Column By: BOBBY CHALMERS / RPW – PITTSFIELD, MA – Back in June, I wrote about multi-time Lebanon Valley Sportsman champion John Virgilio getting the “chance of a lifetime.”
That was when he was tabbed to drive a DIRTcar Big Block Modified for veteran JR Heffner who was stepping out of the seat full-time.
At that time, Virgilio was armed with a couple Teo Pro Cars and some 467 cubic inch engines so he could get his feet wet in the class.
His goal was to get ready for 2023. Now, the Pittsfield, MA native is deep into the off-season and it’s full speed ahead for he and his team.
They’ve made the switch to Bicknell Race Cars for the new racing year. That chassis brand is one that Virgilio is quite familiar with, as is the Heffner team. However, they have added to their engine program thanks to the husband / wife team of Lance and Jill Sharpe.
The addition of the Sharpe’s has Virgilio even more excited for this season coming up.
“Just adding Lance and Jill as part of our team is great,” Virgilio said. “They’re very down-to-earth, genuine people that love racing as much as we do. Being able to gain support from people like that is great.”
However, the fact that they’re bringing a freshened Bedell Racing Engine is also a plus. This is the powerplant that was in the car Bobby Hackel raced at the Valley until he and the Sharpe’s parted ways at the end of June.
At the time, Hackel was fifth in points with several solid runs so Virgilio knows the potential of the motor.
“With them bringing their engine to our team, it really takes the financial burden off of us from having to get our second engine freshened right now,” he said. “It’s a great motor and that gave us the opportunity to purchase a second new Bicknell which wouldn’t have been possible to do without them.”
The team will have a total of three Bicknell chassis at their disposal next year. There will be two brand new pieces in the shop to go along with the 2022 mount the Virgilio ran as a Sportsman for the first part of last year.
“We’re working on building our new primary Bicknell with the Sharpe Big Block engine right now,” he said. “We hope to have the second car arrive in the next week or two and then we’ll start on that as well.”
For their part, the Sharpe’s are extremely excited to have Virgilio as the driver they’re supporting.
“One of the first times John drove a Big Block Modified in 2021 at Lebanon Valley, he scored a top 10 finish driving the S&S Asphalt car,” Lance Sharpe said. “Add that to the four track championships he had in Sportsman at the Valley and I know we are in great hands with our equipment.”
In addition to the engine, the husband & wife team will also be bringing several components they’ve purchased over the years. All of it will be great additions to the program JR Heffner is putting together and they love what they’re seeing.
“JR has had a lot of success behind the wheel of a Modified and knows how to put together a championship team,” he said. “He’s won several big races and titles and is an amazing mentor to John. I personally can’t wait to get back to the Valley next season.”
The key part of the whole operation is Heffner. Last season, the veteran stepped out of the cockpit to focus on other things he had going on. However, the fire still burns within him to build another championship caliber team with Virgilio driving.
“I’m really excited for where this team is right now and where it’s going,” Heffner said. “John is the type of driver we need behind the wheel and it’s fun working with him. I’m really looking forward to 2023.”
Heffner also echoed Virgilio’s sentiments about the Sharpe family joining 74 Operations.
“It’s a great addition with Lance and Jill coming on board for this year,” he said. “They even want me to run a few races from time to time and we’re looking at the possibility of making that happen.”
How much does JR want to race next season?
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “I do know, however, that I don’t want to take anything away from our primary car with John. So, if it happens, it will all come down to the finances and the team.”
With what Heffner began with Virgilio late last season, how important was it to keep the crew together, as much as possible, and have sponsors stay on board for this coming year?
“It was real important,” he said. “I look at several important ingredients in racing being the people (crew), sponsors and time. I thought if we could keep as much of it together as possible with John driving, we may have an opportunity to grow it in the future.”
Sharpe also believes that in a massive way.
“Within a day or two, after our season was over, JR contacted me to see how we were doing,” Sharpe said. “That’s when he said the key phrase. He told me, ‘we are stronger together.’ That was it for us. We talked to several other great drivers before making a decision. However, in the end, we liked the vision JR had and I’m glad it turned out like it did.”
Communication is a big part of that for Sharpe, and it’s already started within the team.
“We talk as a team on almost a daily basis,” he said. “That’s what I love. I can call Gary Virgilio (John’s father) and ask him anything. Also, both John and JR keep me informed on what’s going on. That’s huge.”
Another big component is the guy holding the steering wheel. Last June, I wrote about John taking over the #74 ride and we discussed having JR as a mentor.
How has that been and what does he think this year will be like?
“I think it’s the best case scenario for someone new like me,” Virgilio said. “To have a guy who’s been so successful in this sport, like JR has, standing in your trailer every week, coaching you through the learning curve of the Big Block class, is everything I could want.”
Does Virgilio have goals for the new season?
“If we could finish 2023 with a top five points position, I’d be happy,” he said. “Also, if we could get a win or two, I think that would be amazing for our first full season as a team.”
Heffner shares almost the exact same objectives for Virgilio and the team.
“I’d love to see us get top five in points,” Heffner said. “I’d also like to see John make it to victory lane. That would be a big shot in the arm for our whole team.”
No matter if they reach those goals or not, the new team of Heffner, Virgilio and Sharpe will be a force each and every lap they make on track in 2023. They’ll have the pieces in place to make all their plans come true. However, no matter what, they’ll have fun doing it because they will be ‘stronger together.’
In today’s world, that’s seems like a perfect mantra to live by!