Since the introduction of Open Tour-type Modified racing to Thompson Speedway in October 2020, the intensity of the racing has more than once been matched by the gutsy pit strategy calls. If a yellow flag flies close to halfway, do you change your tires then? Or, take a chance of yellow later in the race and hope there are enough laps left to get past drivers on older rubber to win the day.
That age-old question came up again on Saturday evening during the season-opening Icebreaker 125. Just past lap 70, then-race leader Ronnie Williams along with Jon McKennedy elected not to pit with the majority of the field for two sticker tires.
As a long green flag run wore on Anthony Nocella and Woody Pitkat established themselves at the front of the field. Meanwhile, McKennedy was able to maintain a decent pace at the tail of the pack, but Williams could not, falling one lap down, and even falling out of the free pass position.
With 18 laps to go, the yellow flew again, with McKennedy and Williams hitting pit road. McKennedy had caught his break, but Williams still needed help. He would not have to wait long, as another yellow three laps later put the No. 50 of Williams back on the lead lap.
Up front, Nocella’s No. 92 pulled away as Pitkat’s No. 88 faded. As McKennedy’s No. 79 grew larger in Nocella’s mirror, that all changed with 5 laps to go, as Williams battled past McKennedy to take over the second position, giving Nocella a brief respite to possibly hold on should the race stay green.
The race did not stay green, with two laps to go contact with the No. 179 of Anthony Bello ended with Pitkat backing into the Turn 2 wall.
On the ensuing restart, Nocella spun the tires and was immediately overtaken by Williams and then McKennedy.
After 125 laps, it was Connecticut’s own Ronnie Williams picking up the home-state win at Thompson, along with the $10,000 check. It is a win that is sure to be memorable, but probably ruled him out of making calls on pit strategy in the future as he revealed after the race.
“Yeah, this is probably one of the best ones. I wasn’t too happy on the radio when we lost the lap, and just thought we kind of wasted the weekend. So, to come back this strong; I don’t know if we would’ve gotten Anthony, I sure tried like hell, if there was no caution. They were just on old stuff and we were able to get a good restart and get away for that last lap. The strategy paid off, but that’s the last time the driver is making any decisions,” Williams told Racing America.
Williams has been a mainstay at Thompson for the Open Modified races the past two seasons driving in Gary Casella’s No. 25. Icebreaker 2023 marks his first win at “The Big T” in Adam Skowrya’s No. 50; the same team with which Williams has had great success with a Stafford Speedway, winning two SK Modified titles and a trio of Open Modified victories at that track.
“I was here with the 25 for so long, they’re a great group of guys and I love them to death, but it was time to go do our own thing, and it paid off this time. I’m happy, it’s never a bad thing to end up in victory lane. We’ll be back the rest of the year and we’ll win some more races.”
Amid the celebration at the top of the podium were clouds of disappointment on the lower two steps. For Jon McKennedy, the race strategy had been on the money, but it was the late race handling of the No. 79 Modified that forced the 2022 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion to settle for yet another Thompson runner-up.
“We were just too tight, honestly we were too tight the whole race. We put tires on there at the end and made a good charge, but ultimately we just could not rotate the center (of the turns) and that was the difference. Overall, good day with a second-place finish. But, second is getting old here. I’ve won here a few times in a Supermodified, never won here in a Tour-type, it’s like my tenth second-place finish, so definitely disappointing. We’ll get a win one of these days,” McKennedy lamented.
As for Nocella, who finished third, it was only a matter of what if that last yellow hadn’t come out.
“It wasn’t good, but it is what it is. I think we had the race won without that yellow, definitely. But, they got tires 30 laps later, which I knew was going to catch up to us eventually, but I was hoping it would stay green until the end there. We almost got lucky, we got through a couple of restarts there. I couldn’t fire off too good on the restarts, but once we got rolling I could get it back. I knew it would be tough with these two on fresh tires, especially two laps to get them back. Just ran out of tire.”
Open Outlaw Modified Icebreaker Unofficial Results
1. 50W Ronnie Williams
2. 79 Jon McKennedy
3. 92 Anthony Nocella
4. 7NY Mike Christopher, Jr.
5. 81 Todd Owen
6. 5CT Chris Pasteryak
7. 25 Matt Swanson
8. 179 Anthony Bello
9. 5MA RJ Marcotte
10. 01NY Artie Peterson Center
11. 1 George Bessette, Jr.
12. 57 Keith Rocco
13. 31C Andrew Charron
14. 88 Woody Pitkat
15. 55CT Teddy Hodgdon
16. 28 Buddy Charette
17. 4NH Tommy Barrett
18. 50M Carl Medeiros, Jr.
19. 33 Paul Buzel
20. 43 Devin O'Connell
21. 17 Kevin Folan
DNS. 08 Nick Halkowicz