Four years isn’t a very long time.
Heck, I’ve known people who have had steaks in their freezer for that long (note to self — check the “sell by” date on the yogurt in the refrigerator).
So it’s pretty amazing that Jeff Rockefeller could get a modified victory at Fonda Speedway four years after he decided to take up racing.
That’s right. The 37-year-old Glenville driver was simply a spectator before getting the urge to race. And last Saturday, he became the 122nd driver to win a modified feature at the Track of Champions.
How did he do it so quickly? He worked at it, and worked hard.
“I’ve been around racing my whole life, but just as a fan,” said Rockefeller earlier this week. “I’ve known Elmo [driver Elmo Reckner] for many, many years, and I started talking to him about it. I had always been intrigued by racing, and I just started talking to more people. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to get into it, but then I told myself I could probably figure it out, so I bought a Bicknell from Mike [Romano].”
That was in 2011. Then, the education started.
“I wanted to be good at it,” said Rockefeller. “I went to shock seminars, tire prep seminars, open houses. I want to Bicknell’s driving school. I invested a lot of time to become a better racer. I didn’t have the experience like a lot of the other guys had. I never raced go-karts and came up through the ranks, like they did. But I wanted to be good, and I knew I had to work at it.”
It also helped that drivers like Reckner and Bobby Varin have been ready to give advice whenever Rockefeller needs it.
Rockefeller wasn’t an instant sensation. He did finish second in his very first rookie sportsman race at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park and picked up three victories in that division in 2011, but he also destroyed a car when he made a rookie mistake and spun out in front of the field at Fonda one night after starting on the outside pole.
But he made a name for himself last fall, when he became the first rookie to qualify in the top six for the October classic at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. He also won the big-block “Futures” race that weekend, and finished 12th in the Syracuse 200.
Some drivers don’t have that kind of success at Syracuse in a lifetime. Rockefeller did it on his first trip.
Two weeks ago, he did serious damage to his Bicknell chassis in a wreck at Fonda, and was so discouraged after rebuilding the car that he almost skipped the races last Saturday.
“The car was worse than we thought,” Rockefeller said. “We hit a ton. We broke the frame, needed a new front axle, rear end, torque rods, driveshaft loop, three radius rods, three new shocks and the body was destroyed.”
After a trip to Andy’s Speed Shop in Johnstown for new parts, Rockefeller and his father, Dave, began rebuilding the car.
“One of my crew guys was on vacation last week, so we got a little behind,” Rpckefeller said. “We took the car to Fonda Thursday to shake it down and I finished 16th [in the Midweek Meltdown] and then I took Friday off because I was so exhausted.
“On Saturday, I noticed some things that were still wrong. We had mismeasured a couple of things and I’m sure it was because my dad and I were both so tired. I thought, ‘If we don’t go racing, fine.’ But my dad said, ‘We didn’t bust our butts all week not to go on Saturday,’ so we went.”
And 30 laps after the feature took the green, Rockefeller was the first car under the checkered flag.
“I looked up and saw five to go, and those were the five longest laps I can ever remember,” he said. “Even though I started second, I still had to run my race, and deal with lapped traffic. The lapped cars treated me fairly, and didn’t mess me up. I know what those guys were going through because I’ve been on the other end, When they know the leader is coming, they try a little extra hard to stay on the lead lap. I’ve been there.”
And now, Rockefeller has also been to victory lane at the Track of Champions, and you can bet one win isn’t going to change his attitude.
“It will boost my confidence, for sure,” he said. “But I won’t feel like Superman. I don’t have a big head, On my worst nights, I still get out of the car smiling. This is fun for me, and I want to keep it that way.”
Ken Tremont Jr. picked up his first modified win of the season at Albany-Saratoga Speedway last Friday, ending Brett Hearn’s five-race winning streak. But the victory needs an asterisk next to it.
Prior to the feature, track manager Lyle DeVore offered Hearn a $500 bonus if he started at the rear of the field and won the 35-lap feature.
Fans might remember that Hearn actually did this a number of years ago, but that was in a 100-lap race, and if my memory serves me, it took him over 30 laps to get the lead.
Hearn was never in contention last Friday, getting up to seventh before finishing ninth.
Around the tracks
The Super DIRT Series races at Utica-Rome on Wednesday and Rolling Wheels Thursday had to be canceled because of rain.
Glen Ridge’s move to Friday night last week resulted in a weak car count, with just nine modifieds and 15 sportsman. Craig Hanson won the 35-lap modified feature, which was caution-free.
Going back to Fonda’s Midweek Meltdown, Rocky Warner inherited the victory in the GRIT Series race for sportsman when Derrick McGrew, who won the race, came up light on the post-race weigh-in. That was Warner’s third straight tour victory, after finishing third in the opener at Orange County Speedway.
Warner had changed his number from 79 to 97 to honor his father, who is dealing with some health issues.