The 4th Turn: 7/15/2021

~ By Tom Boggie

I always think of Rich Ronca as the reluctant racer.

It all goes back to a story I wrote about the Racing Roncas for “Trackside” magazine in 1992. It centered around Nick Ronca’s influence on his sons Don and Mike, who at that time were starting to really make names for themselves. Don had won the overall Champlain Valley Racing Association championship in 1989 and Mike, who took five years off from racing beginning in 1984, was just getting his career back on track.

The story ran with a photo from victory lane at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, following a win by Don Ronca. Nick and Mike are standing on either side of Don, while off to the left, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, is Rich Ronca, who was the de facto crew chief on Don’s car.

And that’s the way it was. Don and Mike raced (Mike also built most of the engines for the team), continuing the family tradition at Albany-Saratoga and Devil’s Bowl, while Rich worked in the garage.

Until Don broke his back.

It’s probably been 20 years since Don was injured in an accident in the team’s garage; honestly, I’ve lost track by now. But the bottom line is, with all that equipment sitting in the shop, Rich decided to take Don’s place behind the wheel.

According to the records I have, Rich began racing modifieds in 2002, but finished the season in the sportsman division. He recorded his first sportsman win at Albany-Saratoga on Sept. 5, 2003, then moving back to the modifieds in 2010, when the Richards family decided to go back to the original asphalt surface that had been sitting under the clay since 1977.

On Sept 10, 2010, Rich Ronca joined the list of modified feature winners at the Great Race Place, taking his place with his brothers on that elite list (yes, Nick did race modifieds for a while; no, he never won a feature). Granted, Rich’s win came on asphalt, but the list of other feature winners that season included Marc Johnson, Keith Flach, Ken Tremont Jr. and Mike Bruno, so don’t even try to say it was a cheap win.

Where is this all going, you ask? Back to last Friday night, when Rich Ronca, the reluctant racer, was back in victory lane after nearly 11 years.

Let’s be honest. Racing has never come easy for Rich Ronca, who is 57. He won four sportsman features (he actually won five, but a 2005 victory was disallowed when he came up light on the scales) from 2003 to 2009 before moving up to modifieds fulltime. He ran one season on asphalt at Albany-Saratoga before all three of the brothers opted to compete at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park in 2011 after Albany-Saratoga went to a NASCAR sanction and crate engines. Beginning with the 2012 season, his best finish on dirt in a modified was fourth, which he accomplished on three different occasions (May 25, 2012; June 24, 2016; and July 12, 2019), and in the last 10 seasons, he has a total of six top-five finishes.

Rich’s best finish at Albany-Saratoga in 2021 (prior to Friday) was an eighth on May 21. Last year, he never finished in the top 10.

But there he was Friday, back in victory lane, following a crowd-pleasing battle with his older brother (until Don slipped out of the high groove and went off the track on a restart with five laps to go) and then holding a perfect line on the bottom to finish the win. Papa Nick and Don both made their way to victory lane for photos, and they couldn’t stop smiling while Rich kept a two-handed grip on the winner’s trophy.

I asked Rich if he ever thought he would be back in victory lane.

“I was really starting to wonder,” he answered.

Hey, when you’re averaging less than one top-five finish a year, that will happen.
The next question had to be answered. “Why do you keep coming back,” I asked.
“For this,” Rich answered with a smile.

When reminded that “this” only happens once every 11 years or so, he added, “I like racing, I like working on the car and I like the challenge of getting the car to work.”
Spoken like a true crew chief.

So Rich added another chapter to the Ronca legacy at Albany-Saratoga on Friday, chalking up his first modified win on dirt. Nick got this whole thing rolling in 1970, when he won the Charger division crown. Don and Mike continued to carry the torch until Mike’s sudden death from a heart attack in 2012, and Don’s son Christopher even got in on the act for a while, winning four limited sportsman features in 2015.

Speaking of Chris, take a close look at Rich Ronca’s victory lane shot from Friday. The name on the firesuit is Chris Ronca. Would the firesuit be classified as a hand-me-down, or a hand-me-up?

Here’s a little Ronca trivia. On Sept 5, 2003, the night Rich won his first sportsman feature at Albany-Saratoga, Mike Ronca won one of two modified features. Both the modifieds and sportsman had been rained out the previous week.

The Ronca brothers all finished in the top 10 on back-to-back weeks at Glen Ridge in 2011. On June 3, Mike was sixth, Don was seventh and Rich was ninth. The next week, Mike was fifth, Don was seventh and Rich was 10th.

While Don and Rich ran on the asphalt at Albany-Saratoga in 2010, Mike ran at Glen Ridge and had seven top-five finishes, including a second to Jimmy Davis on April 30. That’s the closest he ever got to a win at the Ridge.

Lyle DeVore and his crew did a heck of a job getting the track prepared last Friday after a late afternoon storm. The infield was still a muddy mess, but the track was sealed, dry and slippery.

The wet conditions did have a psychological effect on Jack Lehner. Rather than take his modified out for hot laps, he watched the hot laps from the pit grandstands, not even bothering to put on his firesuit.

“I thought it was going to be muddier than it was,” he said with a laugh as he headed back to his pit.

Dylan Madsen kept his hopes for the limited sportsman championship alive with a sixth-place finish last Friday. Madsen was involved in a pileup in the fourth turn on the first lap and had to go to the pits for a new tire, putting him near the tail end of the 26-car field.

While Rich Ronca was getting his first win, Bobby Hackel IV had his best run of the season, finishing third. Ironically, the last time Hackel IV finished third was Sept. 20, 2020, when Don Ronca won the caution-free feature.

Congratulations to Andy Bachetti, who picked up two wins last Saturday at Lebanon Valley, taking the checkered flag in the small block modified feature and one of the two big block features. Bachetti’s first win of the night, in the small block feature (which was the Peanut Pierce Memorial), was his 200th career victory.

Demetrios Drellos regained the modified/sportsman point lead at Devil’s Bowl Saturday night with a second-place finish in the mid-summer double-points feature. Vince Quenneville Jr., who had the lead going into the feature, spun out in the fourth turn on the last lap, falling from ninth to 22nd. That allowed Drellos to open up a 564-488 point lead.

Anthony Perrego and Mike Mahaney, locked in a heated battle for the modified championship at Albany-Saratoga, both ventured to Bloomsburg Fair Speedway in Pennsylvania Wednesday night for the “Battle at Bloomsburg”, and finished second and third, respectively, behind Jeff Strunk. The scheduled 50-lapper was cut to 29 laps because of rain, which also washed out the 602 sportsman feature. Both Mike Ballestero and Tim Hartman Jr. made the long haul and were scheduled to start 10th and 12th, respectively, in the 602 feature.

Stewart Friesen also made the trip to Bloomsburg and had to qualify through the consy after finishing fifth in his heat. He did pick up a $250 bonus for being the hard charger, coming from 21st to 13th in 29 laps.

More congratulations, this time to Jessica Friesen, who made history last Saturday by becoming the first female to win a modified feature at Fonda Speedway.

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