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NOTEBOOK: Mead Breaks Through at Airborne

Posted By Tj Ingerson On September 10, 2014

Categories: Airborne | Valenti Modified

Matt Mead posted a career best Valenti Modified Racing Series finish on Sunday afternoon in his first visit to Airborne Park Speedway. (Dave Brown photo)PHOTO: Matt Mead posted a career best Valenti Modified Racing Series finish on Sunday afternoon in his first visit to Airborne Park Speedway. (Dave Brown photo)

Heartbreak Again for Kopec; Willis Remains Top Rookie; Zachem Just Misses Podium Once More

--by Michael Stridsberg
VMM Correspondent

Matt Mead hasn’t had trouble starting strong in his young Valenti Modified Racing Series career, and on Sunday, he figured out how to finish strong.

The Richmond, N.H., driver started on the outside pole of the 100-lap event at Airborne Park Speedway and quickly settled into fourth place, where he remained for much of the event. Mead jumped up to third on the restart following a lap 79 caution, but another restart three laps later saw him shuffled back to fifth in the running order.

Previous races had seen a similar beginning to the script, with a good start befallen by a late fade. This time, however, Mead held steady, and fended off defending champion Rowan Pennink in the final laps to notch a career-best fifth place finish.

“The car was really strong all day,” Mead said after the race. “Our times were off by about a tenth (of a second) or so, so we thought we could hold on. The car actually did get better, but this is a new track for us – I’ve never been on it.

“It was a lot of fun. It was just trying to find the right way to pass somebody. We made it work a couple of times. Those restarts hurt me once, and it helped me once. It was a great race.”

Mead has struggled for much of his second full season with the Valenti Modified Racing Series and entered the event tied for 17th in driver points. He recognized how much of a benefit the result was for himself and for his Ron Townson–owned team.

“It’s huge for our whole team,” he said. “We work really hard at it. The owner’s really excited. A top-three would have been great, but a top-five and the car is in one piece, that’s great.”

* * *

For a while, it looked like Mead would have to share carrying the day for the smaller Modified teams. However, Dylan Kopec’s bid to join him came to a sudden end with less than 20 laps remaining.

Kopec started seventh on the grid and, after a series of pit stops during the race’s first caution, moved up to the fifth position, where he remained until the next caution on lap 79. With the intensity picking up, the 18-year-old found himself the odd man out on the restart, getting shuffled as drivers scrambled for position.

Having fallen back to eighth on lap 82, Kopec made a bid on the outside entering turn one. However, he got too high on the track and went hard into the wall. The Palmer, Mass., driver was forced to retire from the event and finished 16th.

“I just had a bad restart, and everything just dominoed from there,” Kopec said. “I was hanging on trying to recuperate, and (a) few cars got under me. One got me right in the left front, and it kind of shook me up. So I went into (turn) one, tried to keep up with them, and I got up in the marbles, and it just sucked me up into the wall.”

For Kopec, it was all too similar event at Monadnock Speedway two weeks before, where he was running sixth when contact with Dana Smith sent both spinning with 29 laps to go. Despite the heartbreak, Kopec knows that his own breakthrough is just around the corner.

”We were struggling to get into races (last year),” he said. “Now to running in the top-five throughout the whole race, it’s a definite up for us. There’s nowhere else but up to go unless it’s a sport. So there’s always good finishes. It really just brings up all of our morale. And hopefully we actually get a good finish one of these times.”

* * *

Meanwhile, Mike Willis Jr. followed the playbook that has him atop the Rookie of the Year standings: stay steady, stay out of trouble, and come away with another top ten.

Willis spent the first part of the race riding around the middle of the pack. When a caution flew on lap 31, he knew that improvements were needed.

“The car was just getting loose in and loose in the center,” Grantham, N.H., driver said. “It was only lap (31), so I knew we weren’t going to make it to the end.”

Restarting the event in 14th, Willis slowly but surely climbed back up to eighth by the time the lap 79 yellow flew. Willis lost a few positions in the scramble on the restart, but got them all back and eventually came away with a seventh place result.

“In most divisions, after lap 50 of a race, the car’s starting to go away on handling sometimes, so you’ve got to be careful with people getting around you or in front of you,” he observed. “You’ve got to keep your eyes five cars ahead of you. And I just kept looking ahead of me. I thought I gave a couple spots (away), but I got them back in the end.”

Willis unofficially moved up to sixth in the point standings following the event, and said that he simply hopes to maintain his current position in the final three races.

“We’ve had a very good year,” he said. “We’ve qualified for all the races. So just keep qualifying for all the races and stay competitive.”

* * *

In the drive to get on the podium, it was once again close-but-no-cigar for Max Zachem.

Zachem started on the pole following the redraw and lead the first 31 circuits. On the race’s first restart, however, the Preston, Conn., driver chose the outside line, and Chris Pasteryak motored past him on the bottom.

“I like the outside for the momentum,” Zachem later said of his lane choice. “We were tight on the bottom, and I knew a couple cars would go by me. Chris beat me on the initial start, which is fine; it was early in the race. We were just a little too tight in the middle.”

Zachem soon surrendered second to eventual winner Justin Bonsignore, and rode in third for the race’s middle stages. On the race’s final restart with 18 laps remaining, he made a bid to Pasteryak’s outside for second – but he fell back and subsequently overpowered by Tommy Barrett Jr., relegating him to fourth on the scoring pylon.

“We couldn’t get it to rotate in the middle as good as Chris’s (car) could,” Zachem said. “He wasn’t good either, but he was just a little bit better, and he beat me going into the corner, and I let him take it. We race clean. Fair is fair – he would have done the same if the shoe was on the other foot.

“The car wouldn’t rotate good, and the tires wore out at the end. (I was) turning so much wheel that it made it loose off. But we’ll take a fourth, to run with the series regulars like we were.”

The 21-year-old had been chasing Richard Savary for fourth in series points throughout the month of August, and unofficially moved two markers ahead of him following Savary’s 12th place effort.

Zachem doesn’t currently plan to run any races between now and the next VMRS event at Waterford Speedbowl on October 4 and 5, but will be at three NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour events as Bonsignore’s tire manager for that series.

“I’ve definitely got a full plate,” he said.