The history of NASCAR modified racing

When I was growing up, part of the local racing scene in Western New York revolved around Modified race cars - an open-wheel car based on a tubular chassis, fabricated from sheet metal and featuring exposed front suspension. Most popular in the northeast and southeast United States, Modified racing is part of the roots of the early days of NASCAR - in fact, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is the oldest NASCAR touring division, formed at NASCAR's creation in December 1947.

The first NASCAR Modified race took place on February 15th, 1948 on the Daytona beach course. The first race winner, Red Byron, went on to win NASCAR's first sanctioned championship that year, and the following year he became the first NASCAR Strictly Stock champ - the predecessor to the Sprint Cup Series. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the title drivers were competing for was the National Modified Championship, with points earned not only in national championship races but also running weekly races at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks - it was not uncommon for drivers in the title hunt to run at least five nights a week, and often on dirt and asphalt tracks. The points system changed in 1984, focusing on a limited schedule of national races.

Richie Evans, a nine-time champ in the Modified ranks, won the very first title under the new points system posthumously: he actually clinched the title one week prior to his death in a practice accident at Martinsville Speedway on October 24th, 1985. The death of one of Modified racing's top ambassadors was unfortunately just the first of a number of deaths in the Modified ranks: in 1987 Charlie Jarzombek and Corky Cookman were both killed, followed by Tommy Druar and Don Pratt in 1989 and Tony Jankowiak - Druar's brother-in-law - in 1990. Safety modifications were made: straight frame rails were eliminated and new chassis were devised to take the impact off the driver in a hard hit. In 2004, Tommy Baldwin Sr., father of Sprint Cup team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr., was killed, leading to the implementation of the HANS device in the series, as well as left-side headrests; John Blewett III's death in 2007 led to the shortening of rear bumpers.

In 2003, NASCAR named Evans the top Modified driver of all time; five years earlier, he was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers of All Time. Other drivers of note who graduated from the Modified ranks include brothers Geoff and Brett Bodine, Jimmy Spencer, Mike McLaughlin and Steve Park. Six-time Modified champ Jerry Cook is currently the Administrative Director for NASCAR, and crew chief Greg Zipadelli made his way up NASCAR's ladder through the Modified ranks, as did Ray Evernham.

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Paula Thompson is a member of the Yahoo! Contributor Network.
Updated Monday, Jun 6, 2011