve seen A.J. Sanders do, and that’s winning races all across the southern racing scene. He is indeed one of the best mini stock drivers you’ll find anywhere in the country.

Next up was a stacked field of Late Models which included the likes of Matt Cox, Ryan Millington, and Ryan Glenski. Zack Miracle in the #32 machine would start on the pole. But Late Model veteran Matt Cox, in the #51 Aarons car, would show his muscle early and power into the lead. Miracle would try every trick in the book to get past Cox, but the veteran was just too strong. Meanwhile, in the middle of the field, it’s just an absolute dogfight.

Everybody wants a good finish at this blue collar track, where nothing comes easy. Miracle tries once again to get around Cox, but it’s just not enough, and Cox would win the 75 lap Late Model race with Miracle coming home second, and Millington in the #15 finishing 3rd.

The last race on the card was literally one of the craziest races I’ve ever seen. The Chargers were ready to close out the night with a strong field of 17 cars. Brain Owens would start on pole. This wouldn’t last long however as Archie Adams Jr. would take the lead early. The first caution of many would come out with the #02 of Joey Webster spinning in turn 2. And after only a few laps, the yellow is out again for the #97 of Glenn Mappus. After another short green run, a multi-car melee would ensue in the middle of the pack, with the #23 of Blayde Timmons going off of the banking shortly after the restart, but as the experienced local fan described earlier, he pulled up the hill, back onto the track, and continues in competition. After another short green flag run, the #21 of Shae Lane would make contact with the leader of Adams, and Adams would cut a tire as a result. The pattern would continue as after yet another short green run, the caution is waving for a quagmire in turns 1 and 2 brought out when the #11 of Chris Grainger tries to take advantage of Lane as he spun his tires on the start, and Grainger tried to dive under him stacking up the field. Grainger gives the rest of the field a break however, and uses the tap-out rule to save his competitors from going to the back. After another handful of cautions, Shae Lane would take the checkered flag, with Grainger and Davey Hatchell in the #21 spinning across the line. Pure short track madness. Gold that left me having Bowman Gray Stadium Street Stock flashbacks.

Smart Modified Tour
Smart Modified Tour
Smart Modified Tour

SMART CHEVY 75

Caleb Heady is your fastest qualifier, taking the track record to boot with a blistering lap of 16.806. Bobby Labonte was second at 16.872, and Brian Loftin third with a lap time of 16.998. The redraw puts the 55 of Jeremy Gerstner P1 to start the race, with Jason Myers starting where he started race one on the outside of row one. Inside row two is the 77 of Gary Putnam in the Curb Records sponsored entry, with the 15 of Brian Loftin to his outside, and rounding out the top five for the start is the #2 machine of Brandon Ward. 18 cars are slated to start, but 16 will roll off after Jimmy Wallace’s 22 doesn’t take time in qualifying, and the 79 crew of James Civali find mechanical issues that leave them out of the show.

It’s been a cold day in Timmonsville, SC, but as the SMART Tour Smart Chevrolet Z71 Silverado paces the field as they warm up for the start, I know the action on track will be hot. Tour flagman JB Cole shows the rolled up green to the competitors, signaling that with a good start we’ll be going green next time by. Gerstner leads them to the start, and the green is out for the opening laps of the Smart Chevy 75.

Smart Modified Tour

Gerstner gets a great start in this one, and the 4 of Jason Myers, 15 Loftin, and 77 Putnam fall in line behind him. Caleb Heady 7NY looks under Putnam for fourth, and behind them Burt Myers gets by Bryan Dauzat in the 97, and is under Putnam for fifth. Dennis Holdren in the 07 is also looking under Putnam as he starts to fall back a bit early. Bobby Labonte is working the high groove behind them trying to move his way to the front, but so far to no avail. Meanwhile, Gerstner pulls out a decent lead, as Jason Myers does his best to keep him in sight. Burt has Heady in his sights and starts working him hard for the fourth place spot while the battle between Labonte and Putnam heats up for position a little further back. The middle of the pack is in a knock down, dragout fight for positions, as the drivers know with not many laps to get it done, they gotta make some headway quick, and get all they can for stage 1. But with all the talent in this field, you can throw a blanket over the middle as they are all evenly matched. And Bobby falls off Putnam, stuck up high and throwing some banking dirt onto the pack behind him, and loses a few spots to Dauzat and Holdren. The 2 of Brandon Ward, 24 of John Smith, 83 of Tim Brown, 12 of Mike Norman, 97 of Bryan Dauzat, and the 18 of Daniel Yates all were working hard in this pack not giving an inch.

Meanwhile, after a number of laps of Burt battling rookie Caleb Heady, Myers gets underneath him for fourth and sets his sights on Brian Loftin for third. Loftin can’t hold him back as Burt Myers is strong early, and runs third behind brother Jason, still second behind Gerstner who so far hasn’t been pressured up front. As they run it’s Gerstner, Jason Myers, Burt Myers, Brain Loftin, Caleb Heady, Gary Putnam, Bryan Dauzat, Dennis Hodren, Bobby Labonte, and Brody Jones rounding out your top 10.

Labonte moves under Holdren and sets his sights on Dauzat for seventh. Brody Jones’ 92 follows Labonte by Holdren for ninth, as Labonte moves past Dauzat as they cross the line for stage one. Gerstner is your stage winner, and sets the pace early without much of a challenge. During the stage break caution, The Myers Brothers, Putnam, Holdren, Mike Norman, Daniel Yates, and the 76 of Brian Weber all come to the pits for adjustments. Burt Myers crew, to note, makes a huge track bar adjustment to his machine. They’ve been fast, but they’re looking to get him even better for the rest of the event.

Gerstner stays out with Loftin, Heady, and Labonte, and they will lead the field to green at the restart. They took the restart cone in order, so as they line up double file behind them, the field is as follows: Gerstner, Loftin, Heady, Labonte, Dauzat, Brown, Jones, Jason Myers, Brandon Ward, Mike Norman, Gary Putnam, Daniel Yates, John Smith, Burt Myers, Dennis Holdren, and Brian Weber.

The green is out and the restart is underway. Gerstner again gets a great start as Heady gets under Loftin for second, followed by Bobby Labonte and Tim Brown. Heady pressures Gerstner and slips by for the lead and the fastest qualifier finds himself P1, the 97 of Dauzat and the 92 of Brody Jones are side by side for sixth, followed by Jason Myers, Brandon Ward, Gary Putnam and Mike Norman. Brody Jones is having a good run up front as he’s gotten by Dauzat, and is now looking on Tim Brown for fifth. Heady pulls away a bit up front as the 92 versus 83 battle is the best fight up front with Jones all over Brown but he just can’t get by. Both of them are moving in on Labonte as the battle for fifth place is now a battle for fourth. All three cars tight together in a heated skirmish over position, but it’s interrupted by Holdren who gets loose and goes around in a one car incident. Tough luck for Holdren as he was having a great race today, and this will put him in the rear of the field where gaining any spot carries with it a declaration of war. The field of drivers today, as last week, are so even, every spot is like a battlefield.

As the cars come around under caution, Brody Jones pulls up beside Tim Brown and shakes a finger at him. He’s getting frustrated as he was all over the 83 but Brown showed him the wide bumper and impeded his every try. Brody feels he was getting blocked and has the faster car, but Brown rightly protects his spot. It’s really getting heated out there. It’s just what you want to see as a fan though, as the competition is fierce.

The leaders pit. Literally everyone pits except Putnam and Burt Myers who stay out for track position. It’s an understandable strategy as I can’t stress enough how hard it is to gain spots here today. The 7NY is first out of those who came to pit road as the 15 of Loftin comes in twice for fresh rubber all around, but he will need them as he also will restart in the back of the field. The restart cone is out, and Putnam chooses to start on the outside, leaving the bottom for Burt Myers, then it’s Heady, Jason Myers, Jeremy Gerstner, Bobby Labonte, Mike Norman in the 12 and John Smith who has a good stop and finds himself toward the front restarting from eighth position, followed by Ward, Brown, Jones, and Yates.

The green is waving and Putnam makes the outside work, as Burt Myers falls in line as brother Jason comes under fire from rookie Caleb Heady. Heady works past Jason for third, and brings Gerstner with him to fourth as Jason settles in fifth followed by Norman and Ward. Meanwhile the battle for the lead is tightening up as Burt Myers moves under Putnam and the 55 of Gerstner is knocking on the door of the 7NY of Heady. While these battles are taking place, Tim Brown makes a move on Ward and Jason Myers, and Brown moves up to fifth.

Burt Myers is working hard for the lead and finally moves past Putnam bringing Heady with him to second and Putnam falling to third. And now it’s rookie Heady working over Burt Myers for the top spot. It takes him a couple laps but Heady makes the move and moves past Myers and finds himself again P1. The top five come past the stripe under a blanket, bumper to bumper at the front of the field for Heady, Burt Myers, Gerstner, and Brown. Brown makes a move on Gerstner for third. Brandon Ward gets into the mix as Brown is looking on Myers for second, Ward follows him past Gerstner, and is with Brown as he gets by Myers dropping Burt to fourth with Gerstner looking on him as well, and as he gets by, Burt Myers will have to settle in for fifth. What a dogfight.

Brandon Ward is now working on Tim Brown for second, and that allows Heady to finally get a little breathing room from the rest of the field as he starts to pull away a bit up front. Just as Bobby Labonte moves into sixth, John Smith goes around and that’s tough luck for Smith, who was doing exactly what he did last week, and was moving in on the leaders from the back. This spin will see him lose all he gained and put him back in the trenches at the rear of this hotly contested field of super fast race cars. Into the pits comes Burt Myers, brother Jason, Putnam, Smith, Holdren, and Yates. Everyone else stays put as it’s starting to get late in this one as we’ll go back green on lap 63.

The restart choose cone is out, and Heady will lead them on the inside point followed by Tim Brown, Brandon Ward, Jeremy Gerstner, Brian Loftin, Bobby Labonte, Mike Norman, Bryan Dauzat, Burt Myers, Brody Jones, Gary Putnam, Daniel Yates, Jason Myers, John Smith, and Dennis Holdren.

The green is out again, and Heady spins his tires just a little on the restart leaving Tim Brown looking, but as they go back to green, Brody Jones restarting 10th gets an amazing start getting past a couple of cars, but as he tries to clear himself he gets clipped by the 12 of Mike Norman, and he is sitting off turn four in the wall on the front stretch. He’s ok and looks over his machine, but as the field comes around, he gestures to Norman showing his displeasure. He is not a happy camper. He’s had a great run and was in the thick of it all day. He then goes over to the 12 crew and has some words, and as he starts to walk away he hears something he doesn’t like, and starts heading back in, but the officials are there to calm the situation. I can understand his displeasure though, as I said earlier, this race is a dogfight, and Jones was good today.

Smart Modified Tour

We didn’t get a full lap on that restart so they’ll line up again to take the green on lap 63. The rundown now is 7NY, 83, 2, 15, 55, 25, 97, 1, 12, 77, 4, 24, 07, and 18.

Coming again to the green flag, Heady again spins his tires and Tim Brown tries to take advantage and is all over the bumper of the leader. Brain Loftin works on the 2 of Brandon Ward for third, and he gives him a shot to the bumper to let him know he’s there as Ward gets under Brown for second, and Loftin’s with him, dropping Brown into the clutches of Bobby Labonte, Burt Myers, and Gary Putnam who are battling hard up front for position. They all get by Brown as he falls back, and then they go three wide looking for position behind Ward who lost second to Loftin and is now being challenged by the trio jockeying for position. Labonte makes it to the bumper of Loftin as he takes second away, leaving Loftin to fend off Putnam, Myers, and Ward. Meanwhile, Heady uses these battles to again pull away up front. Putnam is putting heavy pressure on Loftin for third with Burt Myers in tow, allowing Labonte to start moving in on Heady. The white is out and Labonte is closing in, but rookie Caleb Heady is too strong today and crosses the line P1 to take the Smart Chevy 75 at Florence Motor Speedway in only his second touring modified start. As I alluded last week, this kid’s for real.

MY TAKE~

If you told me before the season that two rookies would battle for the win in race two at Florence Motor Speedway, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me that the two rookies would be a teenager and a NASCAR Hall Of Famer, you would’ve had my interest, but I would have had to see it to believe it. If you told me that the teenager would come out on top, I would have laughed in your face. But as destiny would have it, you would have been right. But it’s so crazy, nobody could’ve or would’ve predicted it. Yet that is exactly what happened on Saturday. I asked Caleb Heady about the win as he was taking it all in~ “This is…this is crazy man. I uh…definitely wanted one by the end of the year but to have it in my second race is uh…truly unbelievable…”

An amazing win for the Tommy Baldwin team and rookie driver Caleb Heady.

 The word is though that due to scheduling, Heady wasn’t scheduled to run the full season. All one can hope is that this win changes the teams perspective a bit. I don’t think they thought they would have this win, though they know the talent they have in Heady. And they certainly wouldn’t have thought they would leave Timmonsville with the points lead, but here they are. And as a fan of southern modified racing, I would love to see this talented rookie go for a championship to watch how it all plays out. So to Baldwin & Co., If you hear me…

 Last week Caleb Heady showed me he was a worker, and a racer. This week he brings the broom and sweeps up, taking the pole, the track record, and the win at a working drivers track. If this track taught me anything about itself, it’s that it is a hard one to navigate. Sitting in the grandstands you have a perfect view of the drivers working off the corner, and in every division I saw drivers, even the better handling ones, working their steering wheels getting off the corner for speed down the frontstretch. This track leads to hard racing, and I for one am really glad it’s still around, and am very excited to return. I wish Steve Zacharias and his crew all the best in returning “The New” Florence Motor Speedway back to prominence. And I am thankful that the much respected Charlie Powell left this track in great hands right before his passing. We are all indebted to him for that.

 My blue collar shout outs start with Jeremy Gerstner and Gary Putnam. Both these veterans have shown great speed. Gerstner started the year with a new car but he’s definitely getting the bugs worked out, and I expect to see him in victory lane before the year ends. Putnam’s Curb Records sponsored machine has also been fast. He just needs some luck to fall his way. I have watched these guys and can tell you they are putting in the work it takes to have a great season.

 Our Blue Collar Racer award for this week however goes to Bobby Labonte. Last weeks last lap incident left him with a torn up race car, and probably I suspect a sore driver. But the team worked to get the car right again, and the driver worked all day to again put himself in position to go for the win when it counted. I watched Bobby and his team work to get the win here today, but they fall just short, but not for a lack of effort.

 The points going into the infamous South Boston Speedway for the Smart Chevy 99 is tight, and it’s still anybody’s game. 

Thanks to all the guys at the SMART Modified Tour, and to the staff at Florence Motor Speedway for their tremendous hospitality. I can’t wait for round three! (April 3rd) 

  • Finish l  Top 5 at Start  l  qualifying time
  • (1)  7NY Caleb Heady-   16.806*(Track Record)- Fastest Qualifier/Pole Award
  • (2)  25 Bobby Labonte- 2nd-16.872
  • (3)  15 Brian Loftin-         3rd-16.998
  • (4)  77 Gary Putnam-            17.134
  • (5)  1 Burt Myers-            5th-17.045
  • (6)  24 John Smith-                17.511
  • (7)  2 Brandon Ward-             17.198
  • (8)  4 Jason Myers-         4th-17.022
  • (9)  07 Dennis Holdren-         17.372
  • (10)83 Tim Brown-                 17.286
  • (11)55 Jeremy Gerstner-      17.097
  • (12)97 Bryan Dauzat-           17.559
  • (13)12 Mike Norman-           17.617
  • (14)18 Daniel Yates-            17.663
  • (15)92 Brody Jones-            17.246
  • (16)76 Brian Weber-            17.881
  • (DNS)22 Jimmy Wallace- No Time
  • (DNS)79 James Civali- No Time

PC: Billy Weatherman Photos

By Billy Weatherman | Oval Track News

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