Story By: CHRIS MOORE / UTICA-ROME SPEEDWAY – VERNON, NY – Matt Sheppard lifted the lid on the 2022 Utica-Rome Speedway, capturing the $6,800 top prize in the ‘Honoring Alex’ Season Opener.
The win was Sheppard’s 49th career Sunoco Modified win at the ‘Home of Heroes,’ one the Savannah, N.Y. native himself dubbed “special.”
“I didn’t know much about Alex until I started hearing all the stories about him… he’s definitely someone I wish we could’ve had around a little while longer,” proclaimed Sheppard on what it meant for him to win the night in Alex Friesen’s honor.
Friesen, a promotional dynamo and racer, lost his life at age 33 in Dec. 1996. At the time of his passing, he had seven tracks under his control and a small-block Modified series on the horizon in addition to a burgeoning driving career.
Sheppard started the 30-lap feature from the front row with Cottekill, N.Y.’s Danny Tyler alongside to open the racing season at the Route 5 oval.
“Drawing the pole definitely helped against a really, really good field of cars,” Sheppard said of his fortune going from the pole starting position following the top-12 redraw.
When speedway Joe Kriss displayed the double green flags, Sheppard quickly darted to the top spot, bringing Phoenix, N.Y.’s Larry Wight along with him and into the runner-up spot.
Sprakers, N.Y.’s Stewart Friesen began marching in the early going, racing from his seventh starting position into fourth in the opening four laps, before putting pressure on fellow Canadian Mat Williamson for the final podium position.
The race’s first yellow would fall on lap 10, as Middlesex, N.Y.’s Alan Johnson was pointed nose first into the outside wall exiting turn four, restacking the field just as Sheppard and Wight had begun to negotiate lapped traffic.
When green replaced yellow, Friesen was able to use the outside groove to drive around Williamson for third, bringing Mooresville, N.C.’s Max McLaughlin with him into fourth.
McLaughlin wasn’t done, chasing Friesen, and throwing a slide job at the car lettered in Alex Friesen’s honor, and causing Stewart to slide off the embankment in the first turn. However, a yellow for Bobby Hackel stopping in the fourth turn before the 14th lap was completed negated the move, and put Friesen back to third, in front of McLaughlin.
The field went back to racing with top four remaining unchanged for much of the next green flag run until lap 24 when Friesen made a move to take the runner-up spot from Wight in traffic and set his sights on ‘Super’ Matt. The field completed the 25th circuit before Claude Hutchings Jr. spun in the second corner bringing out another caution.
On the restart, Friesen’s chances were nixed when he sailed over the first turn embankment and dropped to ninth with just four laps remaining.
Sheppard took advantage of the miscue, leading the remaining four laps uncontested to win the ‘Honoring Alex’ Season Opener at Utica-Rome Speedway in his Hurlock Auto & Speed Supply No. 9s.
Wight came home in the runner-up spot and McLaughlin brought the HBR Racing No. 8H to a third-place finish. McLaughlin also set a new track record in his heat race, with a lap time of 17.747 seconds around the half-mile speedway.
Tim Fuller came from 12th starting position, the worst in the redraw, to grab a fourth-place finish his No. 19 and Mat Williamson rounded out the top five in the Behrent’s Performance Warehouse No. 3.
Finishing sixth through 10th, respectively, were Stewart Friesen, who rebounded in the late stages to salvage sixth; Unadilla, N.Y.’s Billy Decker who charged from 16th to grab seventh; Covington Township, Pa.’s Alex Yankowski, who was the Hard Charger of the race, marching from 23rd starting position to finish eighth; Gloversville, N.Y.’s Rocky Warner, who debuted the Tadd Parks-owned No. 1 car; and Genoa, N.Y.’s Pat Ward rounded out the top-10 in his Beyea Headers No. 42p.
South New Berlin, N.Y.’s Payton Talbot claimed the opening feature of the season with the Worthington Industries Crate 602 Sportsman. Talbot nabbed his fourth career Utica-Rome Speedway win, the first three of which came in 2021. He earned $1,000 after his 25-lap conquest.
Talbot drove from the sixth starting position to take the lead on lap 18 away from Joe Williams. Talbot, Williams, and defending champion Matt Janczuk raced nose-to-tail for a 10-lap stretch from laps nine through 19, switching lanes and battling for the opening night win.
Ultimately Talbot drove away for the victory. Janczuk took the runner-up spot with Joe Williams rounding out the top three. Johnstown, N.Y.’s Brian Calabrese grabbed the fourth position and new Utica-Rome regular Chris Mackey rounded out the top five.
Grand Gorge, N.Y.’s Beau Ballard won the 20-lap Next Generation Graphix Pro Stock main event from his fourth starting position. Ballard began his title defense with a dominant victory.
Bret Belden made a late race charge for the runner-up spot with Jay Corbin rounding out the podium finishers. Josh Coonradt finished in fourth place and Bill Knapp rounded out the top five.
Seth Martin won his first career 15-lap Fastline Performance Limited Sportsman race in a wild, up-and-down affair. Martin passed Alex Hughes on the 11th circuit and led the remaining four laps for the win. Matt Backus and Tim Deffer rounded out the podium finishers.
Justin Pope, the defending Utica-Rome Speedway champion picked up where he left off in 2022, claiming the 12-lap Fonda Fair Four Cylinder victory. Pope held off friend and teammate Corey Valade for the opening night win. Dale Van Allen won the Single Cam portion of the event with a fourth-place run overall.
Racing resumes Friday, May 6 at Utica-Rome Speedway. All divisions will be in action and the Next Generation Graphix Pro Stocks race for a $1,000 top prize.
The Senior Services Inc. All-Star Slingshots and D&S Landscaping Junior Slingshots also join the program for their season opener. Gates will open at 5 p.m. and racing is set to begin at 7:30 p.m.
‘HONORING ALEX’ SEASON OPENER RESULTS SUMMARY – UTICA-ROME SPEEDWAY APRIL 29, 2022
‘Honoring Alex’ Sunoco Modified Feature Finish (30 laps): MATT SHEPPARD, Larry Wight, Max McLaughlin, Tim Fuller, Mat Williamson, Stewart Friesen, Billy Decker, Alex Yankowski, Rocky Warner, Pat Ward, Jessica Friesen, Dave Marcuccilli, Erick Rudolph, Shaun Walker, Darren Smith, Bobby Hackel IV, JaMike Sowle, David Schilling, Alan Barker, Nick Heywood, Claude Hutchings Jr., Tucker O’Connor, Rich Christman, Randy Shantel, Alan Johnson, Tyler Trump, Danny Tyler, Willy Decker Sr., Andy Bachetti, Aaron Jacobs.
Did Not Start: Bob Henry Jr.
Worthington Industries Crate 602 Sportsman Feature Finish (25 laps): PAYTON TALBOT, Matt Janczuk, Joe Williams, Brian Calabrese, Chris Mackey, David Hackett Jr., Jeremy Slosek, Allan Hodge, Rocco Leone, Mike Richmond, Dave Richer, Willy Decker Jr., Brian Borst, A.J. Miller, Tim Falter, Shawn Frost, Clayton DuMond, Brent Joy, Kevin Crave, Brad Alger, Ed Lukas, Mike Grover, Gordon Smith, A.J. Digsby, Stephen Denton, Dave DiPietro, Jim Cummings, Addison Bowman, Steve Kotary.
Did Not Qualify: Tanner Warner, Matt Richardson, Blake Sarpriacone, Brian Murphy, Jim Gould, Jimmy Moyer, Dave Moyer, Mike Button, Ed Downing, Dave Dickey, David Manchester.
Next Generation Grafix Pro Stock Feature Finish (20 laps): BEAU BALLARD, Bret Belden, Jay Corbin, Josh Coonradt, Bill Knapp, Ivan Joslin, Jason Morrison, Ken Griffin, Dan Slosek, Randy Cosselman, John Holmes, Jim Normoyle, Ed Kotary, Don Collins.
Fastline Performance Limited Sportsman Feature Finish (15 laps): SETH MARTIN, Matt Backus, Tim Deffer, Zack Welch, Alex Hughes, Timmy Wilmot, Mike Haman.
Cool Stuff Antiques Four Cylinder Cruiser Feature Finish (12 laps): JUSTIN POPE (DOHC), Corey Valade, Zach McSpirit, Dale Van Allen (SOHC), Shawn Hemstreet, David Denova, Jacob Kimball, Hunter Tarbania, Austin Vanderhoof, Dan Valade, Matt Buckovan, T.J. Marlitt, Kyle Coley.