If you watch NASCAR on television or listen to the races on the radio, you will hear race teams talking about drivers who test different setups for a particular team.
Michael Ballestero fits into the category of “test driver.”
Ballestero got a call from a friend, who asked him to race his car in an attempt to either straighten it out or find a problem with the car.
“Jack Cottrell called me and asked me to drive his 2008 Teo car at Albany-Saratoga in the sportsman division,” Ballestero said. “Jack bought the car for his son, Jimmy, to race at Malta, but the new car just wouldn’t go, to the point where Jimmy got back into his trusty old Teo car that he used to race in the sportsman division before moving up to the modifieds.”
“They actually thought that there may be a problem with the car, and I have been friends with Jack and his wife, Debbie, for about 10 years now, so they asked me to drive it for them. I pitted next to and raced with Jack for many years, and actually, it was the first time on a week-to-week basis that I have ever driven for anyone in my racing career.”
Ballestero got in the car in mid-July, finishing 12th on his first night out. The next two races saw him finishing out of the top 20, but he then recorded his first top-10 finish on Aug. 8 when he finished ninth in the feature.
A 10th- and an 11th-place finish followed, which led Ballestero to a very special night last Friday.
“We struggled with the car for the first month or so, but then we hit on a couple of things with shocks and bars,” Ballestero said. “We were getting closer and closer week by week, and actually changed a couple of support bars on the car because we didn’t like where they were. The nose of the car would just shove out in the turns, and the car wouldn’t get off the left rear, so we moved some weight around, as well. It was tough, though, because we were not only fighting the car, but also the track, and with the track conditions different every week, it was hard to get a read on what the car was doing, and how to correct it.”
Last Friday, Ballestero and Rob Langevin battled side-by-side, swapping the lead lap after lap in both of the sportsman features. Ballestero won the first one and Langevin won the second, which gave him a share of the track championship, as Langevin tied Mike Ketchum in points..
“It was a great night all the way around, for not only me and my family, but also Jack and Debbie and their family,” Ballestero said. “We had motor problems in the first feature, which we were able to win, but weren’t able to diagnose the problem so we just went out and ran the second feature the way it was. I think that maybe we broke a valve spring in the first feature, and then it just got worse in the second feature.”
“Three-quarters of the way through the second feature, it started getting real bad, to the point where I had to flat-foot it all the way around the track and run the outside to keep up my momentum, because when I let off the throttle at all, the motor wanted to do was stall out. So I had to change my driving style in order to keep the motor revved up. It ended up being a heck of a battle with Rob, and I’ll take a win and a second-place finish anytime.”
A couple of years ago, Ballestero was running his own team until a tragic accident took the life of his crew chief, Robert Bublac. After the accident, Ballestero decided to hang up his helmet, and quit racing.
“He was the kingpin of the whole racing operation,” Ballestero said of Bublac. “Even though it was my own race team and my own equipment I raced for him, as he loved racing, and was the main man on my car pretty much since the start of my racing career.”
Victory lane was a special place for Ballestero last week after getting his first win at Albany-Saratoga since May 26, 2006.
“That win was for him,” Ballestero said as he dedicated the win to Bublac. “Since I stopped racing, it has been very hard for me to even go to the track and watch racing, and when I did go to the races, I was driving the race car in the grandstands. In victory lane last Friday, I was all choked up because it was a very special time for me and my family to remember Robert and what he meant to us.”
Ballestero still has all of his own equipment, if he decides to come back to racing fulltime. But his season is over, as the damaged motor has been taken out of Cottrell’s car to be rebuilt.
“I want to thank Jack and Debbie for letting me drive for them, but I don’t know whether or not it gave me the bug to get back into it again or not,” Ballestero said. “I wasn’t going to sell everything that I had because with the economy the way it is. I wasn’t going to give the stuff away, so I decided to make the two cars that I do have trophies in my garage. Everything is paid for, and both of the cars are ready to race again if I choose to, even though they will probably need some updates. Who knows? Maybe my phone will be ringing off the hook with offers to drive for somebody else next year.”
AROUND THE TRACKS
Look for Mike Fusco to make a return to racing at Fonda Saturday in the Magsarus No. 93 owned by Ed Monger. Monger recently asked Fusco to drive his car for the rest of the season.
“Ed called me at work and asked me to drive the car,” Fusco said. “I agreed after explaining to him that I would do so only if I could bring my helmet and race, because I just don’t have the time to work on the race car anymore.”
Fusco recently got a job at General Electric and also bought a house, so racing is now third on his list of priorities.
“One night this season at Fonda, I got out of the race car, and said to my guys, ‘That’s it, I quit,’ ” he said. “They didn’t believe me and thought that I would be back in the car the following week, but I was serious, as it is hard to work on the race car all week on top of a regular job and everything else. There was nothing wrong with our race team at all. It was just that the time wasn’t available to work on the car anymore. Both of my cars and trailers have been sold, along with one of my motors, so all that I have left is a JPM big-block engine.”
The plan now is for Fusco to drive Monger’s car at Fonda, and if all goes well, to drive it at the Victoria 200 at Fulton.
“The car is a 2007 Teo car with a brand new Gary Waters big-block power plant that was built especially for a slick track,” Fusco said. “We’ll just take it one step at a time and see what happens, and maybe it will lead into something for next year.”
Congratulations to Danny Ody who won the pro-stock feature at Utica-Rome last Sunday over Ivan Joslin. The win for Ody was his first ever in a pro-stock, and his first win at Utica-Rome.
“This year is actually the first time that I have ever been in a pro-stock, as they are now,” Ody said. “After losing the lead on lap 19 of a 20-lap feature the two Sundays prior to last week, it was great to get the win.”
Ody was the first pro-stock track champion at Fonda in 1981, when the cars were known as street stocks.
Last Friday, when Kenny Tremont Jr. won the modified title at Albany-Saratoga, he did so without getting a feature win. He wasn’t the first driver to do that, either, as Ken Shoemaker (1965), Bill Wimble (1967), Jerry Cook (1971), Dave Leckonby (1978) and Don Ronca (1989) all accomplished the same feat, according to Andy Hickok, who has compiled a list of Albany-Saratoga records.
Brett Hearn became the winningest driver in the history of
Albany-Saratoga last Friday, sweeping the double features to push his win total to 92. Jack Johnson is next in line with 90 wins.
Albany-Saratoga will be in action tonight with the Bad to the Bone budget sportsman 50-lap feature as the headliner, with the pro-street stocks, limiteds and mini-stocks also in action. Starting time is 6:45.
The budget sportsman will also be the headline division at Glen Ridge as they return to a Friday night schedule. Along with the budget sportsman, the street stocks will compete in the fourth leg of the Harry’s Auto Street Stock
Series and the cruiser division will also be in action, along with a
special pro-stock event. Racing at the Ridge will begin at 7:30.
Fonda Speedway returns to
action Saturday after the break for the Fonda Fair with open events in all of the regular divisions, plus the budget sportsman on Student Night. Starting time will be 6 p.m.