Jerry Marquis celebrates a season-opening win at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
Between them, Tony Hirschman and Jerry Marquis have four NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series championships and 34 wins on the ultra-competitive tour. While Winston Cup drivers with those credentials would have potential sponsors fighting for their attention, the Modified heroes live in a different world.
"It's really tough," says Hirschman, who has won 23 races in the Featherlite Modified Series and the series championship in 1995, 1996, and 1999. "We've struggled since the late '80s trying to find major sponsors. You can find little ones and they all help, but you can't find the one that lets you say 'OK, we don't have to worry about where the money is coming from to pay the bills. Now we can go out and race hard with no worries.'
"It's hard to hit someone up for big numbers right away because you're afraid you'll lose them altogether," Hirschman continues. "You don't go for as much as you should, then partway through the season you realize it's not enough money to do it right. You need to buy crew uniforms, get a driver's suit, and letter the car and the trailer. Motors cost close to $40,000 each and the cars are $30,000. I don't know of anybody on the tour who gets the money they need to do it right. Some might have enough in their team's budget, but the team owner is taking the money out of his pocket or his own business, not getting it from sponsors."
Marquis, the 2000 Featherlite Modified Series champion, says that in addition to finding sponsors, it's tough for drivers to find a ride in the Northeast-based series. "Racing in New England is a mom-and-pop operation. It's mostly owner/driver or father/son teams and there aren't a lot of rides around for guys who are just drivers. Besides me, you've got Mike Stefanik, Mike Ewanitsko, Tim Connally, (and) Tony. We're all out there looking for good rides and good sponsors. We've got more talent than we've got cars.
"What amazes me is how some guys go to Busch or Winston Cup and take big-dollar sponsors with them. How do they do it? I've got 22 track championships, a ton of wins, and two Northeast Regional championships. The other drivers will tell you that I adjust to conditions faster than almost anybody. What does it take? I guess success doesn't impress the marketing guys."
While many followers of the Modified scene expect that the airing of the division's events on the Speed Channel will help attract sponsors, Hirschman isn't so sure.
"The schedule we just got for this year will help, but not until next season," Hirschman says. "Hopefully, they'll release the TV schedule for 2003 earlier so we'll have something concrete to put in front of sponsors. I've won three championships but that doesn't do anything for you with somebody who wants to be on television or whose business is struggling. Most of the companies we talk with are struggling just like we are. It's hard to get support from companies that are laying off their own people, TV or not."
NASCAR officials are negotiating with Speed officials and expect a similar broadcast schedule in 2003, with seven or eight Modified races being shown.
Art Barry, who has owned Modifieds since the days of fuel-injected 1936 Chevy coupes, won the 2001 Featherlite Modified Series championship with Stefanik at the wheel. When asked if that feat impressed potential sponsors, Barry laughs.
"They might be impressed but nobody is coming up with any money," Barry says. "They say money is tight and they're not interested. I don't know if they're not interested in racing, not interested in the Modified division, or not interested in us in particular, but they're not interested.
"If we'd known about the TV schedule before the season, that might have helped, because the first question everybody asks is 'How many TV races do you have?' But who knows. If the national champion can't get a major sponsorship, who can?"