Area stock car racing: Ronca’s memory lives on at Albany-Saratoga

Albany-Saratoga Speedway will be honoring one of the track’s most popular drivers tonight when it ho

Albany-Saratoga Speedway will be honoring one of the track’s most popular drivers tonight when it holds the second annual Mike Ronca Memorial Night.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t like memorial nights, because it means someone’s son, brother or friend has died. Also, memorial nights have a tendency to fade away with time.

But Mike Ronca Night at Albany-Saratoga Speedway will always be special, because the Ronca family, which includes father Nick and sons Don and Rich, have been staunch supporters of what used to be the Champlain Valley Racing Association for a long time.

It’s interesting that Mike Ronca had a modified championship under his belt before he even won a feature in the premier division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway.

After graduating from street stocks, “Hungry Mike” joined his older brother, Don, in the modified ranks, and his earliest success came at Devil’s Bowl in Fair Haven, Vt.

He recorded the first modified victory of his career at Devil’s Bowl on June 19, 1993, and followed that with another win the next season. He then won his only modified point championship at the Bowl in 1996, even though he went winless that season.

Because of all his success at the Bowl, Ronca was frustrated because he couldn’t get a win at Albany-Saratoga, which has always been the Ronca family’s home track. But it wasn’t because he wasn’t competitive. From 1991 to 1996, he had seven second-place finishes — to his brother, Ron Proctor, Lee Nutting, Robbie Green, Ken Tremont Jr., Jack Johnson and Brett Hearn.

Before the 1997 season began, Mike picked up a new Olsen chassis and copied the setup his brother was running.

“We tried doing what my brother was doing, but the setups didn’t work,” Mike Ronca said during an interview that year. “The cars are supposed to be the same, but either they’re not, or our driving styles are different.”

It wasn’t until Sept. 5, 1997, that he finally found his way to victory lane after a modified feature at the historic Malta track.

Albany-Saratoga ran Twin 20s that night, and Ronca started on the pole in the first feature. But because of a handling problem, he faded to 12th, and figured he didn’t have a chance in the second feature.

“I was just hoping for a top 10, but I got the lead and as the race went on and on, and I didn’t hear anyone or see anyone,” he said following his win. “I finally told myself that if I didn’t screw up, I would win.

“I won 38 street stock features, and I’ve had so many seconds with the modifieds, but the first win was a lot harder than I expected.”

Ronca went on to win three more modified features at Albany-Sar­atoga, the last coming on July 13, 2007. But the really special nights were when he and his brother ran first and second. That occurred twice — on July 5, 1991, at Albany-Saratoga and on July 4, 1992, at Devil’s Bowl. On both occasions, big brother hit the finish line first.

As part of the memorial night, Mike Ronca’s number 7 will be prominent. There will be a $100 bonus for the leader of lap seven in all of the features, and the sportsman will race for $700 to win. In addition, an extra $700 has been added to the modified purse, and there will be bonus money for the second- and third-place finishers.

Racing will begin at 7 p.m.

More history

On the same night that Mike Ronca recorded his first modified win at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, the other winner was rookie Todd Ryan, who also went to victory lane for the first time.

Ryan had backing at the time from Mega Vending (Jim Ryan) and Chet’s Floor Covering (Wayne Podbielski). The car he was driving that year was from the Dutchess Overhead Doors fleet, and had been a proven winner for Jimmy Horton in 1996.

A double for Hearn

Well, it’s not really a double, Brett Hearn got his second win of the season last Friday night at Albany-Saratoga and 15-year-old Matt Pappa, a sophomore at Col­umbia High School, picked up his first career novice sportsman win, driving a Hearn copy.

Pappa, who was the U.S. Legends Pro Division champion last season, is the first driver to sign with Hearn’s driver development program, “Having a driver development program was the next step in my company,” said Hearn.

Friday night’s win wasn’t Pappa’s first at the track. He dominated the INEX Legends division in 2011.

“I’ve won here a couple of times on asphalt, but now, we’re in the big car on dirt and it’s even more fun,” said Pappa after his win. “I have to thank Brett Hearn for teaching me everything I know right now.”

Around the tracks

Defending Fonda Speedway champion Stewart Friesen won Wednesday night’s Hall of Fame 60 at Rolling Wheels, the first point race of the season in the Super DIRTcar Series. He was followed by Gary Tomkins, Matt Sheppard, Hearn and Billy Decker. Other area drivers competing included Bobby Varin (16th), Tremont (28th) and Ronnie Johnson (30th). Rocky Warner finished sixth in the sportsman feature at the Wheels.

As if Friesen needs luck! Last Saturday, Matt DeLorenzo seemed on his way to an easy victory at Fonda Speedway, but DeLorenzo got messed up by a lapped car driven by Craig Boehler, and had to take evasive action, driving over victory lane and back onto the track between turns one and two. That enabled Friesen to grab the lead, and he recorded his third win of the year.

There have been no repeat winners in six races in the 602 sportsman division at Fonda.

Pete Broderson won Saturday’s pro stock feature at Fonda, despite driving with a pulled bicep muscle. He became the first two-time winner in that class.

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