Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – PITTSFIELD, MA – Chance of-a-lifetime!
When you get that chance…a chance to live out your professional dream…you jump at it…and are grateful for those who gave it to you.
That’s what multi-time Lebanon Valley Sportsman and 2011 CRSA Sprint Car Series champion John Virgilio is doing. Starting this week at the West Lebanon, NY oval, Virgilio will become a full-time DIRTcar Big Block Modified driver, thanks to his mentor.
That mentor is veteran driver JR Heffner, who will step out of the cockpit of his potent #74 machine ‘full-time’ and assist Virgilio in beginning his career in the division.
This is something that Virgilio has dreamed about for quite some time and has worked his tail off to achieve. To this point, he’s been a winning driver in everything he’s competed in. From Karts to Winged Midgets to full-size Sprint Cars to DIRTcar Sportsman, Virgilio has captured wins and championships.
Now, he’s ready for the next challenge.
“JR’s the person who gave me the opportunity ten years ago to get started at the Valley,” Virgilio said. “To start this Big Block Modified journey with him just feels right. He’s always believed in me and my ability as a driver. To have him give up his seat for me and getting the chance to drive his equipment is truly an honor.”
Virgilio will step into Heffner’s equipment midway through the 2022 season, but has eyes on the future.
“For the remainder of this season, I’ll be driving JR’s car,” he said. “Over the winter, though, we’ll be ramping up for a full season of Big Block racing. JR will still be involved just not as a driver. Using a certain amount of his equipment has been discussed next year but that is all still in the works.”
With Virgilio stepping into the Heffner ride for the rest this season, he had a decision to make in regards to his own Sportsman operation. Heading into Saturday’s action, the defending champ sits just four points behind leader Whitey Slavin in the season-long standings. Should he run both?
For John, the answer’s no, but it’s not a decision he takes lightly.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The hardest part of this, for me, was approaching my crew and having them be okay with giving up the Sportsman deal. We haven’t finished out of the top two in the last five races so we’ve got a ton of momentum going right now.”
However, when something like this comes around, you need to keep focus on the bigger picture.
“Opportunities like this are once in a lifetime,” he said. “The decision to focus on the Big Block for the rest of the year is so we can try and be up to par to run a full season next year and be competitive.”
How did this whole situation come about?
“It kind of happened gradually, to be honest,” he said. “It started with a phone call from JR. He asked me what my goals were in racing. I told him I’d like to do what he does. I’ve always wanted to run Big Block at Lebanon but I didn’t really expect our conversation to turn into this. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity.”
Virgilio has run other tracks in the past, even capturing the several wins and the 2011 CRSA title in his rookie year. However, what makes Lebanon Valley so special to him?
“Lebanon has always been like a second home to me,” he said. “I watched my dad race there for years and saw him be successful. Racing on a weekly basis at the High Banks fits my lifestyle with my family and my job. It’s home.”
This is a huge break for the Pittsfield, MA driver who has always had his eye on participating in the Valley’s headline class. In 2021, he was able to run a few events in the Kevin Starchak-owned S&S Asphalt Paving #9 and had some success. That gave him the confidence that he might be able to compete at that level.
“The last race we ran for Kevin, we started 19th and finished eighth,” he said. “That was our second run in a Big Block so we felt good about that. Those two races definitely gave me a feel for what top notch stuff feels like so I think I’ll have a good expectation about what JR’s equipment will be like. He’s always had really good stuff so I expect it to feel similar.”
Starting this past week, both the Heffner and Virgilio teams have been combined into one organization. Everyone will have a specific job which should simplify things in John’s eyes and hopefully make the entire team successful.
Saturday will be Virgilio’s first start in the Heffner ride at the Valley, and what better way to begin your career than with one of the biggest events of the season.
“I’ve always wanted to run a Modified and get the chance to compete in some of the big races,” he said. “It’s kind of funny how this is going to go this year. We’re going to start off with the Bryan Goewey Memorial, which pays $10,000-to-win. Then towards the end of the season, we’ll run Mr. DIRT for $25,000. These are two events which are extremely lucrative in more ways than one and the most I’ve ever competed for.”
Is there a goal in mind for Virgilio as he enters this new program with Heffner?
“I’d say, I just want to get use to the car and the equipment,” he said. “I want our team to get the weekly maintenance program down and just get everything working properly.”
What about on-track performance?
“With ten or so races left in the season, I would expect us to get competitive towards the end of the year,” he said. “I’d like to say we’ll be in contention for a win but who knows. I just want to get use to the Big Blocks.”
A once-in-a-lifetime chance. That is what’s facing John Virgilio in the face as he embarks on his career in the DIRTcar Big Block Modified division. If his past experience is any indication, it’ll only be a matter of time before he’s contending for checkered flags.
Even with all of the pressure that could be sitting atop his shoulders, John is just excited for the chance…a chance given to him by his mentor.
Sometimes, that’s what means the most.