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A Modified Plan

Pennink Hits The Road For Love Of The Sport
By Travis Barrett, Special to NASCARHomeTracks.com
May 28, 2010 - 3:30pm

This week alone, Rowan Pennink plans on logging more than 1,000 miles hauling race cars from one track to the next. In case you’re scoring at home, that's a total of more than 19 hours spent behind the wheel, watching one green exit sign melt into the next, each highway looking more and more like the last.

The irony? Pennink first got involved in Modified racing because his family thought it would mean less traveling than they'd done when Pennink was a youngster racing go-karts everyplace imaginable.

"It's really not as bad as it sounds," said the 24-year-old Pennink, who this week is scheduled to compete in four different Modified races across the northeast, including tonight's TSI Harley-Davidson 125 for the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway.

It's not bad, if only because Pennink -- fourth in the current Modified Tour standings -- can't imagine doing anything else.

"I just love racing Modifieds. I really do," Pennink said. "I know out West and in other places, you say you race Modifieds, and they're like 'You race what?' But the people in New England who get to watch Modified racing, they understand.

"It's not a bunch of taxi-cabs out there. These are real race cars. I'm not saying that other kinds of racing, like Late Models or whatever, aren't 'real' race cars, but there's just something different about these cars and how they drive and how we can race them. People up here who follow them understand why we love Modified racing so much."

Pennink, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., started racing much the same way most young people do these days. He began racing go-karts as a 10-year-old, joining the World Karting Association in 1999. Two years later, he won the first of two consecutive WKA championships.

Once he'd "had enough" of go-karts, the family-operated team made the switch to Modified racing. The reasoning was simple.

"Wall Stadium is just an hour from our house," Pennink said. "The whole plan as to run Wall weekly so we wouldn't have to travel as much, because we'd spent so much time traveling with the go-karts."

So off Pennink went, running a Modified at Wall on a weekly basis throughout the middle part of this decade. But before long, the Modified bug hit -- and Pennink was back on the road running an SK Modified at Stafford Motor Speedway. That was a mere four-hour jaunt, one way, each week to race.

In 2007, Pennink made his first career Whelen Modified Tour start. The plan had been to run that one race with only a few others sprinkled in. But by the time the season had ended, Pennink competed in 14 Tour races. He had just one top-10 finish that season, but showed marked improvement in 2008 with seven top-10s in 16 races.

Last year was Pennink's breakout on the Tour, as he finished fourth in the final standings with five top-5 finishes in 13 races. Only twice did he fail to make the top-10 at the checkered flag, and he capped the year with an open-event win in the prestigious Turkey Derby at Wall in November.

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Rowan Pennink gets plenty of track time in his Modified - running all over the northeast - and is a top contender in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour as a result. Getty Images

Pennink has ascended so quickly to prominence on the Tour, though, that you almost have to check his stats twice before you believe it: He's yet to win a Tour event (he has two on the non-NASCAR Modified Racing Series, a similar tour based in northern New England) and has a career-best finish of fourth.

"I do think we're close (to winning) every week," Pennink said. "I'm really expecting to get my first Tour win this season at some point, maybe this weekend at Stafford. I was close last season, and there were a bunch of races where I was right there but just had some bad luck."

Longtime Modified racing writer Shawn Courchesne of the Hartford (Conn.) Courant believes that Pennink's time is coming.

"He's someone who has established himself as a serious force in Modified racing, up and down (the divisions)," Courchesne said. "He and his family are serious about what they do in Modified racing, and he's not just some kid you're seeing now thinking he's going to be gone in two years.

"It definitely looks like they're here and they take Modified racing seriously."

Serious enough that Pennink doesn't just stop with Tour racing. He competes full-time in Thompson International Speedway's NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Sunoco Modified Division on Thursday nights during the summer, and also sprinkles in virtually the entire Modified Racing Series schedule.

It's part of the reason Pennink spends so much time on the road. By the time the Memorial Day weekend is over, he'll have run a 30-lap Sunoco Modified race at Thompson, a 125-lap Whelen Modified Tour event at Stafford and both ends of a Modified Racing Series doubleheader with 100-lap stops at both Airborne Speedway in upstate New York and Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Vermont on consecutive days.

"I think the thing that has helped me the most is racing as much as I do," Pennink said. "It's just getting that seat time. I've got 50-plus races on my schedule this year."

Pennink points to the Tour's history, as well as the pit stop strategy which plays into all of its races, as valuable in his learning curve. Similarly, he talks about the strict tire rules placed on the Modified Racing Series and the emphasis on tire management in those races, and the deep talent pool and mad scrambles of weekly racing at Thompson, as equally important.

After all, it's all about Modified racing -- in any shape or form -- and getting better at the craft.

"You've got to look at (Pennink's team) and say, 'They run full-time on the Modifed Tour, full-time at Thompson and run a lot of Modified Racing Series events -- and he runs in every big open show there is for Modifieds," Courchesne said. "He might be like a newcomer in the grand scheme of things, but it's hard to find anyone else that's racing more Modified races right now than he is.

"He's absolutely one of the new-blood guys that you look at when you look for that group that's going to be the next generation to perpetuate Modified racing. He definitely fits that role."

And Pennink is happy to do so.

"People always ask you, 'When are you going to get out of the Modified and go South and try to make it big?'" Pennink said. "The reality, though, is that the people who get (Sprint Cup Series) rides now, they're either paying for it or they've just proven their talent long enough somewhere.

"But you know what? This is where I want to be."