Jack Bateman was a driver without a place to race. Ongoing disagreements at Twin State Speedway in Claremont, N.H. meant that the track's lead division -- the ground-pounding, open-wheel Modifieds so beloved by New England race fans -- would be gone from competition in 2004. Modifieds were off the card at Monadnock Speedway an hour down the road in Winchester, and things were so unpredictable at Canaan Fair Speedway an hour north that racers and fans gave up on the track.
But rather than sit idle, Bateman formed the Modified Racing Series. He picked up title sponsorship from True Value Hardware, and now in 2009, the series has just completed its first event of its sixth season. Bateman is still the series' President and is still a competitor with the tour. Drawing 26 cars to Mondanock on Saturday night was an average showing for the series on the pit side, and a packed grandstand on the other side of the fence was more of the norm.
Bateman sees the first half-decade of the True Value Modified Racing Series as positive. "Well, we've had an awful lot of fun with the thing, and it looks like the guys enjoy what we're doing, and that's really what it's all about," he said. "Our whole theory is to have a good time. As long as everybody's having a good time, it's all good."
The series was formed not only to give weekly-level racers a place to compete, but also to give those racers a place to showcase their talents without going broke, an alternative to the high-dollar equpiment and schedule of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. So far, it's mission accomplished; drivers from all six New England states plus Pennsylvania and New York competed at the season opener last weekend.
"I think it's an opportunity for guys who love Modifieds to race on a touring deal without having to pay the NASCAR-type money, and I think that's what attracts a lot of people," Bateman said. "And there's a few of those (NASCAR drivers) that are coming over because it just isn't feasible financially to do what they're doing."
Kirk Alexander, the series' all-time leading winner and the 2004, 2005, and 2007 champion, agrees.
"If you want to come race Modifieds on a touring series and spend the least amount of money, this is the one to do it on," he said. "And they're paying a lot better now, they're paying two grand to win. I know it isn't a ton of money, but when you don't have to spend a lot to be there at the race track it's pretty good."
NASCAR champions Mike Stefanik, Ted Christopher, and Ken Bouchard, have been attracted to the True Value series, and top young talents like Matt Hirschman, Jimmy Blewett, and Rowan Pennink have competed successfully on the series. In addition, drivers better known for their winning résumés in full-fendered cars -- drivers like Jean-Paul Cyr, David Pinkham, and Vinnie Annarummo -- have been frequent competitors.
Alexander is proud of the work his fellow True Value regulars, like 2006 champion Dwight Jarvis, Les Hinckley, Jon McKennedy, and Saturday's winner, Rob Goodenough, have done against the invaders; of the 'big gun' drivers, only Hirschman has been able to break into victory lane, last year at Twin State.
"Matty's the only one that has won. It means a lot. I mean, it's not like they come in and walk all over us," Alexander said. "I mean they're good, but they're good under their rules where they can spend a lot of money. Guys like Mike Stefanik, who has been racing forever, and that guy is an awesome driver, he knows his stuff. Teddy Christopher, he's awesome. But you know these (True Value) guys are good and there's some talent here that you don't just come in and walk all over us. They keep it down to a minimum on bumping and jamming, they don't put the bumper to people. You want to see good racing, and that's what we do."
"They're usually pretty competitive," Bateman says, "but it takes quite a lot of ingenuity to win on these little bullring tracks. Most (of those) guys are used to running big tracks like Stafford, Thompson, New Hampshire, Martinsville, and places like that. It's different with these little short tracks, it takes a different tact."
In recent years, Bateman's series has developed young talent including Andy Seuss, Bobby Grigas, and 2008 champion Chris Pasteryak, who now compete in the NASCAR ranks. Grigas, the 2006 TVMRS Rookie of the Year, is a consistent top-ten driver with the Whelen Modified Tour, while second-generation racer Pasteryak is in his first season there. Seuss has won two of his four starts on the Whelen Southern Modified Tour this season, beating the likes of Christopher and past champions L.W. Miller and Burt Myers.
It seems that given the momentum the True Value Modified Racing Series has built in its first five years -- full fields, full grandstands, and dates at top New England tracks including Oxford Plains, Lee USA, Thunder Road, Thompson, and more -- the next five years should be pretty good, too.
"I think it's a good deal, (Bateman) is going in the right direction," says Alexander. "You've got all these different kinds of rules and motor combinations so it makes it possible for people to come in with stuff that don't cost them a lot of money. I think it'll be a good thing."
"We're in pretty good shape, considering the economy and that sort of thing," said Bateman. "We've got 26 cars here, I think that's a fairly respectable number. We'll just see how it goes throughout the season and take it from there."
(Photo 1: Rowan Pennink's #25 car sits in front of a full grandstand at Monadnock Speedway on Saturday night. Photo 2: The TVMRS pits are always full of cars. Photo 3: Qualifying heat action is intense and gives the TVMRS a distinction from NASCAR's time-trial qualifying. Photo 4: The TVMRS field under the lights. Photos 1, 2, and 4 by Justin St. Louis/VMM; Photo 4 by Alan Ward)