Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – WEST LEBANON, NY – Practice makes perfect…right?
Well, for several drivers who braved the cold temperatures at the Lebanon Valley Speedway on Monday evening, it was the perfect way to shake down their rides for the upcoming 2022 season on the high banks.
Several drivers from the Modified division all the way to the Four-Cylinders toured around the 5/8-mile speedway to get a feel for their new rides in anticipation of the season opener which will take place this coming Saturday evening.
One such driver was veteran JR Heffner who has made the switch to the Teo Pro Car camp after two seasons in Bicknell machines. In 2021, the driver of the 74 had an off season by his standards. While he did score a victory, he and his team finished 13th in the final point standings.
For Heffner, Monday was a great start to see if his new car will help get more consistency back to his operation.
“The car was good today,” Heffner said. “We were better towards the end of the session but the whole thing comes down to our team learning the right adjustments to make. I have faith in my guys that we will be strong this year.”
Defending champion Andy Bachetti took the time on track to shake down two of his Bicknell #4 machines to see which will be the strongest to start his title defense with.
“Both cars were real good,” Bachetti said. “The track was great today and that helped a lot.”
With running two cars, were both relatively the same or did Bachetti try different idea on each car?
“We had different set ups in both,” he said. “Each was good but it does matter to me. With the track being a little slicker today, we learned a great deal. When the track gets like that, it helps because that shows just how good a car we truly have.”
Another driver that was on track looking to hit the ground running was Marc Johnson. While he had a strong 2021 season with two wins, Johnson enters the new campaign with a new car and a new team, moving over to the Kevin Starchak-owned S&S Asphalt Paving ride led by Garry Waters and Joe Matthews.
The session went well for the Guilderland, NY driver until the final set when a power steering line came loose in the #9, forcing Johnson to pull in early, but he’s happy with how the day went overall.
“I’m really excited right now,” Johnson said. “The car went really good and everyone worked well together.”
Johnson has worked closely with Matthews in the past through Joe’s shock service, JAM Performance. However, this is basically the first time he’s worked with the veteran Waters. What’s it like to work with two guys who truly understand the cars from both sides of the wheel?
“It’s awesome to be honest,” he said. “If there was anyone my dad would have wanted me to be working with, it would be Garry, and Joe and I have been working together for years. Now, we finally get to do it on the same team and, honestly, I’m truly blessed.”
For his part, Joe Matthews is also very excited to be working with a driver like Johnson.
“Marc’s a very hands-on driver,” Matthews said. “That will take some getting use to. I’ll be doing something and he’s diving under the car to help. He gives good feedback and is open to trying things that may be a little unorthodox. I think we’ll learn a lot together.”
Ironically, the problem the team faced on Monday night seemed like deja-vu for Joe.
“That actually happened last year with Chase (Dowling) driving,” he said with a laugh. “Guess that’s our thing.”
Another driver on track shaking down their ride was third place in points from 2021, Brett Haas. How did the Dave Prime Mac Tools 55 feel Monday night?
“It was as good as we expected out of the gate,” Haas said. “We did a lot of adjusting throughout the sessions to see if we could hit on something a little more each time we went out. “We lost a little and gained a little so we will see how it shakes out Saturday.”
This year, Haas will not have the engine it ran primarily last season on the high banks. Through a multitude of discussions, the team decided it was best to go a different route for 2022.
“There were a lot of people that had a problem with our 509, even though it was around for four years before that,” he said. “So, this year we have a Bedell in the car. We were just as fast with Dave’s 467CI engine in the Super DIRTcar Series shows and a few other nights sprinkled in. We were confident we would be just as fast, but obviously you never know so it’s reassuring we were right.”
Does Haas feel good heading into Saturday?
“We just have to keep our heads down and keep up with the track throughout the night,” he said. “I’m confident we can be a contender again. Our motor ran really strong today and the car handled well. It’ll be a different ball game racing in traffic but we’re prepared.”
A driver who’s hoping he doesn’t have to run the car he had at practice in the season opener is Brian Berger. Why? Well, his primary engine wasn’t done in time for Monday’s test so Berger brought his back-up car and powerplant.
Did things go okay for the Castleton, NY driver?
“This was our Malta car from last year,” Berger said. “It’s now our back-up but we got it going pretty well so I’m confident we have a good piece we can use if we have to. It was just good to be back out there. I’m really looking forward to Saturday.”
Will the primary engine be ready?
“Fingers crossed, it will be,” he said. “It’s all together now with the exception of some parts for the oil pump. It’ll be ready to go on the dyno when they come in and hopefully that’ll be by Wednesday.”
Four-time Sportsman Champion John Virgilio was also on track Monday night with his brand new Bicknell machine. After several years in a very comfortable piece, the Virgilio team decided it was time to upgrade.
Was the maiden voyage successful?
“I can’t complain,” Virgilio said. “We made some changes and fixed a few small issues we were experiencing. By the third session, we were pretty happy with it.”
Happy, as in just as happy as he’d be with his old car?
“It’s not as comfortable as ‘old faithful’ just yet,” he said jokingly. “I’m sure we’ll get there. It’s not too far off.”
Fans will notice a new primary sponsor on the rear quarters of the Virgilio car this season, S&S Asphalt Paving. Last season, the second-generation driver spent a couple nights behind the wheel of the Starchak-owned Big Block, and now his business is going to be John for the entire year.
“Having Kevin behind us is definitely a good feeling,” he said. “He’s been great to us and we’ve built a really good relationship over the last year or so. It always helps to have someone like that in your corner.”
One driver who’s looking to go after Virgilio’s stranglehold on the Sportsman Championship will be Tim Hartman Jr. Hartman will be making Lebanon Valley his Saturday night home for the 2022 season.
The team, owned by Mike Parillo, has decided to make the switch to the Valley this season simply to try something new.
Hartman was strong on Saturday and gained speed each lap on track.
Another driver making laps in anticipation of the 2022 Sportsman season was Chris Lynch. Lynch tied for the most wins in the division last season (three) and is looking to get back to his winning ways in hopes he can contend for his first track title in 2022.
“The car wasn’t bad for not having been in the seat in a little while.” Lynch said. “We had good speed early and found some stuff that we could take back to the drawing board. We’re excited for sure.”
Without getting into specifics, what type of stuff was the Lynch team working on?
“We played with different shock packages today,” he said. “We’re trying to get better on slick surfaces like we had today. To be honest, the wind was a bit of a factor with the car on the straightaways. I’m just happy everything worked great. We will fine tune it from here.”