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?"
Teams roll into tracks throughout the Northeast, sometimes chasing a winner's purse of jus
With the NASCAR name seemingly magic in the marketplace, one would think that the chance to be involved with the same sanctioning body that brings Winston Cup racing to millions of homes weekly would be a strong selling point.
"In our series, no," Marquis says. "What people are looking for is television coverage. We've had a turnaround there and we're going to get more coverage, but the fact that it's tape delayed has shot down some of the people we've been talking to. You can't win."
For example, the September 14 Modified race at Loudon, New Hampshire, won't appear on the Speed Channel until October 21. The season-ending race on October 27 at Thompson, Connecticut, won't be shown until December 16.
"Still, we've got a lot to sell if we can get some exposure," Marquis says. "Competition-wise, the tour is great. Some people thought that the tour took a big dive when Richie Evans was killed, but I think we're well beyond that. ... We've got great competitors and some really talented youngsters on the way up. TV may not solve our problems, but it will definitely help. Look at the Busch North Series. They've got a good mix of sponsors. Some are there because of TV and others are involved because they like the racing."
A sponsorship deal of $150,000 to $200,000 a season would be a dream could true, but more
When asked what a team would need to run a first-class operation on the Modified tour, Marquis has the numbers on the tip of his tongue. "A first-class team can get away for $150,000 to $200,000 in this series. I don't think that would be difficult. But our team and most of the others would be thrilled to get $50- or $75,000. That would be a big help and make someone a major sponsor."
Compared to most touring series, those numbers are reasonable. But then the question of what you get for your money comes into play. While the racing world considers the Featherlite Modified Series champion the national Modified champion, it's not like the old days when the national standings included the Allisons from Alabama, Californians Howard Kaeding and Al Pombo, and drivers from up and down the East Coast. Many now joke about the Featherlite Modified Series champion being the "National Champion of New England."
"That is a factor in getting a sponsor," Marquis says. "We're limited to one area except for a couple of trips down South. Anytime we have a combined show with the Busch or Winston Cup divisions, their guys are all watching us, because our show is so exciting, but it's a hard sell out of the Northeast. I think we need to expand, but then you get to what it costs. New England is still a work-oriented, blue-collar region where racing is not someone's number-one income. I can make a living if I have full-time rides in both series (Featherlite Modified and Busch North), but right now my Busch North deal is only part-time. I still work as a heavy equipment operator during the week to take care of my family."
While the Featherlite Modified Series media guide shows Marquis with career winnings of nearly $350,000 and Hirschman with over $800,000, the numbers are deceptive. Both made the money over many years, the totals include championship bonuses, and their personal take was only a percentage of the total.
What teams receive per race won't blow you away. "The purses depend on the size of the track," Hirschman says. "We've got about six races on the tour that are really good paying races. The rest are shaky. The New Hampshire International races were the best. We could leave there with $16- to $18,000 if we won, but they've taken some of that and put it on the back. Now it's about $12,000, which is still a good deal. We go to some other tracks and run 150 or 200 laps for $4,000 to $6,000 to win against a tire bill that will be over $2,000, plus your other expenses.
"It's easy to lose a lot of money. Stafford Motor Speedway's Spring Sizzler paid $8,000 to $10,000 to win years ago for 80 laps. Now we run 200 laps for $7,000 to win. Our expenses have gone up, but it's the same for the tracks. They can only charge so much for a ticket and they're facing big increases in insurance and operating costs. I don't know where the money will come from to get back on a level playing field. Maybe we never will."
Hirschman, for one, thinks the series needs to get out of New England more.
"We're pretty much stuck in Connecticut. The tracks are great but we shouldn't be running half our races in one state. It will take some effort to get out there but, together, a larger geographical area and more TV would give us something to sell.
"This year we're not at Holland, New York, a good track where you can really race. Everybody loved Jennerstown, Pennsylvania. It was a big trip from New England, but once they got there, they loved it. We used to look forward to going to Oswego, New York, where we had good paying races that were exciting. And I think there are tracks in Ohio and Indiana that NASCAR should go after. The Super Modifieds go out there and do well and I don't understand why we couldn't. Travel is expensive, but everybody here has bought these big tow rigs. Getting there shouldn't be a problem."
Chris Boals, director of regional touring series for NASCAR, says Modified participants shouldn't expect major changes in where the series runs.
"We have three national series, Winston Cup, Busch, and the Craftsman trucks, and the remainder are designed to be regional series," Boals says. "Ninety percent of the Modified tour participants are not full-time racers. If we start expanding too much, people with jobs won't be able to support the tour. There are only a few, like Teddy Christopher and Jerry Marquis, who race full-time. You can't run a race out West with five cars. When we go somewhere, we have to bring a full field.
"We always look at where to expand, but the Modifieds are primarily a regional tour. They obviously fit in the Northeast. We go to Richmond and Martinsville, but they'll always primarily be a New England series. DIRT is trying to become a national series with their Modifieds, but that's not the way we see the asphalt tour."
Another issue clouds the travel question. Marquis' success in winning the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series regional title twice, and Teddy Christopher's $159,000 payday for winning both the New England and national titles last season while racing a few miles from home are valid arguments against going on the road. The Weekly Racing Series allows racers at about 80 tracks nationwide to compete for national and regional honors.
"That does look good," Hirschman says. "We run this whole series-20 races-and at the end of the year you look at the guys running the weekly program who win their region and get as much as our national champion, plus they have a shot at the overall title like Teddy won. They can win $160,000 and we run around for $40,000 if you win the championship. Guys get that much for winning their region."
Still, Hirschman's not about to leave and be tied to a single speedway week-in and week-out, no matter how much he might win. Once a wild rookie who looked with awe at Evans, he is now among the elite himself. And while he advocates growth, his years of struggle have also made him a realist.
"I'd like to be able to say they have to raise the purses and cut the cost of racing, but I don't know how to do it," says the Pennsylvanian. "NASCAR listens when we tell them things like that but it doesn't have all the answers either. It's a tough deal. You try to cut costs one place and it comes around and bites you in the butt."
Founded: Current touring format started in 1985
Territory: Primarily the Northeast
Sept. 8, Thompson, CT
Sept. 14, Loudon, NH
Sept. 29, Stafford Springs, CT Oct. 19, Martinsville, VA
Oct. 27, Thompson, CT