By – Luke Eggleston, contributing writer
Photo – Bev&Ken Dippel Photos
Oswego, N.Y. – After maintaining a spot in the top three for more than 50 laps, Zane Zeiner took the lead in the 61st Race of Champions Modified 200 on lap 158 at Oswego Speedway on Saturday night and then led the rest of the way for his first trip to victory lane in the annual race.
Zeiner’s No. 29 car had been hovering near the bumper of leader Ryan Preece’s No. 40 for several laps before he finally used an inside move on the far straightaway to dart into the lead.
After Preece fell off the pace, Zeiner had another challenge when four-time Race of Champions victor Tony Hirschman’s 48 latched onto his tail.
Zane Zeiner poses in victory lane after capturing the 2011 R.o.C. Modified 200
Zeiner said that he told his crew the Northampton, Pa., driver likely had the car to beat. Hirschman had the second best time trial in the field and never really left the top five despite most of the leaders falling off at one point or another in pit stops.
When a yellow caution flag fell in the last few laps, it gave Hirschman one more chance to outstrip Zeiner on the restart, but the defending race winner’s No. 48 couldn’t quite find the purchase it needed.
Nevertheless, Zeiner noted that his car had significant difficulties throughout the race.
“I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet or not. Believe it or not, we had no oil pressure and Mark, the Morgan team owner, said ‘I want you to run that thing and don’t worry about the gage.’ It was bouncing and I was coming in and they were like ‘No stay out there.’ But hats off to the guys who gave me an awesome car, but like you said, this one here…I’ve been so close not in the 200 but just to get a victory in a big mod here…this is a lot here,” Zeiner said.
He relished the opportunity to defeat so many legends of modified racing, however.
“It just feel’s great to beat all these guys,” he said.
Hirschman said the heat wave that settled into Central New York during week leading up to the race made the track’s surface difficult for his car to manage.
“The track was really greasy from being hot all day,” he said.
In addition, the car wasn’t performing properly after its first pit stop, the veteran driver said, while Zeiner was able to hold him off on the corners.
“The car just wasn’t cutting like it should’ve. I got up to second, but Zane was really getting through the center of the corner…I couldn’t do nothing with him,” Hirschman said.
Hirschman considered trying to use lapped traffic to outmaneuver Zeiner but determined it was too risky, noting he hopes to bring the No. 48 back to Oswego Speedway later in the racing season during Classic Weekend.
“It wasn’t worth wrecking a car over that. We’re in good shape and we’ll probably come back in September.
Erick Rudolph – who finished third – started the race on the pole with Matt Hirschman on the outside in the first row, followed by Mike Leaty, Wilber Hebing, and Chuck Hossfeld.
Earlier in the day, Hossfeld’s car appeared to be the best on the track. The No. 22 recorded the fastest speed in the field during Saturday’s time trials and Hossfeld had come into the weekend as the series points leader, holding a 37-point advantage over Kyle Ebersole.
It was Rudolph leading early, but he would have to go to the rear of the field after tangling with a lapped car in the early stages of the race.
The passing was limited early in the race and by lap 25 Matt Hirschman led, followed by Mike Leaty’s No. 25, Hossfeld in the No. 22, Tony Hirschman’s No. 48, and Earl Paules in fifth in the No. 8.
On the following lap, Preece’s 40 spun on the near straightaway, setting off a chain reaction for a wreck that snared around half the field in the first turn and sent several cars off on the hook.
Matt Hirschman led on the restart with Hossfeld right behind him. They were followed by Tony Hirschman, Mike Leaty, and Paules.
The top three appeared to be locked in as they pulled away from the pack – despite three caution flags – until Hossfeld’s No. 22 ended up in the pits after visibly sparking on the track on lap No. 96 with a wheel bearing issues. Zeiner would then catch the father-son duo to make it a three-car breakaway, once again.
During a lap 118 caution, most of the leaders took their mandatory pit stop and Zeiner used the opportunity to improve his position. Despite running into troubles earlier in the race, the pause also gave Preese a chance to take over the lead.
Although the pit stop pushed Zeiner back, it didn’t take him long to move into the top five. Helping his cause was a significant wreck on lap 134 that saw Mike Leaty’s No. 25 car leave the track on a hook. Until that point, the younger Leaty had spent much of the race contending for a top spot.
Zeiner began pressing Preese for the lead with about 50 to go. Behind him, Tony Hirschman’s No. 48 had just moved into third and was closing in on the leaders.
After Zeiner took the lead on lap 158, Matt Hirschman was sent to the rear of the field for forcing a caution flag. His car would later be disqualified, but not before he caused some fireworks both on the track and in the pits. On lap 192, Matt Hirschman’s No. 60 ended up in the wall after contact with Jim Storace’s No. 47. With the caution flag still down, he managed to make his way back around the speedway until finding the Storace’s car. With no doubt what his intentions were to be, Hirschman came down and clipped Storace’s No. 47, ending the Kingston, NH, driver’s evening.
When the two drivers found their way into the pits, a verbal altercation erupted with crews and track personnel keeping the pair separated.
Tony Hirschman passed Preese on the outside for second. with 36 laps to go. Once catching Zeiner, Hirschman could do nothing with him. One final caution paved the way for a final duel between Zeiner and Tony Hirschman en route to the finish line and a triumph for the Bath, Pa., driver.
Finishing behind Zeiner, Tony Hirschman, Erick Rudolph, Lee Sherwood and Jimmy Zacharias filled out the top five.
Ebersole, Jan Leaty and Rusty Smith won heat races.
Being the 61st Race of Champions event, a special tribute to three-time race winner, Richie Evans, was held just prior to the 200-lapper. Family members were on hand Saturday to help celebrate what would have been the late modified driver’s 70th birthday. Evans will be officially inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame next month.
Final order of finish:
1.) Zane Zeiner (29), 2.) Tony Hirschman (48), 3.) Erick Rudolph (98), 4.) Lee Sherwood (95), 5.) Jimmy Zacharias (71), 6.) TJ Potzebowski (72), 7.) Dave Wallaber (15), 8.) Jan Leaty (6), 9.) Jerry Cheetham (50), 10.) Bill Putney (88), 11.) James Civali (79), 12.) Dean Rypkema (24), 13.) Ryan Preece (40), 14.) Jim Storace (47), 15.) Tom Cloce (69), 16.) Daren Scherer (3), 17.) Doug Reaume (14), 18.) Earl Paules (8), 19.) Mike Leaty (25), 20.) Kyle Ebersole (5), 21.) Tommy Ferrell (08), 22.) Chuck Hossfeld (22), 25.) Karl Hehr (59), 26.) John Ramsey (25R), 27.) Patrick Emerling (2), 28.) Sege Fideanza (51), 29.) Jody London (18), 30.) Chris Ridsdale (1), 31.) Rick Kluth (44), 32.) TJ Zacharias (17), DQ.) Matt Hirschman (60)?