Everyone at South Buxton Raceway - fans, officials and fellow drivers - knew it was only a matter of time before Jim Fletcher won his first career Modified feature race.
Boy, did he pick the right night to prove everybody right!
Fletcher made history by becoming the first Canadian - and the first driver not named Brian Ruhlman - to win South Buxton’s Modified Shootout championship on Saturday night.
“I still can’t believe it … I honestly can’t believe it,” a jubilant Fletcher said outside of his hauler, about an hour after collecting his $2,000 cheque in the eighth annual Canadian Fall Shootout on Saturday night.
“It still hasn’t sunk in.”
It was Fletcher’s first feature win since 1998 in the Sport Stock class before he took a 12-year break from racing.
He returned to run a partial schedule last season, splitting seat-time with rookie Darryl Hoekstra’s before both drivers got full rides this year.
“I’m pretty proud to win this and glad that Eugene and Cathy (Hoekstra) gave me this opportunity to race again,” Fletcher said of his car owners.
“It means a lot to have a great car owner, our sponsors and (crew chief) Scotty Ball for giving me the great set up … it’s awesome!” he declared.
Fletcher, who won his heat, drew the six-pill for the 24-car starting grid.
He moved up to third place before the 24-car field completed its first lap.
He passed Chatham’s Brian Speelman for second on lap seven and took the lead on lap 14 when leader Louis Clements, of Chatham, broke an upper ball joint that eventually led to a tire coming off in turn two.
“I honestly don’t think I would have had a car for Louis, he was fast,” Fletcher said of Clements.
“He’s a good friend and I hated to see it happen, but it worked out to my advantage.”
Clements said he knew his car was in trouble a few laps before the pressure eventually forced a rear tire to fall off the car in turn two.
“It’s very disappointing, the car was excellent and even when I knew we were in trouble, my guys told me I was pulling away,” Clements said.
“But that’s the story of my year,” added the Chatham driver, who won two features in his sophomore season in the Modifieds.
Chatham’s Brian Speelman ran second for the next six laps before his car didn’t go on a restart, opening the door for the four-time Shootout winner Ruhlman to move into second.
“All I was thinking, if I run my high line, Ruhlman would have to do a lot of work to get by me on the bottom,” Fletcher said of holding off the Clarklake, Mich., driver for the final 15 laps.
A caution with three laps to go did nothing to shake Fletcher’s confidence as held won by more than four car lengths.
“I was talking to myself,” Fletcher said with a laugh. “I told myself don’t change anything, do what you’ve been doing all night … just stay in my line and run where the car was working.
“The car was perfect, thanks to Scotty,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher credited changes made by Ball following Friday night’s third-place finish in the Schinkels Gourmet Meats Modified season championship race.
“Scott and I had a good talk and we made the changes to the shocks and springs that we thought we needed … and I could tell in the heat race that we had a contender.
“You know when these Americans come over they’re bringing everything they’re got, so you’ve got to bring your best to beat them,” Fletcher declared.
David Mielke, from Gladwin, Mich., finished third, with Shrewsbury’s Jim Dale Jr. fourth and Fletcher’s teammate Hoekstra fifth.
Canadian drivers rounded out the top-10 as South Buxton regulars Eric Vanderiviere, of Chatham, Joel Dick of Leamington and Mario Toniolo of Belle River finished sixth through eighth. Teammates Scott Mackenzie of Maidstone and Shawn Gillis of Windsor were ninth and 10th.
Team owner Eugene Hoekstra was ecstatic for Fletcher’s win and his race team’s performance all weekend, as both drivers finished in the top five both nights.
“It’s good to take a little money home,” Hoekstra said with a laugh.
“It’s good to finally get one, he probably gave three or four away,” he said of Fletcher, who held leads late in four features over the season only to have bad breaks - and a couple of questionable rulings - keep him out of the Winner’s Circle.
“And if there was an award for passing the most cars, he would have got it tonight … he must have passed 50 cars,” he said of son Darryl, who had to restart at the back three times over the course of the 35 laps and still pulled off a fifth-place finish.
Local drivers were all happy with Fletcher’s victory.
“I’m really happy for him … he’s well deserving,” said Clements, who finished 17th.
“I was really pulling for him to be the one to knock off Ruhlman,” he added.
Ruhlman also tipped his hat to Fletcher but was disappointed that some standing water on the apron prevented fans from seeing better racing in both features.
“You couldn’t race down there,” he said. “It was one lane around the top. I tried the bottom a few times but you’d just lose ground.
“You pretty much had to follow the leader and hope you didn’t get beat out of the way. It didn’t matter how fast you were unless he (the leader) wrecked, you were just riding along.”
Ruhlman was undefeated in his Modified at South Buxton, winning 10 straight races including the heat race earlier in the night, going into the ‘A’ Main.
He finished third in the Late Model feature after winning in 2012.
- A total of 31 Modifieds were on hand, including seven from the United States, the largest field in the five years the Modifieds have been a part of the eighth annual Canadian Fall Shootout, this year sponsored by Blazin’ BBQ Ribhouse, St. Clair Street in Chatham.
- Fletcher finished the 2012 season second in points to Dale Jr. (85 point difference) in the Schinkels Gourmet Meats UMP Modified division with eight checkered flags and 12 top-five finishes in 19 features.
- Dale Jr. worked his way up to second midway through the race but fell back to fourth when Speelman had his problems on a restart and the eight-time track champion was unable to make up the lost ground.
- Chatham’s Jeff Daniels, like his brother-in-law Speelman, also had a strong car early but the pole sitter exited the race on lap five while running fourth.
- Dale Jr. and Daniels won the other heat races, as the top five finishers from each of the four heats advanced directly to the ‘A’ Main, with the other 11 drivers relegated to the ‘B’ Main to battle it our for the four transfer spots.
- Nick Katterhenry, of St. Marys, Ohio, won the 15-lap ‘B’ main. Brandon Thirlby, of Traverse City, Mich., former track champion Tim Richardson of Comber and Chatham’s Jason Haskell rounded out the top four to transfer to the ‘A’ Main as only five of the 11 starters in the ‘B’ Main were still on the track when the checkered fell.
- The most disappointed driver of the night had to be Clayton Smith, formerly of Woodslee who now lives in Taylor, Mich. Smith was running in third on the final lap of his heat race when he was tagged from behind in the final corner, dropping back to an eighth-place finish. He cut a tire early in the qualifier to end his night.
- Eight-time champion Brad McLeod of Merlin missed the Shootout after his car suffered mechanical issues halfway through Friday’s championship race.
- Hoekstra hinted he may get behind the wheel again next year. The six-time track champion was one of the first Late Model drivers to switch to the new Modified car in the early 1990s, declaring 20 years ago that the less-expensive and fast Modifieds would be the class of the future at South Buxton.