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DAYTONA, Fla. (Dec. 18, 2007) -- Red Byron was the first. In 1948, Byron won the first sanctioned NASCAR event -- in a Modified -- and went on to win the 1948 NASCAR Modified Division championship.
Last Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Resort, Donny Lia was officially crowned the 2007 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, making him the 60th Modified champion in NASCAR history. And with Lia's coronation, NASCAR and series sponsor Whelen Engineering kicked off a celebration of the rich legacy of NASCAR's Modified division that will last throughout 2008.
"NASCAR's Modified division has a proud heritage and we are excited about paying tribute to our racing roots throughout the course of the 2008 season," said George Silbermann, NASCAR's managing director of racing operations. "Sixty years of Modified champions is a testament to the dedication and efforts of the early pioneers in the sport who paved the way for future champions."
"We hold dear and close to our hearts that Modifieds are the oldest series in NASCAR," said Phil Kurze, vice president of motorsports for Whelen Engineering. "And to be part of that celebration is an honor. The history of the series is something everybody should be made aware of. We are where we are today because of our past, and the celebration reminds us of that."
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, formed in 1985 to help streamline the schedule and championship process, has served as a launching pad for many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers like Steve Park and Jimmy Spencer, along with crew chiefs Tommy Baldwin and Greg Zipadelli. Prior to the Tour -- when drivers ran anywhere from 40 to 100-plus races a season -- drivers like Bobby Allison and Fonty Flock made their mark in the Modifieds. Allison won a pair of NASCAR Modified Division championships (1964 and '65) nearly two decades before winning his NASCAR NEXTEL Sprint Series championship (1983).
The great heritage of Modified racing in NASCAR, though, also includes a number of legendary drivers that made their name running Modifieds up-and-down the East Coast. Drivers like the late Richie Evans, a nine-time NASCAR Modified champion, Jerry Cook, Bugs Stevens, Mike Stefanik and Tony Hirschman, have all made lasting contributions to the sport.
Sixteen of these champions were honored at last Friday's NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour banquet, including: Jack Choquette, Red Farmer, Allison, Ernie Gahan, Stevens, Cook, Mike McLaughlin, Stefanik, Jamie Tomaino, Jeff Fuller, Rick Fuller, Wayne Anderson, Hirschman, Jerry Marquis, Todd Szegedy, and Lia.
"It's crazy," Lia said. "I never thought anybody would include my name in the list of champions like that. It's just unreal. It's something I look at and say, 'Wow, that's really cool.' For me, it's just unreal."
The 2008 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will take the green flag at Thompson (Conn.) International Speedway for the traditional season-opening Icebreaker. NASCAR plans a full season of events and tributes to honor the 60 years of Modified champions.