By FRANK CATIZONE
MIDDLETOWN, NY – A pair of popular local second-generation drivers with family ties to this historic racing facility put an end to their winless droughts to highlight competition last Saturday night at the Orange County Fair Speedway.
Gary Edwards Jr. came within one position of earning a sweep against all of his Modified competition as he notched his first victory in more than three years in the accident-plagued 30-lap main event. It was the ninth career triumph at the track for the veteran Wurtsboro driver, who last reached the winner’s circle here on June 21, 2014.
Donnie Elliott, meanwhile, held off a late-race charge offered by Edwards to record his first win in over two years in the Small Block Modified 25-lap feature event. It was the sixth career triumph in the division for the veteran Middletown chauffer, who last reached victory lane on July 25, 2015.
Edwards, the son of former driver Gary Edwards Sr., had to withstand seven caution periods that depleted the starting 27-car field and forced Jerry Higbie, Jeff Heotzler Sr., Craig Mitchell and Matt Janiak out of competition before the halfway point. Points leader Jimmy Horton was also involved in an early skirmish, but was able to continue.
Horton and Danny Tyler got together in the third turn with eight laps completed to force the event’s second caution. Horton remained on the racing surface, but Tyler was forced to retire.
A homestretch crash on the ensuing restart involving Janiak, Higbie, Mitchell, Mike Kolka and Brendan Finley brought racing to a quick halt once again. Higbie was able to continue, but retired to the pits five laps later.
Edwards, meanwhile, was keeping Tommy Meier behind him after each restart until Meier came up with a flat tire as Kolka slowed in the second turn to force another caution with 22 laps completed. Both John Ferrier and Chris Whitehead ran second behind Edwards until Donnie Wilson took over the spot following a 24th-lap restart.
Wilson was able to maintain his spot, but was never able to make a challenge for first place against Edwards, who held the lead throughout the race. Chris Shultz finished in third place for the second week in a row with Billy VanInwegen, Horton, Mike Rugiero, Meier, Whitehead, Bob McGannon and C.J. Morey rounding out the top 10.
“This has been a long time coming,’’ said Edwards. “We haven’t been here (victory lane) for quite some time. My car ran well throughout the race, but I didn’t think it was ever going to end. There were just so many caution periods and that had me worried.
“This is a very hard track to win on because there are some many drivers that are capable of winning here. It’s a very fast track, but there’s not a lot of space out there to pass. The outside seemed fast for the first six or seven laps, but it wasn’t too good after that. I’m just happy that I started the race where I did…on the pole.’’
Edwards, who also has five Small Block Modified wins here, finished less than a second behind Elliott, who is enjoying the best stretch of his racing career, in the division’s featured race.
“This is the best five-week stretch I’ve ever had in my career,’’ said Elliott. “We made some changes on the car and it has been just phenomenal. I won my first race ever at Five Mile Point just a few weeks ago and now picked up this win here. This is just great.’’
The victory at Five Mile Point came in the Sunday Summer Slam 30 on July 26 and was worth $4,200 – the biggest pay day in Elliott’s racing career.
Elliott, who started fourth in the 22-car field, chased Patrick Reiser during the early stages of the race until Mitchell came up with a flat rear tire to force a caution with 13 laps completed. Mitchell was racing Meier’s No. 33 1/3 Small Block racer.
Ellliott got the jump on Reiser on the restart and Edwards followed right behind to set the stage for their battle to the checkered flag.
“I just took my time and waited for him (Reiser) to make a mistake,’’ said Elliott. “I knew Reiser was a young driver and felt I could get by him. But Edwards provided me with some heat at the end and I had to step it up a bit to the finish.”
Allison Ricci drove home with a personal-best third-place performance with Higbie, Reiser, Anthony Perrego, Mike Horton, Tyler Boniface, Chris Stevens and Jesse Leiby rounding out the top 10.
Leiby took advantage of a starting infraction handed down to Joey Bruning by OCFS race director Michael Sanchelli to grab his second victory of the season in the Sportsman 20-lap main event.
Bruning, who paces the division with four victories in 2017, took off too early on a 16th-lap restart and was penalized two positions by Sanchelli for jumping the start. That handed first place over to Leiby.
Leiby, who moved past Austin Smith for second place on the 13th lap, then went on to score his 6th career win as he finished ahead of Smith, Bruning, Joe Conklin and Jeff Hulseapple.
The race was red-flagged after 12 laps were completed when 15-year-old Matt Shultz flipped his car in the first turn. Shultz, a two-time winner this season, wasn’t injured, but his car sustained excessive damage.
Jim Hajkowski and Joel Murns Jr. put on quite a battle for the Street Stock 15-lap laurels before making contact in the first turn after 12 laps were completed. Hajkowski went on to score his second win of the racing campaign and Murns’ car went spinning.
Hajkowski held off Tommy Pickles by a bumper at the finish and then had the engine torn down during a post-race protest before finally being declared the official winner.
Emerson Cargain Sr. followed in third place with Charlie Donald and Mike Vigiletti rounding out the top five.
Modified Feature Finish, 30 Laps: 1. Gary Edwards Jr., 2. Donnie Wilson, 3. Chris Shultz, 4. Billy VanInwegen, 5. Jimmy Horton, 6. Mike Ruggiero, 7. Tommy Meier, 8. Chris Whitehead, 9. Bob McGannon, 10. C.G. Morey, 11. Tyler McKee, 12. Richie Eurichj, 13. John Ferrier, 14. Jim Bobbitt, 15. Mike Kolka, 16. Kirk Horton, 17. Tyler Jashembowski, 18. Danny Cronk, 19. Joey Falanga, 20. Jerry Higbie, 21. Jeff Heotzler Sr., 22. Craig Mitchell, 23. Matt Janiak, 24. Danny Tyler, 25. Brendan Finley, 26. Stan Frankenfield Jr., 27. Jimmy Spellmon.
Small Block Modified Feature Finish, 25 Laps: 1. Donnie Elliott, 2. Gary Edwards Jr., 3. Allison Ricci, 4. Jerry Higbie, 5. Patrick Reiser, 6. Anthony Perrego, 7. Mike Horton, 8. Tyler Boniface, 9. Chris Stevens, 10. Jesse Leiby, 11. Michael Storms, 12. Zack Vavricka, 13. Tom Hindley, 14. C.G. Morey, 15. Bob McGannon, 16. Rob Rowe, 17. Joey Falanga, 18. Frank Venezia, 19. Tyler Treacy, 20. Scott Flammer, 21. Craig Mitchell, 22. Rich Eggers.
Sportsman Feature Finish, 20 Laps: 1. Jesse Leiby, 2. Austin Smith, 3. Joey Bruning, 4. Joe Conklin, 5. Jeff Hulseapple, 6. Howie Finch III, 7. Joe Bonetti, 8. Jared LaBagh, 9. Jimmy Johnson, 10. Greg Sleioght, 11. Dan Morgiewicz, 12. Cole Hentschel, 13. Danny Carlough, 14. Jake Granacker, 15. Anthony Falanga, 16. Troy Arnold, 17. Brad Horton, 18. Tommy Vigh Jr., 19. Connor Otten, 20. Mel Schrufer, 21. Matt Shultz, 22. Roger Henion Jr., 23. Leo Fotopoulos, 24. R.J. Smith. Did Not Qualify: Jimmy Leiby, Bobby Flood, Russell Crotty, Jimmy Devitt, Bryan Jones, Brian Durbin, Patrick Murphy, Tyler Pirone, Mike Bull, Brett Weslowski, Jeff Jones.
Street Stock Feature Finish, 15 Laps: 1. Jim Hajkowski, 2. Tommy Pickles, 3. Emerson Cargain Sr., 4. Charlie Donald, 5. Mike Vigiletti, 6. Joe Scheffold, 7. Peter Van Noordt, 8. Rob Taylor, 9. Tim Daly, 10. Paul Maiolo, 11. Joel Murns Jr., 12. Pete Wiegand. Did Not Start: Marty VanNiewland.